The Sanford, Varner & Co. factory building at the southwestern corner of Third and Chillicothe streets has its origins in America's Gilded Age, when clothing manufacturing took place in small cities across the nation. Portsmouth may be best remembered for its shoe and steel manufacturers, which dominated the city from the 1830s to the 1970s, but in the years after the Civil War, when the city was first connected into the national rail network, Portsmouth had a wide variety of industries and commercial enterprises. Sanford, Varner & Co. began manufacturing men's and children's clothing in 1878. Previously the company had operated as a wholesale dry goods business. Originally established by James Pursell and James F. Towell in 1853, the firm's address was 121 and 123 West Second Street in Portsmouth's famous Boneyfiddle neighborhood, now part of today's First Ward.
In 1880, following the reoganization of its ownership and a division of its business into a wholesale dry goods operation and the new manufacturing enterprise, the firm began operating under the Sanford and Varner names.
Angus Sanford and his brothers-in-law Will H. and James H. Varner prospered alongside Portsmouth. They advertised themselves as wholesale dealers and manufacturers of "tailor-made" men’s and children's clothing. In time, their clothing manufacturing business would expand, leading to the construction of a new factory and storefront buidling on the southwest corner of Third and Chillitcothe streets in downtown Portsmouth, Ohio.
Built in 1894, the Sanford, Varner & Co. factory building would go onto to be the home of successor manufacturing firms, including Burt, Hall & Company, and the Criterion Clothing Company. By the mid-twentieth centuruy, the former factory had become the address of the Lewis Furniture Company.
On November 27th, 1894, the company held an open house for local residents to celebrate the construction of their modern brick factory building. The headlines in the Portsmouth Times read: "Big Success Was the Opening of Sanford, Varner & Co., Yesterday. An Immense Crowd Whose Numbers Runs Away Up in the Thousands Throngs the Building Both Afternoon and Night and Are Gracefully Entertained by the Firm."
The glowing report read as follows: “The Formal opening given by Sanford, Varner & Co. at their handsome new quarters, at the corner of Third and Chillicothe streets, yesterday, was one of the most magnificent displays of artistic decorations to which our people have been treated for some time. The immense throng which crowded the building and extended far into the street was evidence in itself of the appreciation and esteem in which this, one of our most enterprising commercial establishments, is held by our people. It would be a mere conjecture to endeavor to attach a number to the immense throng which gathered to witness the opening. The only idea of the number is obtained from the fact that over ten thousand souvenirs were given away, which seemingly, accommodated but a small portion of the visitors.
“The ground floor of the building was very handsomely decorated with the most beautiful of flowers, while in the show window was to be seen, the stuffed lioness the property of Mrs. A. L. Sanford, and at its side clothing forms on which were displayed suits of the latest cut and styles. The Bellstedt-Ballenberg, orchestra of Cincinnati, a famous musical organization, was the main attraction on this floor, and rendered some very fine musical selections. Among the decorations down stairs, which deserves special mention, was a coat made of flowers, which was presented to the firm by Mr. William Higgins, one of their traveling men, ‘The Ladder of Fame,’ also made of flowers and presented by Livenstein & Sack of Cincinnati, friends of the firm, the two owls which evidently meant that the firm was wide awake while others slept; the owls were a present from Lesher, Whitman & Co., of New York; the fan of flowers, on which was to be seen the words “Our Reception,” a present from Krower & Sylvester, of New York, was a very beautiful attraction, and the waste basket, in the rear of the room, filled with golden Chrysanthemums, etc., comprised the list of special attractions. The basket was a present from Mr. Jacob Bloch of Cincinnati, one of the inventors of the Block & Wolfe electric cutting knife, now in operation in the cutting department.
“The second floor of the building is occupied as the stock room, and on this floor the souvenirs were distributed.
“The new electric cutting knife was the main feature of attraction on the third floor, it being an innovation in the clothing business of Portsmouth. With the machine five men are enabled to cut about 280 suits per day. The River City Brass band entertained the crowd on the outside with some of their finest selections. Taking it all in all, the opening was a splendid success, of which Sanford, Varner & Co. have every reason to feel proud.”
The firm's electric cutting knife was truly a "bleeding edge" technology in the 1890s and when combined with the firm's clothing designs, Sanford, Varner & Co. made a handsome profit, allowing the firm to eventually expand their production and operations to Cincinnati, where they bought out and merged with Voorheis, Miller & Company in 1898. The aquisition led to the transfer of the company's corporate offices to Cincinnati, as the home its largest operation.
Louis N. Bishop, a native of Portsmouth, emerged as the firm's leading designer. Along with Bishop's design work, Angus Sanford's business smarts and integrity, is credited with generating the firm's success. Bishop's book, "Modern Design," showed "the natural way of producing garments which are perfectly balanced, stylish and graceful." In 1903, Nelson Evans, the reknowned historian of Scioto County, noted that "Mr. Bishop has been a designer of men’s and boys’ clothing for some time. He has made quite a reputation in his art. and is giving instructions in designing."
It was Sanford, however, not Bishop, who recieved an in-depth biographical treatment in Evans's history. Written by Sanford’s former business partner, James F. Towell, the original founder of the firm, Evans, as editor, singled out Sanford’s account as the most "favorable" of all of his book’s biographies.
Towell's tribute to his then recently deceased former business partner reads as follows:
“Angus Lansing Sanford was born in Chillicothe, September 8, 1849. His father was Joseph Sanford, a native of Chillicothe. His mother was Julia (Fleury) Sanford, a native of Washington, D.C. He was the fourth of his father’s six children. He received his education in the Chillicothe schools, but quit one year before graduation. He went into a dry goods store in Chillicothe with Joseph Stewart and was there for two years.
"On July 9, 1866, he came to Portsmouth and was a clerk for Rumsey, Rhodes & Reed and remained with them for nine years. After that he went to Philadelphia and was with a wholesale house there until 1877. He came to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1877 and was with Tolle, Holton & Company. He was with Miller, Cissna & Company when they started in 1877. .... He is a republican but has never held any office. He is a member of the Episcopal church and also a Mason, a Knight-Templar and an Elk. He was president and director of the Morton Club. He is a member of the Business Men’s Club of Cincinnati."
The partnership Towell formed with Sanford, was one of "mutual confidence and esteem." When he "desired to withdraw entirely from business," Towell invited Sanford "to take over the whole stock on credit, without any security whatever, in easy payments, thus manifesting confidence in one who had been 'a good son' as well as a faithful partner. .... His removal to Cincinnati [in 1898], succeeding to the large and well established business of Voorheis, Miller & Company, was brought about by his success in Portsmouth and in recognition of his ability and integrity."
The Sandford, Varner & Co. Building, one of Portsmouth's finest Gilded Age architectural structures, has stood the tests of time and will long anchor the economic development of the most southern block of Chillicothe Street.
"Big Success Was the Opening of Sanford, Varner & Co., Yesterday,” Portsmouth Times (28 November 1894).
Evans, Nelson W. A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), 354, 851, and 1198.
History of Lower Scioto Valley, Ohio, Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Townships, Educational, Religious, Civil, Military, and Political history, Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens (Chicago: Inter-state Publishing Co., 1884), 300.