The following was originally published in The Old Merchants of New York City, Vol I, dated 1885.
The copyright has expired. It is now considered to be in the public domain.
The Old Merchants of New York City, Vol I
The history of the names of some of the old merchants is very curious. The large grocery houses of Bininger is an example of our statement.
The eldest, or founder of the name that came to this country, was a native of Zürich, Switzerland. The father, Christian, his wife and son Abraham, came in a brig from a port in Europe to Savannah, Georgia. On board the vessel came the celebrated John Wesley.
The vessel was within two days' sail of her port when Mr. C. Bininger and his wife died, and their bodies were committed to the great deep. Abraham Bininger, then a lad, was educated in the great Methodist Whitfield Orphan School in Savannah. A large crowd of Moravians had settled in this Southern city. They afterwards emigrated north to Philadelphia, and carried young Bininger with them. The Rev. Mr. Whitfield came North' also. He had bought a large tract of land (about five thousand acres) at Nazareth, near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This land he sold to the Moravians, and they, after a short stay in Philadelphia, removed to it. The young Abraham Bininger was educated in the Moravian tenets, and with the intention of becoming a preacher in that faith.
When of age, he settled at Christian Spring, a mile from Nazareth, and there began his preaching. He married at the same time, and became the father of four sons. One named Abraham, (who was destined to found the great grocery house in New York city in after years,) and of Isaac, Christian and Joseph. The old father went out as a Moravian missionary to St. Thomas, in the West Indies. While there, he was told that "none but slaves were allowed to preach to slaves." He forthwith sent a letter to the Governor of St. Thomas, offering to become a slave, in order to save the souls of the black race. His letter was transmitted to the King of Denmark, who, as a mark of his appreciation of such devotion, gave permission for the Moravian parson to preach to any class in St. Thomas.
On his return from the West Indies, the old pastor started off with Mr. Whitfield as a missionary among the Indians. His success was very great. He returned to New York. That year Mr. Embury, the first Methodist, came to this city. He got up a society, and they erected a church in John street. In this labor the Rev. Abraham Bininger was very active, and his name appears upon the early records of John street church.
From New York city Mr. Bininger went to Camden Valley, (now Salem, in Washington County in New York.) Mr. Embury moved up with him. They took up a large quantity of land there, and then was erected the old family mansion, that is still in existence, and still in the possession of A. M. Bininger, of this city, who is the grandson of the old Moravian minister. The furniture in that house in 1862 is the same as it was in 1760 — 102 years ago. That year Abraham, the eldest son, was dispatched to New York to begin an apprenticeship at the tanner and leather dresser trade, in the Swamp. He served there seven years, but did not like the business, and declared ho would never engage in it for a living. He was at that time 21 years old, having been born in 1740.
After his apprenticeship was finished, he commenced getting a living by working at day's work as a common laborer. He hired out wherever he could get a job. He had at this time a friend named Peter Embury, who was a nephew of the Methodist minister, the founder of John street Church. Peter (afterwards celebrated as a great grocer and wine merchant) was then learning the chair making trade. Peter had a sister, and she married Abraham Bininger about the time he left the tanning business. Peter Embury went early into the grocery line, and was located at the corner of Beekman and Nassau streets, opposite the old Brick Church, now the Times Buildings. This Mr. Peter Embury lived in Greenwich street, not far from Duane, and died only four years ago, a very aged man.
Miss Kate Embury was a beautiful, buxom girl, and as smart as a steel trap. She soon discovered (after she became Mrs. Bininger) that it was up hill work for a white man to support a family with the earnings of a day laborer, and she proposed to assist him by taking in washing and ironing. This was agreed to, and their stock increased. The ambitious lady then proposed that he should purchase a table to stand outside of the door, and she would while washing keep her eyes looking out of the window at this table and its contents of merchandise.
Their place, a little shanty, was in old Agustus street, now City Hall Place. At first the buxom young wife only sold a few cakes, cookies and sugar plums. From that it changed to cabbages, potatoes, fruits — tobacco, snuff, and finally a few groceries. Here was the foundation of the great Bininger grocery house.
In after years, when Abraham Bininger was enjoying the fruit of his early planting, he took quite a delight in narrating all the incidents of his early days, especially to such men as DeWitt Clinton and the other political great men of the day.
Abraham, after his little store was started, found that day labor was precarious. He plodded along contentedly for some time, and then he bought a buck and saw, and took up the business of sawing wood, then a very money making employment.
When Mr. Embury, his brother-in-law, built the store in Beekman street, Abraham carried a hod; and afterwards pointing to the house, boasted that the greater portion of the bricks were carried on his shoulders. In those days, hod-carrying was not at all disreputable. Even masons carried it; it had not been monopolized by the Irish laborer, as now. After a while he became so "forehanded," that he was able to buy a horse and cart. This he drove for some years. Meanwhile, his grocery department prospered under the careful management of his "Katy." The sales increased, and he frequently was called upon to purchase seven pounds of sugar a day, and carry it home, to be retailed out by the pennyworth. Up to this time all his stock of groceries has been carried on his own back, but an important change was soon to occur. The old pastor was settled at Camden Valley, as has been narrated: it had become quite a place. Isaac Bininger, the brother of Abraham, after the war, lived with his father at Camden Valley. He had been finely educated — Abraham had not received an education. Isaac opened a store at Camden Valley. It was the most extensive store between Albany and Montreal, and was the wonder of the primitive inhabitants.
We have heard the aged and venerable Doctor Matthews, of this city, (he who preached so long and so faithfully to the members of the Garden Street Church — Exchange street — burnt in 1835), state that the great event of his boy life was, when once dressed up in clouded stockings, he was permitted to ride five miles from home on a load of wheat to visit the great store of Bininger.
So successful was Isaac, that he sent down to New York city for his brother Abe to come up and share in the mercantile prosperity of the old Bininger stock. Abraham departed from New York, leaving Katy Bininger in charge of the shop in Augustus street, and joined his brother at Camden Valley. He was taken into partnership. After a short time the brothers decided that Abraham should come back to New York and sell or barter away the produce, pot ashes, &c., received at the country store, and buy the return goods. At that period it took two weeks to do a journey now made in a few hours. Abraham, in accordance with the agreement, returned to New York, never to leave it more; and here may fairly be said to be the start of the great grocer house, for up to this period the merchandize had not gone greatly beyond the sale of a few penny's worth of snuff, sugar, tobacco, candies and vegetables — a mere huckster business. After acting with his brother Isaac for some time, and being the sole agent, they concluded to dissolve, and Abraham received his share of the profits.
He then opened on his own hook a small grocery store in Maiden Lane, opposite the old Oswego market, that then came nearly up to Broadway where the Howard Hotel now stands. It was a great stand in those days. The centre of produce, fruits and groceries. Prosperity flowed in upon the prudent grocer. He bought two lots opposite the market, Nos. 10 and 12 Maiden Lane (now.) They were 25x80 feet deep each. He paid 250 pounds for each, equal to $750 now.
Splendid marble stores now stand upon them, and they are still owned by the descendants of the early grocer who bought them.
Back of these stores at that time, fronting on Liberty street, or rather in the very middle of the block, stood the old Quaker church. Many of our readers will remember a later period, say thirty years ago, when it was occupied by the pleasant little Grant Thorburn as a flower garden and seed store. That Grant Thorburn is still alive — probably a hundred years old, if not more. His descendant still carries on the business in John street, near Broadway.
But the store and the Quaker church thirty and thirty-five years ago! Such a wonder. The building was about forty feet back of Liberty street. But in front of it were long beds of beautiful flowers, the admiration of all our city. Then, old Grant kept every kind of plants and flowers known. He had cages of Canary birds and lots of gold fishes, then a wonderfully rare affair.
How many times the writer has been run out of that place by "little Scotchy," as the Liberty street boys used to call him.
But to return to Abraham Bininger. While in business in Maiden Lane — in fact until he died, he lived in a most moderate two story brick house at No. 164 William street, between Beekman and Ann streets. He was a wonderfully sprightly old gentleman, and only died in 1836, a very aged man.
After being in Maiden Lane for years, he bought the property on the west side of Broadway, 25x100, on the lot next from the corner of Liberty street. He paid for it $11,000. No building upon it. Everybody said he was crazy to pay such a price. That no man could stand it. It is still owned by the family.
Abraham had a son named Jacob Bininger. His health was wretched. He traveled in Europe many years, and died in Charleston in 1840, leaving one son named Abraham, after his grandfather, the shrewd grocer, and his great-grandfather, the determined minister of the gospel.
Twenty years ago no house in the United States had such a stock of choice wines, liquors and cigars, &c., as this famed house. Out of the old stock has arisen two distinct houses, both dating far back into the past, but continuing the same kind of business.
A. M. Bininger — the grandson of the old man who settled the town of Salem, and who was the son of Isaac, who started the mercantile business in that town in 1774, and established an agency in New York city in 1776, to which the old country store was finally removed about 1778, and is still carried on by Abraham at No. 19 Broad street, under the firm of A. M. Bininger & Co. — claims to be the most ancient — in fact. the original Hapsburg Bininger, as he no doubt is, for he is the hereditary owner of Bininger Castle, its portraits, old furniture, and rare old wills and title deeds, at Salem, New York, and possesses the original letter of the King of Denmark, replying to the offer of the Moravian missionary, at St. Thomas, to wear chains, and go into slavery in order to preach Christ crucified to the slaves of that Island.
The Broad street A. M. Bininger claims precedence as son and grandson of the oldest Abraham and his son Isaac, who started the store in 1774.
The A. Bininger, of Thames street and Liberty, claims only from his father Jacob, who evidently was not the "Original Jacobs" of the old grocery house of Bininger.
The house of A. M. Bininger & Co., No. 19 Broad street, the ancients, have adopted the great modern invention of advertising, and use this fearful lever to make sales, doing a monster business in thousands of papers.
The house of A. Bininger, in Liberty street, have never done anything in the way of advertising beyond the old style of $40 per annum for an advertisement in the Courier and Enquirer, and the antediluvian sheets for which the subscription of $10 for the daily paper is thrown in.
My task is not to judge. I have given a faithful record of a grocery house as "Old as the Hills." We have gone back in this instance 160 years to 1700, when the little boy Bininger, after his father and mother had been tossed into the deep blue sea, landed in Savannah, and became the founder of that name on this continent.
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