On Wednesday, November 20th, 2013, Hammacher Schlemmer will unveil its newly renovated landmark store in downtown Manhattan. The reimagined space features updated lighting, modernized display cases, and a new floor made of solid stone and hardwoods, providing an exceptional environment in which visitors can examine in person the innovative, problem-solving products for which it has become known for over 165 years.
Hailed in more recent years by The New York Times as a “renowned purveyor of bizarre gadgetry and elegant gifts”, “a mind-boggling treasure house of esoteric items” by the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, and “the darling of potentates and all manner of celebrities” by Town & Country, Hammacher Schlemmer began as a hardware store in New York’s Bowery district in 1848—a full 13 years before the Civil War began.
It quickly gained a reputation for offering some of the best tools to be found in the city. If an industrious mid-19th century New York craftsman needed a mortise gauge, saw bummer, or plumb bob, he sought it from Hammacher Schlemmer either in-person or by phone—in 1876, the store was listed among the initial 271 original subscribers to the New York City Bell Telephone directory.
A natural result of its burgeoning business, the company published its first catalog in 1881. Now the industrious craftsman could send for a hard-to-find tool not commonly found elsewhere. In 1896, it became one of the first retail stores to install electric lights. In 1902, when there were only 600 “horseless” carriages in New York City, the company opened the first auto parts department. Perhaps the greatest compliment to its reputation was provided in 1916, when Czar Nicholas II sent for one of every item in the store for use as manufacturing masters in anticipation of the Bolshevik Revolution.
To accommodate a growing assortment of products, the original store moved locations within Manhattan, finally arriving at its present location at 147 E. 57th Street in 1926.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the name Hammacher Schlemmer became synonymous with innovation. It introduced the first pop-up toaster (1930), electric razor (1934), and steam iron (1948), followed in later decades by the first electric can opener (1956), microwave oven (1968), and telephone answering machine (1968).
Visitors to the store in those days browsed among velvet-lined display cases after a greeting from doormen donned in tailcoats, the early manifestations of a fine shopping experience and superior customer service legacy that can be encountered today. Such an experience has compelled heads of state, royalty, stars of stage and screen, and captains of industry to visit the store to investigate its innovations. In addition to visits by those bearing the well-known names Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefeller, F.D. Roosevelt favored kitchen equipment while J.F. Kennedy purchased an electric bed. The Beatles purchased as gifts hundreds of The Nothing Box—a sealed box with colored bulbs that flashed in a random sequence. Alfred Hitchcock purchased steak knives for use in his film Torn Curtain.
More recent innovations include the first automatic coffee maker (1973), cordless telephone (1975), pocket television (1983), portable DVD player (1998), TV wristwatch (2003), and the slide-to-digital picture converter (2007).
Although perceived by many over the last 16 decades as the store to find intriguing gadgets, Hammacher Schlemmer has always viewed its offerings as functional problem solvers-it has always believed that the unusual should be exceptional, and the exceptional should be the norm.