James Talcott Portrait

James Talcott, late 1800's

James Talcott (February 7, 1835 - August 21, 1916) was a successful merchant in New York City and a native of West Hartford, Connecticut. He was descended from John Talcott, one of the founders of Hartford. A millionaire philanthropist, Talcott was notable in his community for his financial and social contributions. He was also the great-grandson of Thomas Hart Hooker, a West Hartford veteran of the Revolutionary War and the owner of the Sarah Whitman Hooker house on New Britain Avenue.

Early Life Edit

James Talcott was born in 1835 on a thousand-acre farm in Elmwood, West Hartford, the youngest son in a family that was descended from John Talcott. He was born to Seth Talcott and Charlotte (Butler) Talcott. On the farm, he and his brothers rose before dawn to do chores and worshipped daily in the Puritan spirit. One of young James's duties was to drive the family's team of oxen loaded with wood to sell in Hartford, the big city to a farm boy. There, James lingered, excited by the bustle of commerce and the possibilities of making a profit. James attended Williston Seminary, eschewing the classical track and choosing instead the school's shorter and more practical course of study. Not long after his studies, James's older brother, John Butler Talcott, wrote a letter that would set the course of James's life. John was running the New Britain Knitting Company and producing underwear to rival that of England, but he was losing money to dishonest middlemen. He asked James to leave school to serve as the mill's selling agent in New York City.

In 1854, at the age of 18, James came to push a wheelbarrow full of underwear through the streets of New York; however, no businesses were buying. Surviving on apples for lunch, James finally found a shop that wanted to place an order - a large one. That night, he wrote in excitement to his brother with high praise for the shopkeepers. His brother extended credit on James's recommendation and sent the order. Payment never came - the shopkeepers had gone bankrupt. It was a major mistake, but an instructive one. Steadfast though devastated, James soon got a smaller order from another merchant. This time, he researched their credit worthn thoroughly. They paid their bill and ordered again. Out with his wheelbarrow to drum up more business, James overheard two merchants - who had just turned him down - laughing at his "fresh from the farm" looks. James immediately invested a good chunk of his savings in a frock coat and top hat, grew the beard he would wear until the end of his days, and hired another man to handle the wheelbarrow. Within the year, James had increased the number of accounts and even won back business that New Britain had lost. It was the most profitable year the mill had ever seen.

Work in Mill Management Edit

Then the Panic of 1857 hit. Banks went under. Any merchant who was overextended failed. Factories closed or scaled back production. But under John's steady management of te mill and James's prudent sales operation, New Britain went on. James's early lesson in the importance of solid credit was instrumental. The year after the panic, James was in a position to hire his first salesman and began to take on merchandise of other factories in addition to New Britain. He had become an independent commission merchant. The hardworking young man was largely oblivious to the growing social scene and devoted himself to building his commission house. Fortunately, he still visited his family in West Hartford.

James Talcott (1861)

James Talcott, 1861

With his commission business gaining momentum, James began to turn his attention to the small and dark-eyed daughter of Amzi Francis, Henrietta Francis. Like James, Henrietta was earnest and deeply religious, but she was warm where James could be fierce. They were married in 1861 when James was 26 and Henrietta was 18. The newlyweds rented rooms in a family's house across the street from the Astor Mansion, moving both literally and figuratively closer to fortune. The Civil War began the same year as the marriage. James drew on his knowledge of mills, even ones farther afield in rural Massachusetts, and filled the orders. His business grew 16-fold in four ears and at the close of the war, he was a millionaire. In 1864, James purchased his first home, a four-story brick affair on W 39th Street and 6th Avenue, located in a neighborhood just barely a decade old with plenty of empty lots for new houses. James and Henrietta had their first son, J. Frederick, in 1866. He would be followed by Francis, Arthur, Grace, and Edith.

After the Civil War, get-rich-quick schemes filled the city, but James never swayed from his course. He came from a long line of successful farmers who were able to turn a profit on their substantial harvests every year. In 1868, he moved the business into two large five-story buildings on Franklin Street, where it would remain for more than 40 years. The buildings held a million-dollar inventory at all times, enabling James to fill orders anywhere in New York City in a few hours. Every major department store was a customer, including Wanamaker's, Lord & Taylor, and Brooks Brothers. In the evening, Henrietta would arrive at the office in the Talcott carriage, attended by the requisite footmen and coachmen. Though James worked with many mills, he took a special interest in his brother's. John had spun off the American Hosiery Co. from New Britain and James was a large stockholder and board member. He began to cultivate his eldest son, taking the young J. Frederick up to Connecticut for board meetings.

By 1876, James and Henrietta had four children, and James began to look for a larger home. They selected a home on West 57th Street and 5th Avenue, sharing the new residential neighborhood with Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, and the mayor of New York, just blocks from te newly completed Central Park. Like its new owners, the home was well-appointed, but not showy. The daily routine included family prayer, grace at every meal, and bedtime prayers for the children. Missionaries were frequent guests, whose tales of far off lands enchanted J. Frederick, the eldest son. James was deeply involved in mission work in the tenements and was instrumental in building improved housing as an alternative.

The Peak of Business and Death Edit

James Talcott at desk

James Talcott at his desk, 1899

With the growing industrialization of the country and the advent of the railroads, factoring began to shift. No longer did factors need to handle the merchandise themselves but were relied upon more than ever to handle payment and billing on the mills' behalf. This shift was tailor-made to James. His ability to discern credit worth became legendary. In 1875, James was elected to the board of the Bank of Manhattan Company. He also served as the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. By 1891, James was in his fifties and a multi-millionaire. An ardent Republican since the birth of the party, James was active in the New York political scene. After voting himself, he would visit the jails one by one, bailing out any Republicans who had challenged at the polls and locked up by corrupt Tammany Hall forces. He was floated as a candidate for mayor in 1890, but declined. Through five market panics and two depressions in the years from 1857 to 1907, James landed in better financial shape than before. Speculation was against his nature and he was fair in his dealings. In the depths of the panic of 1907, he arrived on Wall Street in a silk top hat and frock coat. He carried with him a long list of securities and a pencil. When the market went up, the 72-year-old's fortunes were greatly increased.

A venerable man at 76 years of age, James was the last to leave in the evenings. After more than 40 years of business on Franklin Stret, Talcott moved his business to 4th Avenue near Union Square. That day, he sat in his customary place next to the second floor window, surveying the move and the street below. Having lived through the losses during five years of civil war, James was a staunch peace advocate. He went on record against the Spanish-American War at the Chamber of Commerce in 1898. During World War I, he was a frequent speaker at the anti-war community of Lake Mohonk. But James wouldn't see the war's end. He passed away peacefully on August 21, 1916, surrounded by family and friends at the age of 86.

The Talcott Legacy Edit

James Talcott with daughters

James Talcott with Henrietta and daughters, Grace and Edith

Throughout his career, James Talcott gave at least ten percent of his income to charity without pause. In addition to his mission work, he funded an arboretum at Mt. Holyoke, a library in West Hartford, a women's dormitory at Oberlin College , and a hospital in China. James was a founder and truste of Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts and he and Henrietta funded a professorship for religious instruction at Barnard College, where she was a trustee. Henrietta was also a founder of the YWCA while James sat on the international committee of the YMCA. At James's death, Henrietta funded a building to house the New York Bible Study in honor of her late husband. The building still stands today. Today, Talcott descendants still carry on their legacy.

Children Edit

  • J. Frederick Talcott (Sept. 14, 1866 - Feb. 6, 1944)
  • Francis Edgar Talcott (b. Apr. 8, 1868)
  • Arthur W. Talcott (b. Dec. 3, 1869)
  • Grace Talcott (Oct. 24, 1873 - Mar. 5, 1957) - m. Warner Van Norden (Feb. 7, 1873 - Nov. 30, 1959)
  • Edith Charlotte Talcott (b. Jun. 24, 1880) - m. Herbert R. Bates (Apr. 29, 1870 - Jul. 17, 1913)
  • Reginald Talcott (Apr. 15, 1882 - Mar. 18, 1885) - child.
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