Shreve's at the turn of a Century
The wartime years were now a memory. The American Revolution had been over for twenty years. In the United States John Adams had succeeded General Washington as President. The turn-of-the-century year of 100 was a time for hope, peace, and for building.
In 1800 not only Americans were enjoying the fruits of a struggle for freedom. The French Revolution had been over for ten years and in France, Napoleon was in power, soon to become Emperor. As they always do, people responded to the prevailing conditions in their attitudes, their way of life, and in their dress. On both sides of the Atlantic fashion in its own way expressed a rebound from hard times, an atmosphere of victory. Napoleon’s bride, Josephine, from her court in Paris, influenced fashions in dress and jewelry throughout the western world.
Shreve, Crump & Low, founded four years prior and run by John McFarlane, had never experienced such a demand for beautiful jewelry even as American tastes were simpler than those of Paris. Jewels were worn in quantities, on upper arms, fingers, round the neck, in diadems for the hair, aigrettes on turbans, and clasps on the shoulder. Rows of diamonds and precious stones encircled ladies’ throats and waists.
Shreve, Crump & Low Come Together
Shreve’s has grown up with Boston. The windows of Shreve’s have looked out on a city that has grown, developed and expanded over the years. In 1800 the population was 18,000 and Boston was still a peninsula connected to Roxbury and other communities on the mainland by a narrow neck of land. In 1809 McFarlane bought out the firm Fletcher & Gardner and moved a few doors north to 59 Cornhill which placed the shop across the street from an early Paul Revere.
In 1813 Jabez Baldwin of Salem acquired the business with John Jones and Mr. Ward where the partners continued to work with watches, jewelry, and silver. Upon Mr. Baldwin’s death in 1819, John J. Low, who earlier served as an apprentice to Mr. Baldwin, joined the firm. The Low family were well known merchants in the China trade of the early nineteenth century and were acquainted with the sea captain, Mr. Benjamin Shreve. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, the firm went through various name and location changes in Boston. During this mid-century period the character of downtown Boston had changed considerably. Summer Street had been a residential area, but as the process of filling in the Back Bay progressed, families built mansions along the new streets west of the Public Garden – Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue and the new Newbury and Marlborough Streets. Magnificent shops replaced the former homes and were frequented by Boston’s elite who were furnishing their new palatial homes.
As the Back Bay developed and become a fashionable part of the city, Mr. Crump made regular trips to Europe where he purchased rich furnishings and art objects for the Shreve, Crump & Low customers.
An Establishment "without equal in the world."
From 1849 to about 1889, Shreve, Crump & Low stood at the corner of Washington and Summer Streets. In 1849 a newspaper account called it an establishment “without equal in the world.” It was obviously a beautiful building, its glittering windows overlooking an important intersection in the business district.
The interior was finished in Elizabethan style, the cases and counters in white and gold, the ceiling artistically frescoed. Not only was the store a matter of wonderment, but the stock was equally unusual for its size and variety.
The firm added steadily to its reputation as a maker of silver wares. Some of the pieces it produced would, even today, be unusual, and more than one today has historical value and interest. For example, the Webster case, presented by the citizens of Boston to Daniel Webster in 1835 and preserved in the Boston Public Library since 1866.
In 1850 customers bought watches, fobs, scarf pins and cuff links, bouquet holders, brooches, jeweled fans, and gold-mounted opera glasses. Diamonds and pearls were set in combs, chains, hat pins and bracelets. Ropes of pearls were fashionable, as were dress ornaments of green enamelled gold set with pearls.
Benjamin Shreve, son of the sea captain by the same name, joined the firm in 1852 with a great deal of knowledge selecting the fine items of ivory, silver, silk, lacquer and tortoise shell, most likely from his father. He was a meticulous record-keeper, writing all transactions and relevant information in small notebooks, bound in green Chinese silk. The most important things in his life, in order, he listed as: an approving conscience because of the many who trusted him, an irreproachable character, good health, a good wife, and plenty of money.
On the evening of November 9, a watchman walking his Summer Street beat saw the roof of a nearby warehouse explode into flames, and the stored goods burst into the air. Thus began the most disastrous fire in Boston’s history. It covered a 65-acre area bounded roughly by Milk and Washington Streets and Atlantic Avenue, destroying 776 buildings. Members of the firm filled their pockets with precious jewelry and transported the Shreve jewels away from the store to a place of safekeeping.
Shreve, Crump & Low remained at this location until shortly after the Thanksgiving Day fire of 1889. The burned area was rebuilt in a much better planned and artistic fashion and Washington Street was renumbered. According to Mark Twain, the area was unsurpassed or unrivalled in “beauty, elegance, and tastefulness.”
The Move to Tremont Street
Because of fire and other crises, the firm decided in 1889 to leave the Washington Street area. It was time to move the time-honored landmark, the Golden Eagle, which had stood as guard as a Shreve emblem for more than forty years.
In 1891 the corner of Tremont and West Streets was selected upon which to relocate the Golden Eagle in a six-story building. The stock was greatly diversified from the company’s original line of jewelry and watches. Now customers could fine china, plated ware, britannia ware, japanned trays, military goods, papier-mâché, astral lamps, gas fixtures, stationery, antiques, and of course, the ever-important quality diamonds and precious stones.
The Boylston Street Store
Change was again made in July 1930 when Shreve’s moved to its famous Boylston Street building, the southeast corner of Boylston and Arlington. One block east of this site is the point from which British troops launched their small boats in April 1775, heading for Lexington and Concord.
The world’s store of precious materials was drawn upon to complete the decoration of the building both inside and out to make it a fitting home for jewelry and other articles of the highest quality. Window grilles and frames in gold bronze, display case inlays of Honduras mahogany, holly and East India rosewood contributed to the transformation of the corner location into one of Boston’s most luxurious stores.
In the precious jewelry department – the heart of Shreve’s business – one would find a broad selection in quality jewels. Shreve, Crump & Low is famous for the finest quality of diamonds and colored stones in exquisite jewelry, gold or platinum, the one place to choose the engagement ring, a handsome diamond sapphire bracelet, an elegant brooch.
In 1957 due to increasing demand for space, the firm expanded and took over the entire second floor of the Boylston Street building. The gift shop and antiques department, formerly occupying the basement, were enlarged and moved into handsome, spacious quarters.
The spacious galleries displayed a world-famed assortment of eighteenth century American and English furniture, file silver, as well as old brass, copper and pewter. Many fine examples of paintings, prints, and furniture were imported regularly from England. Rare examples of porcelain both English and Oriental complement the collections. The Chinese export porcelain, so familiar in New England homes, is steadily acquired.
Shreve’s is frequently aware of the selection of gifts by and for distinguished customers. At the White House, the “Boston taste” in antiques has been appreciated for its fine quality and simple lines.
On Shreve, Crump & Low’s ledger books today are the names of families that can be traced back several generations. It is not uncommon for a bride to visit the silver department, accompanied by her mother and grandmother, and in some instances great-grandmother, to make her selection of silver, china and glassware just as they did a generation ago.