Alexander Turney Stewart, Father of the Department Store

by Smithsonian Digital Library

Keystone Varnish Company Keystona Flat Finish, 1913, Keystona will never change color on exposed surfaces (Reproduction of an interior in the department store of O'Neill & Adams, New York City picture) Color samples 26 & 53 included.

On September 14, 1848 the first department store, “The Marble Palace,” was opened in downtown New York City by Irishman Alexander Stewart.

The building, originally four stories over a ground floor supported on cast iron Corinthian columns, survives at 280 Broadway at the corner of Chambers Street, just across from his first store. It 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.Wikipedia

Stewart's name is virtually unknown today, but he was as rich as, and associated with, more well-known magnates John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Maybe because Stewart made his millions through retail he seemed somehow less glamorous. But he was not only a businessman, but an ingenious visionary. He realized that women who could not come to his New York Marble Palace might still want to buy their clothes there, so he instituted a mail-order business, which made him millions. He decided that he shouldn't have to pay other mills for fabrics to create the clothes sold in his stores so started his own mills and created jobs for thousands. He was also built affordable housing for his local Long Island, N.Y. employees. He always seemed interested in not just building an empire, but providing jobs:

The great potato famine was forcing Irishmen to take the option of going to America seriously, and many did, along with great numbers of Germans too. One Irishman who came a little earlier was lucky enough to have had a small inheritance. Alexander Turney Stewart used the funds to open a small dry goods store in New York City. When faced with a financial difficulty he marked all his stock down, put flyers up all over and became famous for selling top quality goods at a wholesale price to all. The first discount store was born. He became fabulously wealthy, even by New York City standards. When his fellow Irishmen needed help he filled a ship with goods to donate and sent it over. And he offered free passage back with promises of jobs to all his Irish compatriots.—Paleontology and Politics. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and his New York City Paleozoic Museum

He must have been acknowledged as one of the richest men around in his day:

Three weeks after his burial at St Mark's Church in the Bowery, 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.—Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (1928).[Wikipedia]

So thanks, Mr. Stewart. It's unlikely we would have Macy's or Target or even Amazon.com if you hadn't tried your luck and ingenuity in downtown New York in the 1800s.

Elizabeth Periale

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