The Life Story of David Thomas Abercrombie

Sketch of David Thomas Abercrombie.

 

David Thomas Abercrombie founded Abercrombie and Fitch to sell hunting, camping, and sporting equipment to the elite outdoorsman.

He targeted professional hunters, campers, fishermen, and anyone who loved the outdoors.

Today, however, Abercrombie’s vision for the company is as far removed as one can imagine. The Abercrombie and Fitch that we know today sells clothes to kids, teens, and the youth.

A&F has rebranded many times over the years. Today, the company is one of the leading lifestyle brands in America’s apparel industry. Under the ownership of David Abercrombie, the company called itself the “Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World.”

David Abercrombie may not have steered the company towards becoming a clothing retailer, but he still made it a successful outdoors outfitter. Let’s explore his life story and how he came to establish Abercrombie and Fitch.

David Thomas Abercrombie

David T. Abercrombie was born on June 6, 1867, in Baltimore, Maryland as the firstborn son of John and Elizabeth Sara Abercrombie. His father worked as a newsman in the American News Company of Baltimore.

There isn’t much information about his mother other than her Canadian ancestry. John Abercrombie, by contrast, had a Scottish background. He immigrated to the United States in 1847 as a boy.

David Abercrombie had six younger siblings: John, Maud, Mary, Ronald, Robert, and Harry.

He attended public schools in Baltimore and later Baltimore City College with his siblings, except for Robert. It was in this institution where Abercrombie grew interested in exploration and engineering.

David Abercrombie graduated from Baltimore City College in 1885. He later enrolled in a civil engineering course at Maryland Institute, School for Arts and Designs, now called Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

MICA, in those days, offered science and engineering courses before transitioning to focus on the visual arts.

Adult Life

After graduating from MICA, Abercrombie left Baltimore to work as a civil engineer and topographer for various railroad companies. He was once the chief surveyor and explorer for Norfolk & Western Railroad in West Virginia.

Abercrombie’s work as a topographer entailed surveying regions and terrains to assess if they were suitable for railroads. His career exposed him to the outdoors multiple times, and he often designed his own camping gear.

David Abercrombie was an inventive genius. He loved solving the hunting and camping problems encountered during survey projects.

Unfortunately, Abercrombie developed a vision problem that limited his ability to keep working as a surveyor. He left his job, started an outdoor outfitter entity, and named it Abercrombie Co.

David Abercrombie started Abercrombie Co. after his fellow surveyors motivated him to become an inventor. He had just been forced into retirement at 25 years by his farsightedness.

Abercrombie established his entity and opened a small waterfront store on South Street in Lower Manhattan. His vision for the company was to sell sporting, hunting, and camping equipment to the elite outdoorsman.

The company’s first products included rifles, outdoor attire, fishing equipment, and camping gear.

Successes

David Abercrombie’s store became a hit among the elite in New York. His entity served many renowned leaders of the time, including the novelist Earnest Hemingway, explorer Robert Peary, and former president Theodore Roosevelt.

Abercrombie later moved his store to a more popular street on Park Avenue, Manhattan.

In 1900, Ezra Fitch invested in Abercrombie’s entity, thus becoming a partner and co-owner. Fitch was an outdoorsman and one of the most loyal customers of the entity. He was also a wealthy lawyer and real estate developer in New York.

Fitch’s fascination for Abercrombie’s business fueled him to leave his practice and join the entity as an investor and co-owner. The two partners later incorporated the company in 1904 and renamed it Abercrombie and Fitch Co.

Despite Abercrombie and Fitch’s growing success post-incorporation, the relationship between the two owners was not smooth.

Fitch’s vision for the company clashed with that of Abercrombie. Fitch wanted the company to become a more generalized retail store that targeted a clientele other than the elite outdoorsman.

Abercrombie wanted the entity to stay staunch to its original vision. This clash caused disputes resulting in the two owners parting ways in 1907. Abercrombie resigned from the company and sold all his shares to Ezra Fitch.

Abercrombie was still relatively young when he resigned from Abercrombie and Fitch. He was 40 at the time. He went back to manufacturing outdoor textiles just as he’d done before the encounter with Ezra Fitch.

With the assistance of Robert, his younger brother, Abercrombie established the David T. Abercrombie Company to manufacture textiles and Abercrombie Corporation to pack packages and commodities for export.

Abercrombie’s textile company grew and became successful in the next decade, although not as much as Abercrombie and Fitch. During World War I, the United States Armed Forces made his company a Quarter Master Reserves Major.

They tasked Abercrombie with the management of the packing depot in New York. Abercrombie had invented new folding and packing processes that saw his employees pack 6,000 uniform-size items daily. His pioneering packing process enabled the US government to save close to $85 million.

After the end of the war, Abercrombie was discharged and promoted to the position of lieutenant colonel.

He continued growing his manufacturing company until his demise in 1931 at Ossining, Westchester County, New York. He is buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City, Maryland.

Personal Life

David Abercrombie married Lucy Abbot Cate on April 25, 1896, in Baltimore. The couple had four children, two sons (David and Abbott) and two daughters (Elizabeth and Lucy). After their wedding, the Abercrombie family moved to Newark, New Jersey, and later resided in Brooklyn, New York.

Abercrombie afterward moved his family to Ossining, New York, where he would live until his death. While at Ossining, Abercrombie constructed a granite castle and named it Elda to represent his children’s initials.

Lifetime Achievements

David Abercrombie’s establishment and role in Abercrombie and Fitch remained one of his most resounding lifetime achievements.

He may not have been there to see his old company grow, evolve, and prosper. But Abercrombie and Fitch would not exist today were it not for him establishing the company and working on it for 15 years.

Abercrombie and Fitch Co. still lives on 91 years after the death of its founder. The company boasts approximately 730 stores in the United States, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

It sells lifestyle apparel to kids, teenagers, and preteens through five brands and has more than 44,000 employees.

Character Traits

Here are some character traits of David Thomas Abercrombie:

  • Inventor 

David Abercrombie’s inventive ability enabled him to create solutions to problems he and his crew encountered during their surveying and topographic projects. He could design textiles and personalize camping gear to accommodate various terrain and weather conditions.

  • Passionate

David Abercrombie was devoted to engineering and exploration. He built on his passion by studying civil engineering at Maryland Institute and starting an outdoor outfitter entity, which later became the Abercrombie and Fitch we know today.

Lessons Learned From the Life of David Abercrombie

The two lessons worth picking up from the life of David Abercrombie are:

  • Follow your passions

If you have any inherent passions, act on them. You don’t necessarily have to develop them professionally. You can make them a hobby or activity you do to unwind.

As mentioned above, David Abercrombie was passionate about exploration. He also loved inventing solutions to problems he encountered outdoors. His passion led him to start Abercrombie and Fitch.

  • Find partners who share in your vision

Find partners who share in your mission and vision for your company. You and your business partner don’t have to have the same personalities, nor should you do things the same way. You should, however, have a common goal.

Abercrombie and Fitch were not the right partners for their business because they had different visions for Abercrombie and Fitch Co.

Facts and Anecdotes

  1. When Abercrombie and Fitch launched the Abercrombie Kids brand in 1998, it named the brand Abercrombie to commemorate the company’s founder. The company has never named any brand after Ezra Fitch or any other company president.
  2. John Abercrombie, David Abercrombie’s father, also attended Baltimore City College after immigrating to the United States. All his children, apart from Robert, also went to this college.

Timeline.

1867

David Thomas Abercrombie is born in Baltimore, Maryland.

1885

Abercrombie graduates from Baltimore City College and enrolls in Maryland Institute College of Arts, then called Maryland Institute School of Arts and Design.

1892

Abercrombie establishes Abercrombie Co. after premature retirement.

1896

David Abercrombie marries Lucy Abbot Cate. The couple moves to Newark, New Jersey.

1892

Abercrombie and Lucy get their first child, Elizabeth.

1899

The couple gets their second child, Lucy.

1900

Ezra Fitch invests a significant stake in Abercrombie’s entity, and the two become business partners.

1901

Abercrombie and Lucy get their third child, David.

1904

Abercrombie and Fitch incorporate their entity. They rename it Abercrombie and Fitch Co.

1907

David Abercrombie resigns from Abercrombie and Fitch and sells all his shares to Ezra Fitch.

1909

Abercrombie and Lucy get their last born child, Abbot.

1917

Abercrombie, through his new company, gets appointed Major of the Quarter Master Reserves by the US Army during World War I.

1927

Abercrombie creates a granite castle in Ossining, New York, near the Hudson River and names it Elda after his children’s initials.

1931

David Thomas Abercrombie passes away at 64 years. He is buried in Baltimore City, Maryland.