When I bid on a recent Ebay lot the thing that caught my eye were the two pipe rests in the pictures. They appeared to be in good shape other than the dust and grit that had built up over the years. The first one was a two pipe rest that was made to look like tree stumps and a pebble beach or path. The second one was a single pipe rest that was a moccasin shape. They looked to be made out of Syrocco – a material that I am familiar with because of several other pipe rests that I have in my collection.
They arrived at my home this afternoon and awaited me when I returned from work. I opened the box and took them to the basement worktable to clean them up. However, before I went to work on them I was curious to know more about them and what the material was that made up the pieces. I used Google to hunt down information on the product and the company that made them. From the web here is what I found out.
Syroco was founded in 1890 as the Syracuse Ornamental Co. It employed generations of Central New Yorkers until it went out of business in 2005 (or 2007 some conflict in dates at this point). By then, it was making those ubiquitous plastic Adirondack-style chairs. But in its early days, the company produced unique products made from a mixture of wood flour and a casting resin. The pipe rests above are examples of that technique. They made a wide variety of products from their recipe such boxes designed to hold playing cards, picture frames, candlestick holders, ashtrays and bookends made from the wood resin.
I also hunted down information that related to a collection of Syroco materials that resides in the Special Collections Center at Syracuse University. There was an abstract there that confirmed the information on the company – from its beginning to its closure in 2005. The abstract also had the following to say about the materials used for the Syroco products – They were known for molded wood-pulp interior decorations and gift and novelty items that resembled hand-carving. Later they integrated polymers into their molding process and then moved entirely into plastics production.
I did a bit more digging into the history of the company to find out more about the founder and what they made. I also wanted to learn more about the molding process that went into the product. I found the following information. I summarize it in the next paragraphs and also include bibliographic information for those interested in digging deeper.
“The company was founded in Syracuse, New York in 1890 by immigrant Adolph Holstein, the Syracuse Ornamental Company (Syroco) and originally specialized in decorative wood carving for the local residential market. Their early products included fireplace mantelpieces and other types of interior decoration popular in late Victorian homes. To meet increasing market demand and sales opportunities Holstein developed a material looked and felt like wood but that which could be shaped, allowing multiple pieces to be produced through a molding process. The new product, which combined wood pulp brought from the Adirondacks with flour as a binder and other materials to give it strength, was extruded and then cut to fit compression molds, which had were made from original carvings in real wood.
The process favored shallow molds with little undercutting, and this served well for the creation of a wide variety of “carved” relief work to be applied to different sorts of flat surfaces such as walls, furniture and caskets. Production of this new molded product, known as SyrocoWood, was the mainstay of the company’s production through the 1940s. The finished material could be smoothed and varnished to look like wood, or it could be painted. Sales catalogues from the early 1900s through the 1920s offer hundreds of varieties of moldings, capitals, brackets, volutes, and reliefs of vases, garlands, cartouches, scrollwork, and other details in a variety of styles.
Syroco operated from a large factory complex on 581 South Clinton Street in Syracuse acquired from Smith Corona Typewriter Company. The company remained in the hands of the Holstein family for three generations, with some of Adolph’s children and grandchildren taking over management and sales positions. At its peak, about 400 workers were employed at the plant.
By the 1930s the company had also developed an extensive line of gift and novelty items made of “SyrocoWood” and also “Woodite,” a combination of wood flour and polymer. In the 1960s the company began to use injection molding for some of its products, but did not entirely abandon its old processes.
Syroco added more lines of injection molded plastics when a new plant was opened in nearby Baldwinsville in 1963 which was entirely geared to plastics production, especially PVCs and polystyrene. The company began to use plastic in new “modern” designs and new forms for clocks, mirrors, tables and a range of household items. In 1968-1969 the company launched its “Lady Syroco” home products. Beginning in 1986 Syroco produced a popular line of lawn furniture.
In 1965 the company was bought by Rexall Drug and Chemical Company (which soon changed its name to Dart Industries). Dart owned Tupperware, from which Syroco gained more knowledge of injection molding. Syroco was purchased by the Syratech Corporation of Boston in 1986 which expanded its patio furniture production. In 1995 Syratech sold Syroco to Marley PLC of Sevenoaks, England, and in 2004 Syroco was purchased by Vassallo Industries of Puerto Rico which closed the plant in 2007. In April 2010 Tessy Plastics purchased the 270,000 square foot Syroco plant to be used for storage and distribution.”
“Corkscrews of the Syracuse Ornamental Company,” online at vintagecorkscrews.com
Hannagan, Charley. “Syroco plant closes,” Syracuse Post-Standard, June 18, 2007.
Alexander Holstein, interviewed by Sam Gruber, Syracuse, New York, Nov. 8, 2010.
Sorcher, Jamie. “Brits in deal for Syroco,” HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network, April 3, 1995.
Armed with the information I had gathered and now understanding what the pipe rests were made of I was better able to begin cleaning and restoring them. I cleaned the grooves and carved crevices in each piece with Everclear applied with cotton swabs until the surface was free of the dirt and grit that had built up in those recesses over the years.
I then dried the surface of the pieces with a soft cotton cloth and restained them. I decided that rather than using an aniline stain on them I would use a linseed oil based stain made by Watco. I chose to use a walnut coloured Danish Oil on both pieces. I applied the stain with a cotton swab until all the surfaces were covered and the pieces looked new with a slight shine.
The pipe rests have dried nicely. The moccasin has a semigloss finish to it and looks really nice. The two pipe rest with all the nooks in the stumps and roots is taking longer to dry. The high ridges are dry and semigloss. The deep grooves are still slightly tacky and thus more shiny. It has taken a day and a half for it to dry.