Industrial antiques, fridge magnets, history...

Monday, August 15, 2011

A. J. Plate, San Francisco Arms Dealer

1864 advertisement for
A. J. Plate's San Francisco store.

A. J. Plate, San Francisco's most famous 19th century arms dealer

Herman Adolph Joseph Plate's place in history was secured when he lost a patent infringement lawsuit over the Deringer pistol.
Herman Adolph Joseph Plate

Plate Becomes Naturalized
US Citizen in 1844.

Born in Borghorst, Germany (one of the villages merged in 1975 to create Steinfurt), Plate immigrated to New York in 1836.  A cabinet maker, he and two of his five brothers built a furniture business in New York.  

Augusta Agness Tolle
In 1849 Adolph started a family with Augusta Tolle, with whom he would raise 4 children.  Later that year, after a series of three fires destroyed the furniture business, Plate became one of the Gold Rush Forty Niners.  While his wife and infant son, Henry, remained in New York, Adolph headed for California to work the gold mines.  In May of 1850, when he had accumulated a small stake, his family followed him to San Francisco, their household belongings sent via the U. S. Mail Steamship Company, and Adolph opened his first San Francisco store.

That first store was modest, consisting of an outdoor stand where he sold ammunition and used pistols.  Those were boom town years for San Francisco, with the population growing from 200 in 1846 to over 36,000 in 1852. 
Plate's business flourished and by 1855 he was importing arms and contracting with other companies to build weapons to his specifications.  

In 1865 Plate opened a manufacturing facility at 325 Montgomery St. to produce uniforms and regalia for fraternal organizations such as the Masons and the Odd Fellows.  

From 1867 to 1881 the store was located in the old Knickerbocker fire house at 411 Sansome, between Commercial and Sacramento streets, surviving the San Francisco earthquake in 1868.  (Plate's sons, Henry and Augustus, had joined the business by 1871 and after Adolph's death moved the business to 418-420 Market Street.)

The Deringer Pistol
Henry Deringer (1786-1868), a second generation Philadelphia gunsmith who founded his company in 1806, invented what would become one of history's most famous pistols.  The easily concealed Deringer was the gun chosen by John Wilkes Booth when he assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.

John Wilkes Booth's Deringer used to
shoot Abraham Lincoln
The Deringer was popular because it was lightweight and compact. To compensate for its single-shot capacity,  users carried a pair that sold for around $25, including a custom calibrated bullet mold.

Henry neglected to patent his gun and before long there were copycats.  While some imitators produced percussion pistols that were similar, one company, Slotter & Co., started by former Deringer employees, scrupulously copied every detail, including the A.J. Plate private label stamping that was made for Plate's first purchase of 54 pairs of the Deringer pistol in 1858.  Around 1860 Plate purchased an additional 428 pairs, many of which bore the Slotter's fake A.J. Plate label.

The Civil War brought new technology to weapons and when sales of the Deringer pistol declined, Henry turned to the courts to defend his trademark.  Suits were brought against several of the imitators but it was his successful 1863-70 case against A. J. Plate that set patent infringement history.  A District court awarded Deringer $1,770 in damages and issued a permanent injunction against Plate's use of the Deringer trademark; on appeal the California supreme court upheld the verdict.

Augusta spent several years in Europe after Adolph's death and died in Utah while on route from New York to San Francisco and traveling with the J. W. Mackay family.

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