It’s The Personal Touch That’s Kept Pittsburgh’s J.R. Weldin Co. In Business For 166 Years
The ornate, four-story building at 413-415 Wood Street is abuzz with the sounds of construction. Landmarks Development Corporation is restoring the space to make way for fashion boutique Peter Lawrence this summer.
But before the recent crop of plush stores, restaurants and hotels began dotting Wood Street, Pittsburgh's longest-running family-owned business called it home for 16 decades.
This story is part of 90.5 WESA's Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
J.R. Weldin Company was established in 1852 -- the same year that 14th U.S. President Franklin Pierce was elected, frontierswoman Calamity Jane was born and a woman in Boston was arrested for wearing pants.
Much has changed in Pittsburgh since then, including Weldins' relocation to Gulf Tower in 2014. But the store's family legacy continues, and its stationery is as sweet as ever.
Culling the list
90.5 WESA listener Russell Harrison asked us to identify the longest-running family-owned business in Pittsburgh.
Harrison owns Carl's Tavern in Monroeville, a family business that he says has endured ethnic prejudice, name changes and the ebbs and flows of the economy throughout its lengthy tenure.
"[We've] been in business since 1933. I was just curious how many other families out there were able to last that long," Harrison said.
Harrison's question was a tricky one. There's no state or local government recordkeeping that would identify the region's longest-running family-owned businesses.
So 90.5 WESA turned to A to Z Databases, a subscription-based service through Carnegie Mellon Library that catalogs the details of 30 million businesses in the United States.
The database isn't foolproof or complete (its employees are still recording thousands of businesses every day) but it turned up several candidates.
One was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, established in 1786. But although the Post-Gazette has generally been owned by families throughout its 232-year history, its name and owners have changed.
Another was the Hershberger-Stover Funeral Home, founded in 1851 and owned by two families in its history. But the funeral home is no longer located within city limits, according to its current owner.
There's also a handful of industrial companies including Munroe, Inc. (1835), S.P. Richards (1848) and Matthews International Corporation (1852) that were once family-owned, but now each are now publicly traded or controlled by conglomerates.
Only one business in the database is the oldest, still operating in Pittsburgh and continuously run by descendants of the same man for 166 years: J.R. Weldin Company.
How stationery evolved
A pink and blue neon sign bestows "Weldins Wishes" on customers who enter the tiny stationery shop at the base of Gulf Tower in Downtown. Owner Maggie MacPherson sits at an ornate mahogany table under florescent lighting. Her gold bangle bracelets clink as she handcrafts greeting cards. The store's resident cat, B.B., is curled up in a peeling office chair beside her.
MacPherson cuts and crimps, and she cranks an old embossing machine to create her masterpieces. She uses heat guns to apply glitter and rubber stamps to convey messages. MacPherson even uses custom metal dies.
She labors over each card for up to 45 minutes, and then sells them for $5.95 each.
Occasionally, the chimes on the door jingle to announce a customer. On this day it was a young woman inquiring about wedding invitations. And many customers are tried-and-true fountain pen users, come to salesman Scott McAllister for a repair or reorder.
MacPherson and McAllister are the only employees of Weldins now.
MacPherson is reaching retirement age after 38 years running the store, but she has no plans of stopping soon.
"There is no one left. I'm the only one. So I hope to keep it going," she says.
In 1980, MacPherson inherited Weldins from her equally tenacious grandfather John Brown, who ran the store until he was 95 years old.
"My mother drove him in every day when he couldn't use the streetcar anymore," MacPherson remembers. "He worked until two years before he died."
MacPherson fondly recalls her childhood in the stationery store.
"We liked to come in because we got crayons and books. My grandfather would tell us to pick out something nice. That was fun," she says.
Her grandfather took over the store from his cousin, who took over from another cousin, who took over from J.R. himself, Josiah Ross Weldin, who established the store on Wood Street in 1852.
Way back when
Weldins spent over 160 years on Wood Street, moving buildings a handful of times.
First it was because of a fire, "in which their delivery guy was killed," MacPherson says. There was a flood, too, and in photos water reaches the doorknob of the shop's entrance.
Finally, the building collapsed and Weldins moved to 413-415 Wood Street, where they remained until 2014.
Weldins was a one-stop shop for paper goods in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thick inventory ledgers archived at the Heinz History Center list holiday cards, domino sets, pocket bibles and gold pens.
The store embossed and engraved. It served Pittsburgh's elite companies and common families alike.
Weldins even published and sold books for a time, including "Songs and Sonnets," "The History of Pittsburgh," and (a bestseller) "The Tonsil and Its Uses."
Authors courted the shop owners, pleading for a spot on its shelves.
"I hope that you have been able to read the book without being bored to extinction, and that you may find sale for it," University of Pittsburgh English professor Alexander Stuart Hunter wrote in 1919, pitching an anonymous novel titled "Different."
At the height of its success, Weldins employed a staff of nearly two dozen, including three indentured servants around the turn of the 20th Century.
Their contracts promised that the indentured servants would "be taught and instructed ... the trade and mystery of Stamping and Illuminating" during the course of a four-year employment. In exchange, they would "serve the said J.R. Weldin & Co. faithfully" and "keep their secrets and obey their lawful commands."
The store's interior was a rich mahogany. There was a spindled balcony that wrapped around the showroom below, its banisters and footings gold-stenciled with product names. Landmarks Development Corporation real estate director David Farkas says the boutique moving into the space this summer will keep the original wood and stenciling.
The walls of the Wood Street store were also lined with thin, wooden drawers that now sit at the Gulf Tower location, housing MacPherson's thousands of card supplies.
Glass cases displayed pens and jewelry. Staff labored on embossing machines upstairs, work stations with built-in tools that resembled vice grips and table saws.
Success is in the cards
But four years ago, MacPherson made a tough decision to relocate Weldins.
"We decided to move because the street was not conducive to our business anymore," she explains. "It was a little rough, and our customers were starting to complain."
MacPherson cites loitering and a couple of armed robberies. One time, a thief locked salespeople in the basement and dashed off with the cash register.
In Gulf Tower, MacPherson says she can continue the store's legacy safely, and her customers have followed.
"They come in and say, 'My grandmother shopped here. My grandmother brought me into Weldins when I was a kid, and I remember that this is how stores used to look,'" MacPherson explains.
Weldins carries stationery from Crane & Company. They still custom-design letterhead for businesses in the 43 floors above, and they machine-calligraphy invitations for parties and weddings.
But MacPherson's true passion is the homemade. Her cards are heartfelt, witty and sometimes saucy. One that reads "Thanks a sloth!" is stamped with a cartoon of the two-toed mammal. Another-- festooned with paper lemons-- implores the reader: "When life gives you lemons, make a vodka sour." There's a whole section dedicated to pet sympathy cards.
MacPherson says customers can't find that in a Hallmark or Wal-Mart.
"They don't do the specialized things that we do here," she insists.
In fact, MacPherson is observing a stationery renaissance.
"Surprisingly, a lot of young people want stationery to write thank-you notes," she explains. "It's much nicer to write a thank-you note than to call somebody or to email them."
It's the personal touch, MacPherson says, that makes a difference not only for the sender and recipient, but to the card's creator.
"It makes me feel good," she says of her cards being used in the most special moments of life. "I try to make them personalized so that it looks like someone really cared enough to make them. This job doesn't make me feel like 'Oh, God, I've got to go to work.' It's actually fun."
*This story was updated at 10:46 a.m., May 10, 2018 to correct the spelling of MacPherson.