• Rick Epstein

The Retail Colossus of Frenchtown

BRITTON BROS. BIG BRICK STORE -- The Britton brothers were Daniel D. (1850-1923) a sewing-machine agent, and George M. (1854-1917) a harness maker.

The brothers started in a small way in 1877, with what the Star would later describe as a “wheelbarrow load of goods in the little 14-foot room on Race st.” In 1882 they boasted that they were manufacturing more harness than anyone else in Hunterdon County. They also made saddles and leather fly nets (stringy garments draped over horses to disconcert and dislodge horse flies). When the ownerous Hugh Warford died in 1887, he was unable to take 10 Bridge Street with him, so the Britton brothers bought the three-story brick building for $3,200 in 1888.

That same year George bought the house on the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Milford Road, which had just been constructed by J.B. Lyons & Bro. In 1901 George added a two-story addition consisting of a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and hooked into city water. George was mayor in 1902-03.

Meanwhile, back on Bridge Street, the Britton brothers' store became the biggest department store in the county. According to a 1916 booklet called Frenchtown Uptodate, “The large aisles afford patrons ample space to pass one another, chairs placed along the counters afford them an opportunity to rest in looking over goods which they are contemplating purchasing. The wide shelves are loaded with all kinds of dress goods, suits, hats, ladies' and gents' furnishings, laces, furs, carpets, an assortment of cut glass ware and gifts, toys, games, hardware, while in the basement is employed I.W. “Brice” Swick, who for years has manufactured harness for the firm. (This is Isaac W. Swick, 1866-1929.)

“This store is the one which has installed a system of cash boxes moving swiftly from one department to another, fitted up in the same manner as the stores located in the large cities.” Ruth Apgar, who lived next door, told me that her job was to sit in a tiny elevated office in the middle of the store. Clerks in the various departments would send sales slips and money to her in little metal boxes that moved along chains. She'd send back change and receipts.

Ruth can be seen in the photo advertising advertising the big sale. She's in the middle wearing a pale sweater or jacket. If she's 20, the photo was taken in 1911.

By 1922, the store was managed by William G. Britton, George's son.

It was all over by 1930; the Britton estate sold the building in 1930 to C. Wilmot Milbury, who would establish his own store there, along with the Gem Theatre. Miller's 5 & 10 came later. If you look at the west side of the building you'll see Miller's sign painted on the bricks, but if you look closely you'll see a ghostly BRITTON BROS.

From “Rick's Frenchtown Encyclopedia”

Tomorrow I will post an enormous alphabetical list of what you'd find at the Britton Bros. Store in 1915. It is liable to fill up the internet, so send your emails today.

And speaking of commerce, if you and one or two of your quarantine-mates want to mask up and take a historical walking tour of Frenchtown let me know (rickepstein@yahoo.com or 908-200-0480) and we'll set it up. The price is a $15 per person donation to the Frenchtown Presbyterian Church's Food Pantry.


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