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Alexander Turney Stewart


ABOUT 1825, an alert, sanguine, and active young man commenced the dry goods business in Broadway, nearly opposite his present wholesale warehouse, with a capital of about three thousand dollars. In the three years 1865-'6-'7, this gentleman sold two hundred and three million dollars worth of goods. It is hardly necessary to say that the young man was Alexander Turney Stewart, whose income for 1864 was the largest of any merchant in the world.

Carefully reared by a pious grandfather in Belfast, Ireland, Mr. Stewart received an excellent classical education in Trinity College, Dublin. His grandfather was very desirous that he should become a clergyman, but his death occurring before the grandson had completed his college course, a Quaker friend was appointed his guardian, and at his earnest solicitation procured for him letters of introduction to leading merchants of the Society of Friends in New York.

On reaching New York, Mr. Stewart looked around for a career. He taught the classics, in which his careful study had made him singularly proficient, not with a view of making it a profession, but to oblige a friend. At length he formed a partnership with a gentleman, who was to furnish a portion of the means and all the experience for a mercantile career. For some reason or other, this party abandoned the enterprise. Mr. Stewart, not daunted, went back at once to Ireland, converted the small fortune he had inherited into money, invested it all in goods, principally Belfast laces, returned to New York, and opened a store, in 1825, at 262 Broadway. Almost in the first week of his mercantile career, he had the good or ill fortune to be discharged by one of his salesmen. The occasion was as follows:

One day an old lady came in and accosting the young man alluded to, asked to see some calicoes.

She seemed satisfied with the style, but asked, with prudent caution

"Will this wash?"

"Oh! yes, ma'am."

"Then I'll take a little piece and try it, and if the colors are fast, I'll get some of it."

"What's the use of taking all that trouble," said the clerk. "I have tried it, and I know it holds its color."

The old lady felt assured and took a dress. Ladies did wear calicoes, then. Mr. Stewart was an interested auditor during this discourse. When the lady departed, he stepped up and said:

"But, Mr. _____, why did you tell that old lady such an untruth about that calico?"

"Oh ! that's all in the way of business," said the salesman.

"But," said Mr. Stewart, "that doesn't seem a good way of business. That lady will try the calico; it will fade—she will come and accuse us of misrepresentation and demand her money back, and she will be right."

"Oh! then I'll say, 'you are quite mistaken, ma'am; you never got the goods here; you must have got them at the store above.' "

"Well then, if that's the case," said the master of the business 'don't let it occur again. I don't want goods represented for what they are not. If the colors are not fast, it is easy to explain to them that certain colors are not fast, and cannot be made so for the price at which they are sold, and they will buy as soon, knowing the truth, as any other way."

"Look here, Mr. Stewart," said the salesman, "if those are going to be your principles in trade, I'm going to look for another situation. You won't last very long!"

And he was as good as his word. It appears, however, that Mr. Stewart's ideas of business were tolerably successful, for today he wields a capital of many millions. Apart from. this rigorous devotion to principle in his business, Mr. Stewart owes much of his success to great delicacy of touch and taste, and judgment in colors and textures, almost feminine in sensibility; add to these qualities a masculine grasp of events and an instantaneous perception of those shadows which are cast by events, and you have all the elements of the great merchant. Mr. Stewart early began to survey the political field, and when he forsaw a storm ahead, there would be a silent purchase of all of certain goods in the market, which would be sure to rise in a certain contingency. At other times he was the first to foresee a falling market and to put his goods before the public with such swiftness and address that he cleared his shelves with the least loss—while his slower friends were carried under the current of thirty-seven, forty-seven, fifty-seven, or sixty-seven, as the case might be. (Our merchants are superstitious about the 'sevens," and many think to-day that any year, with a seven in it, brings misfortune to the trade.) There was a time during the war when Mr. Stewart held more cotton goods than all the other dry goods firms put together. There was also a time when he was the first to sell at the reduced price. Mr. Stewart has a memory for his business as remarkable as that of others for languages and figures. He can tell to-day the ruling prices of staple goods for every year of the last forty.

Another peculiarity. The house of A. T. Stewart & Co. has always bought for cash—and one more and striking peculiarity, full of its lesson to American merchants—he has never speculated one penny's worth outside of his business, nor, strictly speaking, in it. When he has bought largely, it was to supply his customers with a greatly needed article—and when he reduced prices, it was not to injure others, but a ready submission to the inevitable in trade. His advantage consisted in knowing early what was inevitable. In connection with this, let us remark here, that reading this, one might suppose Mr. Stewart to be little more than a dealer in dry goods. There could be no greater mistake. He is a liberally educated gentleman, as we said before. Like all leaders, business is easy to him and does not absorb his whole soul. There are few men in our country better qualified to derive enjoyment from Horace and Tacitus, than Mr. Stewart. He is the hope and refuge of artists—for he is an admirer and enjoyer of good works of art, and if he does not buy all that appears meritorious, it is only because the marble mansion in Fifth Avenue, and the brownstone opposite, will hold no more.

There is in some circles an impression, studiously cultivated by a few, that Mr. Stewart squeezes out small dealers mercilessly —lest they grow too great for him. It is entirely unfounded. He conducts his business on business principles, and no business can last long, or become great, that is conducted otherwise. That Mr. Stewart regrets the inevitable injury to small dealers, which his large operations cause, we have ample evidence. He said recently to a gentleman, who was making some inquiries: 

"They'll have me in the concert saloon business next." 

Laughing again, probably at the curious figure he would cut in that avocation, " The truth is, I intend only to enlarge the facilities for retail trade at the upper store, and group together those departments which should be properly associated, and which are now scattered on two floors, and cause a great deal of running up and down stairs. Here is the Yankee notion stock; we have no room for it here, and it ought to be moved up to the other store. I am urged to do this constantly, but hesitate only for one reason. 'The moment we throw open that department to the retail trade, a great many smaller dealers in the vicinity will suffer. The advantages we possess are so superior that competition of small dealers is out of the question, and the moment they feel the pressure they cry out against monopoly, and attribute all kinds of vindictiveness to the firm. 

But, after all, the public at large are benefitted. We are enabled to offer them the largest stock at the smallest cost, with all the guarantees that are inseparable from a responsible house, whose name and honor are part of the business. This seems to be the great advantage of the tendency to aggregate business interests of a kindred nature. It cheapens manufacture, and capital becomes a vehicle between the petty producer and the consumer. Aside from the fact that the system economizes power, it should be remembered that it is better calculated to foster native industry in many cases. Take, for instance, the American beaver cloths, made for this house expressly by the Utica Steam Mills. They are now conceded to be equal to any made anywhere, and lying side by side with imported goods, suffer no depreciation. They are perfecting the manufacture so rapidly in cassimeres and similar goods, under proper stimulation, that already the demand for American manufacture exceeds the foreign. It is absurd to suppose, as is generally the case, that the increasing facilities and demands of a great business in New York, or anywhere, in fact, must be associated with rivalry or greed; generally the magnitude of the business swallows up all such considerations; in fact the growth and extension are not the subject of special endeavor, but are the inevitable consequence of a healthy organization. Any business beyond a certain point becomes germinal, and grows in all directions. The greatest care has to be exercised in its training and pruning. People come to me and ask me for my secret of success; why, I have no secret, I tell them. My business has been a matter of principle from the start. That's all there is about it. If the golden rule can be incorporated into purely mercantile affairs it has been done in this establishment, and you must have noticed, if you have observed closely, that the customers are treated precisely as the seller himself would like to be treated were he in their place. That is to say, nothing is misrepresented, the price is fixed, once and for all, at the lowest possible figure, and the circumstances of the buyer are not suffered to influence the salesman in his conduct in the smallest particular. I think you will find the same principle of justice throughout the larger transactions of the house, and especially in its dealings with employees. I do not speak of it as deserving of praise—we find it absolutely necessary. What we cannot afford is violation of principle."

Here Mr. Stewart has given his whole theory of business. To another gentleman, who said to him one morning—" Mr. Stewart, you are a very rich man, why do you bother yourself building this immense place?"

Said Mr. Stewart: "That is the very question I asked myself this morning, when I took a look at that big hole in the ground. The worst of it is," he continued, without giving a complete reply, and with a regretful tone, as if the thing must be done, and yet cause him sorrow, " my neighbors don't like it."

The stories of Mr. Stewart's competition with other houses, large or small, are all mythical. There is room enough for all, in his opinion, and we may say, that in our opinion, when another man comes along with the qualifications of a Stewart, he will acquire the fortune of a Stewart.

"The star of your fate is in your own breast," says the German poet.

Mr. Stewart is, of course, the recipient of a vast number of applications for every kind and form of charity. To deserving objects, his liberality is large and enduring—but he fights the many swindles and dribbles that eat away weaker men's fortunes without helping the receiver, with a keenness and warmth that is acquainted with the tricks and manners of the begging tribe. Many old merchants of New York, who have failed in business, have had their declining years made easy by the kindness of Mr. Stewart, but he is as reticent of these deeds as he is of every thing that tends to personal praise. The large way in which he prefers to do things, is evidenced in his conduct during the last season of great distress in Ireland, during our war, when he bought a ship, loaded her with stores, shipped them to Belfast, his native town, and brought over in return, a ship load of young men and women, free of cost, to the land of hope—America, and at the same time repaying to Belfast, with interest, the capital he had brought from thence at the commencement of his career. To the relief of the Lancashire operatives in 1863, he contributed $10,000, and to the sufferers from the Chicago fire $50,000, and subsequently $50,000 more.

As to his views on politics, Mr. Stewart has attempted, as far as he has been active at all, to get public affairs out of the hands of professional politicians, into those of men who will do the public business on the same principles upon which private business is done. This will be the case some day, but Mr. Stewart will not live to see it. He was the strong and active friend of General Grant as a candidate for the Presidency, and was one of the large contributors to the present of one hundred thousand dollars, made him by the merchants of New York city, as an acknowledgment of his great services in the overthrow of the Rebellion. After General Grant's inauguration he was nominated Secretary of the Treasury ; but being a large importer he could not legally hold the office, and his name was withdrawn and Mr. Boutwell's substituted for it.

Mr. Stewart is a man of progress—of the modern time—he is a man for improvement and enjoyment. When he builds, he does it with iron, and plenty of glass—fire proof—with abundant light—the structure perfectly adapted to all its purposes, and securing the comfort of all within—no gothic dimness, or Grecian anachronism in architecture, has a chance with him. When he builds a house for another—as his marble palace in Fifth Avenue—to use his own words, " a little attention to Mrs. Stewart "—it is a different matter. That is to please her.

Mr. Stewart is about sixty-nine years of age, but look; good for twenty more. His eyes twinkle, as blue eyes often do, with the coming light of a frequent good thing. He has a merry turn of mind, and enjoys himself in a little party with young folks, equal to any of his juniors, and can make fun, and take fun, equal to any.

The operations of the horse of A. T. Stewart & Co., are literally world wide. Mr. William Libby, in New York, Mr. Francis Warden, permanently in Paris, and Mr. G. Fox, in Manchester, England, compose the firm. It has three foreign bureaus, or depots—one on a triangular square at Cooper street, Manchester, where are collected, examined, and packed, all English goods. One at Belfast, for linens, which partakes of the nature of a factory as well, the linens being bought in the rough, and afterward bleached and fitted for the trade. This establishment is about the size of a double New York store, that is fifty by one hundred feet. In Glasgow, the firm have a house exclusively for Scotch goods. In Paris, the magazin, on the Rue Bergere, has been known to continental manufacturers for many years. Here are collected and arranged, for shipping to America, all East Indian, French and German goods, exclusive of woolens. In Berlin is the woolen-house, equal in size to three ordinary New York stores. There are also, at Lyons, two large warehouses for silk goods. All the continental business is transacted at the Paris bureau, payments are made there, and a general supervision extended over the other establishments. In addition to these, it must be remembered that there are a number of manufacturers who do work exclusively for this firm, and are really branches of the business. For instance, they have the house of Alexandre, in Paris, constantly manufacturing kid gloves for Stewart & Co., exclusively, while in this country and Great Britain, mills run all the year round to supply the New York house with goods. One such customer taxes all their powers.

Then there are buyers, one for each of the fifteen departments in this house, who are constantly travelling somewhere between Hong Kong and Chili, and who are in a measure responsible for the condition of those departments at home. Special agents, too, on important embassies of a confidential nature, putting up in Thibet, or Brussels, or found on the Ganges, or among the Chinese cocoons. In fact, the cosmopolitan part of the house, the circulating human capital, must be formidable in numbers and diplomacy if ever assembled. And they were assembled once, we believe, at Manchester. A rumor had got abroad in Europe, that Mr. Stewart had died. To correct it, and accomplish some important movement, Mr. Stewart telegraphed extensively over the hemisphere for his ministers to meet him in Manchester, on a certain day, and there is a legend in that place of a mysterious congress having been held there, though public opinion was for a long time divided as to whether they were Orsini sympathizers, or Yankee invaders.

In 1863, Mr. Stewart returned an income of $1,900,000 in 1861, one of $4,000,000, in 1865, of $1,600,000, and for 1866, of $600,000-an average of very near $2,000,000 per year. Whether this rate of profit can be kept up is a question, but it Is probable that the average will be increased instead of diminished. Mr. Stewart is a large holder of real estate, owning three or four of the largest hotels in New York, besides numerous stores and dwellings, and unimproved lands. He has also within the past three or four years purchased a very large tract of land known as the Hempstead Plains, on Long Island, ten or twelve miles from New York, where he is building a large city, and to which he has completed a railroad from the metropolis.

Among his other benevolent enterprises is one now fast approaching completion, of a hotel for workingwomen, where all the comforts, conveniences, and appliances of the best hotels are to be furnished to workingwomen, under such arrangements that pleasant, airy, and commodious rooms, well furnished, and excellent board can be had by those women for from $2.75 to $3.00 per week. He has projected a similar establishment for young men, and has also in view a large number of model tenement houses much after the plan of Mr. Peabody's in London. 

It is a grand example which this greatest of merchant princes is setting to the world, that of devoting the greater part of his colossal fortune to ameliorate the condition of the lowly. Would that more of our rich men had the same spirit.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872   

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