It was a simpler but still complex world in 1858, as Macy’s came into existence. The Industrial Revolution was still to come, cars hadn’t yet been invented and the waves of immigration were still being formed to create the melting pot that would define American culture in the 20th century.
This story first appeared in the September 6, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But the young country was heading down a trail that was to lead to civil war two years later, while New York City was slowly growing into a metropolis and a bastion of retailing. Milestones in communication took place when financier Cyrus W. Field laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and stagecoach and mail delivery service began between San Francisco and St. Louis, completing the 2,600-mile trip in 20 days. (The first transcontinental railroad was still 11 years away.)
The seeds of modern convenience were sewn with Hamilton E. Smith’s invention of a mechanical washing machine, Edwin T. Holmes’ installation of the first electric burglar alarm in Boston and the first mailboxes being installed on the streets of Boston and New York. The streetcar was patented by E.A. Gardner of Philadelphia, and Lyman Blake patented a shoe manufacturing machine.
Politics was embroiling the country. Abraham Lincoln, the unlikely but eventual Republican candidate for president in 1860, debated Sen. Stephen Douglas on the slavery issue during the Illinois senatorial campaign. Douglas won the election, but the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought the lanky lawyer national acclaim.
During one of his oratories, Lincoln spoke his famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” further setting the stage for war between North and South. Later that year, he said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
President James Buchanan, under pressure from the South, urged Congress to admit Kansas to the Union under the Lecompton Constitution, which contained clauses protecting slaveholding and a bill of rights excluding free blacks, even though the proposal was roundly rejected in a territorial election. Congress balked and Kansas was later to be admitted to the Union in 1861 as a free state. Minnesota was admitted in 1858 as the 32nd state, one without slavery.
China was in the news, as the U.S. signed a treaty of peace, friendship and commerce, following the Treaty of Tianjin that ended the war between Britain and China, which also opened more ports to foreign trade. British Crown rule was established in India, a colonial period that would last until 1947.
Evolution by natural selection was an idea newly revealed to the world by Charles Darwin and his colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin and Wallace both came up with biology’s most important concept and their theory was presented to the Linnean Society of London, leading to Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
In New York, the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized baseball league, was formed, and the first fee, 50 cents, was charged to see a game between the New York All Stars and the Brooklyn All Stars at the Fashion Race Course in Queens. (New York won, 22 to 18.)
John Henry Belter, a German-born furniture maker who had introduced the Victorian rococo furniture style to the U.S. in 1844, opened a factory to make finely crafted carved furniture.
While Macy’s was opening its doors, across the Hudson River, pocketbook maker Julias Hahne founded Hahne & Co. as a specialty store in Newark, N.J., at the corner of Central Avenue and Broad Street.
The Wild West was burgeoning and the discovery of gold in the Colorado Rockies caused thousands of people to join the “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush. The rush created a few mining camps such as Denver City and Boulder City that would develop and draw the first European settlers into the region.
In the arts, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”was popularized when it was played at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria, to the crown prince of Prussia. William Wells Brown published the first black drama, Leap to Freedom, and Dion Boucicault’s Jessie Brown premiered in New York.
In addition to Darwin’s tome on evolution, some notable books published in 1858 were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Charles Carey’s Principles of Social Science, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Thomas Henry Huxley’s On the Theory of the Vertebrate Skull and William Morris’ The Defense of Guinevere.
In Paris, the House of Worth was established by Charles Frederick Worth, called the “father of haute couture.” The cancan was first performed to the “gallop” from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, Orphée aux Enfers, which premiered that year.
Some famous people were born in 1858, including future president Theodore Roosevelt; physicist Max Planck; engineer George Washington Goethals; writers Austin O’Malley, Rémy de Gourmont and William Watson; sociologist Emile Durkheim; suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and inventor Rudolf Diesel.