Alexander Turney Stewart

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Alexander Turney Stewart, (October 12, 1803- April 10, 1876), was an American entrepreneur turned multi-millionaire who made his fortune in what was at the time the most extensive and lucrative dry goods business in the world.

Alexander Stewart was born in Lisburn, a small town near Belfast, Ireland who abandoned his original aspirations of becoming a minister to come to New York City in the summer of 1823. He spent a short time teaching before returning to Ireland to receive the money his father had left him, purchase some Belfast linens and laces, and return to New York to open a store. He was a business genius, and by 1848 he built a large marble store on Broadway between Chambers Street and Reade Street, which was devoted to the wholesale branch of his business, and the largest retail store in the world at that time. Stewart also had branches of his company in all different parts of the world and owned several mills and factories. Stewart had an annual income of an estimated $1,000,000 in 1869.

In March of that year, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Secretary of the Treasury, but he was prevented from taking the position by a law that excluded all from that office who had an interest in the importation of merchandise.


[edit] Early years

Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland to Scotch Protestant parents on October 12, 1803. The date of his birth has been debated by historians over the years and is still questionable. However, historians have acknowledged this date since this is the one put on his coffin plate. Three weeks after his birth, Stewart’s farmer father died of tuberculosis. About two years later Stewart’s mother remarried and followed her new husband to America leaving Stewart behind to be raised by his grandfather, John Turney. While raising his only grandson, Turney wanted Stewart to enter The Church of England to become a minister, but Stewart, like the other boys his age, wanted to go to Trinity College. At age seven, Stewart was sent to a village school and then in 1814 he entered Mr. Neely’s English Academy. In 1816, when Stewart’s grandfather died, he was brought into the home of Thomas Lamb, an Irish Quaker. When finishing up his formal education at Belfast Academical Institute, he decided to further his knowledge of other cultures by writing to his mother who was in New York City at the time. The more Stewart kept in touch with his mother, the more reasons he desired to further his life in New York. However, before letting him move across seas, Lamb insisted that Stewart get some experience in business training and earn money as a grocer in Belfast. Weary of prolonging his stay in Ireland, Stewart agreed to take the position recommended by Lamb and began to work at the age of fifteen as a bag boy. In the spring of 1818, shortly after working as a grocer, Stewart packed his bags along with the $500 he had earned and left Belfast for New York City.

After traveling for about six weeks at seas, Stewart arrived in New York City with a stable amount of money and a home, welcomed by his mother and her husband. Upon his arrival in the big city, Stewart with his well educated background became a tutor at Isaac N. Bragg’s Academy, a school for wealthy students located on Roosevelt Street. Here he was earning $300 a year, an honest wage during the early 19th century. After securing a place to live and a job, Stewart joined an Episcopalian church run by Reverend Edward Mitchell. There among the congregation, Stewart met his future wife, Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of Susannah Banker and the director of the New York Customs House, Jacob Clinch.

[edit] Road to Success

Unfortunately, historians know little about Stewart’s life between 1818 and 1822 except that he returned to Ireland upon receiving his grandfather’s inheritance of somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000. The will pertaining to Stewart stated:

I bequeath to my dear grandson ALEXANDER all the rest of my property, houses, and land, with the appurtenances thereto, stock, crop, and chattels of every kind. The money arising from the sale of the property devised to him to be subject to the payment by my said grandson ALEXANDER T. STEWART of an annuity to his grandmother, MARTHA STEWART, of three guineas a year during her life. (Elias 6)

Upon returning to New York City in 1823, after his short trip to Ireland, Stewart took Cornelia’s hand in marriage on October 16, 1823. However before marrying, Stewart opened his first store which became his road to success. Located at 283 Broadway, as the first series of retail locations Stewart established in his future empire of A.T. Stewart and Company, his store sold Irish fabrics along with some domestic calicos, which had been purchased with money from his inheritance and his earnings as a tutor. The store was just across from City Hall Park, north of Chambers Street on the opposite side of Broadway where his later successful store, “The Marble Palace” was to be built. The store opened on September 1, 1823. It measured 12.5 feet wide by 30 feet deep, being a rather small store by today’s standards, but average size during the 19th century. Stewart rented out the space for $375 a year. The store was split up into two parts, divided by a thin wall. The front part being larger was used for the business and the smaller area in back was typically the owner’s residence.

Unlike his other competitors in the dry goods trade who were located along Pearl Street, Stewart innovated his career by placing his establishment several blocks west on Broadway. He acknowledged that customers would travel to buy goods where they could get the best price and the easiest method of buying. Stewart knew that the key to success was not where the store was placed, but rather where “to obtain wholesale trade to undersell competitors.” (Elias 11) When first opening the store, Stewart placed cases full of merchandise along the sidewalk in front of the store as a way of advertising his establishment. Stewart claimed that “the messy clutter in front of the store and pushing crowds advertised the business.” (Hubbard 109) As he rose to the top of the retail developers, Stewart included no signs on any place of his store and did not use any advertisements until May 13, 1831. He felt that anyone who wanted to shop in his store would “know where it was located.” (Elias 15) A natural salesman, Stewart realized that, “you will deal with ignorant, opinionated and innocent people. You will often have an opportunity to cheat them. If they could, they would cheat you, or force you to sell at less than cost. You must be wise, but not too wise. You must never actually cheat the customer, even if you can... You must make her happy and satisfied, so she will come back.” (Hubbard 112) Stewart knew the importance of establishing a great business was to make friends with the customers and encourage their return.

[edit] Later years

Between the years of 1846 and 1848, construction and fine details of one of Stewart’s most famous buildings known as “The Marble Palace” had been finalized. This establishment officially set A.T. Stewart and Company to the top of being one of America’s most successful retailers. The three-story building was located at Broadway and Chambers Street, just across from his first store, and offered imported European women’s clothing. In addition to its merchandise, the second floor offered the first women’s “fashion shows” as full length mirrors enabled women to view themselves from different angles. The design, made with Tuckahoe marble, encompassed an innovative flair consisting of columns, pillars and corniced windows resembling the Palladian style; reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s home. This proved to be the first commercial building in the United States to display an extravagant exterior. Inside, not only did Stewart want to display his merchandise, but he wanted the structure to emphasize natural light from its central rotunda and high ceilings. “The Marble Palace” claimed to be one of the first “big stores,” which sold merchandise and was a huge financial success. Opened just over thirty years and multiple buildings later, in 1856 Stewart decided to expand his merchandise to include furs, being one of “the best and most natural skins” as customers were told. In the 1850s, he also followed other retailers such as Macy's, Lord and Taylor and B. Altman and Company to the area which was to be called “Ladies Mile,” on Broadway and Sixth Avenue between 9th Street and 23rd Street.

However, in 1862, Stewart’s “true” department store, referred to as the “Iron Palace” was built. This six-story building with its cast-iron front, glass dome skylight and grand emporium, employed up to 2,000 people. The immense structure resided on Broadway and Ninth Street near Grace Church. The establishment’s nineteen departments included silks, dress goods, carpets and even toys. By 1877, Stewart’s new retail establishment had been moved to Tenth Street and Astor Place. It had expanded to thirty separate departments, carrying a wide variety of items. As noted by The New York Times, “a man may fit up his house there down to the bedding, carpets and upholstery.” (Elias 24)

A.T. Stewart and Company did not go unnoticed throughout the country. Along with his successful retail store in New York City, Stewart also established himself as one of the wealthiest men in the United States by allowing women all over the country to purchase and order items from his wholesale department store. Beginning in 1868, Stewart began receiving letters from women in rural parts of the United States requesting his merchandise. Stewart promptly replied to these letters and orders by sending out the requests and even paying the postage. Once received, women would send back the money needed to pay for their orders. Seeing potential for the mail order business, by 1876, Stewart hired twenty clerks to read, respond and mail out the entailed orders. That year he profited over $500,000 from the mailing business alone. Stewart’s mailing ordering business’ efficiency, convenience and profits gained so much attention from all over the country those other famous businesses such as Sears, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel's followed in his footsteps.

[edit] Death And Influence

Before Stewart died in 1876, he succeeded in creating his own manufacturing facilities. He felt that he wanted to have his own mills in order to supply his wholesale and retail operations. With these mills located in New York and New England, Stewart produced his own woolen fabrics as well as employed thousands of workers. Stewart also served on several New York State Chamber of Commerce Committees between 1862 and 1871. Though he never officially was elected as a New York State officer, he did attend Lincoln’s funeral as a Chamber delegate.

At the time of Stewart’s death, he was one of the richest men in New York just behind an Astor and a Vanderbilt. Worth an estimated $40 million, Stewart unlike New York’s other wealthy men (as listed above) who made their millions through real estate, he had earned his wealth in legitimate trade. Out of the twenty-four clerks who entered A.T. Stewart and Company in 1836, six still continued to work for the company in 1876. To these long-term employees, Stewart showed his gratitude by leaving them more than $250,000 as stated in his will.

In 1896, the Iron Palace was bought by John Wanamaker and reopened as “Wanamaker’s.” The Philadelphian, Wanamaker, had long been an admirer of Stewart and stated that one of his best qualities was his “personal attention to the details of the business... He could have had others to look after the details--they have to be looked after, but few attend to sweeping up, and that’s what Stewart did.” (Elias 24) In 1917, the New York Sun newspaper bought out Stewart’s first store for its main offices. In 1966, the building, though known as the “Sun Building,” was labeled a landmark structure by the City of New York.

Historians and other retail owners have concluded that it was A.T. Stewart’s awareness to details and love for it that differentiated him from his competitors and that which contributed greatly to his success. Today, Sears, K-Mart and Wal-Mart have built upon and refined Stewart’s concepts and ideas of distribution, merchandising, manufacturing and payment methods to become some of the most power department stores in the world, but have greatly owed much of their success to Stewart and his retail empire.

At the time of his death, Stewart was building at Hempstead Plains, Long Island, the town of Garden City, with the purpose of affording to his employees comfortable and airy housing at a moderate cost. After his death, his wife Cornelia erected several buildings in memoriam, including St. Paul's School and The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, the latter of which also served as a mausoleum to both Stewart and his wife.

Shortly after his death, Stewart's body was stolen and the remains held for ransom. The ransom was paid, and remains were returned, although never verified as his. A local legend states that the mausoleum holding his remains is rigged with security devices which will cause the bells of the Cathedral to ring if ever disturbed.

[edit] Note

[edit] References

  • All Biographies: Alexander Turney Stewart. 2005. Webified Concepts, LLC. [1].
  • Did You Know?: Featuring A Historically Significant Lower Manhattan Attraction. 2005.

Company 39, Inc. [2].

  • Elias, Stephen. Alexander T. Stewart: The Forgotten Merchant Prince. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992.
  • Hubbard, Elbert. AT Stewart: Little Journeys To The Homes Of Forgotten Business Men. V. 25:

No. 4. East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1909.

Alexander Turney Stewart

Alexander Turney Stewart

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