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:
I don’t know, it doesn’t look that boring. Below is the building today, which has been designated a city landmark:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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
Stephen Mason practices environmental and business law in Los Angeles. He is currently writing a book on the 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer security personnel hearing, and participates in Ivy Style comment discussions as “AEW Mason.”