My favorite aspect of working with museum objects is discovering the many stories a single artifact can tell. When investigating an artifact of clothing in the history collections, it is not just about the design and aesthetic beauty of the piece. Clothing can tell us about the person who designed it, the person who sold it and the person who wore it.
A coat recently rediscovered in collections tells all of these stories, each more compelling than the last. The pictures of this coat do not do it justice. The materials, design and construction are outstanding. The story behind the coat, however, is just as enthralling. In this two-part series, we will trace this coat from designer, to merchant and finally to the customer.
This coat bears two labels sewn to the lining just below the collar. The first is the label of the garment’s designer, Emile Pingat. The second label is that of the retailer who sold the garment, A.E. Burkhardt. The A.E. Burkhardt Company was founded by Adam Edward Burkhardt in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1866. It is important to note that placing a label inside a woman's garment was a relatively new idea at this time. Charles Frederick Worth, a French couturier, is largely credited with being a pioneer of this practice. He believed that clothing designers should sign their work just as an artist signs their painting. This label gave me a place to start my research and opened the door to multiple stories.
This stunning brown velvet and wool coat was designed by Emile Pingat. Pingat is considered one of the premiere women’s fashion designers of his day but is largely forgotten by modern audiences. His name can be found in contemporary sources alongside Charles Frederick Worth and Jacques Doucet. Unlike Worth and Doucet, however, his design house only operated for a short period. Worth’s business was continued by his sons, and Doucet operated into the 1920s. Pingat chose to retire and sell his business in 1896 and largely disappeared from public life. During his career, Pingat was known for being a master of outerwear. He liked to work in monochromatic color palettes or with a single accent color. His work is always balanced and while sumptuous, it never appears overdone. While his business was located in Paris, France, licensed copies of his designs could be made to order at American retailers. The coat from Ohio History Connection is an example of this licensing practice. It is a common misconception that customers outside of the coasts, particularly New York City, were not able to purchase high fashion garments. This could not be further from the truth. Women and men in the Midwest could be just as boujee and keen to display their wealth and status as the east coast. While there may not be brand names splashed all over clothing in the way we see today, it was very clear to other members of high society when garments were high-end. This coat’s designer origins are, perhaps, one of the least fascinating aspects of its story however. The next stop on this coat’s journey is the merchant, so let us dive in.
Burkhardt was born in Bavaria, in what is now Germany, in 1845. Burkhardt’s father died when he was ten years old, at which time he, his mother and his sisters immigrated to the U.S. and immediately settled in Cincinnati. Burkhardt’s mother passed just three years later, leaving Burkhardt and his sisters on their own. This led Burkhardt to drop out of school and take a job with Mitchell & Rammelsberg, a furniture store, as an errand boy. A biography published in 1875 lists his salary at this position as just $1.00 per week. Burkhardt left this position after only three months in order to work for Jacob Theis, a retail hatter and furrier, for a salary of $1.50 per week. He worked his way up within the company until he and his brother-in-law, F.B. Burkhardt, bought out the business. The business then became known as the Burkhardt Brothers until sometime between 1867 and 1875, when Adam assumed sole responsibility of the company and renamed it A.E. Burkhardt & Co.
Burkhardt’s business was so successful that he moved to a larger space at the corner of Elm and Fourth Street in Cincinnati, Ohio. On March 1, 1871, Adam Burkhardt married Emma Amanda Erkenbrecher. Emma was the daughter of prominent Cincinnati businessman, Andrew Erkenbrecher. Erkenbrecher had made his fortune in the production and sale of laundry starch and is primarily remembered for almost single-handedly founding the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1875, Burkhardt had two retail stores in Cincinnati and in 1886, he opened a new seven story retail location that the Cincinnati Post deemed, “the most palatial mercantile structure in the world.” Business was going so well in fact, that Burkhardt purchased 16 acres of land in Avondale for $36,000. When adjusted for inflation, $36,000 is roughly equivalent to $1.1 million dollars today. Burkhardt commissioned Samuel Hannaford to design and construct the home from 1886-1887. The home was referred to as “Edgewood” and was 8,000 square feet made up of 33 rooms with ten bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Burkhardt’s good fortune, however, was about to run out.
In 1891, the seven-story retail location was lost to a fire. The New York Times reported that upwards of $1 million dollars in property and goods was lost. When accounting for inflation, $1 million would be equivalent to about $33 million today. Burkhardt rushed to open a new location on Race Street, but ran into even more trouble when the financial panic of 1893 set in. Burkhardt sold his shares of the company in 1892, but remained on as President of the company until 1895. In 1896, the individual holding the majority of the company’s shares was advised to sell at public auction. The buyer of these shares proved to be someone rather close to home.
Emma Burkhardt borrowed $15,500 and put up her jewelry as collateral in order to purchase the majority shares of the business. According to court documents, Emma paid $87,500 to purchase all the property and assets of A.E. Burckhardt Co. This included not only the property itself, but also all the merchandise and fixtures in said store. She did not do this to save her husband, however. She renamed the business Burkhardt Bros. and turned the company over to two of their sons, Andreas and Carl. Meanwhile, Burkhardt had borrowed money from his employees to reopen his business at another location under the name of A.E. Burkhardt Fur and Hat Co. It appears that Emma and Adam had parted ways, and not on amicable terms. Emma was still living at “Edgewood” with her sons, while Adam was living several streets away according to the 1900 census, and by all signs, they had split up sometime around the building fire in 1891. It does not appear that they ever legally divorced, but it is worth noting that Emma listed herself as a widow in the 1900 census despite Adam being very much alive. In fact, the relationship grew so contentious that Emma sued Adam for trademark infringement in 1897. The Cincinnati Superior Court, who ruled in Emma’s favor, heard the case. The ruling stated, ‘that the trade-mark of the business, including the right to use the name “Burkhardt” as a part of the trade-mark, passed to the purchaser at the judicial sale.”
The Burkhardt Bros. business, run by Andreas and Carl, was in operation well into the 20th century and seemed to do quite well. Adam Burkhardt also continued in the clothing business, opening a six-story store at Third and Main Streets in 1905. He even added an addition in 1911. Furthermore, Burkhardt was named President of the Cincinnati Zoo, likely through his relationship with his father-in-law. He is credited with helping to save the zoo from the brink of bankruptcy. He was also integral to the development of the cable lines for Mount Auburn and Avondale in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was later the President of the companies that built them. While Burkhardt recovered his business and had success, he remained estranged from his wife and children until his passing in 1917. Emma and four of their children are buried together in the Erkenbrecher plot in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Adam is buried elsewhere in the same cemetery.
Given all that we know about the history of Adam Burkhardt and his company, we know that this coat must date from between 1875-1891 given the name of the business as it appears on the label inside the collar. The style of the coat narrows this range even further. The standing band collar, the construction of the sleeves, and the fullness at the center-back of the coat at the waist, indicate that the coat was made between 1883-1890. Thus far, this coat has sent us on a journey fraught with business conflicts and interpersonal drama, but the family drama is not over yet. Be sure to come back to read part two, where we will dive into the owner of the coat and learn more about the woman who wore this exquisite design.
Andreas v. A.E. Burkhardt Fur & Hat Co., 4 Ohio N.P. 358 (1897) https://cite.case.law/ohio-np/4/358/
"A Furrier's Fine Family Home," Digging Cincinnati History. Wednesday, March 6, 2013. http://www.diggingcincinnati.com/2013/03/a-furriers-fine-family-home-edgewood.html
Coleman, Brent. "Burkhardt House Painstakingly Preserved," Cincinnati.com. December 30, 2013. https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2013/12/27/burkhardt-house-painstakingly-preserved/4249201/
Fehler, Lily, "1820-1901 - Emile Pingat," Fashion History Timeline. July 14, 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1820-1901-emile-pingat/