Combine a Kardashian store opening with a Justin Beiber concert and throw in a visiting foreign dignitary, and you may begin to get the idea of how much chaos the opening of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin’s stock brokerage on February 5, 1870, created.
Contemporary accounts place the crowds at as many as 4,000, with people (mostly men) pushing and shoving to catch sight of the audacious women. A hundred policemen were called out to keep the peace. That didn’t stop the yelling and jeers of protesters who were ready to physically carry the women back home where they belonged. Men peered in the windows all day long, lifting one another up and calling out if they caught sight of Victoria or Tennie.
When it opened for business that morning, Woodhull, Claflin and Co., became the first female-owned American company that bought and sold stocks. The press quickly crowned its owners “The Queens of Finance,” the “Sensation of New York,” and “The Bewitching Brokers.”
The office, located on Broad Street (at Wall Street), was just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange and only four doors up from rival broker, Jim Fisk. The interior was described in the papers as more like an elegant parlor than a business office, with oil paintings on the wall, statues in the corners, a piano, and ample upholstered sofas and chairs. A small framed cross-stitch on one wall declared “simply to the cross I cling,” next to a photo of Mr. Vanderbilt. The sisters did business at solid wood desks inlaid with gold (left by the previous owners, who were criminals and had to flee in a hurry – seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up) and had a ticker-tape machine at the ready.
A unique aspect of the building was that it had a back entrance for women who might not feel comfortable doing business with men. It was separated from the rest of the office by a walnut partition decorated with glass. In the women’s-only area, Victoria and Tennie served champagne and chocolate covered strawberries to their clients, who passed on business gossip as well as bought and sold stocks. Unsurprisingly, given the sisters’ previous healing and medium work at brothels, many of their early female clients were madams and their girls. But eventually independently wealthy women, suffragists, and the wives of businessmen became clients as well.
Their clients that first day were a combination of well known business figures such as Peter Cooper, Jay Cooke, and Daniel Drew – even poet Walt Whitman paid them a visit – and curiosity seekers. Among the questionably sane who dropped by were two men, Edward Van Schalck and Hugh Hastings, who returned several times throughout the day, dressed differently each time, though no one knows why. Sometimes it was one or both of them, other times they returned with a group of friends to heckle Victoria and Tennie. After one of their disruptions, a sign was affixed to the front door, stating, “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.”
The firm did brisk business, with some sources citing an unverified claim supposedly made by Victoria that they made $700,000 in two years. It appears the business began to falter in 1871, a time when Victoria was focused on the paper and her political campaign, leaving her husband, James – the firm’s silent partner – and Tennie to deal with clients who were disgruntled over the sisters’ misguided speculation in gold. Over the next two years, as Victoria became more outspoken and brazen in airing her views on women and worker’s rights as part of her Presidential campaign, the firm slowly lost clients. By summer 1873, Victoria and Tennie were out of money and the firm existed in name only.
It would be another 94 years before there was another woman on Wall Street. (Muriel Siebert was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, on December 28, 1967)
How much did you know about Victoria and Tennie’s role on Wall Street? What do you think of them? What questions do you have?
Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.