The celebration for the New Orleans tricentennial is drawing to a close. While I think we covered a number of New Orleans business history topics, there were so many stories that I didn’t get around to telling!
While doing some research, I found a great quote that felt appropriate to include in a final tricentennial post. It was written by Mary Bentley Thomas of Ednor, Maryland, who visited the city in 1903 when she attended the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention held in New Orleans.
The size of this pad prevents me from expressing my opinion of New Orleans, for I have no knowledge of stenography. Your city is a revelation, not only because of its beauty and vast shipping interests, but from the pluck and ingenuity which have rendered possible such a metropolis by setting at variance even the laws of gravitation. While I have been delighted by the things to which our attention has been especially called, let me, in no spirit of flattery, record that fact that, to me, your people are the very best exhibit of New Orleans.
With that said, now for the real reason for this post – an opportunity for a few final business items.
New Orleans and the Panama Canal
New Orleans has always been a city very connected to Central and South America as illustrated in the story of Zemurray and the banana trade. But I never thought of any connection the city might have had to the Panama Canal until I saw the January 26, 1913 edition of the Washington Herald – New Orleans edition. It featured a whole series of pieces under the title New Orleans as a gateway to the Panama Canal.
Cotton, New Orleans, and Edgar Degas
Trade and its associated needs was an important part of the city because of the port and the railroads. Sugar was big, as were bananas. But beyond those there was cotton. Cotton was important enough to the city that local businessmen established the New Orleans Cotton Exchange. They didn’t have their own building when they began meeting in 1877, but by 1883 they built their first building at the corner of Gravier and Carondelet and a new building in 1921 at that same location. While the exchanged ceased in 1964, their building still stands.
One man who would likely have been around about the time of the Exchange’s founding, was Michael Musson, a local cotton factor. Musson is not a name many know but he did have a famous nephew – Edgar Degas. While Degas was visiting the city he used his uncle’s business as the background for his painting “A Cotton Office in New Orleans” and included his uncle — the seated gentleman examining cotton – in the painting.
The St. Charles Hotel – a center for business, a center for city life
The St. Charles Hotel made an appearance in the background of an image in my post about streetcars but I felt the hotel itself deserved more attention.
There is a long history of a hotel existing where the St. Charles Hotel stood. The original St. Charles Hotel or Exchange Hotel opened in 1837 but was destroyed by fire in January 1851. The second hotel opened in January 1853 but in 1894 it too burned down. In its 30 years, it hosted many guests, including attendees of the 1884 World’s Industrial Cotton Exposition. As you can see from the image, it was a grand hotel. An 1894 article about the fire provides some detail:
Rebuilding of the hotel was begun at once. At the time it attracted general attention, because of the fact that it was the finest hotel in the world, and the first great hotel of the United States. The hotel comfortably accommodated between 600 and 700 guests. The historic building was closely associated with the history of Louisiana and New Orleans. In “Parlor P” Jefferson Davis and the leading southern politicians met and agreed upon the course to be pursued at the Charleston convention of 1860, and since then the fate of hundreds of aspirants for public honors was sealed in these historic precincts. Since the war the St. Charles was the central point of the very stormy politics of Louisiana. In its rotunda democrats, republicans and members of every political party have met to exchange views and to discuss the affairs of the state and nation.
Parlor P alone made for itself a national reputation. It was occupied by no less than six congressional investigation committees, trying to understand the chaotic condition of affairs which at that time became known over the country as “The Louisiana Question,” but it is not in political history alone that parlor “P” was famous. Countless other associations, to discuss great questions of trade and commerce, were held there-railroad meetings to build new railroads and meetings of ladies to solve great problems of balls and dress. There, too, came Rex when a visitor to New Orleans, parlor “P” being his recognized official headquarters for his short reign of two days during the carnival.
Lastly there is the third building which opened in February 1896 — this image provides a much better picture of it. It was this hotel that hosted attendees of the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1903 including Mary Bentley Thomas whose quote is above. This hotel had better luck, but unfortunately it too closed — but not because it caught fire — and was demolished in 1974. Images of the lobby and palm garden indicate it was quite a refined hotel.
Margaret Haughery – businesswoman, philanthropist
Lastly, I wanted to feature Margaret Haughery, a woman memorialized in a statue I saw many times growing up. She was referred to by a number of names, but the one I associate with her is “Mother of the Orphans,” and hers is an interesting story.
Margaret and her family immigrated to Baltimore from Ireland but she was orphaned after the death of her parents. She got work as a laundress and eventually married Charles Haughery. The couple moved to New Orleans but after the death of her husband and child, she again found herself alone.
With support from the Sisters of Charity she again took up laundry work. Given that she had been an orphan and that the Sisters of Charity had supported her, she became very involved with their orphan asylum and supporting orphans became her lifelong cause. While she did laundry for the sisters, she also bought a couple of cows and established a milk cart business and began providing milk for the orphans.
After learning the bakery business she used what she learned to open her own – Margaret’s Steam and Mechanical Bakery. This turned out to be a very successful business and she used the profits to support her charitable work. In the end, her businesses did so well that she was able to establish the Female Orphan Asylum of the Sisters of Charity, St. Theresa’s Orphan Asylum, and St. Theresa’s Church.
She worked tirelessly throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction feeding the poor and continued her work on behalf of the city’s orphans. She died in 1882 and was so well regarded she was given a state funeral attended by city and state politicians and many of the orphans she worked to support. City citizens erected a monument in her honor that was dedicated in 1884.
Some of the particulars about these businesses are lost, but advertisements and newspaper articles like the below excerpt from an 1886 Helena Weekly Herald article can provide some information:
She managed the dairy in an orphan asylum awhile. Then she opened a little eating house. But one feature of her career is singular. With all the money she amassed she never entered on any enterprise without a benevolent motive at the back. She had noted how the Mississippi steamboat laborers, “deck hands” they are called, were swindled out of their money, and how they stupefied themselves with whiskey and then lay about boozing kens till they were pushed out.
Margaret thought she could do them some good. So she opened the little shop where river laborers could get a cup of good coffee and a roll for the merest trifle. It is not on record that she ever succeeded in reforming the deck hands to any great extent, but she did build up in time a great manufacturing business. She erected a steam cracker bakery, a building several stories in height. Her wagons supplied bakers’ goods to the city.
I can’t say I won’t ever do another post about some business aspect of the city but I think 2019 might see other topics take center stage.