Theophilus Brown (1811-1879)

Theophilus (Theo) Brown
(12 September 1811- 25 January 1879)
Literary Tailor, Wit of Worcester

Although mentioned in Thoreau’s journals and letters, information on Theophilus Brown was not a well-known figure. Descended from a line of tailors, Brown’s brothers William and Samuel owned a reputable shop in Worcester. After the death of the latter, Theophilus joined the former as co-owner of a fine clothing store. Referred to as the “literary tailor,” Theo. Brown gained a reputation for quality work. In a January 1863 journal entry and separate letter to his wife, Thomas Wentworth Higginson described a uniform coat made by Brown as the “most elegant garment I ever had” and “one of Theo’s most perfect fits.” In addition to being a tailor, Brown was a member of the local lyceum executive committee who, along with his friend H.G.O. Blake, brought Transcendentalist lecturers to Worcester, and often opened his home to Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson.

Lecturing and visiting in Worcester from 1849–1861, Thoreau befriended the tailor, staying in the home of Brown and his wife, Sarah, on several occasions. During an 1856 trip to Worcester, Thoreau spent four nights with the Browns and had his photograph taken at Benjamin Maxham’s Daguerrean Palace, with the three daguerreotypes distributed to Blake, Brown, and Calvin Green of Rochester, Mich.

It is said the site of literary giants and intellects gracing the tailor shop at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets was not uncommon. An anonymous writer notes in the 26 October 1896 edition of The Worcester Telegram:

In the back window of Theo. Brown’s tailoring shop, corner of Main and Pearl Streets, where many a hard fought battle of chess had been won and lost, anon was wont to sit the philosopher Thoreau, fashioning the habiliments of the soul, while near him Theo. would calmly continue cutting out habiliments for the wear of the body, and Harry Blake, with his eyes glistening with delight behind his gold-bowed glasses, would follow the arguments of each.

Fellow Worcester, Mass. resident Thomas Wentworth Higginson referred to Brown as “the wit of the city” and praised the tailor as “the freshest and most original mind in Worcester.” Thoreau thought highly enough of Brown to give the Worcester tailor one of 75 advance copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Blake is said to have read Thoreau’s letters to a few friends, usually including Brown, thereby not only introducing them to the Concord author but also to the man who walked with Nature. Although Brown accompanied Thoreau, Blake, and Edward Hoar on an 1858 excursion to the White Mountains, the first known letter from Brown to Thoreau is dated 19 October 1859. In this letter, Brown writes:

Blake must speak for himself and not for me when speaking of that mountain walk of ours. I enjoyed it well enough, and ought to be ashamed of myself that I did, perhaps, since it yielded me so little . . .

The tailor also mentioned a June 1859 journey to Cape Cod and alluded to meeting Daniel Ricketson. Brown and Blake walked from Worcester to Cape Cod, stopping in Concord on the way. Brown’s grief over Thoreau’s death, as shared six years later, rolls as gently and deeply as the current of the river upon which they rowed in Concord. The “wit of Worcester” memorialized Thoreau in an 1868 letter to Ricketson:

Dear Sir, —

I have several times of late thought of a walk I had with you (my friend Blake was there too) one summer afternoon many summers ago, at Middleborough Pond, through a stony pasture, in which you told me you had been wont to string your thoughts into rhyme, and, following my inclination, I have taken my pen to recall the time to you . . .

There is a bird which every summer keeps me in constant remembrance of that afternoon, — it is the bird whose song, according to your translation, is “please don’t grieve.”

We reclined upon a bank near some water, I think, awhile, and talked of Thoreau, whom we all had quite an admiration for.

It may interest you to hear of the last visit which I with Blake made at his (Thoreau’s) house a short time before he died . . .

Have you been to Concord since his death? The river still runs and the birds still sing and the flowers blossom, but to my eye nature somehow looked bereft of her lover. The loss seemed so great that one could easily fancy that the river would hence forth run only tears, and that the bobolinks even, if they sung at all, would sing in the minor key.

I think it no small achievement to so live as to raise the value of one’s surroundings. That Thoreau has done . . .

Thoreauvian scholar Thomas Blanding wrote that Brown was, “A man of wide reading and broad wit, [who] good-naturedly conspired with his friend Blake to attract Thoreau Worcester-ward for parlor and public lectures.” Accordingly, Brown is also said to have enjoyed plays on words and quips. One relayed account reads:

One day, as Theo unwieldily carried a slopping pail of milk to a Lake Quinsigamond picnic, a young boy arm-laden with cowslips accosted him, “Mister, wouldn’t you like some cowslips?” “No thank you,” Theo twinkled, “I already have all the cow slops I can manage.”

This sense of humor carried into Brown’s limericks and bon mots, some of which were published in Harper’s Magazine.

On 10 January 1862, Brown wrote to Thoreau, requesting additional copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. When speaking about the books, Brown let Thoreau know what the works meant to him:

I have long desired to acknowledge my indebtedness to you for them & to tell you that through them the value of everything seems infinitely enhanced to me.

After visiting Thoreau in January 1862, Brown noted his Concord friend “was in an exalted state of mind long before he died.” Brown and Blake went to see Thoreau twice in his final months and continued their Concord visits after Thoreau’s death, stopping to see his mother and sister while in town. Replying to a letter from Ricketson regarding a possible biography of her brother, on 7 February 1863, Sophia Thoreau reviewed the ways in which Thoreau’s friends knew him. Sophia wrote, “Mr. Blake and Mr. Brown would be truer to him than any who knew him . . .”

Theophilus Brown died 25 Jan 1879, was survived by his wife and two of their three children, and is buried in Worcester Rural Cemetery in Worcester, Mass.