Wednesday, May 11, 2011

S.S. Pierce by Anthony M. Sammarco

S.S. Pierce & Company brings to mind to most of us neatly packaged foodstuffs that arrived by mail, or earlier by delivery man, in red boxes and the distinctive crest of the firm emblazoned on the wrappings. The company stood for gourmet foods and exotic imports, such as reindeer tongue that was largely unavailable in Dorchester a century ago.

Samuel Stillman Pierce (1807-1880) was born in the Cedar Grove neighborhood of Dorchester. The Pierce Family had settled in Dorchester shortly after the town was settled in 1630, and descended from Robert and Anne Greenway Pierce, who built their house in the mid 17th century on what is today Oakton Avenue. The house, which still stands and is preserved by Historic New England, is a fine example of East Anglican architecture, and was one of the few houses in southern Dorchester in the years prior to the Revolution.

Samuel S. Pierce was the son of Daniel and Lydia Davenport Pierce and was born in the farmhouse built by his family in the mid 18th century. Daniel Pierce was a cabinetmaker, and though we know of no ascribed furniture, the proximity of his home to the Lower Mills, a veritable beehive of artisans and cabinetmakers, may have resulted in his craft being undertaken at home. His son Samuel, however, was apprenticed to a firm of importers in Boston and then went into the grocery business for himself while still a young man. In 1831, Pierce founded his own grocery store and commenced a business that catered to families in Boston, with expert care and attention not just to the quality of the produce and provisions he offered, but in the presentation and in the maintenance of satisfied customers.

The first store of S.S. Pierce & Company was at the corner of Tremont and Court Streets in Boston, in a large granite building that housed his grocery store on the first floor and offices above. The store stocked thousands of items, many of which had a limited sale to the general public. Requests in the years prior to the Civil War heard for kangaroo tail soup, truffled lark and reindeer toungue, were made by Bostonians according to C. Lester Walker, who wrote an article for “The Reader’s Digest.” According to the article, the store might annually sell “5,000 tureens of pate de fois gras, 45,000 jars of caviar and 95,000 cans of mushrooms” and that it sells “crepe suzette, English lime marmalade, French frogs legs and costly terrapin stew… the firm even stocks escargots and boxes of pink French snail shells to cook them in.” Needless to say, one wonders how Bostonians had become so cosmopolitan in their refined palates over a century and a half ago.

S.S. Pierce was an astute businessman, and his large family provided four generations of Pierces to maintain both the name and the high standards of excellence that S.S. Pierce & Company had become known to represent. The diversity, quality and rareness of the foods offered by Pierce was unexcelled, and “some Bostonians claim that S.S. Pierce has introduced more new food products to Americans than any other U.S. grocer. The first recorded sale of canned corn was made by Samuel Pierce in 1848. Pierce’s sold Singapore pineapple before Hawaiian was ever heard of. And sun-ripened canned peaches, brook trout from Iceland, even rattlesnake meat.” Needless to say, Pierce maintained a business without rival, and was not simply a self-made man but an astute judge of Bostonians, and their desire for gourmet and luxury foods. He was to sell liquor while most Bostonians ascribed to the Total Abstinence Pledge, in which one pledged never to indulge in “evil spirits.” S.S. Pierce was to include “Twice Across Madeira” wine in his shop with the assurance that it was “shipped from Funchal, Madeira to New York, transshipped to Buenos Aires and then back to New York, thus having twice crossed the Equator.” The Madeira was surely of fine quality, but the cachet was to make this particular brand of Madeira one of the best sellers in New England.

With the finest foods available at this Boston store, imported Madeira and wines from Europe, and a supportive customer base who patronized his business, Pierce purchased a large row house on Union Park in Boston’s newly fashionable South End. His family, of his wife Ellen Maria Theresa Wallis whom he married in 1836 and eight children, lived in Boston during the winters and summered at a house he owned in Dorchester. The house, enlarged after the Civil War to accommodate his family, stood on a knoll overlooking “Sunnyside,” the area of Adams Village today, and the Neponset River. The estate was comprised of a house and stable, with ten acres and marshland. Though S.S. Pierce died in 1880, his son Wallis Lincoln Pierce continued the trademark name and standards established by his father. The family, among them Samuel S. Pierce, Jr., who died as a young man in California, Dr. M. Vassar Pierce, a noted Milton physician, and Holden White Pierce, maintained their connection to Dorchester as their sister, Henrietta Pierce still summered in the family home. The Pierce summer house, by the time of World War I, was a rambling series of additions made over the years. With dormers, ells and outbuildings, one can imagine the activity of the family during the summer in Dorchester.

However, times were changing, and along Minot Street, just north of the estate, three deckers were being built on former farmland. Miss Pierce died in 1920, and her heirs sold a portion of the property to the Archdiocese of Boston, and shortly thereafter St. Brendan’s Church was built facing the new Gallivan Boulevard. The laying out of Lennoxdale, Myrtlebank, Rockne and Crockett Streets and St. Brendan’s Road was to take the remaining portion of the Pierce Estate, and allow for the building of the houses that represent one of the most charming neighborhoods on the site of the Pierce summer house.

S.S. Pierce & Company was founded in Boston, but by a Dorchesterite born and bred. The sense of both quality and luxury has been ever present in the foods offered by the firm, and an unsurpassable ability for the firm to please, in every sense of the word. The firm still exists, in a reduced capacity, but still providing quality foods for institutions and schools. With the same crest emblazoned on its canned food, we realize that with over a century and a half of service to New England, Samuel S. Pierce is remembered, and his accomplishments are shared, with pride.

1 comment:

  1. My Grandfather,Cleveland Ariel Ballou, worked for the S.S. Pierce & Company through the depression. My father,89 years old now, still remembers his father working there.