William Schlemmer, who, more than any individual, is responsible for the longevity and success of our company, was born on this day in 1841. Described as “sober, thrifty, and hard-working” in a 1939 New Yorker profile, for 64 years Mr. Schlemmer dedicated his life to building the largest, most complete hardware store in the country.
According to published accounts, in 1853 William Schlemmer arrived in New York from Germany aboard a crowded, dingy packet ship. The 11-year-old had few possessions and wore a tag tied around his neck bearing the address of his uncle, Charles Tollner, who owned a successful hardware store in the lower Bowery. The young lad went to work for his uncle hawking tools and hardware from tables in front of the store at a salary of $2 a week—half of which he sent back to his family in the old country.
In the early years, it was not uncommon for Mr. Schlemmer to arrive at work by five in the morning, seldom leaving before midnight. In 1857, he convinced a wealthy acquaintance, Albert Hammacher, to invest $5,000 in the enterprise. As the years went by, Mr. Schlemmer gradually gained ownership of the company, first buying out his uncle’s shares, then in 1885, most of Mr. Hammacher’s. However, perhaps in a nod to his humble roots, he never held a position higher than treasurer.
Even in his later years, Mr. Schlemmer always arrived at the store by 8 a.m, wearing his trademark silver spectacles and neat bow tie. Affectionately known as “The Old Gentleman” among veteran employees, Mr. Schlemmer was famous for wandering through the store, asking questions and making sure every aspect of the business was operating smoothly. In 1914, Mr. Schlemmer passed the torch to his son, William F. Schlemmer, and in 1916 he passed away at the age of 74.
And while the “Old Gentleman” may no longer patrol our offices, his spirit lives on through the lofty, uncompromising standards of quality and service he set. These are the same principles on which we conduct business today.