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Learning from Labels

Plácida Grace Hernández
Assistant Curator

Presentation Slides

Presented by Placida Grace Hernandez, May 21, 2010, at a symposium held at Brooklyn Museum of Art and co-hosted by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note: References to images are highlighted in bold.

Good afternoon. My thanks to both the Brooklyn Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to participate in this symposium.

My research was sparked by geography. The Costume Documentation Project was based on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, on retail strip dense with fast-food chains, discount stores, and specialty shops. Like much in New York City, businesses in the area were built on the bones of past ventures. These retail ghosts were all around us. The more objects in the collection we catalogued, the more often we encountered pieces with a downtown Brooklyn origin. It became clear to us that the collection had a Fulton Street story—but where to begin?

The first step in uncovering that story was to compile a list of Brooklyn garment makers and retailers. Out of the more than 23,000 objects we catalogued, about 212 carry "Brooklyn" labels. Some have just a maker's name and "Brooklyn." Others have both a name and a street address. When I combined the names and addresses with garment and accessory dates, a picture of the garment trade from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century began to appear

My research on this topic is ongoing, but I've taken some of my findings to date and plotted them out on this partial map of Brooklyn. Before I talk about this map and share some of what I learned from labels, I'd like to give you an extremely short history of Brooklyn.

What we now call Brooklyn was originally five settlements created by the Dutch during the mid-seventeenth century: one was named Breuckelen. The settlements came under British control by the end of that century and became part of Kings County. The large tracts of farmland that comprised Breuckelen were largely unchanged throughout the eighteenth century—except, of course, the changes in government brought about by the American Revolution.

In 1814, Robert Fulton created a steam engine that made passage up the East and Hudson Rivers relatively fast and economically feasible. It also made travel across the river much easier, and New York City businessmen welcomed the opportunity to establish comfortable homes or weekend retreats on the rise of land known as Brooklyn Heights. Heights landowners were happy to subdivide their land into profitable lots for these "suburban commuters."

The resulting expansion in population created a pocket of business opportunities in the area, which in time, would expand east. Fulton Street—the former Ferry Road and Jamaica Pass—the thick pink serpentine curve that starts at the waterfront on the upper left of this map and cuts through the center, was a well-traveled route that became a magnet for commerce.

The red dots on the map indicate makers and retailers in the collection who were working from the 1830s to the 1880s. The blue dots indicate those dating from the 1890s and later. As you can see, a significant number of businesses were located on or near Fulton Street.

The earliest Brooklyn maker identified in the collection, James Mitchell, was located in Brooklyn Heights. This suit made by Mitchell, dates from between 1830 to 1840, and according to the jacket label, was made at 80 Montague Street.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, individual makers were competing with the grand department stores. In the 1890s, Fulton Street was home to the two largest department stores in the city: Abraham & Straus and Frederick Loeser. Both stores are gone today, but their buildings remain: since 1995, the A&S building has been home to a Macy's, and from 2005 until early 2009, the Frederick Loeser building was the home of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Documentation Project.

Frederick Loeser & Co. was a Brooklyn fixture for nearly one hundred years. Founded in 1860 as Loeser and Dinkelspiel, it started as an embroidery and trimmings business at 277 Fulton Street; today it would be two blocks from Borough Hall. By 1870, Loeser had bought out his partner, and established a larger store at Fulton and Tillary Streets: today, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

By March 1887, Loeser's moved into a new five-story building at 484 Fulton Street. Shown here by the purple dot, it was bounded by Fulton and Livingston Streets and Bond Street and Fulton Alley.[1] The first three floors were dedicated to sales. The fourth held administrative offices and the top floor was reserved for "washrooms, ladies' fitting apartments, [and] rooms for buyer's samples, etc." The new building had every modern convenience, including elevators, electric lights, and telephone service.[2]

Seven years later, Loeser's expanded again, constructing an annex that extended to Elm Place. Loeser's also unveiled a pneumatic-tube payment system; to complete a sale, clerks placed documents and cash in a small capsule; the capsule then rode a cushion of air through pipes that led directly to the cashier's department, where the transaction was completed.[3]

Loeser's main store and its branches remained popular into the twentieth century, but by the 1950s that prosperity cooled. In February 1952, the Fulton Street store and all but one branch were closed. Loeser's name was acquired by long-time neighbor A.I. Namm. Five years later, Namm's decided to focus on its suburban stores and the Namm-Loeser store closed as well.[4]

Big department stores like Loeser's not only sold goods, they provided services. Dressmaking was one of the services Loeser's offered its customers. But some patrons would buy their dress goods at Loeser's and then take them to their own dressmaker. The wearer of this 1893 wedding dress did just that. The fabric came from Loeser's, where it cost the impressive sum of $10 a yard. After buying the fabric, she bypassed the Loeser workrooms, and instead took a short walk to Mrs. A. B. Coady's establishment at 23 Elm Place.[5] Mrs. Coady's name and address are marked on the garment's inner waistband.

Thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library's online archive of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper and digitized census records available through HeritageQuest, I have been able to create a sketch of Mrs. Coady's life and work.

Coady operated a dressmaking business from the 1880s to the 1900s. Her longevity is notable and her reasons for working clear: according to the 1880 census, Irish-born Mrs. Coady was a thirty-three-year-old widow and the mother of two young boys.[6]

She had three downtown business locations over time. According to the Eagle, she was located at 303 Fulton in the early 1880s, then at 305 Fulton in 1884, both near Borough Hall. By 1893 she was on Elm Place (shown here by the green dot); her workrooms are among the buildings torn down to make room for Loeser's expansion. By late 1890s, she had moved to 213 Cumberland Street, in nearby Fort Greene.[7]

Coady was successful enough to afford a firsthand look at European fashions. According to sailing notices published in the Eagle, she made four trips to Europe between 1893 and 1900. Her sons, twenty-five and twenty-one at the time, accompanied her on the latter trip. The trio toured Europe, traveling to London, Boulogne, Lucerne, Interlaken, Geneva, and finally, Paris and the 1900 Exposition.[8]

These initial glimpses of Coady's life and work offer a tantalizing look at a Fulton Street business. Equally compelling is the story of her rival and almost neighbor, Herbert Luey.

Herbert Luey advertised himself as a "man dressmaker" or "ladies' tailor." Seventeen of Luey's creations were catalogued during the Project; they date from 1880 to 1915, and reflect a long career. Luey turned out day dresses, wedding dresses, outerwear, and sporting wear, as well as evening dresses like the circa 1890 gown seen here. Garment labels place his workrooms at 17 Elm Place in the 1880s and 202 Washington Park in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Luey was not only ambitious in the scope of what he produced, but also in his search for new clients. By the turn of the century he had extended his business beyond Brooklyn: garment labels from that time refer to a New York location—he had opened a business at 303 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Situated near 31st Street, the business was steps from Macy's, B. Altman, and Best & Company, three major New York City department stores.

But Luey's business roots were in Brooklyn and this 1914 evening dress, made in his Fort Greene workroom, is associated with a devoted Brooklyn patron, Amelia Beard Hollenback. Hollenback, the daughter of a prominent businessman and philanthropist, John Welles Hollenback, and a resident of Clinton Hill, was a notable a notable donor to the collection who peppered her contributions with invaluable first-person information. Her links to Luey open the door to another avenue of investigation: the relationship between the dressmaker and his customer—and another means of learning from labels.

As you have seen, the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a significant resource not only for the study and appreciation of costume and accessories but also for the associations they reveal. By looking at the labels in the collection we can begin to assemble a picture of the makers and retailers on Fulton Street and downtown Brooklyn and to reconstruct the stories behind the people and businesses whose skillful work is worthy of our appreciation.

Thank you.


[1] "Frederick Loeser Dead." New York Times.
[2] "An Immense Establishment. A View of Frederick Loeser & Co.'s New Store," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 22, 1887, 1 (confirmed 1/27/2009).
[3] "Loeser & Co.'s Addition," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 27, 1892, 2 (confirmed 1/27/2009).
[4] "A.I. Namm & Son Department Store, 450-458 Fulton Street (aka 1-7 Hoyt Street, Brooklyn)," Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 15, 2005, Designation List 359, LP2170. http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/nammstore.pdf (confirmed 1/27/2009).
[5] Accession Logbook, 1967, Costume and Textiles Collection, Department of Decorative Arts, Brooklyn Museum.
[6] United States Census, 1880. HeritageQuest database, New York Public Library.
[7] "Wanted—Situation as a Cook and laundress. … Call at 303 Fulton St." "Cooks, Washers and Ironers," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 6, 1883, 3; "Wanted—3 Good Waist Hands and one apprentice wanted immediately at 305 Fulton st. Mrs. Coady's new dress and cloak making rooms." "Wanted—Help—Females," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 10, 1884, 5; "Wanted—Situation—To Do Anything … Call or address present employer Mrs. A. B. Coady, 213 Cumberland st. Brooklyn." "Wanted—Situations—Males," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 24, 1898, 17.
[8] "Brooklynites at Paris Fair," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 2, 1900, 18.