The life of Samuel Cupples reads like a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger success story as only a man living in the mid-1880s could. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on September 13, 1831. Cupples was one of the 13 children of James and Elizabeth Cupples. His parents emigrated from County Down, Ireland. Cupples' Irish heritage is remembered in the many decorative references to Celtic patterns throughout Cupples House. His father established a school in Pittsburgh, where Cupples could have attended. Ironically, however, Cupples had very little formal education.
At the age of 15, Cupples left for Cincinnati, Ohio, where a company selling woodenware, like ax and broom handles and baskets, employed him. The company sent Cupples on a barge bound for New Orleans to sell their woodenware products and to establish a branch of the company. But, since the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were the main conduits for trade at this time, rivermen told Cupples to go to St. Louis for a better market. St. Louis was truly the "gateway to the west" because it provided people traveling to the western states and territories an opportunity to resupply their provisions before continuing westward. Testifying to his business savvy, the company sent Cupples to establish and manage a branch of the business in St. Louis. Even before he reached Cairo, Illinois, Cupples sold all his goods. So, he went back to Cincinnati to get another load of woodenware to start his own business on the levee in St. Louis.
The Entrepreneurial Years
Cupples was in the right place at the right time. St. Louis was filled with people and the city was growing. His firm, Cupples Company, distributed wooden utensils. He later took a partner and the firm became known for a short time as Cupples and Marston. Original shipping invoices of sales to Mississippi riverboats show he expanded his business to include additional products. The firm continued to grow and Cupples began to manufacture, as well as wholesale and distribute.
Cupples hired brothers Harry and Robert Brookings in 1866. Robert, a true business genius, and Harry, Cupples' leading buyer, ultimately became partners in the business, and the company entered into a major period of growth. By the age of 30 in 1880, Robert had already become a millionaire through his own dealings in real estate. As Cupples grew increasingly debilitated by severe asthma, the Brookings brothers often ran the business. Together, though, the three men amassed 22 warehouses by 1893, each built directly next to and over the railroad freight lines. The complex contained space for 40 companies doing an annual business of $100 million. This strategy enabled shippers to warehouse their goods so efficiently that Cupples and his partners essentially tied up the distribution in the city of St. Louis. Cupples Station even stayed financially sound during the devastating Panic of 1893. The warehouse group was known as Cupples Station. Some of the buildings still exist and are currently being re-adapted for use as hotels and a corporate office complex. The Cupples Station site is located southeast of Busch Stadium.
Cupples thought a good deal of his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Kells. Although we think of Cupples as a self-made man, probate records reveal that, at the time of Mrs. Kells' death, he still had to pay her back for a rather sizable loan. Perhaps it was through the liaison with the Kells family that Cupples was able to raise capital when he needed it for his business.
For more information on Robert Brookings please visit these sites:
Brookings Land and Township Company
Wealth and Philanthropy
In the days before personal income tax, men could amass considerable wealth regardless of a lack of formal education. Cupples exemplified this ability. In the late 1880s, he chose the site for the house to be erected as a monument to his success. In 1902, Cupples appeared on the World Millionaires List.
Like many successful entrepreneurs of his day, Cupples also felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the country that had provided such great opportunity. He was both generous with his wealth and civic-minded, endowing charities and establishing the Methodist Boys Home. Since he and Robert Brookings attended the St. John's Methodist Church on North Kingshighway, Mr. Cupples became a major benefactor of Methodist related charities. One of them, the St. Louis Provident Association, helped establish Barnes Hospital and also Washingon University. Mr. Cupples built a library at the Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri, established the first technical school in St. Louis, and built two engineering buildings at Washington University, named Cupples One and Cupples Two. He ultimately bequeathed the entire Cupples Station to Washington University, substantially establishing of their endowment.
The Cupples Legacy
When Cupples died in 1912, his adopted daughter, Amelia, was at his bedside. The estate was valued at $1,575,000, which did not include his gift of $2,500,000 to Washington University and other gifts totaling $5,000,000. He stipulated in his will that the house could not be sold for at least 8 years after his death and also that the building could not be sold to Saint Louis University.
Cupples was interred in the mausoleum he had built in Bellefontaine Cemetery. The tomb is a simple, but majestic, neo-Greek temple situated on Memorial Avenue with other equally impressive tombs of Cupples' business colleagues of his era. The house remained in the family's hands until 1919.
As a strict Methodist, Cupples did not approve of dancing. Therefore, the third floor of the house did not have the traditional ballroom. However, society articles in the newspaper report that after Cupples' death, champagne and oyster parties were held in the house to celebrate New Years' Eve. The family later sold the house in 1919 to the American Railroad Telegraphers' Union. It remained in their hands until 1946, when it was sold to Saint Louis University for $50,000. The University used it until 1970 as a student union and for office space. By 1973, the house was under threat of demolition. But, the efforts of Fr. Maurice McNamee saved the house. He oversaw its renovation, remodeling, and then opened it to the public in 1975. The Samuel Cupples House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.