Mark Cross: A Designer Handbag Tradition April 19 2022
In the grand tradition of other well-respected designer handbag companies who have stood the longevity test—Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton—is the American brand Mark Cross, a company who is celebrating their 170th anniversary this year.
It was 1845 when Henry and Mark Cross (a father and son duo) founded Mark W. Cross & Co., Manufacturers of Harnesses & Saddlery on Boston’s Summer Street in an effort to fill the demand for trunks, harnesses, and other leather goods. Henry had had some prior experience with such work during an apprenticeship in London, and much like the Hermes brand in France (which had been founded just 8 years prior), Mark Cross & Co. quickly became synonymous with luxury and quality.
A young salesman named Patrick Francis Murphy quickly became an important contributor to the company, using the tradition of English saddlery on a range of new products previously made with very expensive leathers—items such as toilet cases, wallets, and luggage. The Cross’ sent Murphy to England to further study the leather craft trade, and by the time he returned to Boston had acquired the London Harness Agency, which would allow Mark Cross & Co. to be the distributor for all English harnesses and saddles brought to the United States. When Mark Cross died Murphy purchased the business and officially abbreviated the company’s name to Mark Cross.
Murphy expanded the Mark Cross brand to major American cities as well as international hot spots, and expanded the reach of the company’s catalog business. Eventually technology and transportation needs developed enough that the automobile resulted in a lessening of horses and stables throughout the United States—Murphy recognized the impact such an invention would have on the company and instead began introducing goods developed in Europe. These items included golf clubs, demitasse glasses, a travel hot water bottle, and polo equipment; although developed in Europe, many of these items were largely unknown in America. Murphy used these items to help market the Mark Cross brand as a truly luxurious brand.
Eventually one of Murphy’s two sons (Frederick) took over management of the business—his other son (Gerald) was of a more artistic sensibility, and wanted little to do with the business. After living abroad for some time, Gerald was forced to return to the States in the years of the Great Depression; he took over Mark Cross at this time, although the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Gerald Murphy continued to run Mark Cross until 1948, when he sold it to Drake America Corporation. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century Mark Cross changed ownership several more times, increasing retail stores, catalog distribution, and wholesale operations with each change in hands. In the 1990s it was acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation, who placed it under the Coach Leathergoods division; that move only lasted a handful of years until 1997, when Mark Cross was withdrawn from the market and an announcement was made that the business would close. Mark W. Cross & Co. was formed to renew use of the Mark Cross trademarks, which are still in use today.
The Mark Cross goods of today have largely returned to their leather goods roots—the designs are simple and timeless and speak to quality and elegance. I love the Madison (followed closely by the Hadley)—the designs are functional and beautiful, elegant and practical—pretty much exactly what you would expect from a brand with such a long history in the business.