Today in 1818: Brooks Brothers Debuts on the Lower East Side [HISTORY]

Posted on: April 7th, 2014 at 10:01 am by
Photo via David Bellela

Photo via David Bellela

You’re now looking at an archival photograph looking eastward down Cherry Street sometime in the 1920s. The Manhattan Bridge overpass is clearly visible in the background. Closer to our vantage point (sign reading “RUGS”), however, was the original location of Brooks Brothers. That’s the northeast corner of Cherry and Catherine Streets.

The upscale clothier began its life on this day (April 7) in 1818 as “H. & D. H. Brooks & Co.” and quartered itself at 116-118 Cherry. Henry Sands Brooks founded the company “To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest body, to sell it at a fair profit, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.” Historians agree that Brooks introduced the “ready-to-wear suit” to American audiences, eventually becoming the brand of choice for U.S. Presidents (they’ve outfitted 39 of 44, including Lincoln). The patriarch died in 1833, at which point his three sons took over. They aptly renamed the endeavor in 1850 to what we know today.

Photo via David Bellela

Photo via David Bellela

Back in 1863, however, the store was targeted during the Civil War draft riots as a symbol of the wealthy. Below is the New York Times dispatch of the incident:

At a late hour on Tuesday night the mob, numbering 4,000 or 5,000, made an attack upon the clothing-store of Messrs. BROOKS BROTHERS, in Catharine-street, corner of Cherry. Sergeant FINNEY, of the Third Precinct, while in the discharge of his duty in endeavoring to protect the property of this establishment, was knocked down, beaten on the head and body with clubs, and afterward shot in the hand by a pistol by one of the rioters. He was subsequently conveyed to the Station-house, where his wounds were dressed. He is very severely injured, and no hopes are entertained of his recovery. Officer DANIEL FIELDS, of the same Precinct, was knocked down and brutally beaten about the head and face at the same time.

A man named JOHN MATZEL was shot and instantly killed. It is reported that he was one of the leaders of the mob, and that the ball which pierced his heart came from a revolver in the hands of one of the officers of the law. He was in the act of entering the clothing store at the time he met his death.

Plunder seems to have been the sole object with the marauders in their attack upon the store of the Messrs. BROOKS. The fine ready-made clothing therein was tempting. Fortunately, the Police and the employes of the establishment successfully repelled the invaders before much property had been stolen. Three or four persons, whose names could not be ascertained, lost their lives at this place, and many others were badly injured.

As noted by local historian David Bellela, mobs of opposition during the draft riots attacked sites associated with the war effort, the Republican party, and/or social privilege. Brooks Brothers was a site of violence because it was mainly a clothier for the wealthy class.

BrooksBrothersDraftRiots

Brooks Brothers was family-owned for more than a century. Not anymore. Today, the company is owned by Retail Brand Alliance, and there are over 200 outlets worldwide. As for the OG location – it’s now beneath the Knickerbocker Village housing complex.

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