Two hundred years after he emigrated to New York, historian GORDON LUCY recalls the life of a Lisburn-born businessman who was a merchandising pioneer and early adopter of mail-order selling
Alexander Turney Stewart was a stunningly successful Ulster-Scots entrepreneur who made his multimillion-dollar fortune in what was at the time the most extensive and lucrative dry goods business in the world.
At the time of his death in 1876, Stewart was one of the three wealthiest men in the United States, along with William B Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. He has been calculated to have been either the seventh wealthiest American in history (according to American Heritage magazine in 1998, Forbes in 1998 and Bernstein & Swann in 2008) or the eighth wealthiest (according to CNN Money in 2014). Because he died with no surviving children, he is a virtually forgotten figure.
Stewart was born on October 12 1803 in Lisburn. His father died of tuberculosis when Alexander was only three weeks old. His mother remarried two years after her husband’s death and went to live New York with her new husband, leaving Alexander to be raised by his grandfather, John Torney [sic]. He attended a village school before being admitted to Mr Neely’s English Academy in 1814 and completed his formal education at Belfast Academical Institution. He abandoned his original ambition of becoming a Church of Ireland minister and decided that he wished to emigrate to New York.
On the death of his grandfather in 1816 Thomas Lamb, a Quaker, assumed the role of parental responsibility. Lamb encouraged Alexander to gain some business experience and to that end he entered the employ of a Belfast grocer. In the spring of 1818, having acquired sufficient business experience and having saved enough money to pay his passage, he set off for New York.
There he became a tutor in a private academy for wealthy young men and joined an Episcopal Church where he met his future wife, Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of a wealthy ship chandler and sister of the acting Collector of the Port of New York.
He briefly returned to Lisburn to collect his inheritance from his grandfather (between $5,000 and $10,000). He purchased $3,000’s worth of Irish lace and opened a small dry-goods store selling Irish fabrics and domestic calicos at 283 Broadway on September 1 1823. On October 16 1823 he married Cornelia.
A merchandising genius, his business expanded steadily, so much so that in 1846 he built a huge marble building, opposite his original store, for his retail and wholesale operations.
Instead of haggling over prices with each individual customer, Stewart set standard prices on all his goods, which was an innovation at the time.
He was also systematic in his relations with his employees, paying low wages and imposing a stringent system of fines for failings. However, he was capable of inspiring intense loyalty. Out of the 24 clerks who entered A T Stewart & Company in 1836, six still worked for the company in 1876. To these long-term employees, Stewart expressed his gratitude by leaving them more than $250,000 (equivalent to $6,000,000 in 2017) in his will.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Stewart won huge government contracts to supply the Union Army and Navy with uniforms. In 1862 he built the largest retail store in the world to house his burgeoning business. He also acquired a controlling interest in many of the mills that manufactured his cloth, and he established offices and warehouses in six European countries. Stewart invested heavily in New York real estate, which added significantly to his fortune.
Stewart was one of the pioneers of mail order. In 1868 Stewart began receiving letters from women from across the United States requesting his merchandise. Stewart responded promptly to these letters, fulfilling the orders and even paying the postage. On receipt, these women would pay for their orders by post. By 1876 Stewart was employing 20 clerks to deal with these. That year he earned over $500,000 from mail order alone.
In March 1869 President U S Grant invited him to become secretary to the Treasury in his new administration but the appointment was not confirmed by the Senate. A provision in the 1789 act establishing the Treasury Department prohibited a merchant in active business from becoming secretary to the Treasury. Although Grant requested the two houses of Congress to override this provision, the Senate, at the behest of Charles Sumner, a high-minded radical Republican who was a thorn in Grant’s side, chose not to do so. Sumner erroneously believed that Grant was ‘a corrupt despot’ and that this was merely one more example of his corruption. Although Grant was not personally corrupt, many of those around him evidently were. Ironically Stewart might have proved to have been one of Grant’s happiest appointments.
Stewart’s investment in real estate has already been mentioned. In 1869 he purchased 7,000-acre tract of land at Hempstead Plains on Long Island and envisaged a model community distinguished by its handsome residential areas and garden atmosphere: Garden City. It was his wife, Cornelia, who transformed Garden City from a paper dream into a viable town.
She founded the St Paul’s School for Boys, St Mary’s School for girls, a Bishop’s residence and the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, an imposing example of Gothic Revival architecture and the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.
To end on another Gothic note: Stewart’s body was stolen from its temporary burial place in St Mark’s churchyard in Manhattan on the evening of November 6 or the morning of November 7 1878, two years after his burial. The remains were held for $20,000 ransom. The ransom was paid and remains were returned, although never verified as his. These remains were interred in the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, which Cornelia intended as a memorial to her husband. Local tradition claims that the mausoleum holding these remains is rigged with security devices which will cause the bells of the cathedral to ring if they are ever disturbed.