An American Haberdashery: Brooks Brothers on Cherry Street

by Anna Maria Bokun, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© Anna Maria Bokun 2016. All rights reserved.

As a historic neighborhood of ethnic enclaves, the Fourth Ward is emblematic of the cosmopolitan nature and geophysical mobility of New York City’s 19th century inhabitants. Virtually every property beckons further investigation. Although Cherry Street was largely razed in the 1930s, much can be gleaned about its years as a cherry-lined home to New York’s moneyed families, an entrepreneurial center, and a pulsating, tenement neighborhood of predominantly Irish immigrants.

From the early 19th century, Henry Brooks had been selling dry goods and groceries at the corner of Catherine and Cherry Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Interrupted by the War of 1812, he returned to New York in 1817 to a dissolved grocery partnership.

Yet the site, an ideal location close to the East River, remained. Henry decided to return to Cherry Street, though not to groceries.[1]

Intersection of Cherry and Catherine Streets, Source: NYPL, NY Fire Insurance Maps

Intersection of Cherry and Catherine Streets
Source: Source: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “4th Ward. Plate 11: Map bounded by Oak Street, Catharine Street, South Street, Roosevelt Street; Including Batavia Street, Cherry Street, Water Street, James Street, James Slip, Oliver Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-a9e6-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

Quartered at 116 Cherry Street, the venerable men’s clothier, Brooks Brothers, has been a fixture of New York for two-hundred years, playing a leading role in the transition from individually custom-made clothes to mass production and consumption. There is something to be said about the linkage between ready-made clothing and accessibility as a democratizing force of society. Historian Jenna Joselit writes: “Ready-to-wear clothing placed gentlemanliness within the reach of men who once inhabited the outer reaches of society, enabling them to subscribe to its tenets and tout its virtues.”[2] 

At a time when the challenges of integrating millions of immigrants and newly emancipated African Americans weighed heavily on the American body politic, the “question of clothes” was a vital element of civic virtue, bound up in an enduring moral order.[3] For those on the margins, wearing a stylish ensemble was laying claim to America, and their place within the polyglot microcosm of Cherry Street.    

Brooks Brothers (1845) Source: D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1864

Brooks Brothers (1845)
Source: D.T. Valentine’s Manual, 1864

From the 1810s, D.H. Brooks & Co. anchored a section of the block called “Quality Row,” quickly becoming a favorite of the many “smart” men that lived in the federal-styles homes in the Early National period. In the public imagination, it was already thought of as a special place; Cherry Street boasted the Samuel Osgood House, better known as the first White House, and official residence of President George Washington from 1789 – 1790. [4] Down the street, the home of Samuel Leggett was the first house illuminated with gas lamps in 1824.[5] A few stops westward stood fashionable Franklin Square, a chosen haunt of New York’s elite lawyers and financiers. Governor DeWitt Clinton resided nearby on Pearl Street.[6] By the time Henry Brooks arrived in lower Manhattan, Cherry Street was an area of prominence, bustling with international commerce, and more importantly, fertile ground for newly enterprising merchants. Longworth’s Directory of I828-29 shows that Henry S. Brooks, whose business address was 116 Cherry, had his residence at 159, while his mother lived at 97 Catherine Street and his brother David at 148 Catherine.[7]

George Washington's residence on Cherry Street Source: http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=1

George Washington’s Residence on Cherry Street
Source: Valentine’s Manual of Old New York (New York, 1853), p. 304.

As the son of an established and reputable physician, there was no reason for Henry Sands Brooks to enter the clothing business at age 45, except for a genuine affinity for the industry. At the time, the younger Brooks was a provisioner to seafarers and traders when he purchased a property on Cherry and Catherine Streets. He acquired the premises at an auction held at the Tontine Coffee House on Wall Street, a precursor to the New York Stock and Exchange Board for the sum of $15,250, or approximately $300,000 today.[8] 

The first shop opened its doors on April 7, 1818 with the hope “to make and deal only in merchandise of the best quality, to sell it at a fair profit only, and to deal only with people who seek and are capable of appreciating such merchandise.” [9]

Intent on selling well-made clothing to the gentry and prosperous businessmen, he ran an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Morning Courier, promising to have on hand a very large stock of ready-made clothing just manufactured with a due regard to fashion, and embracing all the various styles of the day.”[10]

By 1825, Brooks’s business was averaging sales of $50,000 per year, or around $1.2 million today.[11] 

Lord on Taylor on the Catherine Slips, early 1830s. Source: Special Collections and FIT Archives

Lord and Taylor on the Catherine Slips (Date Unknown)
Source: Source: Valentine’s Manual of Old New York (New York, 1921)

Soon after, Lord & Taylor opened their first store on 47 Catherine Street near Chambers Street in 1826, occupying the building until 1866. What also began as a dry goods store transformed to one of the most successful department stores in New York. For both Brooks Brothers and Lord and Taylor, the area surrounding Cherry and Catherine Streets was ideal due to its waterfront proximity, and the already booming shops coordinator. Curiously, the two young merchants who founded Lord and Taylor, Samuel Lord and George Taylor, instituted a strict “no-pulling” policy (“pullers” were young men who aggressively hustled customers into the shops) in order to distance themselves from the cacophony and haggling mentality of the streets. Over several decades, this practice would become a standard for department stores, but in the 1820s and 1830s, it was quite an innovation.[12]

 

A “Street of Ships” along the East River Source: https://nyhistorywalks.wordpress.com/tag/history/

From the store’s original location near the East River, the Brooks brothers and fellow merchants would have likely see a vast web of ships and masts against the sky. It was the twilight of the pre-industrial age, soon to be replaced by an era of mechanization, electricity, and steel. The Erie Canal, spearheaded by Governor Dewitt Clinton, opened in 1825, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Goods could now be transported at one-tenth the price and in less than half the time. This had a profound affect on American trade routes and speed. [13] 

The waterfront operated as a strategic trade site, expediting the import of English and Belgian wool for Brooks’s suits. Eventually, the image of the sheep was adopted by Brooks Brothers as a nod to The Order of the Golden Fleece, a league of European wool traders dating to the 15th century. In the early 19th century, it is possible Henry Sands was inspired by the little sheep hanging from the shops on London’s Saville Row, designating where fine woolens were sold.[14]

The Golden Fleece Logo

The Golden Fleece Logo Source: http://magazine.brooksbrothers.com/meet-golden-fleece/

During most of its tenure on Cherry and Catherine Streets, Brooks Brothers customers selected materials from bolts of imported cloth that rested upon the counters. Pantaloons of cashmere, broadcloth coats, green round jackets, plum peacoats, and silk kerchiefs hung temptingly in the shop windows.[15] Originally based on a “made-to-order” model, or in other words, precise tailoring, Brooks Brothers soon adopted the newly developed tape measure and the sewing machine, paving the way for standardized patterns. Along with rapid industrialization, the population of the United States rose to 20 million by the 1840s, and the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Mill, in tandem with the lure of the Western frontier, intensified the demand for ready-to-wear ensembles.[16] Before long, Brooks Brothers found itself at the forefront of a cultural shift.           

Elisha, Daniel, Edward, and John Brooks Source: http://myinwood.net/civil-war-era-inwood-the-brooks-brothers-connection/

Elisha, Daniel, Edward, and John Brooks
Source: http://www.brooksbrothers.com/about-us/about-us,default,pg.html

When the family patriarch, Henry Brooks, died in 1833, the enterprise passed onto his four sons: Elisha, Daniel, Edward, and John. The building at Cherry and Catherine had served them well, and the sons decided to refurbish and enlarge it. During construction, one of the sons discovered Henry’s “Day Charge Book,” a compendium of charged purchases and “cash lent” marked in shillings, pounds, and pence from the store’s first day of sales in 1818.

The first two pages of the Day Charge Book of Henry S. Brooks, showing the first entry, April 7, 1818 Source: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AEC2577.0001.001/12

Brooks Brothers, centenary, 1818-1918 : being a short history of the founding of their business together with an account of its different locations in the city of New York during this period. New York: Printed for Brooks Bros. at the Cheltenham Press, c1918. Source: Making of America Books, University of Michigan, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AEC2577.0001.001/12

Demographic change on the Lower East Side by mid-century was reaching a crescendo. As the area surrounding Cherry Street became dense, those who could afford to began moving uptown. The shopkeepers quickly followed. What was once one of the New York City’s most exclusive areas had given way to the more fashionable and trendy uptown neighborhoods, especially Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Broadway, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, February 15, 1868.

Broadway, 1868
Harper’s Weekly, February 15, 1868.

In 1850, Henry’s sons renamed the store to Brooks Brothers, and to keep up with competitors, opened two new stores: a large, four-story building at Broadway and Grant in 1858, and another in Union Square in 1869. As a measure of safety, they kept the original shop on Cherry Street running until 1874.[17] The excerpt below from the Valentine’s Manual of 1921 describes the trajectory of the garment industry from the Lower East Side to East Broadway in the 1850s.

Description of 1850s East Broadway Source: http://manhattanunlocked.blogspot.com/2011/03/story-behind-lower-east-side.html

Source: http://manhattanunlocked.blogspot.com/2011/03/story-behind-lower-east-side.html

Valentine’s Manual 1921 description of 1850s New York 
Source: http://manhattanunlocked.blogspot.com/2011/03/story-behind-lower-east-side.html

The following snippet, which was one of the first major Brooks Brothers advertisements, appeared in Carroll’s New York Dictionary of 1859, extolling “a large and complete assortment of Ready-Made Clothing and Furnishing Goods of superior style and make.” Interestingly, the advertisement serves a double purpose, as it also mentions a “Circular Room lit from a dome 68 feet high, and finished in a superior style of art.” Within forty years, Brooks Brothers had built up a good reputation, and joined the frenzy of constructing ornate department stores. Before this, Brooks Brothers had seldom appeared in the papers except to announce a change of address.[18]   

Source: Carroll, G. Danielson. "Carroll’s New York City Directory." (1859)

Source: Carroll, G. Danielson. “Carroll’s New York City Directory.” (1859)

Today, Brooks Brothers celebrates its heritage as the oldest American men’s clothing store, yet few know of its infancy in the Fourth Ward, subsequent moves to Broadway, and its eventual flagship on Madison Avenue. As of 2015, there were over 200 branches in the United States and 70 worldwide, solidifying the Brooks Brothers name.[19]

Source:

Brooks Brothers, centenary, 1818-1918 : being a short history of the founding of their business together with an account of its different locations in the city of New York during this period. New York: Printed for Brooks Bros. at the Cheltenham Press, c1918, p. 22. Source: Making of America Books, University of Michigan, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AEC2577.0001.001/12

 

[1] Zakim, Michael. “A Ready-Made Business: The Birth of the Clothing Industry in America.” Business History Review 73.01 (1999): 70.

[2] Joselit, Jenna Weissman. A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America. Macmillan, 2002: 79 

[3] Joselit, Jenna Weissman: 2.

[4] “A Historic Home Marked; Tablet Unveiled at Site of First Presidential Residence. Set in Brooklyn Bridge Arch, Gift of Revolutionary Daughters Accepted on Behalf of the City by President Guggenheimer.” The New York Times, May 2, 1899. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A0DE1DF1430E132A25751C0A9639C94689ED7CF, accessed May 7, 2016.

[5] Norman, Oscar Edward. The Romance of the Gas Industry. AC McClurg, 1922: 45.

[6] Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1901: 130.

[7] http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AEC2577.0001.001/16

[8] Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House 1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871) MS 631, http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/nyhs/tontine/dscref38.html, accessed May 7, 2016.

Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016.

[9] http://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-clothing-industry/brooks-brothers-history

[10] Cooke, John William. Generations of Style: It’s All About the Clothing. New York: Brooks Brothers, Inc, 2003: 16.

Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016.

[11] The Bronxville Review-Press 19 February 1948 — HRVH Historical Newspapers
http://news.hrvh.org/veridian/cgi-bin/senylrc?a=d&d=bronxvillereviewpressBRONXVILLE19480219.1.4#, accessed May 8, 2016.

[12] Meet the Golden Fleece.” Brooks Brothers. http://magazine.brooksbrothers.com/meet-golden-fleece/, accessed May 8, 2016.

[13] Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

[14] http://www.gentlemansgazette.com/brooks-brothers-history/

[15] http://www.gentlemansgazette.com/brooks-brothers-history/

[16] http://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1840.html

[17] Brooks Brothers – Encyclopedia of New York City  http://www.virtualny.cuny.edu/EncyNYC/brooks_brothers.html, accessed May 8, 2016.

[18] http://www.gentlemansgazette.com/brooks-brothers-history/

[19] http://www.brooksbrothers.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-brooksbrothers-Site/default/Stores-Find