Using money that he had received as an inheritance and savings from his job as a tutor, Irishman Alexander Turney Stewart opened a small shop selling Irish fabrics and lace along with domestic calico at 823 Broadway in New York. The date was September 1st, 1823. From this humble start, Stewart was to build a commercial empire and amass a fortune equivalent to $90 billion in today’s dollars.
With early success in his first shop, Stewart built a larger building across the street in 1846. The building eventually became known as the Marble Palace due to its unique Tuckahoe Marble facade. To keep up with business, the building was expanded in 1851, 1852 and 1871. This was the birth of the modern department store.
This building included a several revolutions in retailing. First, he compartmentalized the products by category thereby started what was the first department store in the nation. He used a fixed price system to simplify shopping. The store was one of the first to have multiple floors of retail., Stewart also held fashion shows and offered off-price periods in his store or a “sale.”
In 1863, Stewart built a another store at Broadway and Ninth dubbed the Iron Palace. This store covered an entire city block and opened with 19 departments and by 1877 had expanded to 30 departments. It employed 2,000 workers.
Beginning in 1868, Stewart started a mail order division which in turn inspired Sears, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel to enter the catalog business.
Stewart built the first of the Grand Fifth Avenue mansions in New York City between 1869 and 70.
Stewart expanded his business interests by opening woolen mills to supply his company and manufacturers to sew the finished products. He also developed the Central Railroad of Long Island. At the time of his death, Stewart was developing the village of Garden City on Long Island a s a place where his employees could enjoy airy, comfortable housing at affordable prices. His railroad would transport the employees to work.
In 1872, Stewart bought the bankrupt Union Hotel and immediately began expansions and improvements. He added electric lights, elevators, a dining hall that could serve 1200 guests at a time and hot and cold running water in each room In 1876, it was the largest hotel in the world.
Alexander Stewart died on April 10, 1876.
The store survived for a number of years after Stewart’s death as E.J. Denning & Company before being overwhelmed by the upstart NY department stores such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. Eventually, one of Stewart’s admirers, John Wanamaker, of the Philadelphia department fame, bought the Marble Palace for his NYC location. In 1917, the New York Sun newspaper bought the building to house the headquarters. The building was designated a New York landmark in 1966.
Unrelated to AT Stewart’s company, there were now-defunct Stewart’s in Baltimore, MD and Louisville, KY.