Saint Louis University

About Samuel Cupples

Samuel Cupples

Samuel Cupples was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on September 13, 1831 (See a timeline of Cupples' life.) 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, which 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 employed him. It sent Cupples on a barge bound for New Orleans to sell its 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, the "gateway to the west." Even before he reached Cairo, Illinois, Cupples sold all his goods. He went back to Cincinnati to get another load of woodenware to start his own business on the levee in St. Louis. 

Samuel Cupples in St. Louis

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.

In 1866, Cupples hired brothers Harry and Robert Brookings, who ultimately became partners in the business, and the company entered into a major period of growth. By 1880, Robert, then 30, 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, the three men amassed 22 warehouses by 1893. Known as Cupples Station, each was built directly next to and over railroad freight lines. (The Cupples Station site is located southeast of Busch Stadium.) 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.

The Cupples Family  

Martha Kells

Samuel married Margaret Amelia Kells in 1854, but their marriage was tragically short. Plagued by health problems, Margaret Amelia died only four years into to marriage, and did not live long enough to reside at Cupples House. Their only child died in infancy. Before she died, Amelia asked Samuel to marry her older sister, Martha. This custom was not unusual for wealthy families in the era, because it served as a way of keeping money in the family.

Samuel married Martha in 1860. They had three biological children, all of whom died in infancy or in early childhood of cholera or diphtheria. They also adopted their 12-year-old niece Amelia, the daughter of Martha's older sister, Harriet Kells Loman. 

Like her husband, Martha Cupples involved herself in philanthropic activity. When the Methodist Orphans Children's Home was founded in December 1867, Martha served as one of its directresses. By 1870, she served on the Executive Board of the Home as a second vice president, and she was also the secretary of the board of managers. Through the years, Mrs. Cupples also participated in fundraising for the Children's Home. While she devoted most of her energy there, the directors of the St. John's Ladies Aid Society named Mrs. Cupples as its first president upon the society's organization in 1876. In 1877, she became involved with the Industrial School and Home for Girls as the secretary of its board of managers. Mrs. Cupples was also interested in the Memorial Home for the Aged (Charless Home), the Women's Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Christian Home for Single Women.

Illness forced Mrs. Cupples to surrender all of her charity work when she succumbed to a mysterious illness that left her bedridden in 1891. She remained paralyzed, unable to leave her room, until her death in 1894.

In 1895, Samuel Cupples provided $100,000 for a new Methodist Orphans' Children's Home building in honor of Martha Kells Cupples. He functioned as treasurer of its board of trustees. The Home was dedicated in May 1896. Mr. Cupples sat on the men's board from the time of its inception.

The Cupples Home

 

Cupples' house was designed by Thomas Annan. Construction began in 1888 and the house was ready for the family by 1890. There are 42 rooms in Cupples House and 22 fireplaces. Entertainments and galas, though no dancing, were held in the formal rooms of the first floor while the second and third floors were reserved for the family. In 1904, a conservatory was added to the rear of the house.

Vintage photographs illustrated how the house was furnished when the family lived here from 1890 to 1919. Although typically described as a Victorian-era home because of its date of construction, the Cupples House's interiors in the family's days in the home reflect a variety of decorating styles and tastes. Family comfort served as the catalyst for a rather eclectic collection of furnishings. So, too, changing taste encouraged the purchase of art and furniture which did not necessarily coordinate with what was already in the home or what would be later added to the home. 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.

Wealth, Philanthropy and Legacy

In the days before personal income tax, men could amass considerable wealth regardless of a lack of formal education. Like many successful entrepreneurs of his day, Cupples 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.

Cupples became a major benefactor of Methodist related charities. One of them, the St. Louis Provident Association, helped establish Barnes Hospital and also Washington University. Cupples also 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. 

When Cupples died in 1912, his adopted daughter, Amelia, was at his bedside. He was interred in the mausoleum he had built in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Cupples' estate was valued at $1.5 million, which did not include his gift of $2.5 million to Washington University and other gifts totaling $5 million. He stipulated in his will that his house could not be sold for at least eight years after his death and also that the building could not be sold to Saint Louis University. The house remained in the family's hands until 1919, when it was sold 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 the home as a student union and office space until 1970. 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.

 

 

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