- Historic Sites
Builders For The Carriage Trade
The Brewsters spanned an era and spanned it with style
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
The order books, specifying custom details in adornment or construction, expose the newly begotten ancestor worship in which the new American aristocracy indulged itsell. “Heraldry as usual,” is the customary notation appearing on orders from William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and T. A. Havemeyer. The Duke of Alba’s coronet was dispatched with no greater ceremony. “English Duke’s crown on riser,” ran the brief command. One of the lew customers to straddle the issue was W. T. Carmodv, whose mysterious order read, “Remove heraldry and substitute W.T.C. so worked that it can’t be read.”
For easier recognition when driving in the park or on city .streets, families laid claim to certain colors, usually shades that Brewster’s finishing department originated and agreed to reserve lor certain customers. The Vanderbilt maroon or the Astor blue, the blue and primrose of the Stevens family (original owners of the yacht America and the great American race horse Eclipse) and the “peculiar yellow stripe” of Dr. William Seward Webb could not honorably be displayed on another client’s equipage.
Young William Brewster joined his father’s business in 1883. His family was by now a bona fide name in the Society it served, but William was a chip oil his grandfather’s block. Declining to attend YaIe when the lime came. William took, at S;; a week, a job with the family firm. During this four-year apprenticeship. he recalled years later (when he was a clubman, a philanthropist, and director of many companies): “I thoroughly learned how everything was made and the why and wherefore, if 1 had attempted it after four years at Yale, I would have probably felt too big for my boots.”
William, known almost universally as “Willie,” was born in Manhattan in 1866, and, before the anti-school mood hit him, followed his older brother to fashionable lx)arding schools. Willie was to be a stubby, corpulent man like his lather, a snappv dresser, t’oncl of food, tempestuous, endowed however with a sense of humor. Willie was sent to Paris to study design under Kellner and other fine French carriage makers; he spent nine months visiting the great carriage houses of Europe.
Willie committed himself completely to the custom trade. Prowling the floors of his shop wearing a bunch ol violets or a carnation in his buttonhole, he made a fetish of glistening finishes. No carriage left the shop without his personal scrutin) and, it he detected a varnish “sag” or any other imperfection, however undiscernable to the lay eye. he whipped out his pen knife and scratched a mutilating “X” across the panel, necessitating the exacting task of removing the entire finish and applying a new one.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 netted Brewster still more prizes, but what caught the attention of Willie Brewster there was another exhibit—a demonstration of several primitive motorcars that required almost constant cranking and which were prone to conk out without warning. Still, conditionally and precariously, they worked. Willie saw a trace of the handwriting on the wall.
An order entry in 1911 specified typical Brewster interior appointments: “a coat rail, memo book, cigarette case, scent bottle, mirror box, card cases, hat brush, vase and holder, watch, and rug.” But there was a difference. It referred to an automobile body. The motorized age had overtaken Brewster & Company, but Willie was still holding his position as top custom designer and builder.
In 1910 he had moved his headquarters and factory to a larger fireproof building in Long Island City. As a quality motor and chassis worthy of the Brewster body, he settled on the Delaunay-Belleville of France. Carriage-making continued but only for a few diehards and volume was lessening with each year.
Willie found the automobile age quite congenial to his flair for mechanical invention. He initiated the roll-up window, the folding inside or “jump” seat, the sloping windshield meant to deflect light from the driver’s eyes, and the hinged sun visor. The company was still highly profitable.
Brewster became agent for the English Rolls Royce chassis and by the igzo’s he was putting out his own models. The automobiles that, one at a time, emerged from the Brewster factory had the same impeccable mirror finish of the carriages. Willie still inspected the finished products and, smoking cigars continuously, used his wicked pen knife when he was displeased. But the future looked ominous. Even fine cars were being mass-produced now, at much lower prices. It had been a long while since Willie had sent society matrons into tears because he would not indulge their special orders. There was a new type of clientele occasionally slipping in which Willie resented but could not afford to ignore—doubtful ladies, ill-mannered rich men. There was the day when Diamond Jim Brady brought in the two Dolly sisters to order a Brewster town car made and a fight broke out between them in the sales room as to whether it should be painted yellow or red. Diamond Jim witnessed the fight with distaste until at last he seized both women, whacked them each on the seat with his cane, growled “Paint it black,” to the salesmen, and herded the women out of the showroom.
William Brewster was an artist and an able craftsman, a rare combination. The ability to visualize beautiful form and to create in it a mechanical masterpiece was the very life of the man. The assembly line was heartbreak to him.