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Giant Strides Of Commerce

( Originally Published 1918 )

Giant Strides of Commerce—The Reasoning of M. Honore de Balzac—The Aristocracy of Trade—The Story of a New York Shop—When Fifth Avenue Began to Rival Bond Street and the Rue de la Paix—Shopping in 1901—Publishing Houses at the Beginning of the Century—Prices of Real Estate—Some Great Houses of the Present.

ONCE upon a time, so the story goes, a French publisher, planning an elaborate volume on the streets of Paris, went to Honore de Balzac, then at the height of his fame, to ask him to contribute the chapter on a particular thoroughfare—let us say, the Rue Line Telle, or the Avenue Quelque-Chose. The idea appealed to the fancy of the great man, and matters were going along swimmingly, until it came to the point of settling upon a price to be paid the novelist for his labour.

" And now, cher maitre, we must consider the painful triviality of emolument." Without hesitation Balzac mentioned a figure that was simply staggering. It was a minute or two before the astonished publisher could gather his wits together sufficiently to protest and bargain. But Balzac was not to be moved. He explained that the sum named was not merely for the work but also for expenses that would be unavoidable in carrying on the work. " It is this way, cher Monsieur. To write about a street it is necessary to know it thoroughly. It is not enough to glance at the etalage, one must investigate the shop behind. Let us consider the street that you wish me to describe. As I recall it, first on the right is the establishment of B., the gunsmith. In studying his premises it will, of course, be necessary for me to purchase a rifle or a revolver and a box of cartridges. Next door to B., as you may remember, is the business of X., the perfumer. Luckily for you, Monsieur, a bottle of perfume is not expensive. But beyond that shop there is the one of Y., the furrier, and furs just now, as you doubtless know, are rather high. Of course, proceeding in my investigation, I shall be obliged to buy a ring at the jeweller's, a chapeau de forme at the hatter's, a pair of boots at the shoe-maker's, and a waistcoat at least at the tailor's. In view of such a condition I protest that the price I name for writing the article is astonishingly reasonable." Needless to say, M. de Balzac did not write the paper desired. The publisher managed to find another scribe who finished the task creditably without purchasing so much as a sheet of paper. But imagine the expense account that would be presented by a writer engaged to de-scribe the stretch of shopping Fifth Avenue from Thirty-fourth Street to Fiftieth who considered it necessary to follow the method suggested by the creator of the Comedie Humaine!

Paraphrasing the saying of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, three or four generations in the story of a New York store make an aristocrat of trade. There are names of commerce that stand out in the imagination of the New Yorkers like the names of great soldiers and statesmen. Solid, imposing, facing the Avenue at a corner that represents land value that is computed by the square inch, is the structure of Brown-Smith. In some cases the passer-by will search in vain for any indication of the name—the information being deemed wholly superfluous. It matters not in the least whether the commodity upon which Brown-Smith has reared its history be hats, or groceries, or furs, or jewelry, or silverware, or boots, or men's furnishings. The story of the enterprise, its growth and its migrations, is, in epitome, the story of the city.

The beginning of the tale, dealing with the first Brown-Smith, is the narrative of the Industrious Apprentice, coming to the growing town towards the close of the eighteenth century, a raw-boned country youth from New Hampshire or Vermont, finding after much tramping and many rebuffs employment which meant sleeping on a counter in the hours when he was not running errands, sweeping out dusty corners, and polishing up the handle of the big front door, slowly, persistently winning his way to promotion and pay, perhaps, by way of romance, marrying his employer's daughter, eventually setting up for himself and emblazoning the name destined to be great over the entrance of a shop in Catherine or Cherry Street, and there to purvey to the residents of the near-by fashionable Franklin Square. Then the development of the hundred years. The first migration, suggested and urged by an ambitious and far-seeing son, to a corner on remote Grand Street. That was probably the hardest and most radical step in all the history of the house, and there must have been strange doubts and misgivings in the soul of the founder, now grown grey, as he said good-bye to the familiar dwellings of Quality Row in Cherry Street and prepared to venture forth on unknown seas. Be sure that he took with him, as a sacred treasure, his first day-book, with its quaint entries of expenses and receipts. Very likely he did not long survive the change, and was never quite happy in it.

Probably, if you happen to be a patron of the Brown-Smith establishment, and scrupulously leave its communications unopened in the letter-box at the club, you received, three or four years ago, a little book, commemorating the centenary of the house. They differ from one another merely in form and detail—these souvenir book-lets. In substance and flavour they are all pretty much the same. There are the old prints reproduced from Valentine's Manual, the allusions to the horse-propelled ferry-boats to Brooklyn, to the advertisement that appeared in a City Directory of one of the years of the fifties, to the attack upon the establishment during the stirring times of the Draft Riots of the Civil War, to the frequent extensions of business and the migrations that carried the name from Grand Street over to Broadway and Prince Street, thence up the great street to a point near Twelfth, then to Union Square, to Madison Square, and finally, to the stately and spacious edifice of the present, far up the Avenue. And who will venture to predict how many years will pass before that structure, today regarded as the last cry in the matter of architecture and convenience, will be outgrown and inadequate, and its situation hopelessly far to the south?

It was about 1901 that the movement began that was to transform Fifth Avenue from a residential thoroughfare into a shopping street be-side which the vaunted glories of London's Bond Street and Paris's Rue de la Paix seem dim. In the Knickerbocker days the important shops of the town lined lower Broadway and the adjacent streets. Then it was to Grand Street that the ladies journeyed to barter and bargain for the latest fashions from the Paris whose styles were dominated by the Empress Eugenie. When Grand Street had been outgrown the shops moved northward to Fourteenth Street and Union Square. There are tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose childhood dates back to the early eighties who recall as one of the delights of the Yuletide season the visit to the revolving show in the window of old Macy's at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. For a decade or so Sixth Avenue was the shop paradise. Above Macy's were O'Neill's, and Simpson, Crawford and Simpson's, and Altman's, and Ehrich's, be-sides the countless emporiums of lesser magnitude. Macy's moved north to Greeley Square, and Gimbel's came to take its place on an adjoining corner, but the movement in bulk turned eastward at Twenty-third Street, lining the south side of that thoroughfare as far as Fifth Avenue. Some of the pioneers had ventured farther to the north, but Twenty-third Street was the centre as the nineteenth century came to a close.

A writer in the " Century Magazine," describing " Shopping in New York " in 1901, said that even then New York was known as a City of Shops just as Brooklyn was known as a City of Churches, and went on: " The district begins at Eighth Street, where the wholesale establishments end, and follows Broadway as far as Thirty-fourth Street. At Fourteenth Street and again at Twenty-third Street it diverges to the west until it strikes Sixth Avenue, including that part of Sixth Avenue only which lies between the two thoroughfares. From Broadway at Twenty-third Street, it makes another departure, running up Fifth Avenue and ending at Forty-seventh Street." When the department stores lined the south side of Twenty-third Street a number of the great book-shops were on the north side, near the old Fifth Avenue Hotel. Among such was the long-established Putnam, and adjoining that shop was the shop of the Duttons. Of the publishing houses that carried in their traditions back to Knickerbocker days Harper's was in the home of its beginnings and to which it still clings to the present time, the rambling structure hard by Franklin Square, while on Fifth Avenue, below Twenty-third, were the houses of D. Appleton and Company, Charles Scribner's Sons, and Dodd, Mead and Company, the last-named being the pioneer in the movement northward when it relinquished its corner at the Avenue and Twenty-first Street to try the slope of Murray Hill at Thirty-fifth Street on land that is now occupied by the Bazaar of Best and Company. The inter-national house of Brentano, before it moved into its present headquarters in the Brunswick Building at Twenty-seventh Street, was in Union Square. Today Brentano's is the largest shop of its kind in the city, while Scribner's, on the east side of the Avenue at Forty-eighth Street, has been called " the most beautiful bookstore in the world."

In the new shopping district beginning at Thirty-fourth Street and running along the Avenue almost to the Plaza, like the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, so the saying goes, exclusiveness for the masses, Altman was the pioneer. In view of what was then considered the prohibitively high price of real estate the projected invasion of the Avenue by the department stores was thought extremely hazardous. In 1901 the street still suggested the time when it had been lined by the dull, monotonous high stoops. Those old fronts had been knocked away, business had invaded many of the lower stories, but there still remained something of the former flavour. But property holders were awake to their opportunities. Inside lots twenty-five by one hundred feet on the Avenue were held at one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, and corner lots correspondingly higher. Within two years these prices had doubled and trebled. Altman's, covering an entire block, eight stories in height, with an addition that rises twelve stories, is a stately guardian of the corner at which the Avenue be-comes the Lane of magnificent commeree. The building, of French stone, was designed by Trowbridge and Livingston. Directly across the street is an entrance to McCreery's, although that establishment faces on Thirty-fourth Street. Above McCreery's, opposite the corner where the New York Club once had its home, and on property part of which was formerly the house of the Engineers Club, is Best's, once Lilliputian in more than one sense, but no more so. There-after every block has its imposing monument to commerce. Silverware is represented by Gorham's at Thirty-sixth Street. Furs in magnificent display fill the windows of Gunther's Sons between Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh. At the south-east corner of Thirty-seventh Street is Tiffany's. Information as to the nature of the merchandise in which the establishment deals would be superfluous, and the management is evidently of the opinion that the display in the windows tells the story to all the world, for the passer-by will look in vain for any lettering indicating the owner-ship. Instead, there is a bronze figure of Atlas, bearing a huge clock on his shoulders, adorning the facade of the edifice. The clock is the old Tiffany clock. Of American make, dating from 1850, it was for many years in front of the original Tiffany Building at 550 Broadway, near Prince Street. Then, in Union Square, it pre-sided over the fortunes of the house, again to be removed to serve as guardian of the destinies of the present structure, which is of marble, adapted from the Palazzo Grimani of Venice, of which Ruskin once wrote: " There is not an erring line, not a mistaken proportion throughout its noble front." On the corresponding corner above Tiffany's is Bonwit, Teller and Company, and directly facing the latter on the west side of the Avenue is Franklin Simon and Company. Conspicuous on the next block are Lord and Taylor's, and Vantine's, the former Italian Renaissance, with vestibules finished in Bitticino marble and Travertine stone, ceilings of Guastavino tile, and aisles bordered with black Egyptian marble. Today this establishment represents the last cry in construction and administration. Adjoining it to the north is Vantine's, its dimly lighted and incense-scented aisles running between counters covered with rare and costly curios from the Orient.

Northward to the Plaza commerce has moved with giant stride. The march might be studied and pictured block by block, corner by corner, and page after page blackened with detail and description. Any one of a dozen or a dozen dozen shops of the Avenue might be made the subject of a fat volume. For the present purpose it is enough to mention a few of them by name, and in the order of march. At the south-east corner of Fortieth Street, on land that was formerly occupied by the residence of Frederick W. Vanderbilt, is the department store of Arnold, Constable and Company. It is the new home of a house that dates from 1827. To the west of the Avenue, on the north side of Forty-second Street, is Stern's. Other names that have a commercial significance, that are conspicuous in the stretch from the Public Library to the Plaza are W. and J. Sloane, the well-known rug house, on the east side of the Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Streets; Davis, Collamore and Company (china and glass), Fifth Avenue and Forty-eighth Street ; Duveen Brothers (antiques), 720 Fifth Avenue; Fleischman and Thorley (florists), respectively at 500 and 502 Fifth Avenue; the jewellers and silversmiths, Black, Starr, and Frost, 594 Fifth Avenue; Carlton and Company, 634 Fifth Avenue; Kirkpatrick and Company, 624 Fifth Avenue; and Gattle and Company, 634 Fifth Avenue; and such emporiums designed to delight the hearts of extravagant women as J. M. Giddings and Company, L. P. Hollander and Company, and Alice Maynard, all on the Avenue in the neighbourhood of Forty-fifth Street.

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