"Simmons is the Napoleon of tailors and it is said that he gives constant employment to some four hundred hands." is the resounding endorsement in the back section of his promotional literature titled Oak Hall Pictorial. George Simmons was nothing short of a genius in his abilities for self-
promotion and business acumen. His exploits are richly laid out in Claudia B. Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman’s book, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America. 1
Kidwell and Christman regard Simmons as the “first truly successful clothing establishment”, having come from a long line of tailors and garment professionals.2 His store, which he billed as “Oak Hall”, opened in 1841, and he stated that “any article from a pair of Gloves to a superfine Dress or Frock coat (can be found)” 3. This statement does not leap out during this historical period, where hyperbole and self-aggrandizement are the basics of marketing. However it is his innovation, not in product, but in marketing, that makes him a remarkable businessman.
His cornerstone was “large sales and small profits”, and catered to all segments of society. He was carrying inventory and selling to military, and tradesmen, laborers as well as gentlemen, and actively marketing to them, simultaneously. He also set aside a complete section of his building, to boy’s clothing. 4 To this day, one only finds high end or low-end shops; never the two extremes under one roof. Putting that in today’s perspective, it would be like going to K-mart or Walmart and finding a $2,000 men’s suit under the same roof as Dickie’s work clothes.
Among Simmons innovations, was free delivery of goods, carried out by a speeding horse cart, with the words “Reform your tailor’s bill by Visiting Oak Hall” painted on the side. He also threw overcoats from the top of his building onto the street below to attract business from the passers by. He was among the first to put items “on sale” and sent up balloons to announce this.
His firm produced both civilian and military goods until the turn of the century. He was first listed in 1861 as jewelers, dry goods & clothiers. By 1862 he was advertising Army and Navy officer's uniforms in the Boston Post5. Bazelon and McGuinn state that from 1869 onward, the firm was G.W. Simmons & Co, and later G.W. Simmons & Son. By the 1890’s the company was heavily advertising its Army and Navy line of “hats, caps, swords, flags, overcoats and military equipment”.6
Kidwell and Christman’s book, carry many images of the original promotional material distributed by Simmons during his early years. These items, which are attributed to the Baker Library of Harvard University, are closely guarded, and any use is “juried” as to use and copyright permissions. Rather than getting involved in the lengthy and restrictive process, items from the NJ Sekela collection have been included in this profile, which are no less demonstrative of the breadth of Simmons work. Among these is a glossy trade card from the 1860’s period, which has the Oak Hall business information, framed by all of the signs of the zodiac, again, illustrating Simmons’ ability to reach to different segments of society.
The Sekela collection also contains a swatch book, which had been sold on E-bay as a being from the Civil War period. The typography is clearly of the 1870-1880’s period, but what is interesting, is that the cadet gray fabrics, are actually of a cotton/wool plain weave fabric. The most notable is listed as "Number 2" under the Broadcloth links to the left. According to Ben Tart, was used on many Confederate uniforms.
The copy of the Oak Hall Pictorial was through the courteousy of Dr. Patricia Trautman. Whereas Kidwell and Christman’s graphics show print advertisements, this was actually a pamphlet distributed among Simmons’ clientele.
A Trade token from the NJ Sekela collection, in coined brass, for the Oak Hall Establishment, advertising the large Boys clothing section.
Also from the Sekela collection is an amazing item, which waspurchased from the internet auction site, E-bay. It was simply sold as a red leather belt and was not noted as having any other significance. Upon its arrival, the "safe" behind the belt plate was noted to bear the unmistakable markings of George Simmons "Oak Hall", as well as the address.
This short essay only scratches the surface of the large impact and amazing career of George Simmons. In terms of historical information and his significance in the century, Simmons still fulfills his advertising claims. He is definitely the first person to visit.
1The book, which was an accompaniment to an exhibition of the Smithsonian in the early 1970’s, is an essential, “must have” for anyone interested in the ready made clothing industry, from the 18th century to the current day.
2Claudia B. Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (Washington: Smithsonian, 1974) 58
3 Ibid, 58
4 Ibid, 59
5 Bruce S. Bazelon and William F. McGuinn, A Directory of American Military Goods Dealers and Makers, 1785-1885 (Manassas, Va: REF Typesetting, 1987), 77.
6 Ibid, 77
This article was published on Monday 18 April, 2022.