- Historic Sites
Builders For The Carriage Trade
The Brewsters spanned an era and spanned it with style
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
By 1830 Brewster vehicles were being exported to Mexico, South America, and to Cuba, a splendid market for the volante, a kind of victoria body mounted on only two wheels, which meant less expense in a country which taxed carriages by the number of wheels. He opened a branch factory and warehouse in New York in 1827 and another in Bridgeport, under his sons James B. and Henry.
Not content with bringing a flourishing new business to New Haven, however, Brewster took on the city’s other problems, as he saw them. He planted 300 of New Haven’s still-famous elm trees; he set about to evangelize his hard-drinking journeymen carriage mechanics. Frequently he advised them on morals and religion. He secured two lecture halls and paid professors to talk to his men on educational, ethical, and mechanical subjects. He hired a preacher to minister to the poorhouse and gave $9,000 for an orphan establishment. He campaigned for a home for “friendless females.” In his spare time, so to speak, he built a railway to Hartford.
In 1856 Poor Richard’s disciple, healthy, wise, and solidly wealthy, retired and his carriage firm (reorganized as “Messrs. Brewster & Company of Broome Street”) under his son Henry and two other partners, shifted headquarters from New Haven to New York. The Industrial Revolution in America was spawning a moneyed carriage class and this was its center.
By then it was estimated that New Yorkers drove nearly 20,000 private fashionable carriages. The fancy of Society had been captured by a number of carriage styles, ranging all the way from the “close” carriage, or “close-quarter” coach, which cost from S 1,000 to $1,500, down through the caleche and the coupé to the light phaeton, at $350 to $500. For the less ostentatious who simply wanted to get around, Germantown or rockaway coaches were regarded as plain and convenient.
Orders for custom carriages began to flow to Brewster in such quantity that the partners opened a new repository at one of the most fashionable locations in Manhattan in 1868: Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, across from Delmonico’s restaurant. By 1874 there was a new factory near present-day Times Square.
Henry Brewster was a trencherman and a bit of a dandy, whom someone called “the best dressed fat man in America.” But ambition burned in him, ambition touched with a mild chauvinism: He wanted to prove that America’s carriages were every bit as good as Europe’s. Europe did not disguise its belief that they were not, and a good many American purchasers distressingly agreed. And thus Henry sought to exhibit abroad. His opportunity came with the French International Exposition of 1878.
Brewster’s confidence in pitting his carriages against those of eleven other countries was not without foundation. America alone had hickory for spokes and bent rims, superior in strength and elasticity to any wood in the world for its purposes. American carriage wheels were therefore lighter but stronger than the foreign-made. Brewster used elm for hubs; it was tougher and less apt to split than English oak. His whitewood panels took paint as well as the mahogany used by the English or the walnut used by the French and were considerably lighter and cheaper. Steel by then was being formed to replace heavy wooden members, thus keeping the wagons light, perhaps the greatest American contribution to the craft. Brewster’s glass like finishes were unmatched.
The greatest names in international carriage-building collided at the great Paris Exhibition in 1878. There were 72 carriage exhibits from England and Scotland, including those of Hooper and Barker of London, makers of the Queen’s carriages and considered by Brewster to be his closest rivals. France staged the largest display with 222 vehicles including those of Kellner and Million Guiet of Paris. Markoff of St. Petersburg, builder lor the Tsar, was present among the 21 Russian exhibits. The United States entered 35, 13 of which were Brewster’s.
When the jury turned in their scores, Brewster carried the day. His exhibit received the gold medal lor being the best; several Brewster foremen won awards for departmental excellence; the president of the French Republic awarded Henry Brewster the Legion of Honor. Even Brewster’s competitors in America were delighted enough with ihis triumph of native products that they gave him a banquet a few months later.
Brewster considered each order as carefully as a good custom tailor. He permitted his buyers only general preferences when it came to the execution. If a customer’s requirement seemed a bit giddy to Brewster then the offender was told politely that, if lie insisted, he would find service more to his liking at a competitor’s shop. Not many customers who aspired to social standing held out in the lace of this alternative.
Immense prosperity is reflected in the firm’s own records; the sales book which runs I’rom April 1, 1881, to March 21, 1882, reveals that Brewster & Company took in $435.791, outside of repairs and service. John Jacob Astor, it appears, paid $699 lor a two-horse cabriolet sleigh, complete with double chimes, pompons, and switches. J. Pierpont Morgan bought nearly S 1,800 worth of rumble sleighs and a cabriolet in November, 1881. J. R. Roosevelt paid $2,400 for a tour-horse drag, William Rockefeller bought a pony cart, a curtain rockaway and a Winans phaeton. Lelancl Stanford and former President U. S. Grant both ordered carriages in February, a phaeton and a landau respectively. (Lincoln had bought a lirewster carriage during the war; it is in the Chicago Historical Society now.) Vehicles traded in—there were never many—Brewster sold to other carriage dealers.