On Tuesday, August 24, 1858, readers of the New York Times chanced on an unusual classified ad. The 31-line notice had been taken out by Charles Lewis Tiffany, proprietor of an opulent emporium called Tiffany & Co. Founded in 1837, the company tempted affluent New Yorkers with imported fineries like porcelain, Japanese papier-mâché, walking sticks and crystal glassware. In the parlance of the time, Tiffany’s was a “fancy goods” store.

The goods advertised in this specific ad were anything but fancy. Still, they were certainly unique. Earlier that month, the steam frigate USS Niagara had finished laying down the world’s first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, a 2,200-mile strand of iron and copper that promised to cut communication times between North America and Europe from weeks to seconds. In a deft bit of maneuvering, Tiffany had gotten his hands on the 20 miles of surplus cable left coiled in the Niagara’s holds. He had one purpose in mind for his acquisition: making souvenirs.

“In order to place [the cable] within the reach of all classes, and that every family in the United States may possess a specimen of this wonderful mechanical curiosity,” announced the ad, Tiffany & Co. will “cut [it] into pieces of four inches in length and mount them neatly with brass ferules.”

A trans-Atlantic cable souvenir sold by Tiffany & Co.
A trans-Atlantic cable souvenir sold by Tiffany & Co. National Museum of American History

While most of the fripperies at Tiffany & Co. were out of reach for average New Yorkers, Tiffany priced his cable souvenirs at just 50 cents each—about $19 today. His read of the market proved prescient. As Joseph Purtell recounted in his 1971 book, The Tiffany Touch, “The crowds were so great when the souvenirs were put on sale that the constabulary had to be called.”

Today, Tiffany’s canny promotion of the summer of 1858 is long forgotten. Telegraphic communication is obsolete, and Tiffany & Co.—a multibillion-dollar luxury goods colossus—no longer needs to sell souvenirs. Even so, on the occasion of Charles Lewis Tiffany’s 212th birthday, his cable souvenir enterprise merits a closer look. The finger-length mementos were more than a testament to one man’s marketing wisdom; they allowed thousands to own a literal slice of technological history, helping to make Tiffany & Co. a household name in the process. The souvenirs continue to occupy pride of place in collections both private and public, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which houses a box of them.

“It’s worth remembering that at that moment in time, [the trans-Atlantic cable] was like the moon landing in 1969—something that captivated people on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Harold Wallace, curator of electricity collections at the museum. “For Tiffany to get a piece of this, he’s showing not just entrepreneurial chops but [also] tagging on to this international event.”

Charles Lewis Tiffany (left) in his store
Charles Lewis Tiffany (left) in his store Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The trans-Atlantic cable was the brainchild of entrepreneur Cyrus W. Field, who made his fortune in the wholesale paper business. Field became interested in telegraphy after meeting electrical engineer Frederic Newton Gisborne in 1854. Gisborne needed financing for a project that would extend North America’s existing telegraph system from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. If a cable could be strung across the Cabot Strait, Field reasoned, couldn’t a longer one be laid across the entire North Atlantic?

Theoretically, yes. But the obstacles would be enormous. The mountainous seafloor was two miles deep in places. Since no single ship was large enough to pay out (pull and unwind) the cable’s full length, two vessels—the British battleship HMS Agamemnon and the U.S. Navy’s Niagara—each shouldered half of the task. Equipment failure, heavy seas and snapped cables doomed the first several attempts, but the venture finally succeeded on August 5, 1858, when men of the newly incorporated Atlantic Telegraph Company pulled the ends of the cable ashore in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, and Valentia Island in Ireland.

Cities up and down America’s Eastern Seaboard exulted over the news. In Boston, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called the enterprise “the great news of the hour, the year, the century!” Field stayed in Newfoundland for a few days, then set sail for New York, where locals kicked off their celebrations—parades, brass bands, bonfires—before he even arrived. A composer wrote a ditty called “The Atlantic Telegraph Polka.” Said the Times on August 18: “New York yesterday went cable-mad.”

Amid the bacchanalia, Tiffany was preparing his masterstroke.

Born into a Connecticut cotton-mill family on February 15, 1812, Tiffany possessed no formal education in business. But as an 1893 history of Tiffany & Co. observed, “One of Mr. Tiffany’s most noted traits, and one that has distinguished the house in its entire career, is an instinctive avoidance of beaten paths.” After a revolution in France forced Louis Philippe I to abdicate the throne in 1848, Tiffany swooped in and bought diamonds from fleeing French aristocrats on the cheap, creating a sensation when he whisked the jewels back to New York.

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route
Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This French insurgency gave Tiffany his first big public relations coup; the trans-Atlantic cable would be his second.

It’s unclear how the excess cable wound up in Tiffany’s hands. In his store’s early days, he’d maneuvered his way around the wharves, befriending ship captains to get first dibs on the unique imports in their holds. Tiffany also counted among his friends the impresario P.T. Barnum, whose knack for creating sensation had rubbed off on him.

The transaction likely took place shortly after the Niagara docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 18. Left aboard the ship were “the massive wheels over which the cable was reeled out,” the Times reported the following morning. “In two of the circles are coiled the surplus cable in its original flakes. … There are reports current that this surplus has already sold for $360 a mile.”

Since there was little that distinguished the cable on sight alone (18 seven-strand iron wires enclosed a copper core insulated with a latex called gutta-percha), Tiffany secured a letter from Field attesting to the authenticity of the cable he was using, promising each purchaser a “copyrighted facsimile” of that certificate. He also girdled each souvenir with a brass collar whose stamped lettering read:

Atlantic Telegraph Cable

Guaranteed by

Tiffany & Co.

Broadway • New York • 1858

Tiffany’s brilliance lay in that brass collar. Its purpose wasn’t simply authentication: It physically fused an important artifact with the name of his store.

Cyrus W. Field
Cyrus W. Field Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A circa 1902 photograph of Charles Lewis Tiffany
A circa 1902 photograph of Charles Lewis Tiffany National Portrait Gallery

“It certainly had an advertising aspect to it,” says historian John Steele Gordon, author of A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Trans-Atlantic Cable. “Tiffany was always interested in getting his name out there. He had a genius for marketing.”

Rachael Taylor, author of Tiffany & Co.: The Story Behind the Style, adds, “He had an acute sense of the story and was keen to put Tiffany next to it. He wasn’t a jeweler—he was a showman and a salesman first.”

Tiffany & Co. did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but its 1893 corporate history acknowledges this same point, referring to the surplus cable purchase as “a clever stroke” by its founder.

Nobody knows exactly how many telegraph cable souvenirs Tiffany created. In theory, 20 miles of wire was enough for 316,800 four-inch souvenirs, but the entrepreneur clearly didn’t make that many. The store also advertised cable by the foot and a range of commemorative items, from canes to whip handles to “coils for ornamenting parlors and offices,” per the 1893 history. In any case, two facts are clear: The souvenirs were very popular when they first went on sale, and, soon afterward, demand for them all but evaporated.

Technical revolution though it was, the Atlantic cable never worked very well. On August 16, 1858, the 99 words of the cable’s first public message—greetings from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan—took 16 hours and 30 minutes to transmit. With each passing day, the signal grew weaker and the sentences more garbled. The last decipherable message passed beneath the ocean on September 1, 1858. The cable’s useful life had lasted roughly three weeks. (Later, reports would reveal not only that chief electrician Edward Whitehouse had designed a too-thin copper core but also that the 2,000 volts his induction coils shot through the cable had fried it.)

A recording of the message sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan
A recording of the message sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Field stalled for time but eventually dropped a note to the Associated Press on September 24: “Cable not in working order.” An adoring public that had hailed the man as a national hero now turned on him just as quickly. “Alas for all human glory! Its paths lead but to the grave,” lamented Field’s younger brother Henry Martyn Field, who watched as his sibling was accused of perpetrating a stock scheme. Some even claimed that the trans-Atlantic cable had never existed in the first place; it had all been a hoax.

Citizens exasperated by the cable’s failure were, of course, unlikely to want souvenirs made from it. On October 5, Tiffany placed another ad in the Times, this one announcing that his company would “dispose of the remainder of the telegraph cable now on hand by the mile … at a very low price.”

The story of Tiffany & Co.’s cable souvenirs does not end here, though it grows as murky as the ocean’s depths. However many souvenirs Tiffany managed to sell, it’s evident he had plenty left over, because whole batches of them have turned up far and wide. The New-York Historical Society, for instance, has a box of 930 Tiffany souvenirs, apparently donated by Field.

In 1974, George McGowan, a resident of Lake George, New York, discovered 40 crates of souvenirs, each containing 100 pieces. Later that year, coincidentally or not, a California gold and silver broker called Lanello Reserves began selling a correspondingly large quantity of the cable sections for $100 a piece.

“I have no idea how Lanello came across [the lot. It] had no expertise in that area,” says Bill Burns, keeper of the website Atlantic-Cable.com. “That appears to have been a way to raise money. Lanello was a fundraising division of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a survivalist cult church.”

An 1858 parade in New York City celebrating the first trans-Atlantic telegraph
A New York City parade celebrating the first trans-Atlantic telegraph Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

With a steep asking price for its cable segments ($100 in 1974 is about $620 in today’s money) Lanello apparently had enough unsold stock to donate a box of 100 to the American History Museum. According to curator Wallace, 99 remain in the museum’s collection. The last of the 100 was later gifted to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

In recent decades, an assortment of Tiffany cable souvenirs have surfaced at estate sales and auctions, where they fetch prices in the high hundreds of dollars and up. Whether the Tiffany & Co. band is still attached makes a big difference in the objects’ salability, says Manhattan antiques dealer George Glazer.

“There are some [cable segments] that float around that don’t have the label in the middle, but people don’t want them as much,” says Glazer, who estimates he’s sold around 50 Tiffany’s cable souvenirs out of his eponymous gallery on New York’s Upper East Side. “They have a lower value, even though they’re unquestionably identical and unquestionably authentic. People want the Tiffany name.”

This demand is probably more a testament to the irrepressible appeal of the luxury brand than it is to an appreciation of telegraphy in 1858. Tiffany lived to age 90, dying in 1902. Were he still around, he’d no doubt be pleased that his souvenir idea worked out pretty well after all.

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