Baltimore’s Clothes Horse: David Abercrombie
Abercrombie & Fitch – the name brings up images of young, scantily clad men and women staring out from advertisements with smoldering eyes and pouty lips. But the store known today for its teen apparel as well as its controversial ideas about how to dress children was originally a much different enterprise, offering clothing and gear for the outdoor set a little over a century ago. One half of the dynamic style duo of founders Abercrombie and Fitch is a son of Baltimore and the innovator behind the company once known as the “Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World.”
The future clothing magnate, David Thomas Abercrombie, was born in Baltimore in 1867 to John and Elizabeth Abercrombie. John Morrison Abercrombie immigrated to Baltimore as a boy in 1847 from Falkirk, Scotland. Prior to David’s birth, he attended Baltimore City College and eventually established himself as a newsman, working a managerial position at the Baltimore branch of the American News Company. Elizabeth Sarah Daniel, the daughter of a Scottish doctor practicing in Ottawa, met her future husband through family friends. The Abercrombies had a lot of children. First born, David was eventually joined by six siblings: John, Harry, Maud, Mary, Robert, and Ronald.
All but one of the Abercrombie sons followed in their father’s footsteps and attended City College (Robert attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute). While at the school David developed a keen interest in both engineering and exploration. After graduating in 1885 he enrolled at the Maryland Institute, School for Art and Design – now known as the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) – as an engineering student. While MICA might today appear an odd choice for a prospective engineer, the college was originally established as a trade school, and in 1885 still offered courses in fields like mechanical sciences and chemistry. According to school historian Douglas Frost, Abercrombie attended the college during its transition period when the curriculum began to shift from one offering a variety of mechanical, engineering, and artistic courses to a program increasingly focused on the visual arts. (1)
After graduating, Abercrombie left Baltimore to pursue his dreams of exploration. He worked as a surveyor and civil engineer for several railroad companies including the Baltimore & Ohio. Abercrombie mapped and surveyed previously undocumented regions of the Appalachians ranging from North Carolina to Kentucky. To withstand the rugged terrain and ever-changing weather of the Appalachians, he fashioned for himself and his surveying crew personalized camping gear using textiles of his own design. In an Abercrombie family history written in 1940, brother Ronald noted that,
“[David’s] inventive genius enabled him to make a practical solution to most every problem of the prospector, huntsman, camper and woodsman. He was one of the best woodsmen, in its broadest sense, of his time. When sheet aluminum was first made, he was the first to utilize it in manufacturing of camp utensils, nesting kits and other useful articles for the camper. This application was soon followed in general use in home kitchen ware.”(2)
Unfortunately, David developed farsightedness, cutting his field career short at the age of 25. However, Abercrombie’s ingenuity and innate talent for invention would eventually lead to greater successes in the clothing industry. After being forced into premature retirement from his chosen profession in 1892, Abercrombie’s fellow surveyors suggested he pursue a career as an inventor, manufacturing his creations for other outdoorsmen. He soon joined his uncle at the National Waterproof Fiber Company in New York City. Over the next six years Abercrombie worked for a series of companies manufacturing new products until 1898, when he opened his very own retail store on South Street in Manhattan. The David T. Abercrombie Company sold premium sporting products including fishing and camping gear, rifles, and specialized clothing. David’s own designs were often featured in the products.
The store was a hit among the Manhattan elite and gained enough success to warrant a move from South Street to the trendier shopping district on Park Avenue. His many clients included explorer Robert Peary and President Theodore Roosevelt (Abercrombie also clothed the future president and his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War). One particularly loyal customer was a lawyer by the name of Ezra Fitch. His interest in the store went beyond mere patronage, and in 1900 he left his practice to join Abercrombie as a business partner. In 1904, the store officially adopted the name Abercrombie & Fitch Company.
The relationship between the co-owners quickly soured however, and within a few years Abercrombie and Fitch were battling over the future direction of their enterprise. Abercrombie wanted the store to remain true to its origins as an outdoor outfitter, but Fitch’s ideas for a more generalized retail store, catering to a larger clientele, won out. In 1907, a mere three years after becoming official partners, David Abercrombie “disposed of all his interest” in Abercrombie & Fitch.*
While A&F would go on to become a global brand, Abercrombie’s career in the clothing industry was far from over. With the help of his youngest brother Robert, David refashioned his old company, the David T. Abercrombie Company, into a textile manufacturer. Over the next decade, his success as a clothing outfitter only grew. As the United States prepared to enter World War I, Abercrombie’s reputation was such that the U.S. Army made him a Major of the Quarter Master Reserves, entrusting him with the management of the New York Packing Depot where his civilian employees “turned out an average of six thousand uniform-size packages a day.” His pioneering packing and folding processes, involving a stretchable, waterproof paper of his own invention, afforded the armed forces a new abundance of space. According to an article in the July, 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly, in only a year’s time, Abercrombie’s innovations saved the government 85 million dollars. When he was discharged at the end of the war the government promoted him to the rank of Lt. Colonel. He continued to work in the manufacturing business until his death in 1931.
While David left Baltimore as a young man to find his fortune in New York, many of his siblings remained in Baltimore. Harry pursued a career in law, serving as a lawyer in the Legislature of Maryland and eventually becoming a judge on the bench of the People’s Court. (3) John became a physician and coroner. Ronald also went on to a successful career as a physician following his collegiate years at Johns Hopkins University where he was not only a gymnast, but also “the Best College Center at Lacrosse ever produced in this country,” which probably involves a bit of hyperbole as this quote was pulled from Ronald’s autobiography.(4) He later sat on several Hopkins boards and served as Director of Physical Education.** Ronald left a mixed legacy at Johns Hopkins as he later admitted in his autobiography that as the JHU “Director of Physical Education, [he was the] instigator or founder of the ‘Lily White’ practice in college athletics.”(5) As Hopkins did not admit its first African-American undergraduate student, Frederick Scott, until 1945, its delay in breaking down the segregation barrier may have had something to do with the influence of a certain alumnus. (6) Abercrombie & Fitch would later deal with its own charges of racism – in 2005 the company brokered a $40 million dollar settlement in a class action suit charging the company with racial profiling in hiring practices at its retail stores.
Today, the Abercrombie and Fitch brand has become as far removed from the original vision of founder David Abercrombie as can be imagined. The company once renowned for its top of the line sports gear now markets exclusively to fashion trendy teeny boppers. In a 2006 interview A&F CEO Mike Jeffries laid out exactly who the store was in business for:
“…we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that…In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”(7)
Ironically, the idea of enlarging the store’s market was what destroyed the partnership of David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch a little over a century ago. But who knows, maybe Abercrombie would have approved the “good-looking” image if it promoted the fitness necessary for outdoor adventures. (Ben Koshland)
Years ago when I attended Baltimore City College, someone listed off some famous graduates of City and told me that Abercrombie of Abercrombie & Fitch was a fellow knight. I always thought this was cool but just another fun fact or statistic I could use when crushing some silly engineer in the so called debate of the greatest high school in all the land. However, while going through some of the Johns Hopkins school ephemera at MdHS, I stumbled upon a program for a JHU athletic event from 1894. Alongside the traditional gymnastics, the program listed some pretty exciting events like class tug of war, roman ladders, and chicken fighting (not to be confused with cockfighting); all things I think should be reintroduced into collegiate athletics. But while I was glancing over this program I noticed a name kept popping up, Abercrombie. He was listed as a participant in parallel bars, rings, vaulting horse, horizontal bar, and the roman ladder; not too shabby. I assumed this had to be Mr. Abercrombie and decided to do a little digging within the archives. It turns out this was not the Abercrombie of the clothing conglomerate; it was…his brother Ronald.
*Abercrombie didn’t cut all ties with his former partner – the David T. Abercrombie Company manufactured textiles for Abercrombie & Fitch for many years following his departure from the company.
** Ronald was also a contributing member to Maryland Historical Society – in 1943 he published an article in the MdHS Magazine on the Sweet Air Estate. This estate owned by the Carroll family is now a part of GunpowderFallsState Park. The Sweet Air loop begins in Sweet Air, a few miles east of Cockeysville and runs all the way to the Pennsylvania boarder.
(1) Frost, Douglas L. MICA: Making History, Making Art. Baltimore: Maryland Institute College of Art, 2010).
(2) Abercrombie, Ronald. The Abercrombie’s of Baltimore (Baltimore: Private Publisher, 1940), p 20.
(3) Ibid., p.27
(4) Ibid., p. 29
(5) Ibid., p. 29
(7) Sole, Elise, “New Petition Urges Abercrombie & Fitch to Change Its Anti-Plus-Size Stance,” Yahoo! Shine, May 9, 2013.
Sources and Further Reading:
Abercrombie, Ronald. The Abercrombie’s of Baltimore. Baltimore: Private Publisher, 1940.
McBride, Dwight A. Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch. New York: NYU Press, 2005.