Read A. T. STEWART of Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Businessmen, free online book, by Elbert Hubbard, on ReadCentral.com.

The merchant of the future will not only be an economist and an
industrial leader ­he will also be a teacher and a humanitarian.

­A.  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 reservoirs.

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 them.

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 it.

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 mist.

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
     Hundred Eighty-three Broadway.

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 over.

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 and right.

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 Drygoods-Store.

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 a dividend.

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 and string.”

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 to travel.

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 true.

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 the deficits.

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 their step.

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 Death.

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: 

  John Wanamaker
  Successor to
  A. T. Stewart

It was a comment so subtle that it took New York a year to awaken to its flavor of tincture of iron.

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 of Christ.”

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.