Left: Advertisement for Uneeda Biscuits. Right: Robert Gair and the 79th New York Highlanders of the Civil War.
When people think of New York business titans, they often think of families like the Rockefellers or Astors. The name Robert Gair may not ring any bells, but he is largely responsible for that cardboard box that contains the breakfast cereal you eat in the mornings. Immigrating from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1853, Gair was originally a plumber’s apprentice with his father in New Jersey. Later on he worked in New York at a retail dry goods store. At age 21, he cast his first ballot for Abraham Lincoln. After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Gair opened up his first paper factory in 1864 with $10,000 in capital; the factory was in a small loft at 163 Chambers Street in Manhattan. Other sources state he had a space on Reade Street as well.
During the Civil War, cotton had become scarce and pantry staples like flour and sugar began to be packaged in paper bags. After the war, fabric was used once again to package flour but Gair saw potential in the use of paper packaging to market dry goods and household items. In 1879, after a worker accidentally cut through 20,000 paper seed bags, Gair serendipitously developed a method to more efficiently produce cardboard boxes by printing, cutting, and creasing cardboard in one fell swoop; prior to this discovery, cardboard box-making was labor-intensive and expensive.
Gair's first buildings used brick in its construction.
Looking for a more spacious location with better access to transport, Gair built two six-story brick factory buildings at 25 and 30 Washington Street between Water and Plymouth Streets near the Brooklyn waterfront. In 1909, Gair employed the Turner Construction Company to design buildings made of reinforced concrete, an innovation that was cheaper than brick during the time. Eventually Gair built a series of buildings in present-day DUMBO, all connected by railway lines, underground tunnels, and eventually, aerial bridges; the neighborhood was sometimes referred to as “Gairville”.
55 Washington Street
Robert Gair Company Paper Goods building on Front Street, 1909. Courtesy of Greater Astoria Historical Society.
The Gair Company produced packaging for Bloomingdale’s, Colgate, and Pond’s. His big break came when Nabisco used his cardboard boxes to package their Uneeda Biscuits. Before then, crackers were stored in barrels and general store owners had to fish them out one by one for customers; crackers became stale quickly and old product was often mixed in with new. The use of cardboard boxes ensured freshness in uniform packaging, and it wasn’t long before cereal companies came knocking on Gair’s door. Gair had correctly predicted that the aesthetic design of packaging could influence consumers’ buying decisions. His cardboard packaging changed the way goods were displayed and often resulted in higher product sales.
1 Main Street, aka Clocktower Building, built in 1914 for Robert Gair. It was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time of construction and was considered the signature building in Gair's real estate holdings.
The Clocktower Building is presently a luxury condominium residence with a penthouse unit renting for $50,000 a month.
Flywheel in Piermont, NY. All that remains of Robert Gair's upstate operations. Courtesy of Piermont Library.
In 1917, Gair began giving his 3,000 workers the day off on Saturdays during the summer so “they could work in their gardens”. Later on he instituted half-days on Saturdays during the remainder of the year. By 1919, the company’s shareholders had determined that the company could be more profitable if it moved its operations closer to the source of its raw materials. In 1926, the Gair Company moved to Piermont in Rockland County and Gair Realty Corporation began advertising for tenants in their now-empty Brooklyn buildings. By the time Gair passed away in 1927 on his 88th birthday, he had six factories in the nation, the biggest being in Brooklyn. The Gair Company was acquired by the Continental Can Company in 1956. The Gairville Buildings, all 1.8 million square feet, were acquired by Helmsley-Spears, who in turn sold the properties to David Walentas in 1981 for $12 million, or the jaw-dropping price of only $7 per square foot. These buildings have since been renovated into residential lofts and commercial spaces.