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The Tailor Chase: Gustav Stern

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 1900.

A “Tailor Chase,” you ask? Not a “Dressmaker Chase”? Indeed! In a first for us here at Fashion Conservatory, we have a Chase subject who wasn’t a woman, and who wasn’t even a dressmaker until the end stage of his career. But who are we if not boundary pushers, so let’s do this….because I can guarantee you’ll find this fellow interesting.

Gustav Stern's Ohio, County Naturalization Records, 1800-1977.

This gentleman wasn’t a woman, no, but he was an immigrant. Gustav Wilhelm Stern was born in Strasburg, Germany on 1 June 1850. At the time of Gustav’s birth Strasburg had been part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg, but by the time Gustav decided to leave his native land for the United States his homeland had been embroiled in a series of wars which ultimately ended in the unification of the German Empire. His government had just introduced a requirement for all males to register upon their twentieth birthday to serve an obligatory four to seven-year conscription into the Prussian Army. Gustav was approaching his nineteenth birthday in June of 1869; like so many other men from the German states who emigrated to avoid this service, this might have been what pushed him towards seeking greener pastures.

The Cleveland Directory, 1879.

Then again, it might not be the only reason. It appears Gustav wasn’t alone when he stepped on board the ship Manhattan the day after his nineteenth birthday. His parents and siblings also joined him. The family set sail from Hamburg and made their way to Cleveland, Ohio by mid-1870. Gustav immediately found a job as a tailor and took up residence at 108 Parkman Street while working for a successful merchant tailor named John Scheidler at his business on 146 Woodland Avenue. He worked for Scheidler for a few years, and by 1875, Gustav had both become a naturalized American citizen and had left Scheidler’s employ to take up a position as a cutter for merchant tailor William Pohlmann. Pohlmann’s establishment was located at 535 St. Clair Avenue, just down the street from his parents’ home. Stern boarded with them while he worked for Pohlmann. 

Petzke, Stern & Co. listing in City Directory, 1886.

The following year Gustav married Louisa Sizler and, with classic entrepreneurial spirit, styled himself a Merchant Tailor (a custom tailor who owned his own business and supplied all the fabrics he used). But he wasn’t yet ready to become completely independent. He turned to his brother-in-law Otto Petzke, himself a master tailor, and the two formed a partnership beginning in 1879. Called Petzke & Stern, the partnership lasted in some capacity until around 1887, when Otto Petzke’s brother Albert joined the partnership and it became Petzke, Stern & Co. The firm advertised themselves as Merchant Tailors out of two addresses, 261 St. Clair Avenue and 1204 Euclid Avenue. But this new partnership was not to last; by 1891, Stern had left. The partnership was retitled Petzke Bros

Ohio Probate Records. Book of Dockets dated 1886-1888.

The Cleveland Directory Co's City Directory, 1886.

The dissolution of the partnership left Gustav alone and in competition with the many merchant tailors and seamstresses up and down Euclid Avenue. While custom-made tailoring was a well-established business for the well-to-do in society - many of whom lived in the famed Millionaire’s Row on Euclid - by the end of the nineteenth century, the industry was slowly being upended by the explosion in demand of ready-to-wear garments. Sizing standards for both men and women were being developed, and both sexes enjoyed the convenience of choosing separates as less-costly ways to supplement their wardrobes; men could purchase pants separate from their suit jackets, and women could vary their day-to-day looks by opting for a variety of shirtwaists. For a merchant tailor like Gustav, surely this meant he had to adjust his output in order to best supply the needs of his customers.

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland Ohio, 1890.

As an aside in this tale, none of the addresses we’re speaking of exist any longer in the form they appear. Before 1905, many streets had similar names, or were numbered inconsistently, but in 1905/06, Cleveland passed a city ordinance to standardize and simplify the way streets and addresses were organized. It divided the city into four sections and used an east-west system to number addresses, which also became easier to remember - evens to the right, odds to the left. To pull an example from Gustav’s life - as you’ll recall, he worked for John Scheidler at 146 Woodland Avenue in the 1870’s. Today that address falls in the 800 block of Woodland Ave., SE.  So keep in mind if you’re interested in researching vintage dressmakers like we are, it’s always good to check if the city or town your subject was living in also changed their addressing system. For Cleveland there’s a fantastic resource we used to figure out where pre-1905 addresses are now. It’s called Project 17211: Old and New Street Numbers and it’s held at the Cleveland Public Library. Luckily for us they’ve put it online

Cleveland City Directory 1889-1890, page 753.

Before we head back to Gustav’s life, a few more fascinating little detours. One has to wonder just how insular the dressmaking industry was in Cleveland at the time. Would tailors and seamstresses sometimes trade at the same establishments to procure their fabrics? Euclid Avenue was a bustling commercial center and housed hundreds of businesses, large and small, but it seems a lovely coincidence that another dressmaker we’ve featured in our series of blog posts - Bertha Lucas was making clothing for women at 1257 Euclid Avenue at the same time Gustav Stern was making menswear at 1204 Euclid Avenue. It’s not hard to imagine Gustav and Bertha bumping into each other in the street, is it?

The next short detour involves the example of Gustav’s work we have, a gorgeous cloak. With over twelve feet of material, this cloak must have been amazingly warm, and certainly wasn’t cheap. What’s unusual about this particular example, though, is we’re lucky enough to have the owner’s name, address and a date inscribed in the label! On a lark I thought I’d go digging to see if I could find Mr. Frank A. Smith. And find him I did.

Gustav Stern newspaper advertisement, 1900.

At the time he bought Gustav’s finely-made cloak, Frank Allen Smith was thirty-three years old and had been married to Eleanor ‘Nell’ Emily (Short) Smith almost a decade. The couple had no children and Frank - along with brother William - ran Frank A. Smith & Bro., a successful insurance and real estate agent in Elyria, Ohio, a city located about twenty-five miles southwest of Cleveland. The couple lived on Seventh Street in 1900, but had moved to Fourth Street by 1901, when he noted the date down in his cloak. He and Nell were still living at Fourth Street in 1910 and they had adopted a daughter, Esther.  By then Frank was an Elyria city councilman. Both Frank and Nell lived into their seventies.

Given Frank’s line of work he likely had cause to do business in Cleveland quite often. On one of those trips, he might have seen an ad just like this one, which Gustav took out in 1900, and decided to commission Gustav to make him a fine cloak. It’s quite the remarkable thing to see that - although both Frank and Gustav are long gone - a common thread connecting them remains.

Gustav Stern newspaper advertisement, 1903.

Anyway, back to Gustav. By the turn of the twentieth century, it seems Gustav was beginning to think about his retirement years. He had begun to prepare his sons, Gustav Frederick and Julius, to inherit the business he had worked so hard to build by training them as cutters. One has to imagine he left the business in their hands when, in June of 1900, Gustav applied for a passport in order to go abroad on a lengthy stay, with a return within one year. His passport also gives us a clear description of himself: he was fifty years old, stood 5'6" with blue eyes and gray-blonde hair, and had a high forehead, round face and chin, and a small mouth. 

Gustav’s sons Gustav Frederick and Julius maintained the business in their father’s absence, and worked beside him upon his return. Perhaps it was the younger Sterns who were the catalysts behind their father’s announcement in 1903 that it was his intention to expand into the world of women’s wear? Out of his workshop at 1269 Euclid Avenue, he “added to his establishment Ladies' Tailor-made Suits, Coats and Habits of the latest and best designs and workmanship.” 

Certificate of Death, Ohio Bureau of Vital Statistics. April 12, 1915.

Or perhaps Gustav was just tired. He had, after all, worked a full thirty-plus years as a tailor. He established Gustav Stern & Sons, Merchant Tailors, in 1904 and handed the reins over to his sons. When Gustav Stern died in Cleveland on 12 April 1915, he was prosperous enough to leave a house to each of his five children. Gustav Frederick and Julius continued to run the family business into the 1940's.

Gravemarker at Lake View Cemetery. Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Patricia Browning received her archival postgraduate degree in Information Management & Preservation from the University of Glasgow. Her lifelong fascination with research saturates nearly every aspect of her life. These days - when she's not nose-deep researching vintage fashion labels - she can be found doing genealogy or developing a podcast about her pet project, David Tennant's early theatre career in Scotland.


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