Alexander Turney Stewart

New York Merchant Created the Department Store

Engraved portrait of merchant Alexander T. Stewart
Alexander T. Stewart. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alexander Turney Stewart was an immigrant from northern Ireland who came to New York City in his youth and became extremely wealthy from operating America's first department store. When he died in his Fifth Avenue mansion in 1876 front-page newspaper articles referred to him as the "merchant prince."

A store Stewart built on lower Broadway in New York City in 1846 stood out so much that it was known as "the marble palace." It was much larger than other stores of the time.

And above its spacious ground floor were four more stories packed with merchandise arranged in departments.

Stewart's innovative store became a thriving business as well as an attraction for visitors to New York. The store was built of gleaming white marble, which set it apart in a city of brick and brownstone. A guidebook to New York published in 1869 said Stewart's "marble palace" was "the admiration of the town and wonder of the country, and so distinctive that the proprietor has never put up a sign."

In his day A.T. Stewart, as he was generally known, was as famous as other wealthy New Yorkers such as John Jacob Astor or Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Early Life

Alexander Turney Stewart, who was generally known as "A.T. Stewart," was born in Lisburn, County Antrim, Ireland, on October 12, 1803. His family, of Scottish descent, was prosperous and involved in the local linen trade. When Stewart was three years old his father died, and a guardian intended for young Stewart to become an Episcopal minister.

According to an obituary in the New York Times on April 11, 1876, Stewart sailed to America aboard a packet ship in 1818, when he was 16 years old. He first found work as a teacher, but soon decided to enter the dry goods business.

With some money he had inherited from a relative in Ireland, Stewart bought Irish linens and made enough money selling them to open a small store on lower Broadway in New York in 1823.

Within three years he moved into a larger store, and he was well on his way to business success.

Stewart's Success Strategies

Throughout his career Stewart was admired for strategic innovations he brought to the world of business. For instance, 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. Stewart simply set what he considered a fair price on merchandise, and customers coming into his store could either pay it or not.

Stewart also insisted that his salespeople not make untrue claims about the merchandise. His store thus became known for selling reliable goods. And Stewart was fanatical about securing the best possible merchandise, so his store became known for handling a better class of good than any competitor.

The Marble Palace

By the 1840s Stewart was a very successful merchant, but he sought to make his mark by creating a store like no other. He bought a lot at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street in New York City, and began constructing what would become known as his marble palace.

The store, when it opened in 1848, was revolutionary. It was larger and more luxurious than any other store of the time.

Stewart's spectacular store made shopping an interesting and exciting experience, and crowds flocked to the marble palace.

In times Stewart decided to expand and opened an even larger store at the corner of Broadway and 10th Street. The new store quickly became a very popular shopping destination. (The original marble palace was converted to a wholesale warehouse; the building still stands, though it has been altered somewhat.)

Business Titan

With the profits from his stores Stewart was able to invest in a number of other businesses, and he eventually owned some of New York's largest theaters, a thriving mail order retail business, and associated businesses such as a mill that made carpets. He built a large mansion of white marble at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan.

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.

Businessman Cyrus Field, who would finance and mastermind the transatlantic telegraph cable, learned about business by working for Stewart's store for several years.

He had married, but he and his wife tragically lost two children in infancy. After his death he had no obvious heir, and his business eventually was bought out by John Wanamaker, another retail giant of the 19th century. The Stewart name did not endure in the retail business, but he is considered the father of the modern department store.