The life of the father of department stores

Alexander Turney Stewart, known as “A.T. Stewart,” was a merchant from Ireland that came to the United States with his inheritance to open a retail store in New York in 1823, and introduced a new type of dry-goods store in 1846 that was the precursor of the department store. In 1862 he again pioneered when he erected a grander store constructed on iron structural beams. He early used the one-price system, without bargaining, as well as cash buying in large quantities and selling at low prices. The first retailer to departmentalize his merchandise. He later established his own manufacturing facilities and also started a mail order business. He owned hotels in New York City and constructed the planned community of Garden City, Long Island. He was also engaged with various types of charitable works. Stewart became one of the richest Americans of his day.

Early Days

Alexander Stewart was born on October 12, 1803, in Lisburn, Ireland, to Scottish Protestant parents. Three weeks after his birth, Stewart’s farmer father died of tuberculosis. About two years later Stewart’s mother remarried and followed her new husband to America, leaving Stewart behind to be raised by his grandfather, John Torney. He went to a village school before being admitted to Mr. Neely’s English Academy in 1814. He went on to complete his formal education from Royal Belfast Academical Institution following which he left for New York. Once in New York, Stewart started working at Isaac N. Bagg’s Academy as a tutor. And between 1818 and 1822, he visited Ireland to claim his grandfather’s inheritance. Upon returning to New York City in 1823, Stewart married Cornelia Mitchell Clinch.

AT Stewart & Company

Stewart returned with his inheritance (the exact value is not clear, but Patrick Dwyer read that it was between US$5,000 and $10,000) to New York, where he opened his first store at 283 Broadway on September 1, 1823. By 1848, his business venture, AT Stewart & Company built the Marble Palace at 280 Broadway. This building now considered “the cradle of the department store” made his business one of America’s most successful retailers. It was the first commercial building in America that used to exhibit an extravagant exterior. The building, originally four stories over a ground floor supported on cast iron Corinthian columns, survives at 280 Broadway at the corner of Chambers Street, just across from his first store. It offered imported European women’s clothing. In addition to its merchandise, the second floor offered the first women’s “fashion shows” as full-length mirrors enabled women to view themselves from different angles.

Stewart’s business thrived during the American Civil War. He won huge government contracts to supply the Union Army and Navy with uniforms which considerably boosted his reputation as a businessman. Early in his career he became known for fixing a price and discouraging the common practice of setting high prices and expecting a customer to bargain. He also insisted that his salespeople not make untrue claims about the merchandise, selling reliable goods, securing the best possible merchandise, so his store became known for handling a better class of good. He stressed on establishing friendships with customers to encourage their return to his shop.

deparment store_patrick dwyer merrill lynch_american businessman_Alexander Stewart _father of the department stores
Image courtesy of mei-wen sun at

The First Department Store

In 1862, he constructed his “true” department store, commonly known as the “Iron Palace”. Initially, it had 19 departments selling silks, carpets, dress goods and toys, among other merchandise. This six-stories building with its cast-iron front, glass dome skylight and grand emporium, employed up to 2,000 people. The immense structure occupied a major portion of a city block near Grace Church, from Broadway and Ninth Street to Tenth Street and Astor Place. He served in many of the New York State Chamber of Commerce Committees. His estimated annual income was $1,000,000 in 1869. Stewart incorporated the Central Railroad of Long Island in 1871 and completed it in 1873, running from Long Island City through his development at Garden City to a brick yard at Bethpage and docks at Babylon.

In 1868, Stewart began receiving letters from women in rural parts of the United States requesting his merchandise. He recognized the potential mail order business held and employed 20 clerks to help him in expanding this business. Stewart made considerable investments in New York real estate, which helped him grow his fortune. Stewart was considered a business genius, and his principles of how to manage and reward employees were copied by countless other businessmen. He was known to expect hard work and honesty from his employees, but he also paid well for the time and was said to advance employees based on a system of merit.

He died on April 10, 1876. At the time of his death, after a long life of work as a retailer pioneer, he was one of the richest men in New York, with a net worth estimated at $50 million.


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