Today in History: D.C.’s Oldest Business Closes

By Michael E. Grass - City Desk
|  Tuesday, Mar 8, 2011  |  Updated 5:00 PM EDT
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Today in History: D.C.’s Oldest Business Closes

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On March 8, 2001, the District's oldest business, Galt & Bro. Jewelers, closed after nearly two centuries of continuous operation, serving presidents and local residents alike. While the business moved over the years, it had always been located near the White House; its last address on 15th Street N.W. was across the street from the Treasury Department.

In fact, the first watch President Abraham Lincoln ever owned was being repaired at the shop when the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. An Irish immigrant working on the watch had secretly inscribed the brass underside of the watch movement to commemorate the event:

Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon ... April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government.

Lincoln never paid off his debt to the store. Following his assassination, the Galt family forgave most of what was owed, but did reclaim some of the items the president had made for his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

The Galt name may sound familiar for other reasons: Edith Galt, who took over management of the store following her husband's death in 1908, married President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. The photo of the store's interior pictured above was taken on their wedding day.

While the business had a storied history with residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. -- a plaque President John F. Kennedy had made for the Sultan of Zanzibar was never picked up following the president's 1963 assassination -- the store was a fixture for local residents. Pictured below is a Galt & Bro. Jewelers-branded sack, used to hold a silver-plated bowl that was hand-crafted for my family, which has been living in the District since the 1860s.

According to Reason magazine, Galt's last year in business was its most profitable.

So why did the business close? Because its owners decided that if the store could not continue to live within the identity created by generations of customers and managers, then it would be better simply to honor that long tradition by quietly shutting the door. The decision meant foregoing the certain and handsome profit that would have come from selling a two-century accumulation of illustrious good will. It is a striking act of creative destruction.

Top photo courtesy Library of Congress; bottom photo by Michael E. Grass

Today in D.C. History: D.C.’s Oldest Business Closes Up Shop was originally published by Washington City Paper on March 8, 2011.

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