Sunday, October 14, 2012

On Beyond Holcombe: Park & Tilford

On Beyond Holcombe, by Malcolm A. Goldstein, appears on Sundays at 1898 Revenues:

JAN  17  1899

With the examination of Park & Tilford, this study focuses on a different type of user of battleship revenues, and brings another area of merchandising within its ambit, for P & T was a high end grocer in New York City, the Fairway or Dean & DeLuca of its day. In an era where retailing was less specialized than it is today, the inventories of grocery stores and drug stores often overlapped, and grocers offered their customers liquor, tobacco, candy, patent medicines and perfumes as well as meat and vegetables. The Company’s “P & T” cancel therefore appears on many values of the Battleship Revenue series and in many different typefaces. In addition, the P & T enjoyed a long and hardy life well beyond the Spanish-American War. Because of its longevity, P & T cancelled stamps when the taxes were revived to help finance World War I, and its name and corporate structure ultimately outlived its retail outlets

P & T was founded by Joseph Park and John Mason Tilford in 1840. Park, born in 1823 in Rye, NY, just north of New York City, was the son of a farmer. Tilford came from further upstate. He was born in 1815 in Argyle, NY, northeast of Albany, NY, and was a minister’s son. They both chanced to become clerks in the same grocery business in New York City, and soon decided to strike out on their own, opening their first retail grocery store on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. One of the great secrets of their success was that they anticipated New York City’s rapid expansion, and kept building new locations to serve their customers as they progressed ever northward. The other key to establishing their sterling reputation was that they supplemented their outstanding stock of domestic goods and produce with the best foreign goods they could import, such as Crosse & Blackwell products from England, cigars from Havana, as well as choice candies, liqueurs, cognacs, brandies and perfumes from France.

By 1886, they were operating four retail locations in New York City as well as a branch store in Paris, which served as their merchandising depot for exporting goods to the United States. A contemporary publication of the time noted that P & T was an establishment “the very sound of whose name makes epicures’ mouths’ water.” They served as grocers to the prominent and famous. Thomas A. Edison’s assistant later noted specially in his memoirs that Mrs. Edison herself in Menlo Park, NJ ordered both groceries and delicacies from P & T. The flagship store, facing the Plaza Hotel and Central Park on Fifth Avenue near Fifty Ninth Street, was constructed so beautifully in 1883 with the latest of electric and gas fixtures that the Times extolled it as the “very beau ideal of what a first class grocery store should be.” As well as retailing to the general public, P & T developed a wholesale business as the provisioner for hotels and restaurants in New York City. P & T’s company headquarters were maintained at the end of the Nineteenth Century at 21st Street and Broadway, and the firm then employed between 350 and 400 workers as well as 100 wagons and horse teams to make prompt deliveries citywide. In 1890, P & T was a big and complex enough operation to warrant incorporation under the laws of New Jersey. Park became President of the Corporation and Tilford its Vice-President.

As it seems with many businesses that begin as partnerships, the first name, Park, appears to have been the outgoing personality and Tilford the more retiring. Among his business involvements, Park served on the board of directors of the Bank of the Metropolis in the company of such business luminaries as Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Co, jewelers; Hicks Constable of Arnold & Constable, clothiers; William Steinway of Steinway & Sons, piano makers; W D Sloane of W & J Sloane, furniture dealers, and other notables including the President of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. He also served on the boards of the Plaza Bank and the New York County Bank and was a director of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. He was a member of the New York City Chamber of Commerce and, together with his son, the New York City Produce Exchange. Near the end of his life, his testimony before a Joint Committee of the New York State Legislature, as well as his son’s, concerning veiled threats made by the American Tobacco Co to cut P & T off as a supplier of its tobacco products was memorialized in that Committee’s 1897 Report recommending stiff state laws to control trusts, like the tobacco trust, after noting that the efforts of federal authorities to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 had been thwarted by the 1895 ruling of the United States Supreme Court case of US v. E. C. Knight Co that sugar refineries were a local or intrastate business which could not be governed by federal law that applied only to businesses conducted in interstate commerce.

In his private life, Joseph Park showed as much acumen and determination as in his business dealings, highlighted by his repurchase of his father’s farm in Rye, NY which he then grew into a large Westchester County estate nestled among other such privileged tracts. He was a member of several fashionable social and yacht clubs as well as the Museum of Natural History. While he lived on until 1903, ill health ultimately forced him to relinquish control of his interest in the partnership to his son, Hobart, during the early 1890s. The second name in the partnership, John Tilford, although also regarded as an able and adroit businessman who served on the board of directors of two different banks than Park, was described in his obituary as a man of “domestic habits” who “did not belong to any societies or clubs.” Tilford died in 1891, passing his share of P & T to his son, Frank (1852-1924).

The next event in P & T’s evolution is actually a non-event, which is chronicled in the history of one of today’s eminent Wall Street law firms, although handled by one of its predecessors. The law firm conducted elaborate but fruitless legal negotiations in 1896 concerning the sale of P & T - possibly initiated at the behest of Frank Tilford - to a London based concern through an offering on the London stock exchange. These unsuccessful talks are mentioned by the law firm to illustrate the extremely poor business atmosphere which prevailed in the United States after the Panic of 1893 and before the election of McKinley in 1896 (although it also tacitly demonstrates how law firms themselves stay in business and generate revenue in poor economic times for even fruitless talks engender billable hours). Writing about a conversation with an American corporate official from a like company involved in a similar putative sale unfolding at the same time as the P & T negotiations, the lawyer reported to his potential English buyer as the 1896 election drew near:

He then said that business all over the country was extremely bad ... that grocers all over the country were only ordering one-half of what they had been accustomed to buy, evidently preferring to wait until the results of the election to commit themselves ... He found the wholesale grocers were afraid to give credit; because, if the election went against McKinley, there would be many failures.
Once McKinley was elected, the specter of imminent social upheaval threatened by William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party quickly blew over, and the need for grocers to make a hasty exit from their industry passed. Bolstered by the Alaska Gold Rush, the Gilded Age resumed its stately waltz, not to be disturbed again until the Panic of 1907. The younger Park and the younger Tilford managed to “stay the course” and were “firmly in the saddle” when the battleship revenues were used.

However, the next stage of P & T’s own corporate history began with Hobart Park’s sale of his interest in the company to Frank Tilford in 1906. (Hobart Park (1855-1948) spent the rest of his very long life parleying his father’s real estate holdings in Westchester into its own separate sizable fortune.) Frank Tilford carried P & T forward in the new century. Perhaps the height of the Gilded Age was simply the acme of the era of civic biographies, or perhaps inherited wealth draws forth more distinguished roots even in the egalitarian United States, but Frank Tilford, as an officer of P & T, seems to have received the lavish praise and handsome portraits in books like Men of the Century: An Historical Work Giving Portraits and Sketches of Eminent Citizens of the United States (1896) and The Successful American (1899), that neither the senior Park nor the senior Tilford, as humble and resourceful grocers, ever merited. In an 1896 biographical sketch, Frank, not his father, disclosed that the Scottish family name dated back to 916 A.D. when the appellation Tilford - derived from the phrase meaning “sword’s edge” in Norman French - was earned by a particularly warlike and brave primal ancestor who slew a barbarian king in battle. To emphasize the family’s exalted roots, Frank added that his mother’s family’s first ancestor in the United States was among those who had crossed the Atlantic on the storied Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Frank made up in directorships of banks and other enterprises, as well as social clubs, what his father lacked. However, he firmly disavowed any interest in entering into politics and “declined all offers to enter public life.”

As well as building and opening more retail P & T branches, Frank made a number of other significant changes in company operations. Perhaps the earliest and most striking modification he made was that he began to run ads for P & T, an event, an advertising trade journal commented in its June 26, 1907 issue, that: “stir[red] the blood ... in publishing and mercantile circles [by] breaking of a non-advertising policy that has characterized this house for sixty-five years.” While happy that P & T was now spending a sizable advertising budget, the article explained that P & T characterized its outstanding trait as “reliably.” Yet “Park & Tilford had never until last year, gone even to the length of stating that they are reliable. The public has been left to find this out and has found it out in the course of three generations, for this house has today a prestige in the grocery field not a whit less impressive than Tiffany in jewels.” Like Hobart Park, Frank also became interested in real estate. He channeled his enthusiasm and acumen to becoming a member of the New York City Real Estate Exchange, although he concentrated on the more northerly reaches of Manhattan rather than Westchester. In keeping with that interest in northern Manhattan real estate, Frank also moved the company’s headquarters uptown to Harlem at 310 Lenox Avenue (corner 126th St), a building now preserved as an historic landmark and today occupied by the National Basketball Players Association. Frank also supervised in 1921 the construction of a seven story candy factory in the middle of a complex of warehouses combined with a garage and a stable occupying the western ends of 42nd, 43rd and 44th streets in New York City.

In 1923, perhaps sensing his end was near, Frank Tilford sold P & T to David Schulte, an entrepreneur who had already made the first of his several fortunes in the tobacco industry and owned his own chain of retail tobacco stores. At one point, Schulte had the idea of making P & T a national chain grocery store. In 1928, he set up a P & T subsidiary company capitalized at $20,000,000 to accomplish that purpose, but the Depression squelched those thoughts and ultimately entirely choked off the fixed retail store location end of P & T’s business. However, Schulte had other ideas to carrying P & T in new directions. Throughout Prohibition, P & T marketed candy and introduced new perfumes, and Schulte, perhaps thinking ahead, even briefly experimented between 1925 and 1927 with ownership of the Old Overholt & Large liquor distilleries (which were serving as bonded internal revenue service liquor warehouses during Prohibition) together with their huge stocks of aged rye whiskey. When Prohibition ended, P & T marked the date of December 5, 1933 with chartered ships full of Europe’s best whiskies, wines and cordials on the ocean readily to land their copious cargoes in New York and San Francisco to “re-wet America’s whistle” as well as aid the rich and well-to-do with the necessary business of re-stocking their liquor cabinets. The New Yorker Magazine of the time gushed that those chartered ships were to be re-painted to P & T’s specifications, but the first had to leave Europe so quickly to make the long voyage to San Francisco on schedule that there was insufficient time to do the re-painting. Apparently finding that aspect of the liquor trade experience particularly satisfactory and profitable, Schulte decided to concentrate on the liquor manufacturing business after Prohibition ended. He gathered a number of small, old distinguished American distilleries under the P & T brand name, making it a significant label in the liquor business from the 1930s to the 1950s. Much of the extant P & T advertising material, particularly its large and colorful weekly ads in Life magazine, date from this period.

Schulte died in 1949, leaving his own two merchant prince sons in charge of P & T. In 1954, they sold P & T to Schenley Industries, Inc., which ultimately merged P & T into itself in 1958. The P & T name seems to have disappeared in the United States after this merger, but the Canadian division seems to have continued to exist as Park & Tilford, Distilleries Ltd. After this time, however, the P & T name seems to have been swallowed into the vortex of corporate consolidation on an every swifter and grander scale. Schenley Industries was purchased in 1968 by Meshulam Rickles, an Israeli industrialist probably more memorably identified in the public mind with his efforts to make Pia Zadora a star than with his high wire financial maneuvers. Rickles sold Schenley to Guinness & Co, the Irish brewery in 1986. Guinness, in turn, rolled Schenley together with another acquired distillery group, Distillers Company Ltd, which included such brands as Johnny Walker, Dewar’s and Haig & Haig (and had earlier marketed Thalidomide through its pharmaceutical branch), into United Distillers Ltd in 1987. United Distillers itself merged with another giant food and liquor holding company, Grand Metropolitan PLC, to create the mega-corporation Diageo PLC in 1997. When created, Diageo encompassed food holdings as well as liquor interests, but antitrust, as well as brand consolidation considerations, caused it to sell its food holdings entirely. Those food brands included such well-known and everyday names as Pillsbury Foods and the Burger King Corporation. Diageo today is a worldwide, multi-national alcohol conglomerate. Many of these complex mergers, especially the 1958 transaction in which P & T was absorbed into Schenley Industries, and the 1986 transaction between Guinness and Distillers Co which created United Distillers, were fraught with complex litigation over the respective rights of the various shareholders and, particularly the 1986 transaction, (which led to criminal charges as well), the legitimacy and legality of the inducements offered to them to make the transactions happen.

While individuals such as Schulte and Rickles could themselves be subjects of more searching examination for the vast array of offbeat details that reveal their characters, they lie beyond the scope of this study. P & T’s name is most concretely memorialized in the buildings in New York City associated with it, not only the one in Harlem, but also its former store at the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway, which is today a mixed residential and commercial building. Other sturdy structures remain as the Messrs Park and Tilfords erected them, but they have been namelessly re-purposed. P & T has passed into the collective stream of conscience as the place where the author Henry Roth’s protagonist Ira worked in Roth’s autobiographically tinged Mercies of A Rude Stream, as well as lending its name to the saxophonist Ben Webster’s “Park & Tilford Blues.” Perhaps most significantly, through a 1969 endowment by Schenley Industries of a garden on or near the former Park & Tilford Distillery grounds in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Park & Tilford has become a name associated with a popular multi-faceted garden, a shopping center and a geographical Canadian neighborhood district.

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