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Groundbreaking Gadgets on 4th Avenue

For those of you who don’t flip through your grandparents’ stacks of mail order catalogs, Hammacher & Schlemmer (say that ten times fast!) was the city’s first hardware store, opened in 1848, and is the country’s longest running catalog, first published in 1881.

The store originally opened in 1848 at 221 Bowery at a time when high-quality hardware was hard to find.  Then just 12 years old, William Schlemmer would sell tools in front of his uncle’s store.   By 1867, he, along with newly acquired partner Alfred Hammacher (a fellow German immigrant), bought the business and renamed it Hammacher & Schlemmer.  The two men turned this local shop into a national company, introducing American consumers to such items as the pop-up-toaster (1931), electric dry razor (1934), automatic steam iron (1948), microwave oven (1968), cordless telephone (1973), among many others.

A view of the Hammacher & Schlemmer building in 1906, at the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and 13th Street (image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, photograph by: Byron Company)

the building today

In 1904, having outgrown its quaint Bowery location, Hammacher & Schlemmer moved to 133 Fourth Avenue (also known as 127-135 Fourth Avenue and 102-104 East 13th Street).  Built in 1897 by Marsh, Israels & Harder, this building occupies an odd plot of land- picture a square corner lot with a little square cut out of the very corner.  The AIA Guide refers to the building as the Hancock Building, but we haven’t been able to dig up any more information on the origins of that moniker (any tips?).

L: the 13th Street facade, which has had significant ornamentation removed; R: the 4th Avenue facade, which is very much intact

The Fourth Avenue facade is more elaborate than its 13th Street counterpart, as it was the entrance to the store.  The facade contains Romanesque elements like rounded arches on the top story and a subtle contrast of limestone texture.  It also has Beaux-Arts elements, like the elegant cartouche above the doorway, Ionic pilasters flanking the middle stories, and the V-shaped decoration above the windows.  This eclectic mash-up of styles makes this building extremely unique, not dissimilar from its hardware tenant that gained the motto, “if you can’t find it, try Hammacher & Schlemmer,” for its wide array of hard-to-find products.

L: the Beaux-Arts detailing above the main doorway; R: the facade ornamentation on 4th Avenue

By 1926, the company had once again grown too large for its home and moved to 147 East 57th Street.  133 Fourth Avenue, however, remained in the family until 1936 under the ownership of William Schlemmer’s daughter Ida S. Bruch, who owned several other properties in the area.  The 57th Street location is still the company’s flagship store today and the catalog continues to thrive.  So, next time your toast pops up in the morning, you can remember that it was right here in the East Village that so many everyday household products got their start.

R: the catalog in 1896; L: the catalog in 2010
a typical gadget found in today’s catalog

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