- Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South
Peter M. Ascoli's wonderful new book about the life and legacy of Julius Rosenwald succeeds on many levels. On the one hand Ascoli explores and explains Rosenwald, arguably the most overlooked businessman and philanthropist in modern American history, within the context of his times, his family, and his faith. The narrative is lively, even chatty, but Ascoli never loses his objectivity (a remarkable feat, given that he is a grandson of his subject) or fails to place Rosenwald's deeds within the extended narrative arc of U.S. history. This is a biography that explains the Progressive Era as much as one man who helped define it. On the other hand, Ascoli is also persuasive when explaining Rosenwald's motivations, his hopes, fears, and intentions. More than just a businessman who chose to share his wealth, Rosenwald was an ethical pragmatist, a champion of the ascendant modern middle-class ethos, and the product of a "quintessential Jewish immigrant" family in America.
Ascoli, quite logically, focuses the text on explaining Rosenwald's significance as a successful capitalist and philanthropist. Benefiting from a hardworking and supporting German immigrant Jewish family, Rosenwald parlayed his experiences as a clothier and an extended network of friends and associates (that included the young Henry Morganthau, Sr., and Henry Goldman) into a thriving Chicago wholesale business. Joining Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1895, the young "JR" brought order and rationality to a firm driven by the mercurial marketing magic of Richard Sears. As Ascoli notes, "the true problem" solved by Rosenwald "was not persuading people to buy but filling orders satisfactorily" (p. 29). Here, and throughout his life, Rosenwald demonstrated that the true power of industrial capitalism was not just building a better mousetrap but in efficiently integrating the multiple business processes required of the corporation. In addition to overseeing the company's initial public stock offering, Rosenwald also rationalized the firm's accounting, mail-order, retailing, and manufacturing divisions. He personally saved the company from ruin, in 1921, with a $21 million loan. Rosenwald served as company president from 1908 until 1924, and remained active in the firm until his death. Fittingly, Ascoli shows that while we associate the mail-order and retailing giant with its founder, it was really Rosenwald who gave life to the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth."
Similarly, Rosenwald's remarkable philanthropy is often obscured behind the omnipresent brand names of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and George [End Page 206] Foster Peabody. Following the 1906 IPO, which made him a very wealthy man, Rosenwald demonstrated a penchant for what historians frequently term Social Gospel progressivism. Rosenwald's generosity funded thousands of Black schools in the South, rural agricultural extension agents, Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and dozens of Northern organizations such as Hull House, the Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, and the Hebrew Union College. While Ascoli treads lightly on this theme, the irony is that while Rosenwald gave generously to numerous Christian initiatives, including the YMCA, the Baptist-oriented University of Chicago, and decidedly evangelical southern Blacks, Rosenwald was more greatly influenced by the "Social Gospel" (or more reasonably, the civic morality) of Reform Judaism, especially as directed by Rabbi Emil Hirsch. It was Hirsch's teachings, Ascoli argues and Rosenwald acknowledged, that "were of particular importance to JR because they also touched on the special duties that capitalists and men of wealth owed to society." (p. 54).
Combined, the picture Ascoli paints of Rosenwald is a man who successfully merged his secular ethics and religious faith into an engine of American civic reform. Here Progressivism ceases to be a Weberian bureaucratic search for order and emerges, rather, as the conscious and sustained desire by the some of the nation's economic elite to uplift the masses. Rosenwald's pragmatism and faith in self-help define his life. In a 1910...