The merchant of the future will
not only be an economist and an
industrial leader he will also be
a teacher and a humanitarian.
T. Stewart, in a Letter to President Grant
When His Excellency Wu Ting Fang was
asked what country he would live in, if he had his
choice, his unhesitating answer was, “Ireland!”
The reply brought forth another question,
as his secretive and clever Excellency knew it would,
namely, “Why?” “Because Ireland is
the only country in the world in which the Irish have
no influence.” Also, it might be stated,
although it has nothing to do with the case, that the
Jews are very much more influential in New York City
than they are in Jerusalem. The Turk is to Palestine
what the English are to Ireland.
The human product has to be transplanted
in order to get the best results, just as the finest
roses of California are slipped near Powers’
Four Corners, Rochester, Monroe County, New York, and
are then shipped to the West. A new environment
means, often, spiritual power before unguessed.
The struggle of the man to fit himself into a new condition
and thus harmonize with his surroundings, brings out
his latent energies and discovers for him untapped
It was Edmund Burke who said, “The
Irish are all right, but you must catch them young.”
When England wants a superbly strong man she has to
send to Ireland for him. Note Burke, her greatest
orator; Swift, her greatest satirist; Goldsmith, her
sweetest poet; Arthur Wellesley, her greatest fighter not
to mention Lord Bobs all awfully Irish.
And to America comes Alexander Turney Stewart, aged
twenty, very Irish, shy, pink, blue of eye, with downy
whiskers, intending to teach school until he could
prepare himself for the “meenistry.”
It was the year Eighteen Hundred Twenty;
and at that time the stars of the Irish schoolmaster
were in the ascendant. For a space of forty years say
from Eighteen Hundred Five to Eighteen Hundred Forty-five eighty
per cent of all graduates of Trinity College, Dublin,
came straight to America and found situations awaiting
Young Stewart had been at Trinity
College two years, when by the death of his grandfather
he found himself without funds. His father died
when he was three years old, and his grandparents
took him in charge. His mother, it seems, married
again, and was busy raising a goodly brood of Callahans,
several of whom in after-years came to New York, and
were given jobs at the A. T. Stewart button-counter.
Young Stewart could have borrowed
money to keep him in college, for he knew that when
he was twenty-one he would come into an inheritance
from his father’s estate. However, on an
impulse, he just sold his books, pawned his watch
and bought passage for America, the land of promise.
The boy had the look of a scholar, and he had dignity,
as shy folks often have. Also, he had a Trinity
College brogue, a thing quite as desirable as a Trinity
College degree. Later, A. T. Stewart lost his
brogue, but Trinity College sent him all the degrees
she had, including the LL. D., which arrived
on his seventieth birthday.
The Irish built our railroads, but
Paddy no longer works on the section he
owns the railroad. Note the Harrimans, the Hanrahans,
the McCreas, the McDougalls, the O’Donnells,
the O’Days, the Hills all just one
generation removed from the bog, and the smell of peat-smoke
still upon them.
The Irish schoolmasters glided easily
from taking charge of the school into taking charge
of our municipal affairs for a consideration and
their younger brothers, their cousins, their uncles
and their aunts, found jobs yawning for them as soon
as they had pushed past the gates of Castle Garden.
One year of schoolteaching in New
York City, and A. T. Stewart reached his majority.
He had saved just two hundred dollars of his salary;
and he sailed away, back to Ould Ireland, a successful
man. Now he would go back to Trinity and complete
his course, and be glorified. He had proved his
ability to meet the world on a fair footing and take
care of himself. All of which speaks well for
young Misther Stewart, and it also speaks well for
his grandparents, who had brought him up in a good,
sensible way to work, economize and keep a civil tongue
in his Irish head. His grandfather didn’t
exactly belong to the gentry it was better
than that: he was an Irish clerque who had become
a scrivener, and then risen to a professorship.
A. T. Stewart was heir to a goodly
amount of decent pride, which always kept him in the
society of educated people, and made him walk with
the crown of his head high and his chin in. He
thought well of himself and the world is
very apt to take a man at his own estimate.
A year in “The States”
had transformed the young man from a greenhorn into
a gentleman. The climate of the West had agreed
with him. He himself told how on going back to
Belfast the city seemed to have grown smaller and
very quiet. He compared everything to Broadway,
and smiled at a jaunting-car compared to a ’bus.
When he went to Trinity College, and
saw his class, from whom he had parted only a year
before, all thought of remaining two years to graduate
faded from his mind. An ocean seemed to divide
him from both teachers and pupils. The professors
were stupid and slow; the pupils were boys he
was a man. They, too, felt the difference, and
called him “Sir.” And when one of
them introduced him to a Freshman as “an American,”
Freshy bowed low, and the breast of A. T. Stewart expanded
with pride. Not even the offer of a professorship
could have kept him in Ireland. He saw himself
the principal of an American College, “filling”
the pulpit of the college chapel on Sunday, picturing
the fate of the unregenerate in fiery accents.
The Yankee atmosphere had made him a bit heady.
The legacy left him by his grandfather was exactly
one thousand pounds five thousand dollars.
What to do with this money, he did not know!
Anyway, he would take it to America and wisely invest
In New York he had boarded with an
Irish family, the head of which was a draper.
This man had a small store on West Street, and Alexander
had helped tend store on Saturdays, and occasionally
evenings when ships came in and sailors with money
to waste lumbered and lubbered past, often with gay
painted galleys in tow.
The things you do at twenty are making
indelible marks on your character. Stewart had
no special taste for trade, but experience spells
power potential or actual. With five
thousand dollars in his belt, all in gold, he felt
uncomfortable. And so on a venture he expended
half of it in good Irish lace, insertions and scallop
trimmings. Irish linens, Irish poplins and Irish
lace were being shipped to New York it could
not be a loss! He would follow suit. If he
was robbed of his money he could not at the same time
be robbed of the drapery. And so he sailed away
for New York and Ireland looked more green
and more beautiful as the great, uplifting, green
hills faded from sight and were lost to view in the
On the ship that carried Stewart back
to New York was a young man who professed to be an
adept in the draper’s line. Very naturally,
Stewart got acquainted with this man, and told him
of his investment in drygoods. The man offered
to sell the stock for Stewart.
In those days the Irish pedler with
his pack full of curious and wonderful things was
a common sight at the farmhouses. He rivaled both
Yankee-Gentile and Jew, and his blarney was a commodity
that stood him in good stead. Stewart’s
new-found friend promised to sell the stock in short
order, by going right out among the people. He
had no money of his own, and Stewart was doubly pleased
to think he could set a worthy man up in business,
and help himself at the same time. On reaching
New York, the friend was fitted out with all the goods
he could carry, and duly headed for New Jersey.
In two days he came back. He had sold most of
the goods all right, and with the money gotten gloriously
drunk; also, he had bought drinks for all the Irishmen
he could find, and naturally they were many.
Stewart even then did not give up the case. He
rented a small store at Two Hundred Eighty-three Broadway,
and decided that by staying close to his friend he
could keep him in the straight and narrow path of
probity. As for himself he would teach school
as usual; and he and his agent could use the back
of the little store for a sleeping-room.
It was a week before his school was
to begin, but in that week he became convinced that
his friend was not a merchant, and to get that first
month’s rent he would have to run the store himself.
So he put the disciple of Bacchus on the slide, and
started in alone.
Stewart had a little inconvenient
pride which prevented his turning pedler.
Instead of going to the world he would
bring the world to him. With this end, therefore,
in view, the New York “Daily Advertiser”
for September Second, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five,
contained this notice:
A. T. Stewart, just
arrived from Belfast, offers for sale to the
Ladies of New York a
choice selection of Fresh Drygoods at Two
The advertisement was a good one the
proof of which was that many puffick ladies called
to see the stock and the man just arrived from Belfast.
Stewart was a wise advertiser. His use of the
word “ladies” showed good psychology.
The young merchant hadn’t much
more than taken down his shutters before a lady entered
the store and acknowledged she was one. She lived
in the next block, and as soon as she read the advertisement
in the paper, yet damp from the press, she came right
Stewart spread out his wares with
shaking hands he must make a sale to his
first caller or he would never have luck. The
lady bought “scallops” and lace to the
extent of two dollars, on Stewart’s throwing
her in gratis sundry yards of braid, a card of buttons
and a paper of hooks and eyes. The woman paid
the money, and A. T. Stewart was launched, then and
there, on a career.
He was a handsome young fellow intelligent,
and never too familiar, but just familiar enough.
Women liked him; he was so respectful, almost reverent,
in his attitude toward them. It took a better
man to be a salesman then than now. Every article
was marked in cipher, with two prices. One figure
represented what the thing cost and the other was the
selling-price. You secured the selling-price,
if you could, and if you couldn’t, you took
what you could get, right down to the cost figure.
The motto was, never let a customer go without selling
him something. The rule now is to sell people
what they want, but never urge any one to buy.
Both buyer and seller then enjoyed
these fencing-bouts of the bazaar. The time for
simple dealing between man and man had not yet come.
To haggle, banter and blarney were parts of the game,
and parts which the buyer demanded as his right.
He would trade only at places where he thought he
was getting the start of the dealer and where his cleverness
had an opportunity for exercise. The thought of
getting something for nothing was in the air, and
to get the better of somebody was regarded as proper
Had a retail dealer then advertised
One Price and no deviation to any one, the customers
would surely have given him absent treatment.
The verbal fencing, the forays of wit, the clash of
accusation and the final forlorn sigh of surrender
of the seller, were things which the buyer demanded
as his, or more properly her, right.
Often these encounters attracted interested
by-standers, who saw the skilful buyer berate
the seller and run down his goods, until the poor
man, abject and undone, gave up. To get the better
of the male man and force him to his knees is the
pleasant diversion of a certain type of feminine mind.
Before marriage the woman always, I am told, takes
this high-handed attitude. Perhaps she dimly
realizes that her time for tyranny is short.
To make the man a suppliant is the delight of her
soul. After marriage the positions are reversed.
But in the good old days, most women, not absolutely
desiccated by age or ironed out by life’s vicissitudes,
found a sort of secondary sexual delight in these
shopping assaults on the gentlemanly party on the other
side of the counter.
We have all seen women enter into
heated arguments, and indulge in a half-quarrel, with
attractive men, about nothing. If the man is wise
he allows the woman to force him into a corner, where
he yields with a grace, ill-concealed, and thus is
he victor, without the lady’s knowing it.
This is a sort of salesmanship that Sheldon knows nothing
of, and that, happily, is, for the most part, not
yet obsolete. A. T. Stewart was a natural salesman
of the old school. He was a success from the very
start. He was tall; he had good teeth, a handsome
face, a graceful form and dressed with exquisite care.
This personal charm of manner was his chief asset.
And while business then was barter, and the methods
of booth and bazaar prevailed, Stewart was wise enough
never to take advantage of a customer regarding either
price or quality. If the buyer held off long
enough she might buy very close to cost, but if she
bought quickly and at Stewart’s figures, he
had a way of throwing in a yard of ribbon, or elastic,
or a spool or two of thread, all unasked for, that
equalized the transaction. He seems to have been
the very first man in trade to realize that to hold
your trade you must make a friend of the customer.
In a year he had outgrown the little store at Two Hundred
Eighty-three Broadway, and he moved to a larger place
at Two Hundred Sixty-two Broadway. Then came
a new store, built for him by a worthy real-estate
owner, John Jacob Astor by name. This store was
thirty feet wide, one hundred feet deep, and three
stories high, with a basement. It was a genuine
It had a ladies’ parlor on the
second floor, and a dressing-room with full-length
mirrors ordered from Paris.
They were the first full-length mirrors
in America, and A. T. Stewart issued a special invitation
to the ladies of New York to come and see them and
see themselves as others saw them. To arrange
these mirrors so that a lady could see the buttons
on the back of her dress was regarded as the final
achievement of legerdemain.
The A. T. Stewart store was a woman’s
store. In hiring salesmen the owner picked only
gentlemen of presence. The “floorwalker”
had his rise in A. T. Stewart. Once a woman asked
a floorwalker this question, “Do you keep stationery?”
and the answer was, “If I did I’d never
draw my salary.” This is a silly story
and if it ever happened, it did not transpire at A.
T. Stewart’s. There the floorwalker was
always as a cow that is being milked. For the
first fifteen years of his career, Stewart made it
a rule to meet and greet every customer, personally.
The floorwalker or the
“head usher,” as he was called was
either the proprietor or his personal representative.
Stewart never offered to shake hands with a customer,
no matter how well he knew the lady, but bowed low,
and with becoming gravity and gentle voice inquired
her wishes. He then conducted her to the counter
where the goods she wanted were kept. As the
clerk would take down his goods Stewart had a way of
reproving the man thus: “Not that, Mr. Johnson,
not that you seem to forget whom you are
waiting on!” When the lady left, Stewart accompanied
her to the door. He wore a long beard, shaved
his upper lip, and looked like a Presbyterian clergyman
making pastoral calls. Silks, dress-goods and
laces gradually grew to be the A. T. Stewart specialties.
That the man had taste and never ran stripes around
a stout lady, or made a very slim one look more so,
is a matter of history. “I have been hoping
you would come, for we have a piece of silk that seems
to have been made for you. I ordered it put aside
until you could see it. Mr. Johnson, that silk
pattern, please, that I told you not to show to any
one until Mrs. Brevoort called. Thank you; yes,
that is the one.”
Then there were ways of saying, “Oh,
Mr. Johnson, you remember the duplicate of that silk-dress
pattern which was made for Queen Victoria I
think Mrs. Astor would like to examine it!” Thus
was compliment fused with commerce and made to yield
The prevailing methods in trade are
always keyed by the public. The merchant is part
of the public; he ministers to the public. A public
that demands a high degree of honesty and unselfish
service will get it. Sharp practise and double-dealing
among the people find an outcrop in public affairs.
Rogues in a community will have no trouble in finding
rogue lawyers to do their bidding. In fact, rogue
clients evolve rogue attorneys. Foolish patients
evolve fool doctors. And superstition and silliness
in the pew find a fitting expression in the pulpit.
The first man in New York to work
the “Cost-Sale” scheme was A. T. Stewart.
In Eighteen Hundred Thirty he advertised: “Mr.
A. T. Stewart, having purchased a large amount of
goods, soon to arrive, is obliged, in order to make
room for these, to dispose of all the stock he has
on hand, which will be sold at Actual Cost, beginning
Monday at eight A. M. Ladies are requested to come
early and avoid the crush.”
At another time he advertised:
“A. T. Stewart is obliged to raise a large
amount of money to pay for silks and dress-goods that
are now being made for him in Europe. To secure
this money he is obliged to hold a Cost Sale of everything
in his store. This sale will begin Friday at
noon, and end at midnight on Saturday, the day after.”
Stewart also had “Fire Sales,”
although it speaks well for himself that he never
had a fire in his own store. If others had fires
he was on hand to buy the salvage, and whether he
bought it or not he managed to have a “Fire
Sale.” He loved the smoke of commercial
rhetoric, and the excitement of seeing the crowd.
This applies more particularly to the first twenty
years of his career. During those first years
he used to have a way of opening cases on the sidewalk
and selling from the case to the first person who
made an offer. This brought him good luck, especially
if the person had cross-eyes or was a hunchback.
The messy clutter in front of the store and the pushing
crowds advertised the business. Finally, a competitor
next door complained to the police about Stewart’s
blocking the sidewalk.
The police interfered and Stewart
was given one day to clear off the walk. At once
he put up a big sign: “Our neighbors to
the right, not being able to compete with us, demand
that we shall open no more goods on the sidewalk.
To make room we are obliged to have a Cost Sale.
You buy your goods, pay for them and carry them away we
can’t even afford to pay for wrapping-paper
All this tended to keep the town awake,
and the old Irish adage of “Where McGinty sits
is the head of the table,” became true of A.
T. Stewart. His store was the center of trade.
When he moved, the trade moved with him.
To all charitable objects he gave
liberally. He gave to all churches, and was recognized
as a sort of clergyman himself, and in his dress he
managed to look the part. The ten per cent off
to clergymen and schoolteachers was his innovation.
This ten per cent was supposed to be his profit, but
forty per cent would have been nearer it. Of course
the same discount had to be given to any member of
a clergyman’s or a teacher’s family.
And so we hear of one of Stewart’s cashiers saying,
“Over half of the people in New York are clergymen
or teachers.” The temptation to pass one’s
self off for a clergyman at Stewart’s store was
a bait that had no lure when you visited Girard College.
All this was but a part and parcel
of the times an index of the Zeitgeist.
A. T. Stewart was alive, alert and
sensitive to the spirit of the times. He kept
abreast with the best thought of the best people.
The idea of opening boxes and bales on the sidewalk
was abandoned early in the game; and the endeavor
was to show the fabric only under the most favorable
conditions. Stewart was reaching out for a higher
clientele. The motto became, “Not how cheap,
but how good.” If A. T. Stewart sold goods
at an average profit of, say, thirty per cent, he
could well afford to sell a small portion of his stock
at cost, or even at ten per cent below cost.
He knew his stocks, and he made it a point never to
carry goods over from one year to another.
Before he held one of his famous “Cost
Sales,” he would personally work all night,
taking down from the shelves and out of drawers and
showcases everything in the store. Then he himself
would dictate what each article should be sold for.
Here was exercise for a mind that worked by intuition.
The master decided instantly on how much this thing
would bring. In railroad managing there are two
ways of making rates. One is the carefully figured-out
cost of transportation. The other plan is to
make a rate that will move the tonnage. A regular
passenger rate is the rate that will afford a profit.
An “excursion rate,” a “homeseekers’
rate,” an “old-home rate,” is the
one that experience shows is necessary to tempt people
Drygoods deteriorate in quality when
kept on the shelves for several months. Worse
than that, they cease to attract the buyers. People
go where there is life, activity, and are moved by
that which is youthful, new and fresh. Old stocks
become dead stocks, and dead stocks mean dead business
and dead men, or bankruptcy. When it came to selling
old stocks, Stewart paid no attention to the cost.
He marked the tag in big, plain figures in red ink
at the price he thought would move the goods.
And usually he was right. We hear of his marking
a piece of dress-goods forty-nine cents a yard.
A department manager came in and in alarm explained
that the goods cost fifty-three. “That has
nothing to do with the case,” replied Stewart;
“we would not buy it today at fifty-three, and
we do not want the stuff on our shelves even at forty-nine.”
“But,” said the manager,
“this is a Cost Sale, and if we sell below cost
we should explain that fact to our customers.”
And the answer was: “Young man, you must
tell the customer only what she will believe.
The actual truth is for ourselves.”
Stewart worked for an average of profit
and this he secured. His receipts mounted steadily
year by year, until in Eighteen Hundred Fifty they
were ten thousand dollars a day. And when he moved
into his Business Palace at Astor Place, Tenth Street
and Broadway, the sales jumped to an average of over
fifty thousand dollars a day.
When A. T. Stewart built his Business
Palace in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five, it was the
noblest business structure in America. Much of
the iron used in it was supplied by Peter Cooper, and
that worthy man was also consulted as to the plans.
Just a square away from Stewart’s
Business Palace stands Cooper Union. In selecting
this location A. T. Stewart was influenced largely
by the fact that it was so near to that center of
art and education which Peter Cooper had made worldwide
in fame. Stewart said, “My store shall vie
with your museum, and people will throng it as they
do an exposition.” And his prophecy proved
At his death, in Eighteen Hundred
Seventy-six, Stewart was the richest man in New York,
save an Astor and a Vanderbilt, and these had inherited
their wealth wealth made through the rise
of real estate while Stewart had made his
money in legitimate trade.
A. T. Stewart was worth forty million
dollars. This vast estate was mostly frittered
away, honeycombed and moth-eaten, by hungry attorneys.
The business was carried on by Hessians who worked
both ends against the middle, and let the estate foot
A. T. Stewart had a genius for trade,
but he had no gift for giving. The world needs
a school for millionaires, so that, since they can
not take their millions with them, they can learn
to leave their money wisely and well. After an
up-and-down mostly down career
of a decade, the Business Palace was bought by John
Wanamaker. Again, and almost instantly, the Business
Palace became a center of light and education, and
the splendid aisles that a generation before had known
the tread of the best people of Manhattan, again felt
When Stewart built the Business Palace,
people said, “Oh, it is too far uptown nobody
will go there.” But they were wrong.
When John Wanamaker moved in, many said, “Oh,
it’s beautiful but you know, it is
too far downtown nobody will go there.”
And these were as wrong as the first. “Where
McGinty sits is the head of the table.”
The trade siphoned itself thither under the magic
name of Wanamaker, as though the shade of A. T. Stewart
had been summoned from its confines in the Isles of
In Stewart’s day no sign had
been placed on the building. He said, “Everybody
will know it is A. T. Stewart’s!” And they
did. After his death the place was plastered
with signs that called in throaty falsetto at the
passer-by, like eager salesmen on the Midway who try
to entice people to enter. The new management
took all these signs down, and by the main entrance
placed a modest tablet carrying this inscription:
A. T. Stewart
It was a comment so subtle that it
took New York a year to awaken to its flavor of tincture
That little sign reminds one of how
Disraeli was once dining with an American and two
other Englishmen. In the course of the conversation
the American proudly let slip the information that
he traced a pedigree to parents who came to America
in the Mayflower. One of the Englishmen here
coughed, and vouchsafed the fact that he traced a lineage
to Oliver Cromwell. A little pause followed,
and the other guest spat, muzzled his modesty and
said he traced to William the Conqueror. Disraeli,
with great deliberation, made a hieroglyphic on the
tablecloth with his fork and said, “And I trace
a pedigree to Moses, who walked and talked with God
on Mount Sinai, fifteen centuries before the birth
John Wanamaker leaped the gulf of
twenty years and traced direct to A. T. Stewart, as
well he might, for it was Stewart’s achievement
that had first fired his imagination to do and become.
A. T. Stewart was the greatest merchant of his time.
And John Wanamaker has been not only a great merchant,
but a teacher of merchants. And the John Wanamaker
Stores now form a High School of economic industrialism.
John Wanamaker is still teaching,
tapping new reservoirs of power as the swift-changing
seasons pass. As a preacher and a teacher he has
surely surpassed the versatile Stewart.
To succeed in business today it is
not enough that you should look out for Number One:
you must also look out for Number Two. That is,
you must consider the needs of the buyer and make
his interests your own. To sell a person something
he does not want, or to sell him something at a price
above its actual value, is a calamity for
the seller. Business is built on confidence.
We make our money out of our friends our
enemies will not trade with us.
In law the buyer and the seller are
supposed to be people with equal opportunity to judge
of an article and pass on its value. Hence there
is a legal maxim, “Caveat emptor” “Let
the buyer beware” and this provides
that when an article is once purchased and passes into
the possession of the buyer it is his, and he has
no redress for short weight, count or inferior quality.
Behind that legal Latin maxim, “Caveat emptor,”
the merchant stood for centuries, safely entrenched.
It was about Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five that it came
to John Wanamaker, a young merchant just starting
business in Philadelphia, that the law is wrong in
assuming that buyer and seller stand on a parity, and
have an equal opportunity for judging values.
The dealer is a specialist, while the buyer, being
a consumer of a great number of different things, has
only a general knowledge, at best. The person
with only a general idea as to values, pitted against
a trained specialist, is at a great disadvantage.
Therefore, to be on ethical ground the seller must
be the friend of the buyer not his antagonist.
For a seller to regard the buyer as his prey is worse
than non-ethical it is immoral a
violation of the Golden Rule.
These things came to the young man,
John Wanamaker, with a great throb and thrill, and
he at once proceeded to put his theories into execution,
and on them his business was founded. The One-Price
System all goods marked in plain figures,
and money back if not satisfied these things
were to revolutionize the retail trade of the world.
John Wanamaker, of all men in America,
seems to know that to stand still is to retreat.
For more than forty years he has led the vanguard of
the business world. He has been a teacher of
merchants. His insight, initiative, originality
and prophetic judgment have set the retailers of the
world a pace. Many have learned much from him,
and all have been influenced by him. Whether
they knew it or not, and whether they would acknowledge
it if they did know it, matters little.
Professor Zueblin once said of William
Morris: “There is not a well-furnished
house in Christendom but that shows the influence of
his good taste and his gracious ideas of economy,
harmony and honesty in home decoration.”
Likewise, we can truthfully say that there is not a
successful retail store in America that does not show
the influence of A. T. Stewart and his legitimate
successor, John Wanamaker.