Hammacher Schlemmer

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Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. Inc.
Industry Retail
Founded  1848 (1848-MM)
Founder William Tollner
Headquarters Niles, Illinois, United States
Number of locations
Website www.hammacher.com
57th Street shop

Hammacher Schlemmer /ˈhæməkər ˈʃlɛmər/ is a retailer and mail order dealer founded in 1848. They claim to be the oldest continuously published catalog in the United States, with a claimed annual catalog circulation exceeding 30 million. It is based in Niles, Illinois. The company is owned by the heirs of J. Roderick MacArthur, the founder of the Bradford Exchange, who purchased Hammacher Schlemmer in 1980.[1]


Hammacher Schlemmer began as a hardware store specializing in hard-to-find tools in the Bowery district of New York City in 1848. Owned by sole proprietor William Tollner, it became one of the first national hardware stores. In 1853, Tollner’s nephew and part of the company’s namesake, William Schlemmer, arrived from Germany and began working at the store. It was also around this time that a German investor and friend of the family, Alfred Hammacher, decided to invest $5,000 into the company.

As the Civil War spread across the country, a severe coin shortage in New York City made it nearly impossible for retailers to make change for their customers. In response to this shortage, the United States government allowed merchants to mint their own coins, known as "rebellion tokens" or "copperheads". The store, at that point called Hammacher & Tollner, began distributing their own copper coins until the shortage ended.

By 1867, William Schlemmer had purchased his uncle’s share of the business and became a partner in the company, whose name changed to Hammacher & Co. In 1878, Hammacher & Co. was among the first companies to install a telephone in their store, as well as one of the original subscribers to the Bell Telephone Company Directory. Hammacher Schlemmer was also one of the first stores in the country to have electric lighting in the showroom.

The year 1881 marked the first known printing and distribution of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog and by 1883, the present name, Hammacher Schlemmer, came into use. By the turn of the century, the business moved uptown to larger quarters.

Merchandise was added to meet consumer demand. With pianos the favored parlor instrument, Hammacher Schlemmer began selling piano parts to piano makers throughout the country; twenty boxcar loads a year went to one customer, Kimball Brothers.[citation needed] The store also opened up the first auto department and the first home delivery service via automobile, at a time when there were only 600 "horseless carriages" on the streets of New York City.

In 1912, Hammacher Schlemmer printed its largest catalog to date, spanning 1,112 pages. One hardbound edition is now housed in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. By 1926, Hammacher Schlemmer moved once again, into its present location at 147 East 57th Street. This location put the store in proximity to Manhattan’s most elegant residential neighborhoods. These new patrons wanted luxury items, so hardware was relegated to the basement, and esoteric gadgetry and gizmos were added to the shelves.

The 1930s began Hammacher Schlemmer’s long history of showcasing new inventions in the pages of their catalog. Beginning with the first pop-up toaster and portable radio in 1930, Hammacher Schlemmer went on to garner a reputation for introducing products that were the first of their kind — oddities that went on to be regarded as household necessities. In 1948, Hammacher Schlemmer celebrated its 100-year anniversary with the introduction of the first automatic steam iron and the amazing electric broom. After more than 100 years as a family-held business, Hammacher Schlemmer was sold in 1953 to a group of investors and eventually turned over to John Gerald. In the 1960s, Hammacher Schlemmer offered products that had never been available for home purchase, including a regulation-sized bowling alley and restored London taxi cabs. However, the 1970s brought a return to the specialized gadgetry Hammacher is known for today. In 1983, the Hammacher Schlemmer Institute was created as an independent but affiliated branch of the company, whose purpose is to comparatively test top-of-the-line products. Later, in 1988, Hammacher Schlemmer became one of the first retailers to go on the Internet with CompuServe, the first major commercial online service in the United States. In 1995, America Online built Hammacher Schlemmer a store on the Internet. By 1998 Hammacher Schlemmer launched their own website, Hammacher.com. That same year, Hammacher Schlemmer celebrated its 150th anniversary. As a tribute, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani renamed the block on 57th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue as Hammacher Schlemmer Way.

Retail Stores[edit]

Hammacher Schlemmer first began as a hardware store at 221 The Bowery, where it remained from 1848-1859. It later moved to 209 The Bowery, remaining from 1859 to 1904.

The famous yellow fever plague of 1822, ascribed to impure water, desolated lower Manhattan and caused business and terrified inhabitants to move out of town to Greenwich Village. As there was no individual water supply, water was furnished by numerous wells with pumps — some in the middle of Broadway. “Choice” water was carted around in large casks by hucksters. At last an extensive “reservoir” was planned, and in 1836, a well one hundred and twelve feet deep and sixteen feet in diameter distributed water through twenty-five miles of mains to two thousand homes. It was located on the exact spot where Hammacher Schlemmer resided from 1904-1926 — 13th Street & Fourth Avenue.

The “New York & Harlem Railroad” passed the 13th Street location of Hammacher on the street that at the time was called the Bowery. The railroad continued to White Plains. The fashionable school of William Forrest (later known as Forrest and Quackenbos) — where many well-known New Yorkers of past generations were educated — was located down the street.

Inside of the New York City store at Christmastime.

From here, the company moved into its present location at 147 East 57th Street, in 1926. Located on the site of the famous Huntington Stables and near Park Avenue, the modern twelve-story building has housed hardware, gifts, housewares, bath, dressing room and closet furnishings, kitchen and fireplace equipment, furniture and a vast array of the gadget and gizmos that Hammacher Schlemmer is known for.

In the 1980s, two additional stores were added to Hammacher Schlemmer, one in Chicago and one in Beverly Hills.[2] Both were later closed.[3]

In 1999, a store was added at The Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami, Florida. It later closed.

In popular media[edit]

The New York store was featured in a scene from the movie Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), during which the title character played by Tom Hanks visits the store to be outfitted for an exotic trip.[4]

In a scene from the Family Guy episode It's a Trap (a parody of Return of the Jedi) one of the characters calls Hammacher Schlemmer to order a wall-sized crossword puzzle.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Isadore, Barmash (1980-05-08). "Hammacher Schlemmer Sold to Illinois Collector". The New York Times (New York). pp. D1. 
  2. ^ Isadore, Barmash (1989-04-10). "BUSINESS PEOPLE; Change by Hammacher Aims at Catalogue Sales". The New York Times (New York). pp. D1. 
  3. ^ Lee, Murphy H. (2005-04-15), "Gadget seller grows online", Crain's Chicago Business 28 (16): 54 
  4. ^ Joe Versus the Volcano, On The Set of New York (website). Accessed july 10, 2013

Coordinates: 40°45′39″N 73°58′7″W / 40.76083°N 73.96861°W / 40.76083; -73.96861