The history of Hamilton Shirts: The founder of Hamilton Bros., Edward Joseph Hamilton (1861-1926), moved to Houston, Texas in 1883 at age 21. He and one of his brothers, James Brooke Hamilton (1863-1945), were on a train heading west. They intended to set up a sheep operation. On the train, a man named John Mason interested them instead in starting a menswear business.
The first partnership was Hamilton & Scurry. At some point, Thomas Scurry withdrew, and the company changed to Hamilton & Mason. Mason would eventually leave for Colorado seeking gold.
Becoming All Family
By 1910, five of Edward’s six brothers were co-owners of Hamilton Bros. The Hamilton family has continuously operated the company in Houston since 1883. The present owners are siblings David and Kelly Hamilton. They are great-grandchildren of Edward J. Hamilton’s second youngest brother, Bernard J. Hamilton.
Oldest in Houston
Hamilton did business for the first 90 years at four different locations on Main Street. The first was in the area of The Rice Hotel, with each subsequent store further down Main Street as the city grew.
Since 1975, Hamilton Shirts has operated from the Galleria area at 5700 Richmond Avenue. It is the oldest continuously operating family-owned business in Houston.
It appears that at first (1883-1889), Hamilton was a retailer, not a manufacturer. Houston Directories of those times do not list the company as Tailors. Hamilton became listed as “shirtmakers” in 1892.
In January 1892, the Galveston Daily News ran an article. It stated, “Shirt making in Houston has grown to be quite an industry, though the capital invested and the amount of labor employed is not great as yet. Hamilton Bros. started their factory three years ago, investing $2,000 in the business. They keep six hands constantly employed, and are now making additions which will enable them to double their force. At present the output is five dozen shirts daily, and this will soon be increased to ten. Their market is Houston and the territory near there.”
A major management change occurred soon after the 1892-93 directory was compiled. The eldest brother and company founder, Edward J. Hamilton, left the business to attend medical school at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington D.C., from which he graduated in 1895. He began his practice in Milwaukee in 1895, then returned to Houston by 1902, where he practiced medicine for the rest of his life.
The next three brothers, James Brooke, George H., and William E. Jr., took over at Hamilton Bros. Younger brother, Bernard James Hamilton (1876-1949), was at first a clerk at Hamilton Bros.
New Generation Takes Over
In the late 1920s, the second generation of Hamiltons began to join the firm. James B. Hamilton’s eldest son, Carl Pannewitz Hamilton (1906-1973), appears as a salesman for Hamilton Bros. in 1929 and as a partner in 1930. Carl remained with the firm until 1943. Hilding B. Ahlstone became a partner in 1940 and remained with the company to at least 1949.
Bernard Hamilton’s son, Joseph Matthews Hamilton (1908-1970) appears as a salesman for Hamilton Bros. in 1929, as a cutter in 1934 and as a partner in 1935; his death certificate 35 years later shows him as President of Hamilton Shirt Co.
Three of the original Hamilton brothers died in the 1940s – James Brooke in 1942, William in 1945 and Arthur in 1947 – leaving Bernard as the only one of the seven still living at the time of the 1948 article, which stated that the company then had fifty employees.
Following Bernard’s death in December 1949, several changes occurred. By 1951, Hamilton Bros. had left the 510 Main Street location where they had been for over fifty years, and moved to 1402 Main at Clay, just across Clay from the First Methodist Church. Today this block is the church parking lot. In 1952, the firm changed its name to Hamilton Shirt Company, with Bernard’s son Joseph M. Hamilton as the principal, in partnership with Burton G. Raymond, who had joined the firm in 1947.
Business Reporting and Another Move
The 1952 Dun & Bradstreet report on Hamilton Shirt Co. describes the company as a retailer and manufacturer of dress shirts, listed under Men’s and Boys’ Furnishings Stores and under Custom Tailors. Its Financial Strength is given as $10,000 to $20,000, and Composite Credit Appraisal as Good (the second best of the four categories). The population of Houston was then 596,163.
Between the 1956 and 1957 directories the Hamilton Shirt Company moved still farther out, to 2208 Main, between Webster and Hadley. This was several years before the Pierce Elevated (Interstate 45) was built two blocks to the north. Recently, this location was occupied by the Salvation Army.
Hamilton Shirt Company was still at 2208 Main in 1961. It moved four blocks south to 2608 Main at McGowen prior to Joseph’s son, James B. “Jim” Hamilton, joining the company in 1963.
Evolving but Not Changing its Core Traditions
In May 1973, Houston was rapidly expanding toward the west. The company purchased property at 5700 Richmond Avenue, a mile and a half southwest of The Galleria Mall, which had opened in November 1970. The new custom-built workshop and storefront at 5700 Richmond opened in 1975, and the company is still in the same building.
A newspaper story during the company’s centennial year noted that in 1904, Hamilton shirts cost $6.00 for four shirts. However, in 1983, cotton and silk shirts ranged from $65 to $130 apiece, with a minimum order of six shirts for new customers. Hamilton was then making 1,200 to 1,400 shirts a month. In 1983, about 90% of their business came from existing customers, and the rest from walk-ins or referrals from existing customers in Texas and nearby states. Jim Hamilton, then the sole proprietor of the firm, said that he had never expanded because there had never been a need to. “We’re a conservative business serving a conservative clientele. We don’t have any debt.”
The custom-shirt maker has kept itself under wraps as it caters to an elite clientele of prominent businessmen, national news anchors, and the well-heeled. Hamilton stopped advertising. “There’s a certain mystique about it,” said David Lynn, manager for custom sales at Richards of Greenwich, a high-end luxury apparel store in Connecticut. “It’s like a secret society.”
Operating through both World Wars and numerous economic downturns, the company has survived by avoiding major alterations to the business and relying on brand exclusivity for four generations. Owner Jim Hamilton says he runs the shop the way his father and grandfather did.
“People like tradition, and people like stability,” said Hamilton, whose grandfather founded the company in 1883 on Main Street. “I think that’s what has helped us stay around so long.”
As competition tightened in the 1990s, the Hamiltons actively looked for distributors for the first time. Starting to sell shirts through high-end retailers like Barneys New York helped double sales within five years, Hamilton said. About 65 percent of sales come from orders through retailers who take the measurements and mark the shirts up by 20 percent, he said. Revenues totaled $2.57 million in 2003. “I think it’s a compliment when Houstonians go to New York to shop, but New York stores shop from us,” Jim Hamilton said.
Today, fourth-generation owners Kelly Hamilton and David Hamilton remain as committed to focusing on quality and customer service in the internet age as their forefathers were in the days of horse and buggy.
Editor’s Note: This article is condensed from material provided to Past Brands by the company. Much of the information has not previously been published other than as text in its application for a Texas Historical Marker, which is now located at the company’s place of business.
- Year Started: 1883
- Year Ended: 2099
- Origin Of Name: Name of Founders
- Location Sales: Worldwide
- Brand Name Predecessor: N/A
- Brand Name Successor: N/A
- Owner Original: Hamilton Family and Partners
- Owner While In Use: Hamilton Family
- Owner Successor: N/A
- Year Resurrected: N/A
- What’s Popular Today: Hamilton Shirts
- Naics Code: 315250
- Location Headquarters: Houston, Texas USA