Bonwit Teller: New York, ca. 1905

“West 23rd Street.” Home to Best & Co’s “Lilliputian Bazaar,” Bonwit Teller (“Women’s Outer Garments”), Waterbury Dental Parlors and Eden Musee. 8×10 glass negative, Detroit Publishing Co.

Found at Shorpy.

While walking in the streets of New York, something I did daily for years while growing up there, I passed a brass placard on the right side of a doorway that said “Bonwit Teller.”

That’s a name I was familiar with, and gave it no thought. On the left side of the door, however, in the same very distinctive font, was another brass plaque that said “Gunther-Jaeckel.”

What was that all about, I wondered. Were they seldom used first names? I had never heard them before in conjunction with Bonwit. Long before the days of digital photography and smartphones, and without my trusty Brownie in my hand, I was unable to capture an image, but it remains seared in my memory because it was peculiar. I never passed that particular spot again, at least not knowingly. And, given the absence of the internet, there was no way of ferreting out the story; as time went on, I began to wonder if I had imagined it. Had I been wealthy enough to be purchasing furs, I might have found out – but thanks to the infinite capacity of the intertubez, I at last have my answer.

1954 ad for Gunther-Jaeckel furs, 5 years before its acquisition by Bonwit Teller.

“In a gilded age when sables were a princess’ best friend, the nation’s best place to buy sables was Manhattan’s C. G. Gunther’s Sons. Founded in 1820 by a German immigrant associated with Fur Trader John Jacob Astor, Gunther’s not only combed Siberia for the finest sables, but bid in the London market for the finest ermine, sent its agents across Canada on the lookout for mink. Even men coveted the Gunther’s label. Gunther’s long operated the only men’s fur department in Manhattan, offering coats made of every kind of fur, from buffalo, favored by post-Civil War tycoons, to collegiate raccoon. But sables for the ladies inspired the legends. On Black Friday of the 1929 crash, Gunther’s delivered a $70,000 sable coat to a customer, needlessly worried about payment (the customer settled in 60 days). Later it sold a shopper two sable coats, one for herself and one for her sister. As a token of esteem, the shopper bought her maid a mink. The bill: $107,000. In 1949 Gunther’s merged with an other old-line furrier, Jaeckel, Inc., founded in 1863.
Last week Manhattan’s oldest fur store had a new owner. Walter Hoving’s Hoving Corp., which already operates 60-year-old Bonwit Teller next door and nearby 121-year-old Tiffany & Co., added Gunther-Jaeckel, Inc. to its string. In taking control of Gunther-Jaeckel, Hoving got more of the kind of elegant tradition he likes, also a challenge to his merchandising skill (Gunther-Jaeckel last paid a dividend in 1945). But fellow merchants figured he would soon figure out a way to fit Gunther-Jaeckel into his spreading operation. Pursuing a policy of aggressive expansion, his Bonwit Teller already has two suburban branches operating in Manhasset, L.I. and White Plains, N.Y., a third projected (in Millburn, N.J.), plus stores in Chicago, Cleveland and Boston. For the present, Hoving will double up on some advertising and promotional costs, knock out a wall or two to throw the main Bonwit store and Gunther-Jaeckel together.” (Description found at Bis Repetita Placet.)

Interestingly enough, Gunther-Jaeckel still shows up in random Yellow Pages business searches with an address of 10 East 57th Street, as listed on the advert above. That matches precisely with my memory – the fact that it’s right next to Tiffany’s, another Hoving Corp. property cements the image in my head. Sadly, the building where the plaques appeared is now gone, replaced by another new skyscraper.

This is where 10 East would have sat.

But in retrospect, it’s nice to know I wasn’t crazy, all those years when I wondered if I had just seen something that wasn’t there.

The Old Wolf has spoken.