Skip to main content

Builders For The Carriage Trade

July 2024
10min read

The Brewsters spanned an era and spanned it with style

Not long ago a distinguished New Yorker, manager for many years of the great National Horse Show, was asked for his opinion of the famous, vanished carriage-building firm of Rrewster it Company. Wouldn’t he describe them as “the Tiffany of the carriage business”? Not at all, he replied. “Rather, I would say that Tiffany is the Rrewster of the jewelry trade.”

When, in November, 1927, William Brewster sadly resigned as titular head of the company, then operated by others and engaged in manufacturing custom automobile bodies, he put a period to a family history of carriage and car building that spanned more than a century. During that long period, three generations of equally talented Brewsters had made their name synonymous with grace and elegance, a beauty the modern eye still remarks. Even when gasoline and mass production appeared on the scene, the Brewsters clung to fine hand craftsmanship. Inevitably, they were swept aw:;y. But while they existed they triumphed in their field as cleanly as the American clipper in the world of sail; their ledgers of customers, now preserved at the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society, read like a Blue Book for Victorian America.

The era of the carriage is shorter than one thinks. When Elder William Brewster, ancestor of the carriage builders, took ship in the Mayflower in 1620, there was not a stage coach operating in England, or a decent road for one (the first lines began about 1640). In fact, the first vehicle even resembling the modern coach had not appeared in England at all until the Duke of Rutland had one imported from the Continent in 1564. Nothing but crude carts and farm wagons were built in the American colonies until the mid-Eighteenth Century, and there were precious lew of them abroad when James, first of the carriage-making Brewsters, was born in Preston, Conn., in 1788.

Early in life fames developed a fierce sense of identity with Benjamin Franklin, whose maxims he often studied as much as an hour a day, even while working twelve hours a day, six days a week. His worship of Franklin was reflected in his own moralistic accounts of himself, which he could frequently be prevailed upon to share with others. Sometimes he even described himself in the third person.

“Feeble in early life,” Brewster years later told a captive audience of his employees, “encountering in his minority as many trials as any who hear him, fatherless and with but little outward assistance and laboring constantly for one half a century, yet his natural force is not materially lessened and it is all owing to temperance and practicing upon that trite saying, ‘habits, good or bad, are powerful things.’ ”

Brewster liked to point out that he had refused the oiler of a financed college education, following Franklin’s edict that a trade was preferable to a profession. At 15 he was apprenticed to a carriage maker in Northampton, Massachusetts. Presently his employer failed (drink, hinted Brewster), and with Sgo in his pocket, the ex-apprentice headed for New York by coach in 1809. The vehicle broke down in New Haven, and while he waited Brewster dropped in on one John Cook, who had set up the first carriage shop in New Haven in the rear of his house. After a few moments’ conversation, Cook offered Brewster a job. It was accepted. This decision, according to a later historian, “indirectly exerted more influence than any other in making New Haven the principal seat of carriage-building in New England.”

The next year, 1810, Brewster, having lived for a year on $40, and saved $250 from a salary of a little over $5 a week, married and started his own shop. As creative as he was industrious, he improved carriage design and, consequently, the public demand for them. The most popular carriage of the early Nineteenth Century was the one-horse or road-wagon, later to be known as the buggy and runabout, which Brewster soon improved along with revisions in the coach, the phaeton, and the rockaway (the first completely American carriage, which democratically afforded protection to the coachman in bad weather). The body lines of the coupé rockaway were adopted by the early automobile body makers for their limousines, and those of the curtain rockaway for their station wagons.

By 1830 Brewster vehicles were being exported to Mexico, South America, and to Cuba, a splendid market for the volante, a kind of victoria body mounted on only two wheels, which meant less expense in a country which taxed carriages by the number of wheels. He opened a branch factory and warehouse in New York in 1827 and another in Bridgeport, under his sons James B. and Henry.

Not content with bringing a flourishing new business to New Haven, however, Brewster took on the city’s other problems, as he saw them. He planted 300 of New Haven’s still-famous elm trees; he set about to evangelize his hard-drinking journeymen carriage mechanics. Frequently he advised them on morals and religion. He secured two lecture halls and paid professors to talk to his men on educational, ethical, and mechanical subjects. He hired a preacher to minister to the poorhouse and gave $9,000 for an orphan establishment. He campaigned for a home for “friendless females.” In his spare time, so to speak, he built a railway to Hartford.

In 1856 Poor Richard’s disciple, healthy, wise, and solidly wealthy, retired and his carriage firm (reorganized as “Messrs. Brewster & Company of Broome Street”) under his son Henry and two other partners, shifted headquarters from New Haven to New York. The Industrial Revolution in America was spawning a moneyed carriage class and this was its center.

By then it was estimated that New Yorkers drove nearly 20,000 private fashionable carriages. The fancy of Society had been captured by a number of carriage styles, ranging all the way from the “close” carriage, or “close-quarter” coach, which cost from S 1,000 to $1,500, down through the caleche and the coupé to the light phaeton, at $350 to $500. For the less ostentatious who simply wanted to get around, Germantown or rockaway coaches were regarded as plain and convenient.

Orders for custom carriages began to flow to Brewster in such quantity that the partners opened a new repository at one of the most fashionable locations in Manhattan in 1868: Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, across from Delmonico’s restaurant. By 1874 there was a new factory near present-day Times Square.

Henry Brewster was a trencherman and a bit of a dandy, whom someone called “the best dressed fat man in America.” But ambition burned in him, ambition touched with a mild chauvinism: He wanted to prove that America’s carriages were every bit as good as Europe’s. Europe did not disguise its belief that they were not, and a good many American purchasers distressingly agreed. And thus Henry sought to exhibit abroad. His opportunity came with the French International Exposition of 1878.

Brewster’s confidence in pitting his carriages against those of eleven other countries was not without foundation. America alone had hickory for spokes and bent rims, superior in strength and elasticity to any wood in the world for its purposes. American carriage wheels were therefore lighter but stronger than the foreign-made. Brewster used elm for hubs; it was tougher and less apt to split than English oak. His whitewood panels took paint as well as the mahogany used by the English or the walnut used by the French and were considerably lighter and cheaper. Steel by then was being formed to replace heavy wooden members, thus keeping the wagons light, perhaps the greatest American contribution to the craft. Brewster’s glass like finishes were unmatched.

The greatest names in international carriage-building collided at the great Paris Exhibition in 1878. There were 72 carriage exhibits from England and Scotland, including those of Hooper and Barker of London, makers of the Queen’s carriages and considered by Brewster to be his closest rivals. France staged the largest display with 222 vehicles including those of Kellner and Million Guiet of Paris. Markoff of St. Petersburg, builder lor the Tsar, was present among the 21 Russian exhibits. The United States entered 35, 13 of which were Brewster’s.

When the jury turned in their scores, Brewster carried the day. His exhibit received the gold medal lor being the best; several Brewster foremen won awards for departmental excellence; the president of the French Republic awarded Henry Brewster the Legion of Honor. Even Brewster’s competitors in America were delighted enough with ihis triumph of native products that they gave him a banquet a few months later.

Brewster considered each order as carefully as a good custom tailor. He permitted his buyers only general preferences when it came to the execution. If a customer’s requirement seemed a bit giddy to Brewster then the offender was told politely that, if lie insisted, he would find service more to his liking at a competitor’s shop. Not many customers who aspired to social standing held out in the lace of this alternative.

Immense prosperity is reflected in the firm’s own records; the sales book which runs I’rom April 1, 1881, to March 21, 1882, reveals that Brewster & Company took in $435.791, outside of repairs and service. John Jacob Astor, it appears, paid $699 lor a two-horse cabriolet sleigh, complete with double chimes, pompons, and switches. J. Pierpont Morgan bought nearly S 1,800 worth of rumble sleighs and a cabriolet in November, 1881. J. R. Roosevelt paid $2,400 for a tour-horse drag, William Rockefeller bought a pony cart, a curtain rockaway and a Winans phaeton. Lelancl Stanford and former President U. S. Grant both ordered carriages in February, a phaeton and a landau respectively. (Lincoln had bought a lirewster carriage during the war; it is in the Chicago Historical Society now.) Vehicles traded in—there were never many—Brewster sold to other carriage dealers.

The order books, specifying custom details in adornment or construction, expose the newly begotten ancestor worship in which the new American aristocracy indulged itsell. “Heraldry as usual,” is the customary notation appearing on orders from William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and T. A. Havemeyer. The Duke of Alba’s coronet was dispatched with no greater ceremony. “English Duke’s crown on riser,” ran the brief command. One of the lew customers to straddle the issue was W. T. Carmodv, whose mysterious order read, “Remove heraldry and substitute W.T.C. so worked that it can’t be read.”

For easier recognition when driving in the park or on city .streets, families laid claim to certain colors, usually shades that Brewster’s finishing department originated and agreed to reserve lor certain customers. The Vanderbilt maroon or the Astor blue, the blue and primrose of the Stevens family (original owners of the yacht America and the great American race horse Eclipse) and the “peculiar yellow stripe” of Dr. William Seward Webb could not honorably be displayed on another client’s equipage.

Young William Brewster joined his father’s business in 1883. His family was by now a bona fide name in the Society it served, but William was a chip oil his grandfather’s block. Declining to attend YaIe when the lime came. William took, at S;; a week, a job with the family firm. During this four-year apprenticeship. he recalled years later (when he was a clubman, a philanthropist, and director of many companies): “I thoroughly learned how everything was made and the why and wherefore, if 1 had attempted it after four years at Yale, I would have probably felt too big for my boots.”

William, known almost universally as “Willie,” was born in Manhattan in 1866, and, before the anti-school mood hit him, followed his older brother to fashionable lx)arding schools. Willie was to be a stubby, corpulent man like his lather, a snappv dresser, t’oncl of food, tempestuous, endowed however with a sense of humor. Willie was sent to Paris to study design under Kellner and other fine French carriage makers; he spent nine months visiting the great carriage houses of Europe.

Willie committed himself completely to the custom trade. Prowling the floors of his shop wearing a bunch ol violets or a carnation in his buttonhole, he made a fetish of glistening finishes. No carriage left the shop without his personal scrutin) and, it he detected a varnish “sag” or any other imperfection, however undiscernable to the lay eye. he whipped out his pen knife and scratched a mutilating “X” across the panel, necessitating the exacting task of removing the entire finish and applying a new one.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 netted Brewster still more prizes, but what caught the attention of Willie Brewster there was another exhibit—a demonstration of several primitive motorcars that required almost constant cranking and which were prone to conk out without warning. Still, conditionally and precariously, they worked. Willie saw a trace of the handwriting on the wall.

An order entry in 1911 specified typical Brewster interior appointments: “a coat rail, memo book, cigarette case, scent bottle, mirror box, card cases, hat brush, vase and holder, watch, and rug.” But there was a difference. It referred to an automobile body. The motorized age had overtaken Brewster & Company, but Willie was still holding his position as top custom designer and builder.

In 1910 he had moved his headquarters and factory to a larger fireproof building in Long Island City. As a quality motor and chassis worthy of the Brewster body, he settled on the Delaunay-Belleville of France. Carriage-making continued but only for a few diehards and volume was lessening with each year.

Willie found the automobile age quite congenial to his flair for mechanical invention. He initiated the roll-up window, the folding inside or “jump” seat, the sloping windshield meant to deflect light from the driver’s eyes, and the hinged sun visor. The company was still highly profitable.

Brewster became agent for the English Rolls Royce chassis and by the igzo’s he was putting out his own models. The automobiles that, one at a time, emerged from the Brewster factory had the same impeccable mirror finish of the carriages. Willie still inspected the finished products and, smoking cigars continuously, used his wicked pen knife when he was displeased. But the future looked ominous. Even fine cars were being mass-produced now, at much lower prices. It had been a long while since Willie had sent society matrons into tears because he would not indulge their special orders. There was a new type of clientele occasionally slipping in which Willie resented but could not afford to ignore—doubtful ladies, ill-mannered rich men. There was the day when Diamond Jim Brady brought in the two Dolly sisters to order a Brewster town car made and a fight broke out between them in the sales room as to whether it should be painted yellow or red. Diamond Jim witnessed the fight with distaste until at last he seized both women, whacked them each on the seat with his cane, growled “Paint it black,” to the salesmen, and herded the women out of the showroom.

William Brewster was an artist and an able craftsman, a rare combination. The ability to visualize beautiful form and to create in it a mechanical masterpiece was the very life of the man. The assembly line was heartbreak to him.

“Willie had one last chance,” said Henry Brewster Hobson, his cousin and former chief engineer, recently. “He had the offer before Fisher to build bodies for General Motors on a production basis, but he just couldn’t do it. A body to him was not something that could be stamped out; it had to be felt, shaped and fashioned by human hands and carry some imprint of artistic creativeness with it and not be the predictable and inevitable outcome of an automatic machine. When Willie turned down the G.M. offer we were all secretly pleased that there was no compromising of his integrity.”

The end of the carriage era left Willie a little bitter but proud and unwilling to compromise. In 1925 Rolls Royce bought out the faltering Brewster Company. An engineering firm had been installed about this time to modernize and step up production, and, although he was asked to stay on as nominal head of the company, Willie disagreed with the new methods profoundly. His letter of resignation, written in 1927, is more than a protest. It is a stand for an era and a way of doing things.

“I once discharged four of our best workmen,” he wrote, “simply because they would not say good morning to me on my rounds and seemed to be generally grouchy.… Many years ago I let our chief man in the office go, not because he was incompetent, but because he always expressed such sordid mean views in any discussion that came up that he took the joy out of living … When you come to the customers … in a few instances when we found it impossible to please them, I have requested them to take their trade elsewhere as we never seemed able to have a transaction without annoyance.… Half our conscious time is spent in business, and I always considered that there was no reason why it could not be made a pleasure as well as a livelihood.…

“For the forty-five years that I have been in business, I have never built a thing that I did not think was based on the proper conception of the use to which the carriage or the automobile was to be put, and now that I am sixty-one years old I think I am entitled to keep to my old ideals.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.