Manhattan’s Wall Street is synonymous with the financial industry and with big money. We all know about the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big insurance companies that have their headquarters on the street, or nearby. People remember the skyscrapers and the counting houses, but forget that Wall Street begins at the shore of the East River, and in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this was a working harbor. By the mid-19th century, lower Wall Street was best known as the center of the coffee district. And there was big money here, too.
Green coffee is the unroasted, raw beans, and like many commodities, it was coming into New York and Brooklyn ports in bulk by the mid-1800s. Lower Wall Street, along with the surrounding blocks of Front, Water, Pearl and other streets became the green coffee capital of America. There were dozens of coffee merchants headquartered here, with warehouses bursting with bags of coffee beans. Those beans came from Brazil, Central America, Mexico, Haiti and most of the other Caribbean islands. Most of the coffee merchants also became coffee roasters, with roasting plants also in the neighborhood. This area was also home to tea merchants, sugar merchants and other spice merchants. The smells, good and bad, must have been pretty overpowering.
Coffee merchants seemed to partner, break up, and partner with other people over and over in the coffee district, so most of the names changed with some frequency. Only a few are remembered today, like Chase & Sanborn, and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, now A&P. One of the longest lasting coffee merchants on Wall Street was Eppens, Smith & Co. Like the others, their company went through several partners and name changes, as well. It began as Pupke & Reid in 1855, and became Pupke, Reid & Phelps when the company took on E.A. Phelps’ coffee roasting company in 1880.
One of the employees at Pupke & Reid was a young man named Frederick P. Eppens. A German immigrant who came to Rhode Island in 1867, he began working at Pupke & Reid in their Hoboken office as an office boy in 1869, and was head of the entire company in 1883. Eppens took on new partners and changed the name of the company to Eppens, Smith in 1885, with John Pupke remaining president until his death in 1896, and Thomas Reid remaining on board as vice-president. Later, they took on another partner to become Eppens, Smith & Weimann Co. and finally, just Eppens, Smith Co.
Frederick Eppens died in 1896, and his position was taken by his brother Julius. Another brother, William, was also in the business. Thomas Reid stayed on as VP until his death in 1902. The company grew to become one of the biggest coffee dealers and roasters in the business. In 1900, their roasting plant and warehouses at 103 and 105 Warren Street were destroyed when a huge explosion in the nearby Tarrant Building, near Chambers Street, took out the entire neighborhood. It was estimated that the company lost $125,000 worth of coffee, tea and other spices, not to mention the two buildings, which were a total loss. It would take five years, and much litigation before they received money from their insurance company.
They relocated, and continued to grow, as many of the smaller coffee dealers either went out of business or merged. As the 20th century progressed, the Wall Street area began losing its harbor businesses, as the financial industry grew. Eppens, Smith Co. opened new offices and locations, not just in New York, but in several other cities across the country.
The company had many officers over the years, including members of the Eppens and Pupke families, as well as others. It must have been a good company to work for, as the obituaries of many of the higher ups, as well as ordinary workers show a history with the company that lasted for years. For many, working for Eppens, Smith was their lifelong job, starting at 15 or 16 years of age.
The company usually made the papers for the rise of its stock prices, but now and then, there were lawsuits and tax issues. However, in 1904, a salesman for the company in Pittsburgh named McAlpine shot his wife three times, and then tried to kill himself. Fortunately, the wife survived, but the salesman was in critical condition, having cut his own throat after taking poison. Investigators found out that he thought his wife was going to put him in an insane asylum, so that’s why he shot her. That story was reprinted in papers all over the country.
By the 1940s, Eppens, Smith had offices in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Boston. Their signature coffee was called Holland House Coffee, and their name brand tea was Challenge Tea. They imported coffee from several different parts of the world, and teas from across the Far East. In 1943, they purchased two buildings from the former United Drug Syndicate, which had ten buildings in the Borden Avenue, 21st Street manufacturing area, in Hunter’s Point. The main building was at 11-58 Borden Avenue.
A photograph of this building, taken in 1947, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York caught my attention, leading to this story. The company roasted coffee here, advertising jobs in local newspapers until the end of the 1950s. Today, the Eppens, Smith Company name belongs to Chock Full ‘O Nuts Corporation, which bought it at some unknown date.
The factory building has had many owners and has been subdivided for many industries since then. There have been garment factories, an architecture firm, several film company offices, upholstery, trucking and other industries in this large building. It’s still very industrial over here, and hopefully will stay that way. The next time you have a cup of Joe, remember that it wasn’t too long ago that it might have been roasted just down the road.
(1947 Photo: The Museum of the City of New York)