Dear Dr. Knox,
What can you tell me about "N. R. Hall & Co. Market Square Knoxville, Tenn."? This name is imprinted on a leather sweatband attached to a black vintage hat (circa 1920s?) purchased at an area antique shop.
Dear Mr. Grimsley:
Your hat may be at least a bit older than you assume. Newton R. Hall, a longtime Market Square merchant, specialized in "Gents' Furnishings." He died in July, 1920, at the age of 75, and city directory research suggests he closed his shop at 7 Market Square around 1919. So your hat is certainly pre-1920s.
Knoxvillians over 30 may guess that he was a predecessor of the clothiers J.S. Hall's Sons, later known as Hall's, later known as Hall-Brown, one of the best-known men's clothing stores in Knoxville throughout most of the 20th century. Hall-Brown lasted though a few corporate mergers into the 1990s, with locations in West Town Mall and Western Plaza. That guess wouldn't be wrong, but would require a lengthy footnote. It follows.
Born in North Knox County, James Spears Hall was about 40 when opened his first store on Market Square right at the end of the Civil War. For more than a century the company was proud of the J.S. Hall & Sons history, and often retold it in advertising and news stories over the years. For whatever reason, they always left out mention of J.S. Hall's original partner, his nephew Newton.
Though Newton R. Hall was only in his early 20s in those postwar days, the enterprise was known as "J.S. & N.R. Hall." It was a sort of general store that sold both groceries and "dry goods"—a term that usually comprised practical clothing and accessories.
The store may have moved around a bit, but by the latter 1870s, J.S. & N.R. Hall were planted on the east side of the Square. In the 1880s, for reasons unrecorded, Newton split off from his uncle's business, and paired off with other partners as his uncle found another partner and ran the original place for a time as Hall & Brooke. The elder Hall, J.S., spent the rest of his life running a business in the same general area on the east side of the Square and establishing what would be a three-generation clothing dynasty.
N.R. Hall proved himself less predictable than his uncle. Newton shifted to the meat-market business for a while in the late 1880s and early '90s, and then ran a general store. He also went through several partners, sometimes working for other companies. He returned to dry goods in the mid-1890s but changed addresses several times. Market Square seems to be the one constant of N.R. Hall's career. He seems never to have sold anything anywhere else.
Meanwhile, J.S. Hall's clothing store grew, finally evolving into a family-run company at Nos. 18-20. Newton generally favored the other side of the Square. N.R. Hall's shop was apparently smaller, but the two Halls coexisted on Market Square for a quarter century in what may have been a friendly cross-Hall rivalry. The original J.S. Hall died in 1906, leaving the company to his sons, Newton's first cousins.
N.R. Hall's last location was at 7 Market Square, the appealing brick building with the second-floor recessed balcony, currently home to Steamboat Sandwiches. Newton Hall's 1920 obituary mentions none of the J.S. Hall family. Newton apparently had no children; his only blood survivor listed was a brother in California.
Anyway, hang onto your hat. My own hats rarely last 90 years. It sounds like you are in possession of a rarity.