Louis Bamberger Department Store Inovator and Philanthropist by Linda B. Forgosh is the first biography of one of the greatest of merchant princes descended from German Jewish immigrants who came to American in the 19th century.
Not long ago I read a very good work that served as an excellent preparation for this book, Our Crowd The Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham. Louis Bamberger (1855 to 1944) was descended from German Jewish immigrants. He grew up Baltimore, began to work in a family owned store at fourteen. In 1892 he purchased the stock of a distressed merchant in Newark, New Jersey and through very innovative merchandising methods turned this into the sixth biggest department store in the country and turned himself and his partner into multi-millionaires.
In the days before shopping centers if you wanted something you went to a department store to buy it. Bamberger was one of the most creative and aggressive users of newspaper advertisements and was actually the first department store to have an in house radio station. He treated his employees, who were called associates, very well for the period. He offered paid vacations, tuition assistance, maintained an employee assistance fund for emergencies and until his store got too big, he knew his employees. If someone's child was in the hospital, he might well stop by. He staged lots of interesting in store events to draw people into Bamberger's. He was one of the very first stores to offer no hassle returns. His store had a restaurant, community meeting rooms, a post office and lots of other first ever done ideas. He expected his employees to know the store and he published a magazine for his employees. He started free deliveries all over the area. If one of his drivers saw a person who needed help, they were expected to help out.
In 1929 he sold his store to Macy's, giving away a million dollars to his 250 longest tenured employees. He stated active in the store, coming in most days up until the final years of his life.
Bamberger, never married and without children, was a great philanthropist. His most lasting achievement was the founding endowment of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. He contributed five million dollars and as a board member was active in managing the institute. He became friends with the most famous faculty member, Albert Einstein. He founded and was a continuing supporter of the Newark Museum of the Arts and the Newark Young Hebrew Men's Association. He made a contribution and solicited donations that allowed a hospital to be opened in Newark, The Beth Israel. He insisted that sixty five percent of the beds be available to those who could not pay for them. Bamberger did not just give money, he gave his time and financial expertise.
Bamberger was a very private person. He preferred to socialize with his sister and her husband. He often made buying trips to Europe. As Jews became persecuted in Germany, Bamberger help those he could immigrate.
Left, Louis Bamberger with his partner and brother in law Felix Fludd
I finished this very well done biography with a great sense of admiration for Mr. Bamberger and I wish I could have shopped in his store. Unlike his contemporaries who achieved great wealth he did not develop a contempt for the average person. His employees all held him in high esteem. When he died all flags in Newark flew at half-staff for three days. He is someone we can truly admire and I thank Linda B. Forgosh for making it possible to know his story.
LINDA B. FORGOSH is an independent scholar and executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.