‘Country’s Largest Tool Store at the Turn of the Century’
by R. James Aber
Reprinted from The Chronicle, Volume XXIV, September 1971
One of the finest hardware stores in the United States at the turn of the (20th) century, Hammacher, Schlemmer & Co. spared no expense or effort to maintain the largest inventory of tools and hardware in the East. The selling floors of the store were handsomely appointed with wood-paneled, glass-topped counters and salesmen were impeccably dressed in dignified frock coats. The multi-drawer apothecary style cabinets along the walls held back-up supplies of hundreds of items, all meticulously organized for easy access. The store was roughly divided into two sections: tools were on the right of the entrance; hardware to the left; and in the rear were the widely advertised tool cabinets and general supplies.
The store further distinguished itself with magnificent window displays in four solid mahogany paneled windows. They were changed frequently and the representative items of tools and miscellaneous supplies were planned to be instructive as well as interesting and provided an irresistible lure to the passerby. Understandably, they accounted for much of the success of the store.
Large stocks of items were also kept in separate warehouses enabling Hammacher Schlemmer to make prompt shipments to factories and merchants who bought on a jobbing basis. Contrary to the general impression that the store was merely a retail outlet, a great bulk of its business was conducted on a wholesale scale. The start of World War I brought so much business that additional space was needed and the store was later honored with a government citation for its services as a prime supplier for the United States Army.
Hammacher Schlemmer had become a giant in the tool and hardware field at the turn of the century. It had its beginnings in 1848 when William Tollner opened a small hardware business at 221 The Bowery. A few years later, in 1853, when a clingy packet ship made its way from Europe to New York one of its passengers was eleven-year-old William Schlemmer, wide-eyed at his first view of houses on the land which was to become his home. The sight of land through the grey mist was welcome relief to the weary passengers who had been cooped up during the uncomfortable voyage of many weeks. The youngster arrived with few possessions and wore a tag tied around his neck with the address of his uncle, Tollner.
William went to work for his uncle selling tools and hardware from tables set up on the sidewalk in front of the store at a salary of $2 a week. In 1859 when Tollner wished to expand his business, Schlemmer, by then a promising young merchant, persuaded a wealthy friend, Alfred Hammacher to invest $5,000 in the enterprise. The store moved to larger quarters at 209 The Bowery, a commerce center with fine residential areas nearby. Business was good and the firm of Tollner and Hammacher prospered.
At the beginning of the Civil War when coins became scarce because people were hoarding them, the Government gave merchants permission to mint their own. Tollner and Hammacher were among the first to issue such coins. They were known as “copper heads” or “rebellion money.” They bore the name and address of their store and were given as change for merchandise purchased. They were redeemable at the store from which they were issued. During the years 1862 and 1863 the city was flooded with millions of these tokens from the many stores. The resulting confusion and abuse caused the Government to put a stop to such coining in 1864. Today, a coin bearing the inscription, “Tollner and Hammacher, 209 Bowery, New York” would be a choice collector’s item.
In 1867, William Schlemmer was appointed a partner in the company. He gradually bought all his uncle’s hares and after the founder’s death, changed the name to Hammacher, Schlemmer & Company.
Alfred Hammacher never did take an active part in the company except to attend directors’ meetings. In 1885 he sold most of his share to Schlemmer. Schlemmer, on the other hand, was completely dedicated to the store. For 64 years he worked to build it into the largest, most complete tool and hardware store in the country. In the early years he was at work by five in the morning, seldom leaving before midnight. In 1904 the expanded business was required to move to larger quarters again and settled at Thirteenth Street and Fourth Avenue.
William F. Schlemmer, the founder’s son, joined the firm in 1893 at the age of fifteen. He decided he’d rather follow in his father’s footsteps than go to college. He started learning the business right from the bottom as a stock clerk at $5 a week. His father was a stern man and promotions were hard-earned by the young apprentice. Eventually he was elected Vice-President in 1898 when the company incorporated. He held the office until 1914 when he became President and took on the added responsibilities of Treasurer upon the death of his father in 1916.
In 1899, the young Schlemmer added automotive parts and tools to the store’s vast stock of tools, tool chests, work benches, hardware, and an unusually large inventory of piano parts. A brisk wholesale and retail business continued to increase the store’s profits and prestige.
In 1914, Hammacher Schlemmer issued their Catalogue No. 500 (Figure 4). It took three men four years to assemble the huge 1,200 page volume which was a masterpiece of information. Profusely illustrated with minutely detailed line engravings, it contained the merchandise from over a thousand different manufacturers. The customer had every assistance in making his selection, from the seemingly minute data of a standard nut and bolt or the economical use and directions for connection of a dry cell battery, to complicated, detailed mathematical formulas included for determining dimensions of gears. It was a beautiful catalogue, bound with a hard cover, filled with a staggering variety of tools and hardware. Catalogue No. 600, issued in the mid 1920s, was equally impressive in size and content. Unique and unequaled in its field, it is still used as a reference book by Naval Supply Depots.
A notable feature of the store’s advertising was a campaign using bearded gnomes (Figure 5) as an eye-catching device. The little men who became a well-known trade mark of Hammacher Schlemmer, were illustrated in ads. buying and using the tools. They added a touch of whimsy to the advertising but were dropped after the change-over of 1926 because New Yorkers began to associate them only with the hardware portion of the business.
In 1926 the firm opened its latest 12-story building on East Fifty-Seventh Street, their present location. It was used in addition to the Thirteenth Street store. The neighborhood was different and the location did not produce the demand for tools and hardware that had been anticipated. After a few month of poor business William F. Schlemmer had to make a bold decision. He moved the tools and hardware into the basement and stocked the rest of the store with luxury items. This proved to be a wise business decision and has kept Hammacher Schlemmer’s name at the top of the field of high quality retailing.
By 1935 the Thirteenth Street store and downtown warehouses had been closed and in 1938 the wholesale hardware and mill-supply departments were reduced in size. That year the store sold enough piano pins to one customer alone to build twelve thousand pianos.
With the advent of modern means of transportation and new marketing techniques. the tool and hardware manufacturers began to sell directly to the consumer. This necessitated further reductions in inventory. The hardware department was discontinued in 1955 and the store now deals in luxury and unusual gift and household items.
Today, with Dominic Tampone, a former star salesman, as its President, Hammacher Schlemmer has built a reputation for the unusual. Tampone says that 98 percent of the store’s items are functional with a small selection of purely decorative accessories. Functional items include such wares as an Electronic Oven the size of a portable TV, a small operating train which can be set up to transport guests around an estate. a Hot Dog Cart for the patio at a cost of $1,295 or a small Merry-Go-Round to amuse the children at $2,750.
Basically, the only tools available now are in the housewares line, and include commodities such as a stainless steel lobster cracker and shears as well as other household necessities. As for hardware, the bath department offers a selection of gold towel bars and fixtures for its customers.
Editor’s note: Almost 50 years after this article was first printed, HS remains in business, and today offers what is now the longest-running catalogue in the United States (but of course, one can also now shop online: https://www.hammacher.com/home).