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How the Tiffany & Co. Founder Cashed In on the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Craze

Charles Lewis Tiffany bought surplus cable from the venture, turning it into souvenirs that forever linked his name to the telecommunications milestone.

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.”

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 Telegraphic communication is obsolete, and Tiffany & Co.—a multibillion-dollar luxury goods colossus—no longer needs to sell souvenirs.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.