Better Things: Rogers Peet & Co.

postcard-chicago-carson-pirie-scott-and-company-rogers-peet-clothes-1940s

Rogers Peet was inducted into the halls of Americana with the song “Marry The Man Today” from the 1950 musical, “Guys & Dolls.” The lyrics tout the clothier as among “the better things: respectable, conservative and clean,” in company with the likes of Readers’ Digest, Guy Lombardo, golf, galoshes and Ovaltine.

That may befit the era, but with the sole exception of golf, I prefer the associations made by Jonathan Yardley in his moving memoir of his parents’ life, “Our Kind of People.” Yardley’s grandfather, Alfred Gregory, was a Rogers Peet man; a person who “liked to go first-class,” who gave his piano-playing wife a Steinway grand, who had his family’s photographs “taken by Fabian Bachrach,” and who “bought his boring gray suits at Rogers Peet.”

Gregory was a Wall Street lawyer coming of age at the time of the Great War who probably found it convenient to walk up Broadway to Rogers Peet at Broadway and Warren Street. I know that’s what my own grandfather did, as witness this 1918 photograph of him decked out in one his many “boring” Rogers Peet suits:

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I don’t know, it doesn’t look that boring. Below is the building today, which has been designated a city landmark:

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From the 1840s on, lower Broadway hosted more and more mercantile activity, especially dry goods dealers such as textile merchants and clothiers. In fact, they formed the largest business district in the city. This coincided in the mid-19th century with the increased market for readymade cloths. Brooks Brothers was already well into it, and in 1874 wholesale merchants Marvin N. Rogers and Charles Bostwick Peet decided to join forces and get a piece of the action.

Originally, Rogers Peet & Co. had four partners, the additional two being brought in as existing associates of Marvin N. Rogers & Co.; they were William R. H. Martin and Frank R. Chambers. Ironically, neither Rogers nor Peet remained long with the firm that would bear their names for the next hundred years: Rogers, because he died in 1877, and Peet, because he withdrew from the firm in 1888 to pursue a career as a successful insurance executive. Peet, having built a considerable reputation, died suddenly in 1902. With both Rogers and Peet gone, William R. H. Martin took the reigns. He actively led the firm for a time and apparently remained with it until his death in 1912. But Martin, like Peet, also rose to prominence in another field, becoming one of the most successful real estate developers in Manhattan.

Bottom line:  These guys knew how to make clothes—and money.

Almost by default, the firm’s long-term future and success fell to the fourth partner, Frank R. Chambers. Indeed, he was with the firm for 65 years, from the day it opened until his death in 1940. Chambers may have started his work life as a bookkeeper, but he turned out to be an innovative retailer.

Just as Brooks Brothers found success in a set of guiding principles (to sell only the finest quality garments at a fair price and profit to discerning customers), so too did Rogers Peet. The partners’ guide was “honesty, quality, respectability, and customer service.” From the outset they offered fixed-prices (using price tags, a retail novelty at the time), a quality guarantee, and ensured that all advertising was truthful. Today we expect all this, but back then these were novel business practices.

Chambers, who oversaw advertising for 35 years (1880-1915), had a motto befitting an old-line natural-shoulder clothier: “Tell the truth. Understate. Never overstate.” Below is a typical advertisement from 1879, courtesy of the New York Public Library collection.

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Chambers himself wrote much of the advertising copy and the actor John Barrymore, in his youth an artist, drew lighthearted cartoons also featured in Rogers Peet advertisements:

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The above ad is from 1906 and shows the firm is already selling in Chicago. The firm’s daily advertising in newspapers and other publications had, by 1915, been recognized as forward thinking, a forerunner of today’s “branding.” That year a popular trade publication noted that “[e]verything that goes out of the store, including the boxes, bundles and envelopes, is utilized for attractive, refined, and dignified advertising.”

Honesty, quality, and professionalism made for success and rapid expansion as the firm moved into the 20th century.  It’s not clear just how many stores the firm had at its peak. But it is clear there were at least four in Manhattan at one point and one in Boston. One way of tracking the firm’s evolution as a purveyor of conservative, natural-shoulder tailoring is through its advertisements over the years:

Rogers Peet Company, 104 Tremont St. at Bromfield Boston 8

The above item is actually an ad in the form of a postcard. The mid-gray 3-button suit is standard; undarted with natural shoulders. It’s worn with a typical 1950s club collar shirt. The shirt collar also appears to have a tab for a slightly nattier look. The jacket looks as if it may sport four sleeve buttons.

Rogers Peet also had a Unversity Shop:

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The text of this 1944 ad offers the finest British woolens for ready made or made-to-order cloths. The finest materials and workmanship remained paramount and the firm was known for maintaining an enormous inventory. At this time note there are three stores in Manhattan and a Boston store at Tremont Street at Broom Street.

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As manufacturers, Rogers Peet sold through third-party retailers from the East Coast to Chicago to San Francisco.  Below, a softly tailored sharkskin suit found at Douglas MacDaid, 20 Nassau Street. This ad and many more like it regularly appeared in the Daily Princetonian during the 1950s:

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This is my preferred silhouette.  The high button stance and the roll of the lapel are exquisite.  If forced to draw a music analogy, I’d say it’s not jazz (though I’m a fan), but Sir Edward Elgar. By 1984 I couldn’t find this silhouette at Brooks and crossed 44th Street to J. Press, when I could afford it back then. To the same effect is this Harris Tweed:

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This coat has all you could expect: above, swelled edges and a two-button sleeve and, shown below, we see lapped and finished seems, a half lining, and a hook vent.  In this era Rogers Peet ready-to-wear construction also featured hand-sewn button holes as well as collars and sleeves attached by hand.

The following photo of the Rogers Peet store at 600 5th Avenue taken in 1953. It ispart of the collection of the Library of Congress documenting department stores in the U.S.  There are many more from this collection on Google images and also on eBay:

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Rogers Peet remained an independent firm until 1962 when it was purchased by Cluett, Peabody & Co., maker Arrow clothes. It continued as a strong firm until the ’70s. But with the rise of the mall, the advent of casual attire and changing tastes generally, it became a discounter of clothing of no particular distinction. The Warren Street store, now a landmark, closed somewhere around 1976. In 1979, the store at Fifth Avenue, across from the New York Public Library, was still open and had become a discounter similar to Bancroft Clothiers. I remember once going in; it was like going into one of those great ocean liners left to rot in some obscure dry dock. It had joined the ranks of venerable stores like B. Altman. Very sad.

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To end where I began, Jonathan Yardley said his grandfather was very careful about how he dressed because he felt dress to be a part of the picture we paint of ourselves for others. And, he was aware, too, of the effect it had on people.  Today that thought does not, apparently, cross the minds of most grown men. But it should, and invariably when I’m out and about I wish it did. That is to say, let’s not forget there is such a thing as visual pollution. Rogers Peet belongs to time when no self-respecting professional man would leave his home without being properly dressed, a time that will likely never return. — STEPHEN MASON

47 Comments on "Better Things: Rogers Peet & Co."

  1. R. Rafael | June 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm |

    My grandfather was also a Rogers Peet customer. I remember going into the 5th Avenue store in 1985 and being unimpressed. Years later, I ran into a veteran salesman at the Cherry Hill, NJ Brooks Brothers who used to work at Rogers Peet. He told me that in the day Rogers Peet was an outstanding store of high quality. That made sense for me knowing my grandfather.

  2. Woofboxer | June 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm |

    This is great stuff Mr Mason, immensely enjoyable and informative, thanks.
    Christian – this is what I tune into Ivy Style for!

  3. John Aburdene | June 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm |

    Now that “Richard” has been laid to rest/condemned to the ash heap of blogging history, it was a pleasure to read this illuminating article.

  4. Jeff Jarmuth | June 3, 2013 at 2:56 pm |

    I wish I was old enough to remember this marque. It looks like they had perfect soft-shouldered garments and a great eye for fabrics. Sort of like J. Press meets Ralph Lauren, except that the fabric (JP) isn’t pedestrian and the cut (RL) isn’t too English.

  5. I enjoyed this article very much & remember the Rogers Peet name & stores in NYC.

  6. I like the look of a high “2.5” roll as well. Great piece. The images really helped bring it to life.

  7. I believe that one of Rogers Peet’s specialties, at least in its earlier years, was custom made military clothing and ecclesiastical garments. Does this ring a bell with anyone?

  8. RLN- I would say that is correct. See first post card at top of page. Also I saw a clergy cloak on EBAY several months ago.

  9. @Woofboxer

    Ditto!

    M Arthur

  10. First rate piece.

    Thanks for the Elgar reference.

  11. Marvelous insight and great history.

  12. AEW,

    How curious to see you mention Jonathan Yardley in this memento Rogers Peet. In college I had a summer’s stint at Middlebury Language Schools studying Chinese, and made the acquaintance of Sarah Yardley, Jonathan’s youngest sister. Amongst the many topics we talked about, we touched on her respect for his writing ability, and her own parents’ lives at private schools in the context of my own experiences. Sometimes in Chinese. We were in different years, and a slight correspondence post-summer did not last, but I recall our chats with a shared surprise and pleasure at the coincidence of two persons on opposite US coasts to only connect, as E.M. Forster had it. Thanks kindly for the memento- “breve et inreparabile tempus omnibus est vitae.”

  13. Richard Meyer | June 4, 2013 at 6:51 am |

    Wonderful stuff. Peet also housed H Harris tailors for a while.

  14. @ Richard Meyer – Very interesting that H. Harris was associated with Rogers Peet. H. Harris was the tailor the Duke of Windsor used for making his trousers.

  15. Wow, I just looked at the boater hat I am wearing today and it is a vintage Rogers Peet & Co.. Quite a fun and accidental tie-in to the blog post.

  16. Harris also did Jack Kennedy until he self disclosed to Life Magazine.

  17. Richard Meyer | June 4, 2013 at 1:34 pm |

    @ RLN: “pants across the sea”, as the Duchess called it; the Duke had Scholte of London make his jackets, H Harris his suit and sport trousers. @ Squeeze: Correct; it was published in Life. He then switched to Chipp.

  18. A. E. W. Mason | June 4, 2013 at 8:31 pm |

    Many thanks to all for the kind comments on the post and thanks to CC for giving me the opportunity to write it. I’m glad it was enjoyable. I learned a few things myself writing it.

    Bebe

    Very interesting about Sarah Yardley. I seem to recall she was a bit of a rebel, but I’m not sure. In any case, the Yardley parents’ example could be described as leading a life of “quiet inspiration.”

  19. A brief chat (last week, in between appointments)with the owner one our favorite New York clothing firms confirms the piece’s closing hypothesis: a time that will never return. “Not in my lifetime,” he said.

    Nor in mine. Few things are more anti-establishment than caring enough to wear a tailored suit (or jacket) and tie.

    The blow of the realization was softened by another twenty minutes of stories about efforts at copying the old Brooks Oxford. Apparently nobody could do it–not Gant, not Troy.

    I wonder if the Rogers Peet tailors ever made such an attempt.

  20. AEW,

    Perhaps your characterization of Sarah Yardley as a “rebel” is from Johnathan’s memoir; I have not read it. I would not have thought her so- she was self-effacing and possessed of a lovely Puritan beauty (“quiet inspiration” indeed). Nonetheless, as I have encountered in postings on this blog now so many years removed from the time of my college acquaintance with Sarah, there are still those American so-called “elites” whose concept of self is parochial. For them, as it was for those I met while in college, a passing awareness of French is sufficient worldliness. I am certain it is among such Americans that learning Chinese would be considered rebellious. And, however much we may lament the decline of our favored clothing, we can look to such persons for the reason the ethos behind a little matter like one’s dress has eclipsed in contemporary US society.

  21. A. E. W. Mason | June 6, 2013 at 5:32 pm |

    Bebe,

    Yes, I may be mistaken; I have the book at home and will double-check it. If I recollect, the book recounts an event in which one of the daughters is arrested in a protest of some kind and informs her parents at that same time that she is “experimenting” with pot or perhaps other drugs. Helen and Bill Yardley were liberal-minded parents if I recall, but felt this particular daughter had crossed a line. On matters of dress, part of the problem, I think, is just a coarsening–even numbing–of sensibilities and appetites. But, too, there is a kind of “fun” some of the financially successful have in exalting in the “morality of aspiration” while flouting simple basic considerations, such as, for example, looking presentable. They’re not a good example.

  22. My grandfather was a taylor at Rogers Peet from 1929 until 1954. I recently received as a gift a gold watch he received after 25 years of service. He passed away in 1974. I will cherish this gift forever.

  23. Julie Williams | February 28, 2014 at 8:36 pm |

    That’s Bromfield Street and Tremont, not Broom. 104 Tremont Street to be exact. Thank you for an excellent blog post.

    Julie Williams

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  25. H,Harris was my grandfather. So pleased to have found this article. So much more history I’m trying to collect. All so interesting.

  26. I was just watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s…as George and Audrey exited Tiffany’s… a brown panel truck, which looked like UPS delivery, had gold lettering… “Rogers Peet”… flashed by… so naturally I Googled the name thinking it was an interior decoration firm… which it was not… Thought you all would like this little story…

    Regards,

    Bruce Badeau

  27. Ray Hetzel | May 16, 2015 at 12:18 am |

    I was a stock clerk at Rogers Peet, 5th Ave. Store from 1958 to 1960. My main job was to take the measurements from the head tailor as he fit VIP clients in the fitting room. My first “tailored” suite was a gift from the store’s Asst. Manager, Mr. Paladino. It fit like a second skin. I still have and wear a camel hair over coat that looks just as good today as it did the day I got it. At 72 I still try to carry on the tradition of dressing like a gentlemen. Thanks to Rogers Peet & Co. I’m a commercial photographer in Dallas, Tx now and shoot fashion. What I learned at Rogers Peet & Co. about style still helps me today in my photography.

  28. Tony Myers | July 2, 2015 at 3:50 pm |

    I was wondering if anyone knows relatives of H. Harris who made suits for JFK, if JFK really dumped H. Harris because in a book about JFK, it says after the Cuban Missile Crisis speech,in 1962, Sam Harris was waiting for him outside of the Oval Office. And another question, why did H. Harris close it’s doors rather than go to another section in New York City.

  29. Tony Myers | July 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm |

    Does anyone have pictures of any suits made by H. Harris

  30. Ginger Sammito | October 19, 2015 at 7:18 pm |

    I found an old button in my mothers sewing box and wondered this history of the name imprinted on the button. I am so glad I read your article. I understand the person behind the button now.

  31. John Bracken | December 20, 2015 at 7:01 pm |

    I just pulled out an old brown alligator belt that was my fathers. It’s a Rogers Peet. I researched the company out of interest and it led me here! A wonderful article. I will wear the belt proudly. I wish the days of fine attire would return as I feel like a fish out of water dressing in the ivy style. I won’t give up hope though!

  32. Kenneth A Bauman | September 1, 2016 at 11:23 am |

    My Grand Father William Azzaly worked as a Bushelman at R/P until his death in Aug 1944. I just had the pleasure, leafing through, a long lost scrap book, compiled after his passing. It was full of sympathy notes and tributes from his co-workers at the store/factory. I doubt you would see anything similar today….maybe a short email and CUltr. They ran a very class act, at Rogers Peet

  33. Vern Trotter | July 19, 2017 at 10:45 pm |

    Several of the employees at Brooks’ 346 Madison store had previously worked at Rogers Peet when I was there in 1959-60. It was the same union.

  34. I want to know when H. Harris closed it’s shop.

  35. @ Tony Myers. I am one of H. Harris’s granddaughters. I don’t have specific answers to the questions that you posed above. I do know that certain suits/ pieces are in the permanent Met collection and photos of those are available online. I’m curious about your particular interest in the history of my grandfather and his business and wondering what other information/ knowledge you might have.

  36. Tony Myers | April 9, 2018 at 11:54 pm |

    @ SAS All I know Of the H. Harris store is that it was in NYC on 57th Street and later the Rogers Peet store on 600 5th Avenue near Rockefeller Center. I also know that he made suits for my all time favorite President JFK and that is what got me into having my suits custom made instead of ready to wear. I read an article about him and how he was President Kennedy’s tailor in the October 13, 1961 edition of Life Magazine. Also did your parents or Sam Harris ever talk about meeting JFK and why H. Harris closed it’s doors.

  37. @ SAS, I was born in 1978 and through out the years of reading about JFK, I learned that he had his suits made by H. Harris. I know he had a Litrico suit ( a famous Italian tailor.) So it has to be an honor knowing that a relative, Sam Harris, made suits for the legendary JFK. P.S. I forgot to mention that Sam Harris was on a February 1962 episode of to Tell The Truth and Johnny Carson was one of the panelists not long before he took over the Tonight Show on NBC.

  38. Peter Brown | April 19, 2018 at 11:55 pm |

    My grandfather was Samuel Harris, the grandson of Herman Harris. Samuel Harris took over the H. Harris business and was a very respected tailor in his own right. It was Samuel Harris was JFK’s tailor and who made his inauguration suit. He was also the tailor for Robert Kennedy, Thomas E. Dewey, the Duke of Windsor, as well as other notable people. He worked a few years after apparently being dismissed as JFKs tailor (I do not personally know if this is true, and if so, why he may have been dismissed). Also, I do not know the reason why my grandfather closed H. Harris Tailors (I have the sign in my house). However, he was ill for some time and passed away early in 1966, and this may have been the reason for closure of the family business, as he had no male children to take over the business.

  39. Tony Myers | April 20, 2018 at 1:17 am |

    @ Peter Brown and SAS. Thank you for that amazing information. I read old newspaper clips that your father was tailor to both the legendary JFK and Bobby Kennedy. I know about that part and that the Duke of Windsor, Thomas Dewey, and Nelson Rockefeller were also his clients. Even though I am 40 years old, I was curious about JFK dumping your grandfather as a tailor because in October of 1962, just minutes after he gave his Cuban Missile Crisis, your grandfather father was outside of the Oval Office and apparently forgot to tell Mrs. Everlyn Lincoln, his secretary, to cancel his appointment with him. I read this in a book about JFK( I have tons of JFK books).That is how I found out about your grandfather.In the article I was reading about your grandfather, did he have his besides in New York in both Washington and Boston. P.S. he also made a suit for Marlon Brando to wear for a movie called The Ugly American. Did you parents also meet JFK in person and any other well known person your grandfather tailored for. One more question, did your grandfather just tailor suits, or did he tailor both suits and custom dress shirts? Thank you very much.

  40. Tony Myers | April 20, 2018 at 5:53 pm |

    @ Peter Brown or SAS, so H. Harris closed shop maybe around 1964 or 1965. That is what I am guessing. Maybe you parents or another relative close to him would know. Thank you again for all the amazing information about H. Harris.

  41. Mr. Mason, thank you for the history lesson. My grandfather, Robert M. Campbell, started out at Rogers Peet in the mailroom after serving in the military during WWI. He retired in the mid-1960’s as a vice president. One of this last jobs was traveling the Great Britain to purchase wool and camel hair for their suits and coats. I actually had a R-P camel hair coat as a youngster. One of my fondest childhood memories was my grandmother taking me into the city to go to my grandfather’s office. I always had to wear a blazer when I went to R-P.

  42. Oddvar Krekvik -Norway | May 27, 2019 at 9:45 am |

    My grand-uncle worked in Roger Peet for several years.
    His name is Peter L. stokke born in Norway
    Died in 1947.Was married with Charlotte lived in Queens N.Y. We have other info about his life.
    We was told that he was the designer of the army battle jacket
    known as the “Eisenhower Jacket.” Title as vice President in a period?
    Would be very grateful if anyone have more information about for us the misterous man.

  43. my dad was a salesman there since after WWII – he had wed and sun off and never missed a day of work traveling from Staten Island – they sold out to “peabody” (sp) and basically told him tomorrow is his first day working for them – he was treated financially terrible – disgusting – he sold to arold palmer – robert kennedy and blab blab blab – the company treated their workers like crap – FU rogers peet and the rest of that greedy industry…

  44. About H. Harris, I was wondering when it joined Rogers Peet and what year it finally unfortunately closed it’s doors. I mean H. Harris of New York was tailor to the legendary JFK, Robert Kennedy, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Marlon Brando to name a few.

  45. Gary Glazer | July 3, 2021 at 12:53 pm |

    My. late friend Richard Schwartz and I visited Rogers Peet at 600 Fifth Avenue in April 1964 on a ninth grade trip to New York from University Heights Ohio. We were interested in determining whether dark socks were a “thing” or just a fad. Upon seeing the store and its merchandise, I purchased a pair of dark socks in order to increase my junior high school cool factor when back in Ohio. I recounted this visit during my eulogy to Richard at the Frank Campbell Chapel in February 2015. We finished our shopping trip with an excellent lunch at Tad’s Steak House and proceeded on to the City Squire Motor Lodge for the bus trip back to Ohio.
    It was a great store with a wonderful sales staff who treated us like adults. I still remember a beautiful and sunny April morning in New York-two 14 year olds on top of the world!

  46. Vern Trotter | July 5, 2021 at 7:20 pm |

    In 1959-60, Tad’s Steakhouse sold a very good steak and baked potato for $1.25. Several locations in Manhattan. Across the street from Brooks was the Biltmore Hotel; you would meet your girl under the clock in the lobby. Fridays it was packed with cadets from West Point and students from other colleges there also. Long gone. The Roosevelt Hotel at 45th & Madison just recently closed a few weeks ago. Rogers Peet was just a few blocks away on Fifth. Good clothes but no comparison to Brooks In my opinion. Fine old customers and employees though. J Press across the street on 44th was some competition. Chipp also. Abercrombie and Fitch was up Madison a couple blocks. What a great store then. Press is the only one still around at the Yale Club. A& F is not the same type store now. Sad now for me on that stretch of Madison Avenue. Maybe Brooks Brothers will be in the next life.

  47. Charlottesville | July 6, 2021 at 11:10 am |

    Thanks for re-posting this delightful paean to a neglected heyday classic. It was a bit before my time, but I recall the name. Also, thank you Messrs. Glazer and Trotter for reminding us about Tad’s. I recall my father taking the family there on a trip to the city, and how fascinated I was to see steaks being cooked on a flaming grill which was visible from the sidewalk through the front window. Apparently, the last outpost closed only a year or so ago.

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