Hammacher Schlemmer is America’s longest-running mail-order catalog. In 1848, William Tollner founded a hardware store in New York City’s Bowery District that would eventually give birth to the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. A family friend, Alfred Hammacher, soon began investing in the business, and eventually accumulated a half-interest in the store. Tollner’s nephew, William Schlemmer, came to America at age 12 and began working at the store, often hawking tools on the sidewalk in front of the store. William gradually bought out his uncle’s stake and by age 26 had formed a partnership with Hammacher.
The store specialized in hard-to-find hardware and offered the best mortise gauges and plumb bobs sold anywhere in the city. It was one of the first stores in the country to have a telephone and one of the first to have electric lighting in the showroom.The company’s first catalog, (actually a fully bound hardcover book), was published in 1881, and by 1912 had become the most complete hardware source on the east coast with a total of 1,112 pages. The catalog offered “horseless carriage” tool kits for flat tires and blown gaskets even before the first service stations existed. The company also supplied virtually all piano parts for the leading brands of the day.
By the 1930s Hammacher Schlemmer had moved twice and had de-emphasized their hardware lines in favor of household goods and gadgets. They were the first to offer an electric toaster and portable radio.
The family business was later sold to a group of investors. Around this time, in the 1960s, the catalog featured unusual items such as a regulation-sized bowling alley and restored London taxi cabs. The late 1960’s saw a return to specialized gadgets such as the first answering machine, (The Telephone Valet), and the first microwave oven, (Amana’s RadarRange).
The company was one of the first retailers on the internet and by 2005, online sales accounted for one-third of Hammacher’s revenues.
The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog continues to innovate today and offers a unique range of electronics, gadgets, furniture, appliances, tools, toys, memorabilia, decorative accessories, and apparel. Well into the future, this company will likely be driven by their motto: “Offering the Best, the Only and the Unexpected”.