How Platt Evens Started Cincinnati Shopping

Crowds would gather at his Main Street haberdashery in the mid-1800s just to look through the plate glass windows.

From the moment the early settlers hauled their flatboats ashore at Losantiville, Cincinnati was a commercial hotspot. Provisioning the U.S. Army at Fort Washington and packing pork, commerce drove the growth of the future metropolis.

Platt Evens was the first Cincinnati merchant to present quality goods in a manner to influence public taste. His Main Street haberdashery was renowned for its large glass display windows that attracted tourists from miles around.

Image digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County and extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Pioneers bought staples and necessities, but no one in Cincinnati “shopped.” Along came Platt Evens, and you either shopped at his haberdashery or you were nobody. According to The Cincinnati Daily Gazette [November 5, 1873]:

“No wedding suit could pass satisfactorily the critical inspection of a well to do mother-in-law in those days which had not first passed the critical inspection of Platt Evens in the handsome store on Main Street.”

That establishment was legendary in its day, Mr. Evens being the first merchant in town to employ plate glass windows to show off his merchandise. The effect, in Cincinnati, was electrifying. People congregated just to gaze through those immense windows, to the extent that pedestrians were forced to navigate around the mob blocking the pavement. Theodore Greve, in his 1904 Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens, quotes a visitor from the 1830s:

“As in every other city there is a point more attracting than another. In this it is Mr. Platt Evens’ lot to be distinguished, and the front of his store, with his large plates of French glass, through which may be viewed every article, almost, of Fancy, continues to attract crowds of men, women and boys from morning till night when the day is pleasant, much to the annoyance of foot passengers.”

Evens was Welsh by descent and born in New York state. He brought a new bride to Cincinnati in 1816 and opened his first establishment as a mercer and woolen draper, but was soon the premiere merchant tailor in the city. Evens was fastidious to the point of obsession, and almost any mention of him includes a reference to the absence of dust in his store, from cellars to attic.

In his own dress, Evens mirrored the particular spotlessness of his emporium. Not a wrinkle marred his clothing, not a hair dared but fall into its proper place on his head. As everyone remarked on his immaculate appearance, everyone also noted another characteristic of this most proper tailor—he stuttered when he spoke, especially when excited.

This impediment did nothing to lower the esteem of his fellow citizens, and Platt Evens was often listed among blue-ribbon committees in town. When a group of young men organized a home guard, they nominated Evens as their captain. He refused with some fervor, pointing out that, with his stuttering, the troop would march into the Ohio River before he could give the order to halt.

All the many anecdotes involving Evens include attempts to replicate his stutter, as in this excerpt from Greve’s Centennial History:

“For many years the store of Platt Evens was one of the show places of the town, and the fame of its owner extended abroad. Lafayette ordered a suit of clothes from him, and so did President Zachary Taylor. Evens was very proud of the appearance of his place and particularly of a handsome black walnut counter which ornamented it. At one time Gen. James Taylor, the famous land owner of Newport who was in the store, seated himself on the counter and began whittling its edge with his penknife. The indignation of Evens can be more easily imagined than described, but without making any comment he slipped behind the doughty Kentuckian and with a pair of shears clipped off the tails of the General’s coat. The feuds of modern times disappear into utter insignificance as compared with the explosion of wrath that thereupon ensued, the explosion which agitated the frames of two mighty men, the merchant tailor and the warrior Taylor. The latter demanded pay for his ruined coat, whereupon the former boiling with rage replied in his stuttering fashion: ‘Wh-wh-wh-when y-y-you p-p-pay me for my c-c-c-counter I’ll p-p-pay you f-f-f-for your c-c-coat.’ After some interchange of compliments, the matter was settled by the General ordering a new suit for which he paid a price which allowed a sufficient margin to pay for repairing the counter.”

Through hard work and thrift, Evens saved up enough to buy up a good-sized parcel of property along Spring Grove Avenue, just the other side of Winton Road from the cemetery. He gradually cut back on his business in town and spent more and more time as a gentleman farmer. One day, the story goes, Evens decided to plant some clover in one of his meadows and looked about his shop for a sack to carry the clover seed home. He found no sack, but did locate a pair of rubber overalls in a back room. He took the stretchy pants to the feed store and asked a young clerk if he could fill them with clover seed for $1. The clerk heartily agreed, since the overalls appeared so tiny but, as he poured more and more seed, they stretched and stretched until Evens was holding more than a bushel of seed at a bargain price.

With his connections to East Coast suppliers, Evens got advance shipments of sometimes exotic clothing, like a flotation bathing suit that arrived in the 1840s. According to The Gazette [March 13, 1879]:

“On the legs and upper part of the body it fitted quite closely but about the middle it was puffed out to Falstaffian size by the inflation of a number of life preservers, which were attached to the inside of it. The feet were weighted down with five pounds of shot apiece. From the sleeves dangled the paddles, which were light frames of wood, over which was stretched a thin film of rubber. The suit was furnished with a wide cape, which proved very useful in keeping the water from deluging his head and face.”

Evens prevailed upon Charles Drury, a clerk at Wiswell’s mirror shop and art gallery, to demonstrate this suit in the Ohio River. After a few hours of Drury sailing along at the whim of the wind, Cincinnati decided it was not ready for this bathing apparatus and it was returned to the coast.

When Evens died at the age of 80 in 1873, he was carried to his rest at Spring Grove Cemetery, not in a hearse but upon a bier borne by his Masonic brethren. For decades after, the local newspapers pulled out the occasional Platt Evens anecdote to brighten their dreary columns.

If you are a numismatist, you have probably heard of Platt Evens because of the metallic tokens he had struck during a coin shortage in the 1830s. These so-called Hard Times Tokens are highly collectible.

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