Revisiting the Rise of Brooks Brothers on the Lower East Side

Posted on: July 15th, 2020 at 5:08 am by

Brooks Brothers in 1845, Photo: D.T. Valentine’s Manual

Last week, Brooks Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing the coronavirus shutdown and fashion trends toward casual. Two firms are vying to acquire the 202-year-old formal wear company and inject new capital.

Ergo, the time seemed appropriate to revisit the store’s connection to the Lower East Side.

Brooks Brothers was actually founded near the waterfront more than two hundred years ago, founded on April 7, 1818 as “H. & D. H. Brooks & Co.” Its original headquarters was at 116-118 Cherry Street. Henry Sands Brooks opened the store “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 45, 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.

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.

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.

Mobs of opposition during the draft riots attacked locations associated with the war effort, the Republican party, and/or social privilege. Brooks Brothers was a site of violence both because it was a clothier for the wealthy class and that it outfitted Union soldiers during the war.

Brooks Brothers was family-owned for more than a century. Not anymore. For the time being, the company is owned by Retail Brand Alliance. As for the OG location – it’s now beneath the Knickerbocker Village housing complex.

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