J. Press Merchant Tailors

Tailoring was almost an accident for my grandfather Jacobi Press, but not quite. He arrived in Boston Harbor with his three sisters in 1896. They were met at the pier by his brothers Max and Harry who had settled earlier, establishing a small custom-tailor shop in Middletown, Connecticut. Jake, as he was called by the family, learned English at age 16 (without an accent) by assisting the shop’s customers at the same time working with an old German tailor they employed that taught him the art of cutting and design in-between delivering packages to help pay his way.

Jacobi’s big break came in 1902. Since the Civil War, merchant tailor Herman Goldbaum owned and operated a shop at 150 Elm Street, just off the Yale campus in downtown New Haven. The turn of the twentieth century found Mr. Goldbaum embroiled in debt looking for a way out of his financial predicament. A future partnership agreement was negotiated pursuant to Press bringing in enough new business to settle Goldbaum’s financial abyss.

How to bring in the customers? My grandfather mustered up enough courage to knock on a dormitory door one afternoon. At first the boys laughed at him, but before he was through he had most of them as customers. According to family lore, Grandpa once snatched a suit jacket off a dissatisfied student customer during a fitting telling him, “If you don’t like the way it fits, then I own it. It’s mine, and you don’t have to pay for it.”

The training he received at his brothers’ emporium in Middletown provided Jacobi Press enough tailoring experience to process all the new orders he brought in. He was a dapper man carefully decked out in three piece English woolens, an astute wardrobe in the manner of debonair Professor William Lyon Phelps and other well-dressed notables on the Yale campus. He adopted the gift of gab and quick sense of humor he observed among the high club echelons en route to their elite social gatherings. The original Goldbaum obligations were fully paid by 1908. Goldbaum & Press was dissolved in an amiable manner. No lawyers were needed to assist the transaction. The partners simply flipped a coin for each piece of goods, shook hands and divided the remaining assets.

“Men like Lewis Douglas, our present Ambassador to England, still have their clothes tailored by Press,” 1949 Custom Tailor Magazine reported. “Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, now Marshall Plan Envoy W. Averell Harriman, heir to the Union Pacific fortune, fondly recalls when Jacobi Press lent him 25 cents for breakfast after an expensive weekend. In fact, the Press firm’s ledgers read like an unabridged version of Who’s Who in American life that also includes Secretary-of-State Dean Acheson.”

My induction into the family business occurred when I joined the firm shortly after graduating college. I was brought onto the scene during an emergency. The J. Press southern road traveler was taken ill and I was called off the bench to fill in for him. The most traumatic obligation thrust upon me was fitting a basted try-on in Charlottesville, Virginia for Colgate W. Darden Jr., Dean of the University of Virginia Medical School. A basted try-on prepares the needlework of a garment for sewing. I didn’t know how to read a tape measure, let alone pin a suit. Even worse, the fitting was for white tie and tails the customer was planning to wear for a gala event at Monticello.

Ralph Chieffo, was the chief fitter and designer at the New Haven York Street headquarters. Before his career at J. Press he operated a custom tailoring school in New Haven and wrote the textbook “How to Tailor a Custom Suit.” He quickly gave me an emergency tutorial. Dr. Darden later told Ray Jacobs, the southern traveler, to send his regards to the young Mr. Press for his fluent fitting debut.

Bespoke expertise continues today at our stores. The all-star list of our roster remains confidential unlike the dubious celebrity wardrobes bragged about in digital media. In a public age we respect the privacy of our patrons. The invaluable experience of 117 years of successful merchant tailoring underlies our unique facility for tailoring superlative clothes to individual order. Our Made to Measure tailored clothing program combines expert tailoring to personal specifications and a wide selection of fabrics from the finest mills. J. Press Custom shirts offer the same unique resources as our clothing department. My Uncle Irving Press regularly availed himself the opportunity to choose button down shirts with sleeves able to accommodate his treasured gold-frame IEP cuff links. In a similar manner, many prefer point, club, or English tab collars, or various combinations of contrast collar and cuffs not usually available in Ready-to-Wear shirts.

That is the true legacy of Jacobi Press. Our dedicated staff adheres fervently to the Golden Rule of customer satisfaction that has been our touchstone since 1902.


Richard Press

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