7. A.T. Stewart: From Lace to Riches

A.T. Stewart & Co. (ca. early 1850s). Enos Collection. Via New York Public Library Digital Collections

As the founder of America’s first department store and first commercial palace, A.T. Stewart became a leading merchant prince of his era. Rather than a rags to riches story, his was more lace to riches.

An immigrant from Belfast who was raised by his grandfather after being orphaned as a child, he used his inheritance to import lace and other Irish products and opened a dry goods store on Broadway in 1823. He pioneered a “one-price” policy for all products and his business thrived, enabling him to build the marble palace.

Stewart also branched out into other endeavors. These included founding Garden City, Long Island, becoming a major art collector, and almost serving as treasury secretary in 1869. (He had to decline the appointment due to concerns about conflicts of interest with his business dealings.)

After his death, his company faltered and eventually became part of the Wanamaker’s chain. His name gradually receded from the public memory to the point that he is mostly forgotten today.