New York City – Old Merchants Of New York

The literary history of our city presents few examples of a book that can compare in human interest with Walter Barrett’s “Old Merchants of New York.” In 1863 Mr. Barrett contributed several articles on this subject to the columns of the “New York Leader,” going back to the old merchants of the 1830’s, and these articles so stirred the interest of the public that he decided to put them into book form. Of course he enlarged and amplified the subject, so that we have a very complete and certainly a most informative account of these old traders and founders of our commercial greatness. What gives those narratives such an intense interest is that we are shown the many sidelines of these old merchants  sometimes humorous, sometimes pathetic, sometimes downright selfish, but always true to human nature, and the story is told in such a bright and breezy fashion as to make the book more than usually interesting. We have selected parts here and there and hope that these excerpts will give our readers a good idea of the mercantile life of New York in the 30s. Editor.

The Rise of Homer Ramsdell

THOSE who meet “Old Man Tardy” in these later years of his decadence little dream what a gay, gallant, popular man and merchant he was in his palmy days. Oh, how sadly that changeful damsel Miss Fortune used Tardy ! He married a beautiful girl. She was Miss Eustaphieve, daughter of the Russian consul, and a great belle. She died long ago. The partner of Mr. Tardy was a fine French boy. His mother, a widow, supported herself and him for many years by working at millinery at the shop of Miss Miller, No. 128 William Street, where ex-mayor Tieman’s paint store now (1863) stands. That same Kate Miller was great in her way. She made men of all her young brothers. One, Andrew Miller, was and is the largest leather dealer in the Swamp. Her forewoman was a Mrs. Ives. She had one son, who clerked it in old John Greacen’s cloth store, until he got ahead and married the daughter of Ralph Olmstead, a rich drygoods merchant. George R. Ives had a friend. He was a little brainless counter-jumper at a small drygoods store, and used to get his sixpenny dinners at Seely Brown’s eating-house, No. 51 Nassau Street (Brown keeps it yet, and has for thirty-one years), and had a cot bed in a room at No. 60 Dey Street for $2.00 a week, including breakfast and tea. This friend of George Ives was named Homer Ramsdell. He lacked everything but the impudence of Satan. He was pious in order to prosper; taught in the Sunday school of the Rev. Dr. Potts in order to have a good shy at girls of fortune. This Ramsdell combed his hair beautifully. He dressed to kill, but a man would have been deemed the veriest maniac outside of a lunatic asylum had he whispered that the nice young man in the drygoods store in Maiden Lane—so harmless, so pleasant and kitten-like in his way of acting, so soft did he speak, and say, “Miss, what shall I show you today?”—that that half simpleton would be at the head of a mighty corporation and wield property worth tens of millions! Merchants, listen! Bankers of Wall Street, hearken! This poor devil in intellect, in experience—who could just count two and two makes four, could fix a silly girl—he was good looking, he was pious, and he cast his eyes around to make a match for money. He found a partner in Miss Powell of Newburgh, a daughter of that rich Thomas Powell who placed the son-in-law, Homer Ramsdell, ex-drygoods clerk, as President of the Erie railroad and its vast interests ! Great heavens ! is it a wonder that under such a trifling chap that superb road should have gone to ruin, and carried with it thousands and tens of thousands of innocent people? No. Now, brokers, why was it done? Because a little chit of a girl fell in love with a brainless counter-jumper, and then persuaded her father to impose the son-in-law upon the directors of a mighty corporation. Nobody knew this Homer Ramsdell but a few fellow drygoods clerks and members of Potts’ church, until Powell made him president of the Erie road; and the silly president set road and stockbrokers on the road to general ruin.

There were about ten of the young counter-jumpers that formed a society to marry rich girls. They swore to protect and aid each other. They all succeeded. Ramsdell was one, Ives was another, and the rest I will not now mention. One of the set, named made a dead set at the only daughter of Frank Olmstead, who was rich (owned then the American Museum buildings, and daughter does now). It was not to be. Miss Olmstead was destined for a higher class man. She mittened Mr.,and married Henry W. Sargent, of the firm of Gracie & Sargent, the agents of Welles & Co., bankers in Paris. The society of young clerks boarded generally at twenty-shilling boarding houses, curled each other’s hair on Saturday night, went to Sunday school as teachers, and became members of the Presbyterian church that had the richest members and prettiest daughters. Their piety game was the card that won in every instance.