Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fabric Retailing: Pearl Street

Scrappy stars from about 1830

Pearl Street
(Most of the period drawings here
are from the collection of the New York Public Library.)

Soon after the War of 1812, New York was well on its way to becoming the largest city in the U.S., the leading port for imported goods, particularly dry goods and fabrics. Pearl Street in lower Manhattan was the center of the dry goods industry.

Arthur Tappan came from Massachusetts to make his fortune in cotton prints there after international trade was free from Napoleon's embargoes and wars. According to Tappan's biographer:

"The business was commenced soon after the treaty of peace with England in 1815. It was conducted successfully the first year; but in 1816 the importations so greatly exceeded the demand, and the country was so flooded with goods imported by American merchants or consigned by English manufacturers, that freshly imported cotton goods from England were sold by the package at thirty or more per cent less than cost and charges."

Tappan and others were ruined by the English fabric dumping (selling goods cheaper than they cost to produce), one reason we see so many similar prints in quilts of the late teens through 1840 period.

Two early-19th-century quilts with the same circular panel.
The one on the left shown at the Houston Quilt Festival
a few years ago. On the right: a medallion from Donna Stickovich's collection.

Donna's blog:

In 1834 Asa Greene published a book of his experiences in fabric retailing, The Perils of Pearl Street.

"My employer kept an extensive and fashionable dry goods establishment, which was much resorted to by.the ladies. He had acquired the reputation of selling cheap,.... if the fair customer does not purchase, she must at least beg a pattern. ... Thus the demand for samples becomes very great.... I verily believe, one half his goods were disposed of in gratuitous shreds and patches.

[Owner]:  Any thing else to-day?
[Shopper]: Let me see—why, yes, now I think of it, I'll take some patterns [swatches], both of the silk and calico, for a couple of cousins of mine from the country. They'll be delighted with them.
[Owner]:  Any thing else to day? Here's a new species of muslin—entirely a new style of goods—a superb article.
[Shopper]: It is beautiful I'll take some patterns of that, if you please—a large one for myself, and two smaller ones for my cousins.,

... before the first quarter had expired, he failed. Poor man! he fell a martyr to his excessive politeness. All he had left in his store, was a few odds and ends, strangely cut and notched by the practice of giving patterns."

What, do you suppose, happened to all those samples begged by shoppers who never bought anything?

Pearl Street today

Arthur Tappan & Co.
by Alexander Jackson Davis
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tappan went into the silk business rather than selling Manchester cotton goods (printed in England) and made a fortune in Indian and French goods. [We presume he did not give many samples.] He built Arthur Tappan & Company on Pearl Street in the 1820s and was ready for the boom in internal trade brought by the Erie Canal..

Retailers from all over Young America came to Pearl Street to buy
their drygoods.

Erie Canal from New York to the Great Lakes

They shipped them home up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, and west along the rivers
and the Erie Canal to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal opened up the new western states and territories to the world's manufactured goods.

Pearl Street in the 1940s

Disaster struck Pearl Street on a cold January night in 1835. Philip Hone, whose son owned a drygoods  business there, described it in his diary:

"How [to] attempt to describe the most awful Fire calamity which has ever visited these United States?....Nearly one-half of the first ward is in ashes, five hundred to seven hundred stores, which with their contents are valued at $20,000,000 to $40,000,000, are now lying in an indistinguishable mass of ruins. There is not, perhaps, in the world the same space of ground covered by so great an amount of real and personal property as the scene of this dreadful conflagration....The fire originated in the store of Comstock & Adams, in Merchant street,— a narrow, crooked street, filled with high stores lately erected and occupied by dry-goods and hardware merchants, which led from Hanover to Pearl street.

We succeeded in getting out the stock of valuable dry goods, but they were put in the square, and in the course of the night our labours were rendered unavailing, for the fire reached and destroyed them, with a great part of all which were saved from the neighbouring stores; this part of Pearl street consisted of dry-goods stores, with stocks of immense value, of which little or nothing was saved."

The New York Herald published an eyewitness account by a man who climbed over the hot bricks to look at the only structure standing, a...

"single solitary wall that reared its head...On approaching, I read on the mutilated granite wall, "ARTH- TAP-N, 122 PE-L STREET." These were all the characters I could distinguish on the column. Two stories of this great wall were standing-the rest entirely in ruins. It was the only portion of a wall standing from the corner of Wall street to Hanover Square-for beyond that these are nothing but smoke, and fire, and dust."

Pearl Street in the 1860s

Arthur Tappan rebuilt, only to go broke later.

A calamity like the Great Fire of 1835 takes on new proportions when we consider all those bolts of fabric that went up in flames.
"Dreadful conflagration" indeed.


  1. WOW! What a story!.. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing this part of history. Recently I started getting into the history of quilting and remembered you from the 2009 Kansas Notable Book Reception as I was also a winner that year, so have been reading all your work.

  3. I so enjoy reading quilt and fabric history. The prints are gorgeous too.

    Ever note just how many clipped off points you can find in antique quilts? We have gotten so extremely detailed nit-picky, some of the most beautiful antique quilts, if new, would not even win a ribbon at one of today's quilt shows. How sad. We need to relax some.

    Thanks for all of your pots Barbara.

  4. Amazing how quickly fortunes could be made and lost - still can, I guess.