enter name and hit return
THE OLD MERCHANTS OF NEW YORK CITY
By Walter Barrett, Clerk
FIRM OF COSTER BROTHERS & CO.
I am not aware that there ever lived in New York city a more
respectable commercial house____one that bore a mercantile credit unstained,
and never tainted____than the firm of Coster Brothers & Co., before 1786 and
"Brothers Coster & Co.," for ten years after____as I have their signature
before me in 1796___and "Henry A. and John G. Coster," as they signed after
1801, until Henry A. died in 1821.
What a splendid pair of old merchants? They did honor to New York.
That house added greatly to its wealth. They were Hollanders____modern
Dutch____the right sort of stuff to make good old merchants of in the New
World. Of the two brothers, Henry A. Coster was the oldest. Both were born
in Haarlem, Holland, the city where the great organ is. Probably Henry
received his commercial education in an Amsterdam counting house. He came
out to this city previous to the Revolution____I believe he was sent out as
agent by an Amsterdam house. His brother John G., who had been educated for
a physician, did not come out until a few years later. No better merchants
ever lived in this city than these two. When these two honest, guileless
merchants formed a partnership in the town, for it was a small one, their
place of business was at 20 Dock___now Pearl___street, south side, ten doors
from Broad. Eight years after, they moved to No. 35 Little Dock street. That
store, when the names of the streets were changed in 1793, became No. 59
Water street. In 1799, they moved to 26 William street, and there they lived
and did business until 1821. John G. kept store at that place three years
longer, until 1825. He lived over the store until 1805, when he removed his
residence to 110 Broadway. He afterwards bought the lot 227 Broadway corner
of Barclay, and built upon it, moving into that house in 1810. Henry A., in
1801, lived at No. 28 William Street, next door to the store, No. 26
William___that was on the west side of the street, near Garden (Exchange
street now.) The great success of these two excellent men was in the store
No. 26 William street. They dealt in all sorts of Holland goods___one
article in particular, called "Krollenvogel," a species of tape, made of
flax. They imported all kinds of oil cloths. Not only did they import, but
they were constantly buying and shipping to Europe all kinds of produce.
They had strong connections in the old Dutch cities, for they had heavy
orders, and they traded also in their own ships, sending out supercargoes.
One of the supercargoes was Daniel Holsman. He was brother-in-law to
John G. Coster. Mr. Holsman was a long time a clerk in the counting-house of
the Coster Brothers. His signature is before me, signed in 1804. If I had no
other evidence I should know from that signature, that he was a Hollander.
While out in Holland, supercargo of one of the ships belonging to Coster
Brothers, he was applied to by the celebrated Aaron Burr, who wished to get
passage to the United States, from Amsterdam. Mr. Holsman refused to have
anything to do with him, and would not let him return to America in the
ship. Bonaparte's brother Louis ruled in Holland at that time, and it was
not exactly safe. I presume, however, the true reason was that Daniel
Holsman was in New York City when Burr shot Hamilton, and consequently had
all the prejudices a New Yorker would have from that event. After he retired
from business, Mr. Holsman settled in the State of New Jersey. He died in
1840; he left several children____among them a son named Daniel Holsman, who
was Speaker of the New Jersey Legislature a few sessions since. I believe
Mr. Holsman went to the East Indies as supercargo of one of the ships of
Coster Brothers. At any rate, they owned several Indiamen, and were largely
in that trade.
They also did a heavy importing business from the West Indies, in rum,
coffee, and sugar.
Over the door was a sign (1803) "Henry A. & John G. Coster." They
received more consignments of Holland gin than any other house in New York.
They were excessively prudent and economical. Both partners worked with a
good will, and they employed no clerks more than was actually necessary. One
of the firm, Henry A., stood up at a little pine desk in the back part of
the store; that desk was the plainest ever seen; the boards were planed off
and fastened together; it was not even painted. John G. sat down at a table
standing near the older brother's desk. The store was on the first floor of
No. 26 William street. Both partners spoke good English. Everything about
their business went on like clock work. Their word was as good as gold; yet
they were very clever men, and they looked after the pennies; everybody,
however, respected them. Sometimes they would buy an entire cargo of West
India goods. On one occasion, Henry A. was on the dock when a cargo of
coffee, that his firm had purchased, was unloading from the vessel. From
some of the bags coffee was running out of the little holes. Henry went
along, carefully picked up the scattered grains, and placed them back in the
coffee bags, and then set a man sewing up the bags. Some of our modern
merchants would call that a small business. It was not so. Mr. Coster
exhibited the true mercantile spirit of the olden time. He could not bear to
see anything wasted. Another trait of the old school merchants like the
Coster Brothers, was that they were thorough-bred merchants, and attended to
the details of their business. They understood every part. Nothing was
beneath their notice. If goods were consigned to them from abroad, they
examined their value, and sold them at the highest price in the markets,
doing with them as if they were their own. When they made out an "account
sales," they made the charges precisely what they paid, and did not seek to
make money out of the "charges," as is now the case. The modern merchant, if
tried by the severe standard of honesty of old school merchants like the
Brothers Coster, would be deemed little better than a swindler. A merchant
abroad in these days sends a consignment to a merchant in New York. He does
not examine the goods, but passes them for sale to a broker, who gets some
sort of a price, but the consignee merchant knows nothing about it, and
cares less. There is a regular commission to be charged, but the modern
merchant is not satisfied with this. He has his tariff of charges, and they
are charged regardless of the truth. Storage, labor, cartage, fire
insurance, brokerage, guarantee commission, even if sold for cash, and the
sale is made out as a time sale. How little do merchants abroad dream of the
horrible imposition practised upon them. If they were wise they would get
back to the old custom; and if they sent an invoice of valuable goods, or a
cargo, to New York, would send a supercargo along with them, instead of
trusting any "commission house;" for the larger the business of a modern
house, the less attention do they give to consignments from abroad.
The Costers were model merchants. The costume of the oldest one was
short breeches, white stockings, and shoes with large buckles. Of course
there were no boots in those days. He did not wear a cocked hat, although
many persons did wear them in 1800, and long after. Both wore that sign of
an old-fashioned gentleman____the queue. It required care. The only relic of
the queue race now in New York is ex-senator Westcott, of Florida.
Henry A. and John G. were both Masons. They belonged to the "Holland
Lodge, No. 8," of which John Jacob Astor was master. The members of the
lodge met on the first and third Fridays in every month, at No. 66 Liberty
As I have before said, the house hired few clerks, as both gentlemen
were not afraid of work. Besides, Daniel Holsman, already named, there were
John Inness and Francis Barretto.
As early as 1801, Henry A. was elected a director of the Manhattan
Bank. He withdrew from the directory in 1806, and connected himself with the
Merchants' Bank. He was a director in that twelve years. John G. was first
elected a director of the Manhattan Bank in 1813. Thirteen years later, in
1826, he was elected president in place of Henry Remsen, and so continued
until 1830. Both brothers were engaged in many of the money corporations.
John G. was a director of the Phoenix Insurance Company for twelve years.
Henry was a director in the Globe Insurance Company from 1815. It was a
famous company in its day, in 1817. Henry A. Coster moved from No. 28
William to a new house in 85 Chambers Street. He had a country seat in what
is now First avenue, between Thirtieth and Thirty-first streets. It was sold
to Anson G. Phelps in 1835. Today it is for rent. He died in that house in
1821. His widow lived there until 1824. She afterward married the celebrated
Dr. Alexander Hosack. She was immensely rich. Henry A. Coster left two sons.
One was named Henry A.____the other Washington Coster. It is impossible for
any one but an old New Yorker to conceive of the intense interest that was
thrown around these two young men.
There are many among us who well remember young Harry Coster, as he
was familiarly called. He was the eldest son of Henry A. Coster. It would
have been far better for poor Harry had he had a dozen brothers. He was a
noble-hearted young fellow and possessed many noble qualities, but his
wealth spoiled all. It called around him a lot of worthless hangers on, who
induced him to commit all sorts of follies and extravagances, in order that
they might share in them. Young Harry was rather wild before his excellent
father died, but he did not fairly break loose from all restraint until his
governor was no more. Then he "went it." There was nothing at all criminal
in his actions. He spent his money like a prince. "A short life and a merry
one," seemed to be his object, and he obtained it. His property was immense;
he did his best to spend it, but he did not live long enough. He left
considerable when he died.
Harry Coster was an amiable young fellow. His brother Washington
married Miss Depau, one of the loveliest girls that ever trod Broadway. I do
not know what induced Washington to go into business. He certainly was in
business as a banker in Wall street. Charles Christmas was one of the best
brokers and bankers in this city. He is now a partner of the great banking
house of A. Belmont & Co. Fortunate as Mr. Belmont seems to be in
everything, he never was more fortunate than when he secured the brains,
financial experience, and the integrity of Charles Christmas. He was for
many years the chief manager of Prime, Ward & King, whose fame was world
wide. Their banking house was at 42 Wall street. Mr. Christmas left that
house in order to go into the same business at 44 Wall street, with Robert
I. Livingston in 1834, under the firm of Christmas & Livingston.
The next year the firm was changed to Christmas, Livingston, Prime &
Coster, brokers and bankers. Washington Coster was a partner. He lived at
No. 15 Laight street at that time. Rufus Prime was another partner. He was a
son of old Nathaniel Prime. I do not know how long Washington Coster
continued in business, but this I know, he died in 1846, suddenly. At that
time he was stopping at Blancard's old Globe hotel, still standing in
Broadway, below Wall street. The fate of both of the sons of Henry A. Coster
was melancholy. Washington left several children. Henry A. Coster had
several daughters; the eldest married Francis Barretto, already alluded to,
who had been a clerk with Coster Brothers. I think they live out in
Westchester, and are both alive.
Another daughter married Mr. Hamilton Wilkes, a son of old Charles
Wilkes, so long president of the Bank of New York. He died in europe,
leaving a lovely daughter, who afterwards married Count Quelkechow, a member
of the body guard of the Pope.
Another daughter of Henry A. Coster married William Laight, a son of
Henry Laight, who was president of the Eagle Insurance Company. She died
about two years ago, leaving a large family of children. Young Laight never
did any kind of business in his life. Shortly after he graduated from
Columbia College, he married Miss Coster. John G. Coster left several
children. He died about 1846. When John Jacob Astor wished to build the
Astor house, he bought the house and lot belonging to Mr. Coster, at No. 227
Broadway. The latter moved up to a splendid granite double residence he had
built in 1833, up at 539 Broadway, where he died. That was a palace in its
day. It is yet standing, and known as the Chinese building. The occasion of
its being so named, was from the fact that a Canton merchant brought an
immense quantity of Chinese articles, and exhibited them in that mansion. It
was one of the most attractive exhibitions ever got up in the city.
One of the sons of Mr. John G. Coster, Hohn H. married Miss Boardman.
She was one of twin sisters, very beautiful, and daughter of Daniel
Boardman. Both were deemed the prettiest girls in New York. Mr. Boardman
lived in Broadway 214, next block above the residence of John G. Coster, at
No. 227. He was a very rich man, and the younger members of the two families
were very intimate. John H., at one time, owned Washington hall, that stood
where A. T. Stewart's great dry goods store now stands. I believe he sold
that property for the trifling sum of $65,000. It is worth twenty times
that, now. John H. died only a few days ago.
Gerard H. Coster was another son, and remarkably handsome. He married
Miss Prime, a daughter of Nat. Prime. At one time he was a partner in the
banking house of Coster & Carpenter. Carpenter is still alive, somewhere up
on the Lakes. Mr. G.H. Coster I meet occasionally, on Broadway.
Daniel J. Coster was another son. He was in the auction business for
some years, under the firm of Hone & Coster. He married the accomplished
Miss Delancey, descended from one of the oldest families in the State. I
believe she was a daughter of Oliver Delancy.
Another son was Henry A. Coster, named after the uncle. He died about
a year ago.
George Washington Coster was another son of John G. Coster. He married
Miss Oakey, a daughter of Daniel Oakey, who was a contemporary of the
Costers as early as 1800, when Daniel Oakey went into business at 80 Pearl
street. In 1803 he formed a partnership with Henry Watkins, and they did
business under the firm of Oakey & Watkins, at 51 William street, then a
great business street. After a few years he disolved with Watkins, and kept
on under his own name at the same place, 51 William. Meanwhile he had
married and lived at 41 Pine street. He kept in that same store in William
until 1826, when he moved his store to where his house had been in Pine
street, and removed his residence to Art street. (It was a street that
crossed Broadway, and led into the Bowery, about Eighth street now.) He was
a thorough merchant, and very much respected. Charles Robert Coster was the
youngest of all John G.'s sons. He died quite recently, making three deaths
of sons within a year.
The eldest daughter of Mr. John G. Coster was a beautiful woman.
She married a Mr. Berryman. He was a Kentuckian, and a fine looking
man. He was called the handsome Berryman. I believe he was at one time in
business with Henry H. Coster, under the firm of Coster & Berryman. His wife
died suddenly on the night of the great fire in 1835. She left three
daughters and two boys. He has been dead some years.
The eldest daughter of Mr. Coster never married. Another daughter
married Charles A. Heckscher. At that time he was of the firm of Charles A.
& Edward Heckscher. They were very large merchants thirty years ago. Charles
A. Came out from Bremen in 1830, and started business at 44 Exchange place.
The next year he took in his brother under the above style. Later they moved
to 45 South street. Charles A. was appointed "Mechlenberg" Consul. After he
married Miss Coster, his brother-in-law, Gerard H. (already mentioned)
became a partner, under the firm of Heckscher, Coster & Matfield. They
retired from business some years later, but I believe Charles A. Heckscher
is a large proprietor of coal mines, and manages them himself.
Source: The Old Merchants of New York City
Author: Walter Barrett, Clerk Second series
Publisher: Carleton, Publisher, 413 Broadway
Entered according to the Act of Congress 1863
Researched, Prepared and Contributed by Miriam Medina
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