By Chriss Swaney
Alexander E. Holstein is not bashful about extolling the entrepreneurial prowess of his grandfather Adolph. His grandfather founded the Syracuse Ornamental Company (Syroco) in 1890.
Syroco Family Ties
Holstein, 93, recalls that he was in charge of production at the manufacturing facility that employed 500 during its heyday in the Syracuse, New York, area. Initially, the company produced ornamental carvings for embellishment of coffins and furniture. The company had patents and copyrights on its processes and designs.
“The company was best known for its molded wood-pulp products that resembled hand carving,’’ said Holstein, who says his home is a museum of popular Syroco products from mirrors to toothbrush holders.
Other products included fireplace and mantle pieces and other types of interior decoration popular in late Victorian-era homes. Plus, the governor’s mansion in Albany, New York, features some Syroco pieces.
To meet increased market demand, Holstein said that his grandfather, an expert woodcarver from Warsaw, developed a material that looked and felt like wood but that could be shaped, allowing multiple pieces to be produced by a molding process.
Wood Pulp Into Art
The new product combined wood pulp from the Adirondacks with flour as a binder and other materials. After extrusion it was cut to fit compression molds. These molds were made from original carvings in real wood by woodcarvers. These carvers originally came to the United States from several European countries.
Production of this new molded product was the mainstay of the company’s product through the 1940s. The finished model could be smoothed and varnished to look like wood, or it could be painted.
Sales catalogs from the early 1900s through the 1920s offer hundreds of varieties of moldings. The advertisements include various styles of brackets, garlands, cartouches and scrolls.
But by the 1930s, the company had also developed an extensive line of gift and novelty items. These pieces comprise of syrowood 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, it did not entirely abandon its old process.
Furthermore, antique dealers and avid collectors vie daily for their most cherished Syroco pieces from ornately carved mirrors to bookends and pipe holders.
Online Stores Showcasing Syroco
Many collectors trawl the web for great bargains. And one of the more popular sites is Ruby Lane
(www.rubylane.com) where Syroco remains an ongoing headline grabber.
“We’re seeing lots of Syroco, including bookends, mirrors, brush holders, pipe holders, and the very popular figural corkscrews our site and collectors are bidding for them all,” said Zenna Inness of Ruby Lane. Prices can range from $34 to $145.
Futhermore, Inness said buyers are an eclectic mix of young and old. But many of the sentimental buyers and collectors of Syroco are older.
Judy Bromly, 66, of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, said she recently purchased an ornate Syroco mirror for her bedroom at an estate sale, and paid $65 for it. “My grandmother was an avid Syroco collector, and I have several sets of horse-shaped bookends I now keep in my den.’’
Sales Supports Legacy
For others, selling Syroco collectibles is a way to honor a long, lost beloved family member.
Mara Balusek of Dallas, Texas, sells her Syroco collectibles via her RareFinds shop on Ruby Lane. She collects pipe holders and miniature boxes.
“All my profits from selling my Syroco online goes into a scholarship fund at Texas-based Stephen F. Austin State University in the memory of my late son. So far, the scholarship fund sports about $600,000.”
Furthermore, Janice Woods, a Denver, Colorado, antique dealer, reports that the Syroco horse-shaped bookends remain popular. “People love horses and any equine-related Syroco collectibles are extremely popular,’’ said Woods.
Tom Kelly, a dealer at Pittsburgh Antique Shops in the city’s bustling strip district, said he just sold a pair of Syroco horse head bookends for $50.
“I also sold a couple of Syroco round mirrors for $40,’’ Kelly said.
Functional and Fanciful
Kelly points out that more younger couples are finding great value in Syroco collectibles. “They think it is cool and very functional,’’ said Kelly.
Bill Antonacceo of Ascendant Auction Galleries in Beaver, Pennsylvania, says younger collectors are turning to Syroco because it is light weight and extremely functional. “The younger collectors are buying Syroco clocks and wall décor that can be easily put away quickly when a couples’ freelance job ends and they move on to another high-tech gig,’’ states Antonacceo, an antique expert.
Still, other antique enthusiasts report that younger collectors opt for Syroco because it is very economical to purchase and begin a collection.
Mary Price of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, said her daughter began collecting Syroco during her college days when she needed some wall decorations to tidy up a drab basement apartment in Boston. “My daughter now collects all kinds of Syroco clocks and mirrors,’’ said Price, a retired history teacher.
Fond Memories in Syracuse
In addition, Robert Searing, curator of history at Onondaga Historical Society in Syracuse, reports several changes of ownership of the Syroco company. The company would end production in 2007.
“We have several ornamental clocks and mirrors in our collection here at the historical society,’’ said Searing. “The local population here in Syracuse have fond memories of the plant and the enormous marketplace it once dominated,’’ he added.
Still, perhaps the best way to find your favorite Syroco collectible is to go online. One of the newer sites – Spruce – offers an interesting assortment of Syroco pieces as does the all-encompassing eBay.
But Inness of Ruby Lane admonishes buyers and collectors to do their homework before buying anything.
“Collectors should first check for extant manufacturer’s labels because Syroco is somewhat of a catchall term online and dealers often erroneously identify items by that name even though it may be by a competing company.”