“You must be wise, but not too wise.”
Alexander Turney Stewart (October 12, 1803 – April 10, 1876) was a successful Irish entrepreneur who made his multi-million dollar fortune in what was at the time the most extensive and lucrative dry goods business in the world.
Stewart was born in Lisburn, Ireland, and abandoned his original aspirations of becoming a minister to come to New York City in the summer of 1823. He spent a short time teaching before returning to Ireland to receive the money his grandfather had left him, purchase some Belfast linens and laces, and return to New York to open a store.
Stewart had extraordinary skill in business, and by 1848 he had built a large marble-fronted store on Broadway between Chambers Street and Reade Street, which was devoted to the wholesale branch of his business, and the largest retail store in the world at that time. Stewart also had branches of his company in different parts of the world and owned several mills and factories. Stewart had an annual income of $1,843,637 in 1863. His business success is estimated to have made him one of the twenty wealthiest people in history, with a fortune of approximately US$90 billion in 2012 prices.
Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Lisburn, Ireland to Scottish Protestant parents on October 12, 1803. 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.
Torney wanted his only grandson to become a minister in the Church of Ireland. At age seven Stewart was sent to a village school, and in 1814 entered Mr. Neely’s English Academy. When Stewart’s grandfather died in 1816 he was brought into the home of Thomas Lamb, an Irish Quaker.
Upon completing his formal education at Belfast Academical Institution he wrote his mother in New York City. While incubating a desire to move there the fifteen-year-old Stewart was prevailed upon by Lamb to gain some business experience by earning money as a grocer in Belfast. Quickly wearying of the work, Stewart packed his bags in the spring of 1818 and left for New York with the $500 he had earned as a bag boy.
After six weeks at sea Stewart arrived at his mother’s home. He became a $300 a year tutor at Isaac N. Bragg’s Academy, a school for wealthy youths on Roosevelt Street., and joined an Episcopal church run by Reverend Edward Mitchell. There he met his future wife, Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of Susannah Banker and James Clinch, a wealthy ship chandler. Cornelia’s brother was Acting Collector of the Port of New York, Charles P. Clinch (1797–1880).
A. T. Stewart & Co.
Historians know little about Stewart’s life between 1818 and 1822, except that he returned to Ireland upon receiving his grandfather’s inheritance of somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000. The will pertaining to Stewart stated:
- I bequeath to my dear grandson ALEXANDER all the rest of my property, houses, and land, with the appurtenances thereto, stock, crop, and chattels of every kind. The money arising from the sale of the property devised to him to be subject to the payment by my said grandson ALEXANDER T. STEWART of an annuity to his grandmother, MARTHA STEWART, of three guineas a year during her life.
Upon returning to New York City in 1823, Stewart married Cornelia on October 16. Before marrying, Stewart opened his first store, located at 283 Broadway, which sold Irish fabrics and domestic calicos purchased with funds from his inheritance and earnings as a tutor.
The store opened on September 1, 1823 just across from City Hall Park, north of Chambers Street on the opposite side of Broadway from where his later Marble Palace was to stand. Rented for $375 a year, it measured 12.5 feet wide by 30 feet deep, rather small by today’s standards but average during the 19th century. A larger front section used for the business was divided by a thin wall from a smaller section in back which served as Stewart’s residence.
Unlike other dry goods competitors located along Pearl Street, Stewart placed his store several blocks west on Broadway. He believed customers would travel to buy goods where they could get the best price the easiest, stating the key to success was not where the store was placed, but rather where “to obtain wholesale trade to undersell competitors”.
When first opening the store, Stewart placed cases full of merchandise along the sidewalk in front of the store as a way of advertising his establishment. Stewart claimed that “the messy clutter in front of the store and pushing crowds advertised the business.” 
As he rose to the top of the retail developers, Stewart included no signs on any place of his store and did not use any advertisements until May 13, 1831. He felt that anyone who wanted to shop in his store would “know where it was located.” 
A natural salesman, Stewart realized that “you will deal with ignorant, opinionated and innocent people. You will often have an opportunity to cheat them. If they could, they would cheat you, or force you to sell at less than cost. You must be wise, but not too wise. You must never actually cheat the customer, even if you can…. You must make her happy and satisfied, so she will come back.”  Stewart held that the key to establishing a great business was to make friends with the customers and encourage their return, i.e., to focus on customer service.
Between 1846 and 1848, the construction and finishing details were completed of one of Stewart’s most famous buildings, the “Marble Palace” at 280 Broadway. This establishment, “the cradle of the department store“, sent A. T. Stewart & Company to the top of America’s most successful retailers.
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.
The Italianate design, faced with Tuckahoe marble, featured four floors of pedimented windows, the first commercial building in the United States to display an extravagant exterior. Inside, not only did Stewart want to display his merchandise, but he wanted the structure to emphasize natural light from its central rotunda and high ceilings.
“The Marble Palace” claimed to be one of the first “big stores” that sold merchandise, and was a huge financial success. In 1855 Stewart’s personal fortune was estimated to be $2.25 million. In 1856 Stewart decided to expand his merchandise to include furs, “the best and most natural skins”, as customers were told. In the 1850s, he also followed other retailers such as Macy’s, Lord and Taylor and B. Altman and Company to the area which was to be called “Ladies’ Mile“, on Broadway and Sixth Avenue between 9th Street and 23rd Street.
However, in 1862, Stewart’s “true” department store, referred to as the “Iron Palace”, was built. This six-storey 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. The establishment’s nineteen departments included silks, dress goods, carpets and even toys.
By 1877, it had expanded to thirty separate departments, carrying a wide variety of items. As noted by The New York Times, “a man may fit up his house there down to the bedding, carpets and upholstery.” 
Mail order business
A. T. Stewart & Company did not go unnoticed throughout the country. Along with his successful retail store in New York City, Stewart also established himself as one of the wealthiest men in the United States by allowing women all over the country to purchase and order items from his wholesale department store.
Beginning in 1868, Stewart began receiving letters from women in rural parts of the United States requesting his merchandise. Stewart promptly replied to these letters and orders by sending out the requests and even paying the postage. Once received, women would send back the money needed to pay for their orders.
Seeing potential for the mail order business, by 1876 Stewart had hired twenty clerks to read, respond and mail out the entailed orders. That year he profited over $500,000 from the mailing business alone. Stewart’s mail-order business’ efficiency, convenience and profits gained so much attention from all over the country that other famous businesses such as Sears, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel’s followed in his footsteps.