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The perils of morocco leather: a tale

morocco leather book cover / delaware public archives

Young Alfred P. Stevenson, Esq., must’ve thought he’d be set for life. 

His uncle, the ‘John’ of John G. Baker Company, ushered him straight out of law school into a job at the family firm. Baker’s Wilmington, DE company, founded in 1867, was young and on a meteoric rise in the morocco leather finishing industry. 

Morocco leather has that rich burgundy satin finish we associate with serious hardbound book covers (above). It was also used extensively in the late 19th century in ladies gloves, purses, and shoes. Morocco leather finishing was one of the top industries in Wilmington when Alfred P. Stevenson entered the field.

Stevenson had his first major setback when his wife Harriet, 29, died in 1875. Stevenson was 28. Their only daughter, Mary, was 2 years old. Stevenson was able to marry again 6 years later and get his life back on track. For a while.

In May 1880, age 33, Stevenson became a director of the Workingmen’s Loan Association. He’s re-elected to the position the following year.

The John G. Baker Co. sends Stevenson and a Charles W. Gouert as its representatives to the 38th semi-annual meeting of the Morocco Manufacturers National Exchange in 1884, held in Wilmington that year.

In 1886 Stevenson’s elected a trustee of the Second Baptist Church. Mary is now 13. Stevenson throws himself into the social life of the church. In June 1888, for example, the King’s Daughters of Second Baptist Church give a parlor concert at Alfred and his new wife Clara’s home on 916 King St. That December the Christian Endeavor Society of the church elects Stevenson vice president.

By now Stevenson is the superintendent at the Baker Co. He’s doing well enough that he’s made some real estate investments. He sells one of his lots to the Wilmington Baptist City Mission in October 1889.

He goes on, the following May, to donate money to build a chapel for the Baptist City Mission. The chapel, says the Evening Journal, “will cost something more than $2,000.”

Then in September 1891, Stevenson’s daughter Mary, age 18, dies unexpectedly of typhoid fever, while visiting relatives in Nashua, NH. Stevenson, along with family friend Charles Gouert, goes to NH to make funeral arrangements. Gouert is by now Secretary/Treasurer of John G. Baker Company.

John G. Baker, undated etching. Public Domain
John G. Baker, undated etching. Public Domain

When the new chapel of Second Baptist Church opens, Stevenson donates a large stained glass window in memory of Mary.

John G. Baker is 60 years old in 1893. He has no heirs. He chooses to formally incorporate the Baker Leather Company, naming Alfred P. Stevenson and Charles W. Gouert as additional incorporators. He names Stevenson, along with his wife Mary, executors of his will.

Rumors had been circulating that Baker’s company was in trouble. The Delaware Gazette and State Journal felt it necessary to reassure readers that “This is simply the firm of John G. Baker, morocco manufacturer, incorporated.” 

The rumors are not unfounded. The fact is, the entire morocco leather industry is under tremendous pressure. Women’s fashions are shifting away from the burgundy leather look, cheap knockoff products such as ‘leatherette’ are undercutting prices, goat skin imports from India are also keeping prices low, and the Irish plant workers have formed a union strong enough to pull off a crippling strike for higher wages back in 1886.

John G. Baker dies suddenly of a massive heart attack in January of 1895, and now Stevenson and Gouert are at a crossroads. Gouert bows out of the industry altogether.

Stevenson takes a look at John G. Baker Company’s books, and decides to sell it, even though the firm has had a good reputation in prior decades. Too much red ink. Sure enough, the assets sell at auction in April, and only bring in $18,000, mainly for the manufacturing plant’s real estate.

Stevenson wastes no time incorporating Stevenson Leather Company, in February of 1895, with capital of $50,000. 

Fresh investment money in hand, Alfred P. Stevenson has plans. May 1896. He proposes to build a market house on King St. “in rear of 832 Market St.” January 1897. He attends the National Morocco Manufacturer’s Association semi-annual meeting in Philadelphia. October 1897. He sets up a store on the west side of King St between 8th & 9th Sts. November 1897. He builds a residence on the west side of Gilpin Ave between Rodney and Clayton Sts. December 1897. He purchases a 2 story real estate investment dwelling at 23rd and Washington.

1902 etching of Blumenthal tannery, one of Wilmington's largest at that time. Hagley Museum & Library.
1902 etching of Blumenthal tannery, one of Wilmington’s largest at that time. Hagley Museum & Library.

But the business is not pulling its weight. And once Stevenson has burned through investors’ money, stockholders get angry. In April 1898 major shareholder Frank M. Jones petitions Chancery Court in Dover to have Stevenson Leather Company placed in receivership. The Chancellor of the court agrees, stating that “the company was unable to meet its maturing obligations because of the long period of trade depression.”

Bad news piles on. One month later, the Importers and Traders Bank of New York files a petition with the US Court of that city to have Stevenson declared officially bankrupt. Stevenson manages to escape that fate: the court doesn’t exactly say he is NOT bankrupt, only that the petition filed by the bank to declare him so didn’t meet technical filing requirements. Case dismissed. But his reputation is ruined. New investors evaporate.

Stevenson reasons he can make use of the brand new business incorporation laws of 1899 to move any remaining assets of Stevenson Leather Co. to a new shell company. He charters Diamond Leather Company in April 1900.

In November the property he bought just three years prior at 23rd St & Washington is seized and sold at sheriff’s sale. The new shell company doesn’t protect Stevenson. In July 1901 he’s behind $17,000 on the mortgage for the factory headquarters. The factory gets sold at auction that October. 

Alfred P. Stevenson falls off newspaper business pages and society pages after that. Between 1901 and 1920, when he dies at age 73, his name only appears in the paper when there’s a sheriff sale of one of his dwindling properties. He’s ultimately forced to evacuate his elegant Wilmington mansion for a much humbler dwelling in outlying Penny Hill, DE. 

Was Alfred P. Stevenson a victim of a changing marketplace, a tide he couldn’t possibly turn? Had he reached full competency as a superintendent, where he should have remained? Flush with investor money, was he overcome by hubris? Probably a bit of all these things.

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