An Enlightened Life of Selling and Giving

Industry and Commerce
Published July 16, 1998

An Enlightened Life of Selling and Giving

| Published July 16, 1998

A bronze plaque honors Louis Bamberger, Newark's merchant prince. The Newark Public Library

In recent weeks we have looked at some of Newark's most important industries that in some cases developed into companies of national significance. Paralleling this growth in local industry, a commercial empire emerged to feed the engine of prosperity.

Newark's commercial success was and still is important nationally and includes banking, the legal profession, publishing and printing and dozens of ancillary and related businesses. The 19th century also marked the emergence of the American department store, just as important to America in the last 125 years as the mall has become following World War II. For the first time in shopping history there was a 'palace for the American consumer'.

With the opening of the doors of the great emporia such as Hahne's or Bamberger's, gone were the endless searches for the right type of item in a dozen small ships, and the haggling over prices on unmarked items. Said one observer, 'In the fantasy land of desirable consumer goods and the opulent atmosphere it offered shoppers, in the practical education it provided on the availability and uses of new products, and in the opportunities (the department store) afforded for socialization of the growing middle class, department stores such as Bamberger's were key links in establishing the culture of consumption in early 20th century America'. While Hahne's predated Bamberger's by nearly 40 years, the great store created by Louis L. Bamberger became New Jersey's very best, largest and most glamorous commercial shopping center. In New Jersey's department store city, Mr. Bamberger was the city and state's undisputed commercial king.

Louis Bamberger

The man behind the legend and founder of one of America's greatest department stores, was born in Baltimore on May 15, 1855. His father, Elkan Bamberger, grew up in Bavaria near Nuremburg and immigrated to Maryland in 1823. He married Theresa Hutzler, whose family was already involved in the department store world in Baltimore. Louis attended public school until he was 14, then went to work as a clerk and errand boy in the Hutzler Brothers store owned by maternal uncles. In 1871 he joined his father's company. In 1887 he moved to New York City to become a buyer for a San Francisco notions store. Not satisfied with making money for others, Louis made several trips to Newark while he was living in New York, attracted by Newark's 'progressiveness' and its commercial health. He would be master of his own operations and was looking for the place to begin. Bamberger liked the Market Street area, where he eventually opened business. In 1892 he purchased the bankrupt Newark firm of Hill and Cragg, a dry goods store, and organized his own company that year with partners Louis Frank and Felix Fuld. The threesome then laid the foundation for the most successful retail operation ever to exist in Newark. Upon Frank's death in 1910 the two remaining partners bought out his holdings. Business continued with Bamberger's sister and Fuld's wife, Carrie Fuld, as the ruling house of merchandising and philanthropy until Fuld's death in 1929. Bamberger eventually sold the great department store to R.H. Macy of New York and another era in department stores opened.

The 'Great White Store'

For decades, downtown Bamberger's was referred to as the 'Great White Store' because it was the largest, most elegant retail establishment in all of the downtown and because it was constructed of a light terra cotta that stood out amid the surrounding dark red and brown buildings. The store was Newark's own miracle on Market Street, in more ways than just one. Among the other great department stores—and Newark had the very best—it was unique. This was the era when every young kid was brought downtown with their mother shopping during the year or just before a holiday with the prospect of a wonderful lunch at one of the more than one hundred restaurants and possibly a chance to see a matinee at one of the big movie houses. There might even be an afternoon stage show. Remember, this was the era before the state's largest banks had abandoned the city. It was also a time before there was any such thing as a mall, and nobody was heading to the 'burbs' on the hundreds of trolleys for shopping, banking, the movies or concerts. That was because the importance of the urban downtown had not been broken by World War II, the creation of a national highway system, construction of malls on the outskirts of cities and towns or any of the things that eventually diminished the importance of Newark's Four Corners at Broad and Market streets.

Bamberger's first operation began in 1892 when the property at Market Street and Library Court was leased, and the stock of Hill and Cragg was purchased. The original store had two floors and a basement. Space was added as the company prospered. By 1912 the entire block, in a trapezoid formed by Market, Bank, Washington and Halsey streets, was purchased and eventually built on. In 1912 the major portion of the present Bam's building was designed by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, also the architect of the Newark Museum. Some Newarkers will remember telling someone, 'I'll see you under the clock at Bam's.' The clock case is still intact at the Market and Halsey street entrance and was as much of a part of Newark tradition and folklore as New York's famed lions in front of the New York Public Library. While the style of the store has been called eclectic, it still evokes a strong Gothic feeling with its windowed arches, massive walls and giant medieval lanterns. In 1923 a 15-story addition was added on the Bank Street side, now an office building. There wouldn't have been a great store or a near legend if Louis Bamberger hadn't possessed some fine qualities, both as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Dozens of personal stories tend to relegate him to Olympus while he was still living. But, he was among the very best as a businessman, surrounding himself with good, hard-working people. He had a deep well of energy and was unmatched in his generosity. Innovations that have been attributed to Bamberger made the store nationally known, and many wished that he had lived to 200 years so that Newark could continue to profit from his activities. In his 1.2 million-square-foot store, with its 4,000 to 5,000 employees, he generated a spirit that lasted long after the sale of the store to R.H. Macy's in 1929. He started the policy that the customer was always right and that the store would exchange merchandise based upon customer disapproval. He also instituted charge accounts. When the company went public, he allowed employees to purchase shares, which resulted in increased employee loyalty. Bamberger was especially good to his employees, offering them health and welfare benefits. Upon his retirement and the sale of the store, he gave away more than $1 million to longtime employees in one afternoon. Bamberger and his store treated his customers as he wanted to be treated. Thus, they honored him with their continued loyalty. He was also a master of advertising. To promote the store's radio sales, he and his nephew Edgar established radio station WOR, which broadcast first from the roof of Bam's and later from a 5,000-watt transmitter in Kearny before moving to New York City. Not only was WOR a perfect sales agent for the department store, it became one of the most listened to radio stations in America. He also helped create Charm Magazine, a beautiful store-oriented gazette that circulated throughout northern New Jersey for more than two decades. So excellent was this publication that America's best-known writers contributed to it serialized fiction. Picasso designed several of its covers, and the wife of a former governor wrote the travel column. One interesting article strove to tell the country squire how to make better use of his servants by dressing them in different livery at different times, leaving the impression that his staff was larger than in actuality. Often Charm appealed to the vanity in all of us when it attempted to dress the master of the house in the best Bond Street suit and decorate his country or suburban home in the latest Parisian finery. Fantasy is probably always more interesting than fiction, especially if your fortune was made manufacturing manhole covers, selling scrap iron or running a hotel. But all these things aside, Louis Bamberger, Felix Fuld and Carrie Fuld probably still hold the record for being the greatest philanthropists of all time in New Jersey. Granted, more money may have been given for good and charitable work by other enlightened donors, but the sheer dedication of these three people for decades and the variety of their gifts certainly earned them a rocket ship to heaven.

Division of Labor

The old story goes that Louis ran the store, Felix kept the business on track, and Carrie gave away the millions. These acts of generosity didn't just occur in the last minutes of life, either. Rather, it almost seemed that they made money to be good and to be able to help. John Cotton Dana, Newark's outstanding librarian and museum founder, knew the importance of the $650,000 for the construction of the original museum building. And William Ashby, founder of the Essex County Urban League, appreciated not only the financial but personal support of Carrie Fuld in the dark days of the civil rights fight between the two world wars. Moreover, how many of us have marveled at the 3,000 pink and white cherry blossoms, given by Carrie Fuld to the nation's oldest county park—Branch Brook Park of Newark and Belleville. Certainly Beth Israel Medical Center thanked the Bambergers, as did Presbyterian Hospital, for the family's deep-pocket support of medicine. The Newark Public Library received its Gutenberg page and the New Jersey Historical Society its autographs of all of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence from this philanthropic family. The gifts were endless, and often not publicized, but the Newark Music Festival, the Newark Music Foundation, the Bamberger Music Scholarship, the Bach Society of New Jersey, the Griffith Foundation, the University of Newark, the Jewish Children's Home, the Welfare Federation of Newark, the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association and many others all were richer as a result of Bamberger and Fuld's generosity. On the death of Felix Fuld, Louis and Carrie presented a check of $5 million for the establishment of a great center for scholarship. Their only stipulation was that it should be located somewhere in New Jersey and that Dr. Abraham Flexner was to initially head it. The purpose was to provide a noble endowment for a world center for learning. On March 11, 1944, Bamberger died of congestive heart failure in his home at 602 Center St. in South Orange. Upon his death, the bulk of his estate, estimated to be more than $18 million, went to the Institute for Advanced Studies. One of the great scientists to come to New Jersey as a result was Dr. Albert Einstein, who spent the remainder of his life in our state, thanks to the Newark department store founder. Thus ended the life of one of Newark's most enlightened personalities. He took with him the mastery of a great businessman, unbounded generosity and the shyness of a saint. When asked by institute officials what he expected for his millions, his response was, 'I don't care what you do, but let's do it right.' Maybe the time has come to do something for him. Perhaps, for starters, naming the intersection at Market and Washington streets the Bamberger/Fuld Plaza.