Louis Bamberger’s big store

Louis Bamberger’s big store

Local historian writes about the Jewish merchant prince who gave Newark its center

Consider Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs. Larry Page. Sergey Brin. Jeff Bezos. Larry Ellison. Bill Gates.

To varying degrees, with different back stories, all are (or, in Jobs’ case, were) entrepreneurs, visionaries, technocrats, philanthropists, and, to some extent, social engineers. Not all, but many — if not most — of them were Jews. Each one of these men (and yes, they all are men) changed the way America — and, eventually, the world — did business. And they also changed the way people shop.

Because, as it turns out, the way we shop both mirrors and changes the way we live.

It was these men who moved us from the tactile, brick-and-mortar, touch and eyeball and sniff and taste act of shopping — that physical adventure that involved picking out goods, carting them to the cashier, paying for them, and carrying them home — to doing our buying privately, at all hours, at home, as an almost faith-based act of trust in electrons and FedEx.

We all shop differently now.

But also consider Isidor Straus. John Wannamaker. Julius Rosenwald. Benjamin Altman. Marshall Field. Edward Filene.

And, of course, and most relevantly to New Jersey, Louis Bamberger.

To varying degrees, with different back stories, all were entrepreneurs, visionaries, technocrats, philanthropists, and, to some extent, social engineers. Not all, but many — if not most — of them were Jews. Each one of these men (and yes, they all are men) changed the way America — and, eventually, the world — did business. And they also changed the way people shop.

Because, as it turns out, the way we shop both mirrors and changes the way we live.

Louis Bamberger is the subject of a new biography by independent scholar Linda Forgosh, who says that Bamberger — who never married and devoted his considerable intellectual energies first to his store and later to the world around him — presided over huge changes in retailing, helped maintain Newark as the great city that it then was, earned the undying loyalty of his employees, and later was responsible for such accomplishments as getting Albert Einstein into the United States and establishing the Princeton- (but not Princeton University-) based Institute for Advanced Studies.

His biographer, Ms. Forgosh, herself is a New Jersey native whose story in some ways is a story of the Jewish community here.

Let’s start with Louis Bamberger.

In the late 19th century, Newark was a manufacturing center, Ms. Forgosh said. “It was the fourth biggest city in America, and you name it, they made it. Leather goods and patent leather and jewelry and buggy seats,” among many other things; the emphasis on leather was because of Seth Boyden, a pioneer in the field, whose businesses were in Newark. It also produced a huge range of early plastics, lamps, and dentures. Thomas Edison invented the stock ticker in Newark. It was a seaport and a major rail hub. It was the brewing center for the whole eastern seaboard. It was full of immigrants and teeming with life.

It had a huge Jewish population. The city’s best-known Jewish neighborhood, Weequahic, unpronounceable to outsiders, made legend by Philip Roth but actually entirely real and the ancestral home of countless Jersey Jews, at its peak, in the 1950s and 60s, had “as many as 17 synagogues in a 54-block radius,” Ms. Forgosh said. “I would say that the whole city had up to 150 synagogues,” counting the sometimes nameless little neighborhood shtiebels.

Louis Bamberger
Louis Bamberger

Louis Bamberger was born in Baltimore in 1855, six years before the start of the Civil War. His maternal grandfather, a successful merchant, founded a highly successful and influential general store, Hutz-ler Brothers, in that city; Louis’ father and his uncles worked there, and soon Louis did too. “Bamberger learned the business just sitting in his parents’ dining room,” Ms. Forgosh said. “During the Civil War, they were the largest manufacturers of uniforms for the Army, and of clothing items in general. They all discussed business, and he was a quiet sort of guy, who just sat there and absorbed it.

“He worked at his uncles’ store, and he spent his life learning the retail business.” But the business was his uncles’, not his father’s, and “I think that one morning he woke up and told himself ‘I will never advance here,’ so he moved to New York.” There, he gained more experience, realized that he wanted to work for himself, found a business partner, “went to Newark, and took a big chance.”

He opened his new store, L. Bamberger and Co., in 1892.

Bamberger did not pioneer the concept of the department store, which Ms. Forgosh defined as “a series of departments selling a series of specialties, all under one roof.” It was a break from the tradition of many small stores, each selling a small range of products, most of them handmade.

Bamberger based his new store most closely on Filene’s, the brainchild of another German Jew, and on other department stores across the country, but he refined and expanded the idea.

“He bought the stock of a company that had gone bankrupt, called Hill and Cragg,” Ms. Forgosh said. “It was just two stories, and it faced a very unattractive street, with a lot of saloons on it. It had its wares displayed on the sidewalk.

Louis Bamberger’s purchase of Hill & Cragg led to the opening of his new store
Louis Bamberger’s purchase of Hill & Cragg led to the opening of his new store

“Louis was advised not to open there, on Market Street, but to move it to Broad Street, which really was broad, and a much better address. But he always maintained that if you have something to offer, customers will find you.

“And they did.”

“You could find whatever you wanted in Bamberger’s,” Ms. Forgosh continued. Of course you could buy clothing — men’s, women’s, children’s, babies’ clothing. “You could buy a bird and buy a cage and birdseed for it. You could find the post office inside and do mailings. You could find an extension of the Newark public library and borrow books. You could go to the photography department and buy a camera or get your picture taken. You could buy a tennis racket or you could get your tennis racket restrung. You could buy a wedding dress and get it altered there.”

The radio station WOR also had its start in L. Bamberger & Co. “Somebody had to come up with an idea about how to sell a new invention — radio tubes,” Ms. Forgosh said. “The tubes were manufactured in Newark. Bamberger came up with the idea of starting a radio station. The store was the first one in the country to have its own station.”

The store, in other words, offered services as well as goods. “And it reflected the growth of the country,” Ms. Forgosh continued. “It was progressive and democratizing. Its opening coincided with the Chicago Exposition; every new invention and home device could be seen at the exposition — like home washing machines! — all found their way to Bamberger’s.

“The store sold technology that made housewives’ lives easier.”

In fact, the stores made women’s life in general easier. Although it employed men, most people who worked there were women.

A Bamberger’s delivery carriage makes its rounds in this 1909 photo.
A Bamberger’s delivery carriage makes its rounds in this 1909 photo.

Bamberger’s, like other department stores but even more strongly, emphasized service. “They offered refunds, prices were competitive, and there was one price. You didn’t have to haggle; you just looked at the price tag,” Ms. Forgosh said.

Elegant early 20th century fashions are on display at Bamberger’s.
Elegant early 20th century fashions are on display at Bamberger’s.

Soon, department store owners “decided to form a cooperative, where they all would share information,” she said. “Bamberger opened the store to anyone who wanted to do the research. They figured out why he was so successful.

“The answer was one word. Volume. That was the secret.”

Another similarly not-so-closely-held secret was that “the same attention that he paid to his customers he paid to his vendors. The commandment was ‘Thou shalt treat all vendors with respect, and pay them on time.’” That paid off for Bamberger later, when wartime needs demanded that many goods be directed first to the armed forces. That left less for everyone else, but “when Louis needed stuff for his stores, he got it,” Ms. Forgosh said. “His vendors remembered him.”

Bamberger also started a magazine, called Charm, a glossy women’s publication with high production values — one of its covers was designed and signed by Pablo Picasso — which did not promote any of the store’s products directly but instead positioned New Jersey as a desirable place to live.

Louis Bamberger started Charm, a high-values publication aimed at upscale women consumers.
Louis Bamberger started Charm, a high-values publication aimed at upscale women consumers.

Bamberger’s promotions were gargantuan in scale, calculated not only to impress but to educate and enlighten as well. “In 1936, he brought the Met” — as in the Metropolitan Opera — “to Newark to perform La Boheme.” It wasn’t a concert performance, either; the company brought costumes and sets. “The whole enchilada,” Ms. Forgosh said. “Bamberger loved music.”

And do you think that the Thanksgiving Day Parade was a Macy’s innovation? Nah, Ms. Forgosh said. That was Bamberger’s; when, eventually, Macy’s bought Bamberger’s, the parade went with it. (To be fair, other department stores in other cities sponsored similar all-out events.)

About that sale — in 1929, Louis Bamberger sold the store to Macy’s, although “the name stayed until 1986,” Ms. Forgosh said. “They were afraid to take the name off the building.

“He had spent an entire lifetime branding that name.”

Louis Bamberger was a serious philanthropist. “He gave to everything that walked, talked, or breathed,” Ms. Forgosh said. “He was not religious, but there would be no Jewish hospital in New Jersey if it wasn’t for Bamberger and his partner, Felix Fuld, who later became his brother-in-law as well. They raised all the funds for Newark Beth Israel Hospital. And there would have been no Y” — Newark’s YM-YWHA — “had he not brought it there. And there would have been no Newark Museum. He was the sole donor. Not one other person put a dime into it. He backed the first Jewish social service agency in Newark, and the first Jewish day nursery.”

The Newark Y at the corner of High Street (now MLK Boulevard) and Kinney Street, funded wholly by Louis Bamberger.
The Newark Y at the corner of High Street (now MLK Boulevard) and Kinney Street, funded wholly by Louis Bamberger.

He sat on about 30 boards in all, Ms. Forgosh said; once he decided a cause was worthy enough for him to join its board, other people’s money generally would follow his. “His name on the letterhead was like cash in the bank,” Ms. Forgosh said.

He did not restrict his concern to the Jewish world; instead, he gave a considerable amount of money to civil rights causes, including the Urban League. (This was early in the civil rights movement’s history.)

Louis Bamberger’s family was unusual. He was one of seven children, Ms. Forgosh said; still, his parents had only one grandchild. Of the two brothers and five sisters, only two married, and only one had a child. But Bamberger was deeply loyal to his family; he had no close friends other than his siblings.

Despite his love for Newark, Bamberger did not live in the city. He had a 35-acre estate in South Orange, which included a working farm, Ms. Forgosh said, and this was just one of his many homes.

Bamberger’s interests included the Institute for Advanced Studies, an early (and still extant and much expanded) think tank. He endowed it with the proceeds of the sale of Bamberger’s, and among other things it provided an academic home for Albert Einstein. “Bamberger and Einstein were friends,” Ms. Forgosh said. “They shared many things — German Jewish culture, the German language, their love of music. But what they most had in common was social justice.” By the end of his life, Bamberger gave the institute $19 million dollars, a lot of money now but an absolute king’s ransom at the time.

Louis Bamberger was a strong American patriot.

“Through the sheer dint of personality and determination, he found and purchased the signatures of all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Ms. Forgosh said. Each was a separate signature, assembled into one piece. “They were exhibited at the Bicentennial, in 1976. But he made a very big mistake.

“His will did not restrict its use, so some stupid group of trustees of the New Jersey Historical Society, which received it, sold it at auction for an undisclosed amount of money. And there it went.”

It’s never been seen in public since, and its whereabouts are unknown. That’s a huge loss, Ms. Forgosh said.

Louis Bamberger belonged to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a large Reform synagogue in Newark, since relocated to Short Hills, although he did not go there very often. But when he died, in 1944, “1,200 mourners showed up for his funeral,” Ms. Forgosh said.

Had it not been for Louis Bamberger, she added, New Jersey’s Jewish community would have been far less rich, not only materially but in institutions, in its understanding of philanthropy, and in its ability to reach outside itself.

Ms. Forgosh’s own relationship with New Jersey is generations deep. (Lest you not realize it, all you have to do is ask her to pronounce the name of the city whose chief department store she has chronicled. “Nork,” she says, in that inimitable Jersey way.)

Her great grandparents, Esther and Nathan Grossman, settled in what is now called Avenel but then was Demarest-on-the-Hill in 1852. The town’s early settlers were Dutch, and the Grossmans, who ran a small grocery store, were its only Jews.

Ms. Forgosh’s grandfather, David Grossman, and his wife, Eva Levy Grossman, stayed in Avenel. David Grossman was an ambitious entrepreneur. “He said, ‘First you go into business, and then you worry about what you do,’” she reported. His business was manufacturing concrete and cinder blocks; Capitol Concrete, as it was called, was extremely successful.

“He manufactured lawn jockeys — they came from his molds,” Ms. Forgosh said. He also made bird baths, garden gnomes, Madonnas, and rabbits; he basically made any piece of garden statuary you can call to mind. “It was a four-generation family business,” she added. “My grandfather took care of the rest of the family — I wouldn’t have gone to college if he hadn’t.”

That part of the family is gone from New Jersey now. They sold the business eventually, and then “my grandparents moved to Miami Beach,” she said. Other retirees buy apartments. “My grandparents bought an apartment building on Collins Avenue.”

Ms. Forgosh’s father died when she was young. Her father’s family name had been Solovetchic; she doesn’t know what the connection to the famous Soloveitchics might have been, but she does know that her father, wanting to sound less Jewish, changed his last name to Berman. (Go know…)

Ms. Forgosh always was fascinated by history. At least in part, she said, that’s because she grew up surrounded by it. “New Jersey is the crossroads of the American revolution,” she said. “More battles were fought here than in any other state.” A thorough New Jerseyan, she did not leave the state even for college, spending those four years at Rider University in Lawrenceville. She’s now the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, headquartered at the JCC in Whippany and funded in part by the Jewish Federation of MetroWest. “Sitting here in Whippany, we are within eight or so miles from Morristown, where Alexander Hamilton met his wife,” she said. George Washington slept all over the area. “He had his headquarters in Morristown. One of the most important sculptures documenting the revolution, called the Alliance, shows Washington flanked by the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton. It’s in Morristown.”

Ms. Forgosh has written books about local Jewish history, but her large, ambitious biography of Louis Bamberger is the first such book she has written, and it is also the first book to tackle Bamberger’s life.

Often, when she talks about her subject, Ms. Forgosh called him Bamberger, and sometimes it’s Mr. Bamberger, but often it’s Louis. That’s because she has come to know him well and to admire him greatly, she said. “I call him Louis because his family was so generous and gave me access to his papers, and that really made his story come to life.

“That was a real gift, and I loved every minute of it,” she said.

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