Recently, I came across a bunch of vintage Brooks Brothers materials and so I wanted to provide you with a little bit of history about this icon of menswear retail in America up until the 1940’s when it was sold by the family.
One morning in 1930, a young man came breathlessly into the business offices of Brooks Brothers at Forty-fourth Street and Madison Avenue in New York. He said he had found an interesting sheet of paper in an old barrel. He believed members of the firm would be interested in it. He was frank to admit that he knew nothing of its authenticity.It was a single piece of old, hand-made paper.
On it was printed an announcement of the opening of a clothing shop for men, April 7, 1818. The proprietor was Henry Sands Brooks, the founder of Brooks Brothers.For a few days, the aged sheet of paper caused quite a stir. If
authentic, it was not only a well preserved and interesting bit of Americana, but one of the earliest examples of direct mail advertising in the country as well. Several authorities in these matters examined it under a microscope and agreed with a typographical expert finally that the little notice was clever forgery, and although Brooks Brothers was not the first direct mail advertiser, they certainly are the oldest retailer in the US.
Brooks Brothers, internationally known, and at the time the largest firm of manufacturing retailers of men’s clothing in the US, was undoubtedly founded by Mr. Henry Sands Brooks on April 7, 1818 as Henry S. Brooks with the goal to “To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest body, to sell it at a fair profit, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.” It remained a family business for 138 years! In the aftermath it was sold a number of times and it is currently own by The Brooks Brothers Group Inc., which is based in Enfield, Connecticut and is privately owned by Italian Claudio del Vecchio who also operates as the company’s Vice President who is responsible for Strategy & Corporate Development.
Henry Sands Brooks – The Founder
There was no reason for this first member of the Brooks firm to enter the clothing business at the age of 45 except that he felt a genuine liking for it. His father, David Brooks, was a physician of standing in that comparatively small community that was then New York. But young Brooks’ interest was in the outer, not the’ inner man. The quality of the materials, the cut of a coat and its corresponding trousers held his attention.
The first shop was well located at the corner of two of the busiest streets in the shopping district of early New York. Catharine Street on one side, Cherry on the other. Catharine Street led to Catharine Slip and dipped into the East River. From his doorway, the young proprietor could view a vast and changing network of masts and spars and foreign flags against the sky. He could see the Brooklyn ferryboats propelled by horse-power as they went back and forth across the river. A few steps westward stood fashionable Franklin Square and Quality Row where many eminent lawyers lived. The Governor, the illustrious DeWitt Clinton resided nearby.
On the other side of the shop, Cherry Street was already historical. At one end, the Samuel Osgood House better known as the first White House, the official residence of the President George Washington from April 1789 – February 1790. Down the street, but a few doors away lived an adventurous family, the first to install illuminating gas in New York. In this neighborhood, citizens both prominent and ordinary, mingled together in the tide of trade that passed by Henry Sands Brooks’ new shop. In a short time, they helped him establish his venture and were quick to realize that his name stood only for the best that could be bought in men’s clothing — both imported and domestic.
John R. Voorhis – Customer for 92 years
Mr. John R. Voorhis, President of the Board of Elections of the City of New York up until his nineties was born in 1829 and died in 1932 was Brooks Brothers’ most long-standing patron. When a friend commented upon his neat appearance and the excellent taste that he always showed in his choice of clothes even at the age of 101. Voorhis listened for a moment, then smiled reminiscently. He recalled the various fashions in men’s dress that he had seen come and go. Then he said simply that he had always been interested in clothes, from that first time, over ninety-two years before, when his mother had taken him to Brooks Brothers to have him select for himself his first “long pants suit.” He has bought his clothes at Brooks Brothers ever since! Overall, he was a customer with Brooks Brothers for 93 years!
John R. Voorhis, President of the Board of Elections of the City of New York, who bought his first Brooks suit in 1839.
Cashmere, Nankeen & Plum-colored Peacoats
What days of color in pantaloons of cashmere, vests of nankeen and sturdy broadcloth coats! Green round jackets, plum-colored peacoats, with a silk kerchiefs rainbow in hue, and fine linen or checked gingham for a background! These were popular garments in the shop at Catharine and Cherry streets. Very often they were custom made (back then it was referred to made to order) for customers who selected their materials from the bolts of imported materials that stood upon the counters. Similar items that could be purchased ready-made were folded and piled in neat rows upon tables that flanked the walls.
It was the customary way to display goods, a century ago. On clear days, suits and greatcoats were hung temptingly on the outside of the shop, or in the open windows where they waved in the breeze from the river and attracted people as they passed. Today, Brooks Brothers store their suits on hangers. But to this day in the Brooks Brothers’ stores around the country, you will find tables upon which their accessories, sweater, and other items are still laid in neat rows, in the same fashion as Henry Sands Brooks presented his stock those many years ago. It used to be the one firm in the country that never stored away suits, coats and evening clothes on hangers behind closed doors, because it was a belief at Brooks’ that clothes that are kept “lying down” and frequently pressed outlive, and keep their shape longer than ones that are hung up.
Brooks Brothers History
H. & D. H. Brooks & Co – First Generation
When in 1833, Henry S. Brooks died, the business was inherited by two of his sons, Henry and Daniel H. Henry, the oldest of five boys, had already been his father’s partner. The sign on the outside of the building had read Henry S. Brooks at first. But for the four years preceding his death it had & Son added to it. Now it was changed to H. & D. H. Brooks & Co.
Among his father’s possessions, one of the sons came upon the first Day Charge Book, which had been kept by the original proprietor from the first day, when he started his business. In it were the names of buyers who charged their purchases, all carefully marked down in pounds, shillings and pence. It was not the contemporary English sterling of those days, but a pound “currency”, of twenty shilling and worth $2.50. Now and again there is a notation “Cash lent”—probably to some customer temporarily involved. The old ledger has been treasured by the Brooks family, considered a unique heirloom. Its yellow leaves are brittle, the ink is faded brown, but to one who has sufficient imagination, there is a feeling of the romance of American business between those pages.
Brooks Brothers – New Name & Golden Fleece Logo
The business passed into the hands of four younger brothers, Daniel H., John, Elisha and Edward S. Brooks, when Henry died. And in 1850 they decided, quite logically, to change the name to Brooks Brothers. At the same time, the brothers trademarked the now iconic golden fleece logo. Although one might think it was a made up symbol referencing the raw material of their suits, it was in fact borrowed from The Order of the Golden Fleece. It was founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the Netherlands in in honor of his wife, Isabella in 1430. It was brought as part of the Burgundian inheritance by Mary of Burgundy when she married Maximilian I in 1477. Its membership was limited to 50 and only reserved to noble men who were baptized in the Roman Catholic church. It quickly became an instrument of power for the Habsburg and a member ship in the order was considered to be a live achievement. It remains unclear, why Brooks Brothers chose this logo but one might assume that sheep wool had a considerable influence.
In New York at the time, the neighborhood was gradually changing. People were moving to the less crowded streets farther north to live, and the shop-keepers were quick to follow them. Brooks Brothers watched their neighbors and competitors leave what was now designated a little scornfully as downtown for the newer, fashionable uptown neighborhoods. While they considered themselves progressive they also prided themselves upon their caution. But finally they turned northward, too. But as a measure of safety they kept the old shop running. The following notice, which appeared in Carroll’s New York Directory of 1859, was one of the first major advertisements to the public by Brooks Brothers. . It is notably characteristic, too, because this firm has seldom had anything to say through the daily press except to announce a change of address. An exception to this occurred not long ago, when a rumor spread that Brooks Brothers had sold out to a competitor. In a simple, dignified manner Brooks Brothers ran an announcement in the papers one morning, merely listing the names of the present members of the firm. Here is their advertisement:
Clothing Merchants 464, 466 and 468 Broadway, New York.
“Brooks Bros, call the attention of visitors to New York and the .trade, to their large and complete assortment of Ready-made Clothing and Furnishing Goods of superior style and make.
“Our Custom Department will at all times be found complete in stock, and variety of piece goods, imported expressly for our trade, consisting of French, English and German Cloths, Cassimeres, Doeskins, rich Velvet, Silk, Satin and every new style of cloths, etc. of the finest quality, which will be made to order in the best manner and most fashionable mode.
“Our House of Forty Years’ reputation, the first to embark in that which is now a leading commercial pursuit, from experience can guarantee superior goods—the best of work—at prices which have ever characterized our establishment.
“Strangers are invited to visit our New Building, which is the most extensive and magnificent Clothing House on either continent. Our Custom Department claims particular attention, being a Circular Room lit from a dome 68 feet high, and finished in a superior style of art.”
Notice the “particular attention” given to the Circular Room! This first “ad” of Brooks Brothers has been their model, for every publicly printed magazine advertisement issued by them as a family business. The day of “direct appeal” and “punch” in advertising is here, but the manner and style of this firm continues the same.
Supposedly, each of Henry Sands Brooks’ sons inherited something of the father’s taste and judgment. One apparently had a fine feeling for color, another instinctively knew materials and their values. All knew good tailoring. They were excellent business men, too. But their greatest inheritance was a natural knowledge of how a man should dress to appear to advantage upon all occasions. Clothes from Brooks Brothers had a manner rather than a style. It was their very visible if unregistered trade-mark.
Brooks Brothers – a Manner, not a Style
Men’s clothes had begun to change radically after the founder’s death in 1833. Such articles as lace-edged jabots gave way to severely starched linen and tailored cravats. The heavy Prince Albert coat had come into vogue. Trousers were serious leg-coverings now. Tight-fitting, tapering pantaloons were out of date. This dignity originating at the fountainhead of fashion for men, London—undoubtedly a reflection of the ideas of the prim little Queen Victoria and her consort—was interpreted in the inimitable Brooks style for Americans.
The Brooks’ clothes adhered to the line of fashion yet continued to be leisurely, comfortable. And now the name, Brooks Brothers, in this country, had begun to take on the significance of Savile Row, in London.
At Broadway and Grand Street most of the noted men of the period—doctors, lawyers, statesmen, financiers—were to be seen passing each other as they went in and out of the new store. Names which were entered calmly in cold black ink upon Brooks’ ledgers, were later to be inscribed in fire upon the pages of our history. Such military figures as Sherman, Sheridan, Hooker, Grant and many others came to the Grand Street store for both their civil clothes and their uniforms. Often the tall figure of Abraham Lincoln could be seen entering the fitting-room there. Because of his height and peculiarly gaunt frame it was necessary for him to have bespoke clothes . For years he was a regular customer.
Abraham Lincoln – a Brooks Brothers Customer
It was at the Grand Street store—in deep mourning, the flag at half mast—that Brooks Brothers watched the funeral cortege of Abraham Lincoln pass up Broadway in 1865. Over half a century later, in February 1924, the famous Henkels’ Auction Rooms, in Philadelphia, announced tire sale of ‘‘Clothes worn by Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, on the evening of Good Friday, April 13th, 1865, at which time he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The sujt consisted of black broadcloth Prince Albert coat, vest and trousers, and a broadcloth overcoat and black silk, stock. The lining of the overcoat is of black silk, heavily quilted, with a figure on either side of the lower portion, of an American Eagle, holding two Festoons in its mouth, on which is inscribed ‘One Country, one Destiny’… It bears on the inside the woven store card of ‘Brooks Brothers, Broadway, corner of Grand, New York’.”
Here you can see the garment:
Most organizations nowadays would have made publicity fuel of such an announcement, but the at the time the dignified house of Brooks Brothers stated, when inquiry was made, that they possessed no ‘”written documents to verify the authenticity of the story that this suit of clothes was sold by them to Lincoln. Ironically, it is advertised today.
Soon after the sale they received a letter from a one-time employee, then well in her seventies.
“An overcoat”, she wrote, “was made for him (Mr. Lincoln) for his second Inaugural of which I had the honor of quilting the linings which were of fine twilled silk. The design was an Eagle in flight with a pennant in its Bill. It took me two days steady work, not eight hours, but ten to complete it. It was a beautiful piece of work and was on exhibition for three or four days . . . . ”
Brooks Brothers Innovations & Iconic Garments
In 1870, Brooks were the first to offer seersucker suits but they would not become successful until the turn of the century. Just 30 years later, the company introduced a more successful suit model – the Number One sack suit, which not only became a hallmark of Brooks Brothers, but also a synonym for American style. Its wide cut allowed to fit all kinds of body types, which deemed to be a great business success for the firm.
Another, Brooks Brothers icon – the Oxford Cloth Button-Down shirt aka OCBD was an invention of John E. Brooks who had seen these kind of collar buttons during a polo game in England in 1896. He noticed that the players had buttons on the collars of their shirts to keep them look proper. When he stumbled upon some Oxford fabric back in the US, the OCBD was born. It turn out to be a success from the first day. In the late twnties and thirties tennis players introduced the OCBD to the court because the Oxford cloth was cool enough to breath. Later, men such as JFK or Gianni Agnelli would help this shirt to become the American shirt.
Furthermore, Brooks Brothers introduced the repp tie to the US. Unlike the British, regimental ties, they changed the angles of the stripe by 90°, which negated any meaning so they could be worn by everybody.
Yet Another Move
Again in 1870 the firm moved northward to South Union Square, which proved to be but a temporary site. In 1874 they erected a large building at the northeast corner of Broadway and Bond Street. At last they abandoned their original location at Catharine and Cherry Streets, which they had occupied for fifty-six years. That neighborhood was definitely over for a retail clothing establishment.
It was but inevitable now, with the passing of the years, that changes should occur in the personnel of the firm. Two brothers, Elisha and Edward S. Brooks, died; a third, Daniel H. Brooks, last surviving son of the founder of the business, retired. John E. Brooks, son of John Brooks, with Clarence, the son of Elisha, and several former employes became partners. Later, the two younger brothers of John E. Brooks entered the firm, too. They were Walter and Frederick, whose sons represented the fourth generation, Messrs. Harold and Winthrop H. Brooks.
In 1884, one year after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooks Brothers moved to the large building which still stands at Broadway and Twenty-second Street. The most ‘ fashionable shopping district of the city, handsome cabs and private carriages rolled up to the entrance there to deposit wealthy and distinguished customers and later their sons and grandsons in “horseless cars”. They remained there for thirty-two years.
Brooks Brothers went to their present location at Forty-fourth Street and Madison Avenue in 1915- Already the outposts of the retail district have moved northward. Even so, this is a perfect and permanent site for another generation at least—in the heart of the fashionable shopping and hotel district. A few steps away is the Grand Central Station, a little farther the Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal and Public Library.
Brooks Brothers Tradtion
Over a long period, the Brooks Brothers firm had established a high reputation in both their business and private lives. So far back as 1864 Valentine’s Manual, in publishing an account of the Draft Riots of the Civil War during which the store downtown had been sacked, wrote,
… the Messrs. Brooks are fair, upright gentlemen, of mild manners and such simplicity of deportment as to allay and conciliate rather than excite ill feeling …
All this time a tradition had grown about the members of the firm and their staff. It was a well-known fact always, that the business was run by gentlemen who preferred to cater to gentlemen. It has been the custom to engage intelligent men of reliable character. Many of them have grown up in the business. Several salesmen served Brooks’ customers for over fifty years. Of course, being in retail was an admirable profession back then and not the last resort job it is today. The late Frederick Webb made a record for service. Joining the company on September 16, 1863, he remained until the day of his death, November 26, 1928. He had waited upon five generations of various New York families in sixty-five years. An announcement telling of Mr. Webb’s long service appeared in an issue of Brooks’s Miscellany—a booklet issued by the firm—about a year and a half before he died. The following letter was received from a customer shortly after. It says in part:
“ . . . I was very much interested to read the little article about Fred Webb. You have been too modest, however, in reciting his claims to antiquity as he is waiting on great-grandchildren of his first customer in my family tree, who was my grandfather,…. He is now waiting on my children and if he lives a few years longer it is not impossible that he may wait on great-great-grandchildren.”
The Store Back in the Day
The sixth floor of the Brooks Brothers building in New York was devoted to the clothes and accessories necessary to outfit these “great” or “great-great-grandchildren”. Early each autumn a “Memorandum of Things Taken to School” was issued and sent to customers upon request. In it was a complete inventory of a boy’s wardrobe for the academic year about to commence. The clothes in this department were made from the same materials, off the same bolt of goods, in fact, used for men’s suits. They were cut and made with an eye to the future, and could be “let out” without spoiling the prevailing line.
Brooks Brothers never made garments of exaggerated design. Fads were taboo with them, and sudden alterations in style were something they frowned upon. For instance, you could not find a single dressing-gown there with collar and cuffs of moiré silk. The only article in moiré which they considered correct to carry was the small black silk cigarette case for evening wear. Naturally, even back in the day the some people accused Brooks Brothers of an ultra conservatism. But they continued their policy. Back then, they were manufacturing retailers—they made all suits, overcoats, shirts, pyjamas and cravats that they sold themselves and they have never considered an abrupt fashion change. After all, conservatism is relative because in the 1930’s there were no noisier blazers made, than those sold in the Brooks sports’ department.
The Brooks Brothers Advertising & Branding
Interestingly, there were never any agents representing Brooks Brothers except for their own traveling salesmen who did not sell through the trade. A complete itinerary of these representatives was mailed to out-of-town customers each season. In 1909 the firm made the experiment of establishing a sales-office for the convenience of customers at Newport. Located on fashionable Bellevue Avenue, it was a success from the beginning. These offices were kept open during the “season” ” each year, from June to October. In 1912 a similar sales point was started at 149 Tremont Street in Boston. In time it had to be enlarged and moved to the second floor of the Little Building opposite the Hotel Touraine, and finally to an entire building at Newbury and Berkeley Streets. There was also a Palm Beach branch in Florida, particularly equipped for southern gentlemen.
Generally, Brooks Brothers never tried to appeal to the general public though in 1920, soon after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book This Side of Paradise came out, there was a, noticeable change in the way college men dressed. Throughout Fitzgerald’s story—about a Princeton youth and his friends—he describes their clothes, often mentioning Brooks Brothers. Soon a new collegiate type appeared. The towers and spires of Princeton no longer looked down upon clothes that shrieked; the rugged Yale athlete and the genteel Harvard student were no longer victims of an exhibition complex in their dress. Young gentlemen quietly attired, appeared upon campuses all over the country. Back then it was “the thing” to be a Brooks Brothers “type”,to pretend that clothes are superficial but to know that they aren’t.
Never snobbish, but always genteel, the house of Brooks Brothers, stood out from its competitors by virtue of its dignity. It ignored all blatant modern methods and only the better class magazines made its announcements of merchandise. Where many firms wished they could impress you with their hats from Herbert Johnson’s on Bond Street, or the old house of Lock and Co., on St. James Street, or from Habig in Vienna, Brooks Brothers preferred their customers to discover such things for themselves. Unlike today, they did not have any sales, although they did have some mark downs on occasion.
From time to time, Brooks Brothers issued a general, comprehensive list of its stock, finely made and attractively illustrated. Copies were not sent broadcast,due to the high cost of the book, but were rather mailed to customers upon request. These publications were issued on various subjects concerning gentlemen and can be considered as a well thought out direct mail advertising campaign. Sometimes, they would align the booklet’s content with sporting events. A booklet which many people kept was the Polo issue by Brooks Brothers just before the International Polo Matches. This was sent not only to the Brooks Brothers’ clientele but through the courtesy of the U. S. Polo Association to many others as well. Otherwise, the topics ranged from hunting, riding to yachting and announced the many social and sartorial activities of the season.
Obviously, Brooks Brothers today is different in many ways than the store founded by Mr. Brooks in 1818, however every business that has been around for almost 200 years had to undergo certain changes, otherwise they simply would not be in existence anymore. For a timeline of the Brooks Brothers company, take a look here.