- Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist by Linda B. Forgosh
When employees of his ever-expanding department store in Newark served abroad in World War I, Louis Bamberger printed their letters to him in his house organ, Counter Currents, and sent them Christmas care packages and copies of the magazine. Three members of the American Expeditionary Force wrote to thank him for his support of the war effort and for making them feel as though they were still members of the Bamberger family, though thousands of miles away. “Things like these which you—and by this we include the firm and our store also—have done,” they wrote, “make us realize so much more why our store stands first among them all—why we feel proud to be a part of it” (64).
The doughboys’ easy blending of commitments to their country and their employer, the person of that employer and the larger institution he built speaks to both the challenges and the promise of writing his biography. As Linda Forgosh explains very early on in her engaging, [End Page 407] accomplished Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, “he left no business records, kept no diaries, remained a bachelor, and kept his private life and rationales for his business decisions to himself” (2). To build a narrative of his life, Forgosh thus weaves together Bamberger’s press appearances, some scant correspondence, the memories of more than 200 people who worked or shopped at his store, and especially Counter Currents . What emerges is a remarkable portrait of a person without a readily discernible center, someone seen reflected in the institutions he built and other people’s thinking about him rather than in a direct gaze at the man himself. And the promise of a Bamberger biography, one that Forgosh embraces and articulates amidst the enjoyable swirl of detail she has gathered is that in Bamberger—or, rather, around him—we can discern the contours of a thoroughly modern American consumer society, where a rich subject can be constructed out of his publicly circulating products rather than evidence of his essential thoughts and beliefs, his interior being.
Bamberger came from a family of dry goods merchants and shopkeepers, German Jews who settled in Baltimore and had built a prosperous business empire by the 1870s. Forgosh embeds this family story in a longer history of American consumption, which, in turn, she interweaves with a longer history of Jewish merchant life, beginning with the itinerant peddlers who, often in the span of a single lifetime, developed their businesses into emporia of mass urban consumption. In 1892, Bamberger, along with two partners (one married to Louis’s remarkable sister Carrie, who certainly deserves a biography of her own) opened a small store on Market Street in Newark, the shelves stocked with merchandise purchased at a steep discount from a bankrupt firm. From there, Bamberger steadily expanded his store until it occupied an entire city block. It grew with its host city’s population, of course, but Forgosh is more interested in how the store shaped that public rather than vice versa. For Bamberger’s, she demonstrates, became a civic institution, a place where people met “under the clock,” window-shopped, imagined a life together, and after perhaps purchasing a home returned to furnish it. The store powerfully shaped the tastes of wide swathes of Newarkers, employed thousands, and pioneered merchant practices that we now take for granted (liberal refund policies, charge accounts, worker training, even the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which Macy’s allegedly stole from Newark, to name but a few). The story of the store’s expansion takes up about half the book, until Bamberger—in a move that is as surprising to the reader as it must have been to Newarkers—sells it to the Straus brothers, for reasons that Forgosh can only (convincingly) guess at, since Bamberger never discussed them beyond saying he got a good deal. [End Page 408]
The remaining pages follow Bamberger’s career as the “merchant-prince-as-public-benefactor,” and...