Saturday, November 06, 2010

commission merchant

My great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, emigrated from Germany to New York in 1853.[1] During his first few years he tried to earn his living as factory worker, door-to-door salesman, errand boy, and grocery store clerk, but found none of these suited his temperament and ambition. In 1855, with the help of his cousin Henry Lefman,[2] he began what became an extremely successful career as merchant, first as purveyor of "woodware," then selling "segars," and finally, and most successfully, as commission merchant.[3]

I'm pretty sure Lefman's help was extensive because Windmuller was then a mere 20 years old and there was much to learn. Commission merchants brought into the country goods that were ordered by wholesalers, retailers, or even individual consumers. To achieve success, these men had to establish a reputation for good contacts with overseas sources, with ship owners, and with the banks who advanced the money they needed to cover purchase and transport costs. They had to know export and import tariffs, monetary exchange rates, the fluctuating value of gold. They had to be able to predict the sales potential for goods being ordered (because if the market failed the customer would not be able to pay). They had to insure against hazards of ocean shipping, including pirates.[4] They had to know each country's laws of export and import and their rules for quarantine and the like. In a time when each bank issued its own currency, they had to know which banks were solvent and likely to remain so.[5] And, in addition to all else, they had to have extensive knowledge of bills of exchange and other credit instruments.

There were many men in New York who set themselves up in this business, but relatively few who did well in it. Back in the early 1840s, Lefman himself had had to struggle out of bankruptcy.[6] Working at first mainly with sellers and shippers in Germany and later throughout Europe, Windmuller did better than most. He began work as a commission agent in 1855 and within a couple of years, at age 22, he started to achieve success.[7] by the time he was 25, he had married Lefman's daughter, mourned his mentor's death, and joined with a fellow German immigrant, Alfred Roelker, to form Louis Windmuller & Roelker with office at 20 Reade Street.[8]

As commission merchant, Windmuller dealt in "general merchandise," meaning just about anything that could be obtained in Europe for buyers in America. Over the half century he was in this business, records show him to have brought in the following (among many other) items:

1861 - Swords for use by the Union armies of the Civil War.
{Mike McWatters in Manufacturers of Regulation Model Enlisted Swords During the US Civil War reports that Windmuller had contracts for 6,685 sabers as well as musician, NCO, and light artillery swords. Harold Leslie in The American Sword 1775-1945 reports that he "contracted in 1861 with the Federal Government for 2,363 cavalry sabers, 200 noncommissioned officers' swords, 45 field officers' swords, and 57 foot officers' swords."}

1869 - Woolen goods
{Bulletin of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers (National Association of Wool Manufacturers, 1869)}

1876 - Linen goods
{New York as it was and as it is, giving an account of the city from its settlement to the present time : forming a complete guide to the great metropolis of the nation, including the city of Brooklyn and the surrounding cities and villages : together with a classified business directory by John Disturnell (D. Van Nostrand, 1876)[9]}

1876 - Vegetable Fibre— Unmanufactured.
{Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, Volume 9, United States. Dept. of the Treasury, United States. Customs Court (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1877)[10]}

1876 - More swords and sword fittings
{Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, United States. Dept. of the Treasury, United States. Customs Court (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1877)[11]}

1885 - Old iron rails from Russia
{OF IMPORTANCE TO BUSINESS MEN, New York Times, June 9, 1885.[12]}

1885 - Book binders' leather

ca. 1885 - Carpet wools
{Windmuller, Louis, & Roelker, 20 Reade St.: carpet wools, commission merchants; also silk. -- Official American textile directory; containing reports of all the textile manufacturing establishments in the United States and Canada}

1889 - Fish bladders

1891 - Barium, etc.
{Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 7, (George S. Davis Medical Publisher, 1893)[14]}

1895 - "Madagascar No. 21" (I don't know what this is.)
{Letter addressed to Messrs. Louis Windmuller & Roelker from Singer, Whitthaus & Co. London; a single page letter, folded with the address information, postage and cancels to the reverse.[15]}

1896 - Hock wines
{An ad in the Evening Post, Saturday, June 6, 1896[16]}

1897 - More hock wines
{The Illustrated American (The Illustrated American Publishing Company, 1897)[17]}

1898 - Walnut stocks for rifles to be used by American forces in the Spanish-American War.

1905 - Materials needed for printing books, ordered by the US Government Printing Office, including Morocco leather for bindings, monotype metal for Lanston Monotype Machines, Electrotype metal, and glue.
{Congressional serial set , Volume 5068 Senate Documents, 59th Congress, 2nd Session (G.P.O., 1907)}

1913 - Grain leather
{Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, United States. Dept. of the Treasury (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1913)}

1916 - Quinine, opium, and other drugs


This envelope, addressed to the firm, is dated 1876.

This image from a city directory of 1859 shows Windmuller's business and its address. 242 Washington Street was the address of Henry Lefman's business.

This image from an ad placed in 1912 is evidence that Windmuller was a self-employed merchant in 1855.

{American exporter's export trade directory (The Johnston Export Publishing Co., 1912)}

By 1877, he was doing business as Louis Windmuller & Roelker at 20 Reade Street

{Goulding's New York City directory (L.G. Goulding, 1877)}

Here is a letterhead for the company.

And their memo form.

I haven't found any old photos of 242 Washington where Windmuller started out as an independent merchant. This 1863 print shows nearby Greenwich Street in 1861.

{Greenwich Street below Thames Street, 1861 (1863); source: NYPL Digital Gallery}

This modern photo shows a location on Washington Street a little closer to 242 Washington. The building on the left is a 19th century structure which, like 242 Washington, is on the corner.

{The building at center has an interesting history. "Now an Irish pub, the building began as the home of Dutch immigrant Ryneer Suydam and his family in 1799. It was originally constructed in the Federal style, a nondescript testament to the standard housing style at the time (red Flemish bonded brick, 3.5 stories, a pitched roof and dormer windows). By 1852 it operated as an immigrant boarding house and a police report in 1859 described 103 Washington as a 'German dance-house.' According to Irving Lewis Allen in The City in Slang, dance houses were notorious places that particularly catered to seamen; patrons were required to order drinks for themselves and their dance partners after each dance. Some of the women were candidly prostitutes and made business arrangements while waltzing." -- 103 WASHINGTON ST: Heaven, Hell & Purgatory; photo © Untapped New York by Christoffer Delsinger and text by Untapped New York.}

This sketch from Harper's Weekly shows another aspect of Washington Street in 1916. The building with the clothesline most resembles what no. 242 probably looked like.

{Washington Street is the larder of New York, 1916; ; source: NYPL Digital Gallery}

This photo is as close as I can come to showing the building at 20 Reade Street. It was taken in 1926 and shows 19th century buildings a block away, on Reade between Broadway and Church St.

{Reade Street #55-61 - Broadway - Church Street, 4/21/1926; source: NYPL Digital Gallery


Some maps

This detail from Will Taylor's excellent panoramic map of 1879 shows 242 Washington and 20 Reade.
{The city of New York. Will L. Taylor, chief draughtsman (New York, Galt & Hoy, 1879); you can download a full-size copy of this map here; source: Library of Congress}

Insurance map of 20 Reade St. in 1857

Here is the full sheet.

Maps of the City of New York by William Perris Civil Engineer and Surveyor Third Edition 1857.

Here, according to Google Street View, is what the block looks like these days.

View Larger Map


Some sources:

An Age of Creative Destruction

Google Books



[1] I've written about Louis Windmuller quite a few times. To see them, slick the link called "family history" in the list of Labels at right.

[2] Two posts of mine about Henry Lefman can be found here and here.

[3] Woodware means simply articles made of wood. Regarding segars, Webster's of 1817 preferred "cigar" to "segar," see A dictionary of the English language (George Goodwin, 1817). But dictionaries allowed both spelling throughout the century, e.g.,
Ci-gar'. A roll of tobacco-leaves for smoking. It has a pointed mouth-end and a square-butted lighting end. The word is derived from Spanish cigarro, a kind of tobacco grown in Cuba. Also spelt segar. The cheroot is the cigar of the Manillas, and has a regular taper, but both ends are squarely cut off, one of course is smaller than the other.
-- Knight's American mechanical dictionary (Hurd and Houghton, 1876)
cigar, segar: Eng. fr. Sp. cigarro: a tight roll of tobacco arranged so that it can be held in the mouth and smoked. Webster says the word was originally applied to a kind of Cuban tobacco.
1730 These gentlemen gave us some seegars to smoke... These are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner, that they serve both for a pipe and tobacco itself: Quoted in Notes & Queries, 3rd Ser., viii. July 8, 1865, p. 26/2. 1775 Our hostess...smoked a segar with me: Twiss, Trav. Spain. [T.] 1797 if they are ever found with a pipe or cigar in any part of the ship excepting that in which smoking is allowed, they will be most rigorously punished : Wellington, Suppl. Desp., Vol. 1. p. 21 (1858). 1823 Give me a cigar: Byron, Island, 11. xix. 1826 he had a segar in his mouth: Capt. Head, Pampas, p.77. 1840 Cold fowl and cigars, Pickled onions in jars: Barham, Ingolds. Leg., p. 178 (1865). 1842 Sir John has been caught coming to bed particularly merry and redolent of cigar-smoke... The fact is that the cigar is a rival to the ladies, and their conqueror, too: Thackeray, Fitz-Boodle Papers, Miscellanies, p. 4. — the fatal cigar-box: ib., p. 17. 1845 But whether at bull fight or theatre...the Spaniard solaces himself with a cigar: Ford, Handbk. Spain, Pt. 1. p. 193.
-- The Stanford dictionary of anglicised words and phrases by John Frederick Stanford (University Press, 1892)
[4] In 1876, a reporter for the New York Times listed some of these uncertainties:

{Profits in Trade. Interesting Facts for Buyers. A Review of Various Branches of Trade — Profits of the Manufacturers, Wholesalers, and Retailers — the Cost of Articles of Common Consumption — What is Made. New York Times, April 30, 1876.}

[5] This comes from a warning given in a commercial dictionary in 1877:
The Banks of New York (309 in 1863) were almost all organised on the security system; that is, they were obliged to deposit security in the hands of a Government officer, proportioned to the amount of the notes they were empowered to issue. At first sight this plan appears to be well-fitted to prevent over-issue and abuse: but such is not really the case, and nowhere in the Union has the abuse of banking been carried to a greater extent or been more injurious than in this city. Some salutary regulations as to the inspection and audit of the books of these banks have lately been introduced under a new system. This, however, is a subject that has been fully discussed in its proper place in this work. (See Banks in the United States, art. Banking.)
-- A dictionary ... of commerce and commercial navigation ... by John Ramsay McCulloch (London, Longmans, 1877)
[6] See the Evening Post, Thursday, Feb. 3, 1841.

[7] This period of his life was summarized in a biographic sketch which appeared in 1893 in The University Magazine. It reads in part:
Louis Windmuller born in Westphalia, received his education in the Catholic College of Munster. To his regret, circumstances compelled him to abandon his favorite studies for the mercantile career, and he resolved to emigrate, at the age of seventeen. He always had a predilection for his country. At the age of 12 he wrote at school an essay "Why America Finally must Become the Principal Stage of the World's History." He believes to this day that it will, with New York as it commercial centre. Landing here in 1853, he served as clerk in various branches of trade, his first situation being in a dry goods establishment, where he earned $4, while he paid $3 a week for his board. Shortly before the panic of 1857, he began trading for his own account, first in a small way, and after his marriage in 1859, on a larger scale. He commenced soon to import goods on commission, and continues to do so ever since. He often had to work early and late; by his application to business and the promptitude with which he met engagements, he soon established a good reputation, and weathered all the financial storms through which this country has passed. He formed a copartnership with A. Roelker in 1865, under the firm which exists now.

Between that year and 1886 he made numerous trips to Europe. He visited not alone the large markets for goods but the principal centres of art and science as well. His leisure moments were spent in the galleries of Florence and Dresden, Rome, and St. Petersburg, in the studios of the artists of Paris and Dusseldorf, in the bookshops on London and Leipzig. He collected several hundred examples of American and foreign artists, and a library of thousands of volumes of choice works on art, history, and science. In Athens, he met Schliemann, who explained how he found through Homer and in Hissarlick the spot where he subsequently discovered the traces of the Siege of Troy.

Ever since his means have allowed it Mr. Windmuller has devoted a portion of his time to public affairs. Some twenty years ago he be-came member of the Chamber of Commerce, where he is Chairman of the Committee on internal trade. As such he made reports on improved roads, postal facilities, equitable rates of storage; he also served on several committees of charity of the Chamber.

-- The University Magazine, New York, (published by the University Magazine, 70 South St., NY), Volume 9, 1893, p. 547
[8] Alfred subsequently became Louis Windmuller's brother-in-law. I've written about Alfred's brother, Hugo, here.


{New York as it was and as it is, giving an account of the city from its settlement to the present time : forming a complete guide to the great metropolis of the nation, including the city of Brooklyn and the surrounding cities and villages : together with a classified business directory by John Disturnell (D. Van Nostrand, 1876)}

[10] Here's the text:
Treasury Department, May 4, 1876.

Sir: Your letter of the 29th ultimo is received, transmitting the appeal (96 e) dated February 15, 1876, of Louis Windmuller & Roelker from your decision assessing duty at the rate of 20 per centum ad valorem on certain vegetable fibre, imported per " Minerva," January 25, 1876.

It appears upon an inspection of samples, and from the special report of the appraiser, that the said vegetable fibre has not undergone any process of manufacture, and that it is similar to the article which, by Department's decision of the 22d ultimo, was held to be dutiable at the rate of 10 per cent. ad valorem under the provision in- section 2516 of the Revised Statutes for "all raw or unmanufactured articles not herein otherwise provided for."

You are therefore hereby directed to reliquidate the entry accordingly, and to forward a certified statement for a refund of the duties exacted in excess.


By order: 0. F. BUBNAM,

Assistant Secretary. Collector Of Customs, New York.

Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, Volume 9, United States. Dept. of the Treasury, United States. Customs Court (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1877)
[11] Here's the text:
Swords and Sword Fittings.

Treasury Department, June 29,1876.

Sir : Your letter of the 27th of April last is received, transmitting the appeal (43 e) of L. Windmuller & Roelker from your decision assessing duty at the rate of 45 per cent. ad valorem on certain so-called scabbards, grips, &c., imported per "Mosel," November 16,1875, which the importers claim to be dutiable at the rate of 35 per cent. ad valorem, as manufactures of iron.

It appears from the special report of the appraiser that the merchandise in question consists of swords complete—blades, grips, and scabbards requiring only to be fastened together to be complete swords—and foils; all of which are dutiable at the rate of 45 per cent. ad valorem, under the provisions in Schedule E for " swords," and "manufactures of steel or of which steel is a component part." Your decision is therefore affirmed.


By order: C. F. BUKNAM,

Collector Of Customs, New York.

Assistant Secretary.

Treasury decisions under customs and other laws, United States. Dept. of the Treasury, United States. Customs Court (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1877)
[12] Here is the text:

A decision was recently rendered by the Supreme Court, General Term, affirming the judgment of courts below in the breach of contract suit of Windmuller Roelker against Thomas J. Pope Brothers.

See also:
Newtown Register, Thursday, December 15, 1885.

[13] Here is the listing:

[14] Here is the directory entry:

[15] 1895, Singer, Whitthaus & Co. London, letterhead: A single page letter, folded with the address information, postage and cancels to the reverse. The letter is addressed to Messrs. Louis Windmuller & Roelker. The letter concerns a shipment of goods, a lot of Madagascar No. 21, that they were trying to get aboard the "Mohawk". Also that Madagascar was hard to come by and they could get Mozamiques, and Gambia No. 35 for less.




{The Illustrated American (The Illustrated American Publishing Company, 1897)}

[18] See the Krag Rifle Story by Mallory & Olsen. On page 98, Mallory mentions that Windmueller & Roelker were the company that supplied the stocks for the Springfield manufacturing company. There was a shortage of American walnut, for what ever reason, Springfield would have approved a substitute wood. -- 1898 Krag Rifle



Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks for the link and photo reference on Washington St. from! Was wondering if you could credit the photo © Untapped New York by Christoffer Delsinger and/or the text to Untapped New York?

Thanks!! Great great research here in this article.

Jeff said...


-- Jeff

codepic said...

Hi, I bumped into your blog post because I'm trying to track where my antique trunk is made. I found a parts catalog in here from which I found the crystallized tin being described and I guess it's the same type of tin my trunk is made of. Interestingly the parts catalog dates to 1889 and has the address "20 Reade Street, New York". Have you seen any reference to Campfield or Wood family during your research?

Jeff said...

Thanks, codepic. I hadn't heard of Campfield & Wood before reading your comment, but I've since done some research and have written it up here: