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The more I learn about J. H. Lewis (1846-1918), the more of an enigma he becomes. He was one of the most successful merchant tailors of his time with stores located in downtown Boston and in Providence, RI. He was respected nationally by those in his trade and in the business world generally. He was socially active. Though it does not appear he often took center stage to speak, he “spoke” powerfully with his wallet which was substantial. Like Booker T. Washington he believed in investing in education. And like Booker T. Washington, he had come up from slavery. Unfortunately, unlike Washington, he did not write a memoir and tell the story of his life in his own words. So here are my few words …

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John H. Lewis

John Henry Lewis would have been eighteen or nineteen years old at the end of the Civil War. He left the Enfield, North Carolina plantation where he had formerly been a slave and traveled north with a Union regiment that was returning home to Concord, NH.  Lewis eventually made his way to Boston where he learned the tailoring trade. Well-made clothing was in great demand. Handsome, articulate, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, Lewis excelled as a merchant, targeting his clientele expertly. With a starting capital of less than $100, he quickly grew his business, investing strategically in location (downtown Boston not far from Jordan Marsh) and in advertising to reach his primary audience, the wealthy Boston Brahmins and their children.

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Boston Globe Ad

The size and placement of his ads are significant.  He selected publications that had select audiences like the Boston Globe. When you see his ads in the back pages of the Harvard Lampoon, along with those of Brooks Brothers, it becomes clear why some biographers state that his clients were sometime referred to as “the Harvard set.” His own son would one day attend Harvard.

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Of course, no matter how great the advertising Lewis had to back up his words with action. He needed to put the infrastructure into place and hire the right people to produce consistently great quality, stylish clothing. And he did so.

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By the late 1890’s Lewis was reportedly the second largest merchant tailor in Massachusetts and fourth largest in the U.S. He paid $10,000 a year in rent and employed over 50 men and women, both black and white. His business earned an estimated $150,000 to $175,000 per year. As a self-made man of means, he invested in property in Boston and also down south, including purchasing the plantation where he had been born a slave. Horse racing was especially popular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Lewis maintained a stable of the finest race horses.

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On September 27, 1877, thirty-year old Lewis married twenty-year old Harriet Smith Peake. She was the only child of Mary Smith Peake, a free woman of color who was famed for teaching the first freed slaves, considered “contraband,” beneath a tree in Hampton, Virginia, a tree still standing today and known as Emancipation Oak.

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Mary S. Peake, mother of Harriet Peake Lewis

By 1880, John and Harriet had two children, John Henry Lewis Jr and Mary Peake Lewis. The Lewis family would become members of Boston’s black elite composed of successful businessmen and women, doctors, lawyers, and musicians. Not all of them were equally wealthy, but they had in common a certain class. They were very cultured and socially active and lived lives in parallel with their white wealthy counterparts. They would vacation in the same exclusive areas like Martha’s Vineyard and Newport. They attended the same opera houses, playhouses, and even the same churches … and sometimes at the same time. Segregation in Boston was not quite as prevalent as it would later become.

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Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley

For instance, as reported in an 1894 edition of The Woman’s Era, a publication founded for women of color by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley:  “At the last confirmation at Trinity Church a new and beautiful feature introduced was the giving of flowers with the confirmation certificate to each candidate. The beautiful font was filled with long-stemmed Catherine Mermet roses which, after the services were over [Rector] Dr. Donald distributed to each of his new members. Mrs. J. H. Lewis, her young daughter, Mary, and her sister, Miss Melvin were members of the large class confirmed.” The Lewises would have been attending Trinity Church with other African American peers like Mrs. Ruffin, Lyde Benjamin and Dr. Samuel Courtney.

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Lyde W. Benjamin and Dr. Samuel E. Courtney, photos from National Negro League Proceedings

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In 1900, Booker T. Washington chose Boston to launch the National Negro Business League. John H. Lewis was one of the invited speakers. He had been a proponent for such a gathering of successful black business leaders since the early 1890s. His remarks were brief but inspiring concluding with:

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In 1902 his wife suddenly died. Her passing was noted in a North Carolina newspaper, The Roanoke News. “She lived to see her husband a prominent merchant of Boston, not only a substantial property owner of that city, but the owner also of the plantation upon which he was born and the founder of a school upon that plantation. In the death of his wife he has the sympathy of the white people of this community. The funeral services were conducted by the assistant rector of Trinity Church, at one time under the rectorship of the late lamented Bishop Phillips Brooks.

The Boston Globe noted her death in the following article:

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He would eventually remarry to a prominent Philadelphia educator named Dora Cole. She would become very active in the Boston community taking on leadership roles with regard to philanthropy, fundraising and entertaining. Along with great opportunities the early 20th century brought economic challenges for Lewis. People were increasingly able to shop for quality items in department stores versus needing tailor-made clothing. Lewis’s health may have begun to decline. He and his wife began to spend more time in North Carolina at the home he’d created there.

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The New York Age July 2, 1908

By this point he may have effectively retired and had turned over the running of the company to his son. The son may not have been as adept at weathering the challenges of a tailoring trade in a changing world. It appears that the company closed and its remaining merchandise and stock sold in 1916.

John H. Lewis died in the winter of 1918. He is buried in a family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.

Sources & Additional Reading

Evidence of Progress Among Colored People by G. F. Richings 

http://www.hamptonu.edu/about/emancipation_oak.cfm

Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fort Monroe

The Woman’s Era, produced 1894-1897, by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ridley

African Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years

Boston Globe Archives

Boston Post Archives

The New York Age Archives

National Negro Business League 1900 Proceedings

The American tailor and cutter. v. 23 (July 1901-June 1902).

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