MONMOUTH, Ill. — These days, the phrase tailor-made is often used to describe a double play in baseball or a wonderful business opportunity, but we forget that tailor-made was once the only way a man could purchase a suit. Every town had its merchant tailor, but perhaps no town had a tailoring legacy quite like Monmouth’s firm of Wright & Graham.
From the 1850s to the 1960s, the company made and sold clothing for men, most of those years from the same spot on the east side of the Public Square. Some remember the shop with its distinctive cast-iron storefront and stairway as the entrance to Coconuts restaurant or, from an earlier era, the home of Paul the Florist. Today, it’s a forlorn empty shell, waiting to be made handsome again.
The story of the shop begins in the town of Northfield, Massachusetts, where Warren P. Wright was born in 1826. At the age of 14, he was bound out under the old Massachusetts indenture laws to a tailor. When his apprenticeship was over seven years later, he was a talented tailor, setting up shop in the town of Worcester.
In a roundabout way, Wright helped revolutionize home sewing. As a journeyman tailor he taught another budding tailor named Ebenezer Butterick how to size and cut out patterns. Years later, Butterick would develop the system of graded sewing patterns that allowed the sewer to use a single paper pattern to make clothing in an array of sizes. Butterick patterns are still a staple of the homemade fashion industry. (Wright had another claim to fame not related to sewing — he was a close childhood friend of evangelist Dwight L. Moody.)
Wright married Fannie Gamble in 1850 and four years later the young couple came to Monmouth. For a time, Warren worked for pioneer Monmouth tailor Daniel T. Denman. He then opened his own shop on the south side of the Square, which he ran for eight years before locating in Langdon’s Block on the east side of the Square.
The end of the Civil War saw the introduction of the sewing machine to the shop — an invention that extensively sped up production, eliminating the need for tedious hand-stitching.
But fate intervened in May 1871, when Wright’s shop — along with the entire east side of the Square — was leveled by fire. He immediately moved to a store on South Main, but when the First National Bank decided to erect its new building on the former site of Langdon’s Block, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his former location — this time in a more fireproof walk-up storefront with an iron façade. The building was completed in November 1873.
Wright’s retail store was located above a barbershop. The second floor was housed his suit factory. Eventually, Wright would employ eight tailors turning out dozens of garments a day from their sewing machines. Another disaster would affect the business in 1884, when the First National Bank failed, and its assets were turned over to a receiver. This proved a fortunate turn of events for Wright, as he was able to purchase the store that he had previously rented.
Meanwhile, a young man named William P. Graham was growing up in Monmouth and working on his father’s farm near Kirkwood. In 1875, he and his father went into the men’s furnishing business in a room on the current site of Wells Fargo Bank. In 1882, the younger Graham went to work as a traveling salesman for the Canada Fur Mercantile firm, selling hats, caps and furs. Two years later, he married Warren Wright’s daughter, Fannie, and in 1885 he went into partnership with Wright, who taught him the tailoring trade. Wright & Graham became so well known for the quality of their work that part of their business involved making suits for clients on the East coast.
Wright was an avid outdoorsman and regularly went on hunting trips with other Monmouth businessmen. He lived to the ripe age of 77, dying of a stroke in 1903.
His son-in-law, Will, renamed the business W.P. Graham, and by 1909 added his own partner — his son George, better known as “Casey” Graham. An older son, Warren, also learned the trade, but later returned to school and joined the Federal Housing Administration in Washington, D.C.
Will Graham was a pillar of the community, serving on the city council, the county board and the park board, and was a charter member of the Country Club, the Elks Club and the Rotary Club.
In 1917, Casey put his tailoring skills to a new use when he enlisted in the Navy and became an inspector of uniforms during World War I. In those days, the Army issued all its own uniforms, but the Navy allowed enlisted men to purchase their own uniforms. It was Casey’s job to ensure that outside manufacturers kept their standards at an approved level.
On Dec. 7, 1935, Monmouth observed a city-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of Will Graham’s joining the tailor shop. He lived another four years, after which Casey continued ownership.
By the 1950s, ready-to-wear clothing had become so ubiquitous that the small-town tailor’s role had been reduced to making alterations and taking measurements of local customers, which could be sent to manufacturers in large cities. No longer did Casey employ an upstairs crew of tailors, but he kept the shop open until 1963, when a cancer diagnosis sent him to the Veterans Hospital in Iowa City. He died in July 1964.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.