Louis Bam­berg­er: Depart­ment Store Inno­va­tor and Philanthropist

Lin­da B. Forgosh
  • Review
By – October 14, 2016

Louis Bam­berg­er (18551944) found­ed the L. Bam­berg­er & Co. depart­ment store in 1892 in Newark, New Jer­sey, deep in the com­mer­cial shad­ow of Man­hat­tan. His hands-on man­age­ment style and his sharp retail instincts helped him build his busi­ness into the sixth largest depart­ment store in the coun­try. Just before the crash of 1929, he sold the store to Macy’s and devot­ed the remain­der of his years to a vari­ety of phil­an­thropic caus­es, includ­ing his crown­ing achieve­ment, the found­ing of the Insti­tute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Not only was Bam­berg­er one of the first retail­ers to see the enor­mous pos­si­bil­i­ties of the every­thing under one roof” depart­ment store, but also he had a sin­gu­lar flair for effec­tive pub­lic­i­ty. It may not have been cost-effec­tive to deliv­er ship­ments to the store by air­plane, but it did make a splash in the news­pa­pers! Bamberger’s store also host­ed con­certs, con­tests, and fash­ion shows. One year, for Christ­mas, he brought an indige­nous fam­i­ly and live rein­deer from Alas­ka to enter­tain win­dow shop­pers. The store not only housed a post office unit, but also it was one of the first to run its own radio station. 

While the pro­mo­tion­al stunts were effec­tive, biog­ra­ph­er For­gosh believes Bamberger’s benev­o­lent man­age­ment style was some­how key to his suc­cess. To her, Bamberger’s was one big fam­i­ly, in which work­ers, cus­tomers, and own­er could feel they shared a bond. Still, whether or not work­ers were paid gen­er­ous­ly is hard to assess with­out infor­ma­tion on wages at Bamberger’s com­pared to oth­er insti­tu­tions. For­gosh men­tions in pass­ing that work­ers held a month-long strike in 1911, but gives no details. It is unlike­ly that Newark’s pro-busi­ness news­pa­pers or Bamberger’s in-house mag­a­zines, the main sources for most of Forgosh’s research, would have dis­cussed less-than-pos­i­tive devel­op­ments at Bamberger’s. Like­wise, For­gosh rarely men­tions the eco­nom­ic cli­mate of the state or the nation — as if, boom or bust, this store oper­at­ed in a world of its own.

One might argue that since this is a biog­ra­phy of a man and not his busi­ness, details of his busi­ness mod­el are unnec­es­sary. But there is lit­tle else in this book. Bam­berg­er him­self remains a mys­tery. We do learn that when his sis­ter mar­ried his busi­ness part­ner, Felix Fuld, Bam­berg­er moved in with the cou­ple and they lived and even vaca­tioned togeth­er until Felix Fuld died. We also learn that although Louis Bam­berg­er was Jew­ish and sup­port­ed many Jew­ish caus­es, he was more com­fort­able, as was his friend Albert Ein­stein, with the Eth­i­cal Cul­ture community.

Apart from the some­what one-sided por­trait of the Bam­berg­er busi­ness, and the absence of infor­ma­tion on Bamberger’s inti­mate life, cer­tain edi­to­r­i­al choic­es reduce the use­ful­ness of the infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed: there is a high ratio of end­notes to text, but with no bib­li­og­ra­phy these very abbre­vi­at­ed notes are some­what unusable.

In short, this is an ade­quate intro­duc­tion to the accom­plish­ments of Louis Bam­berg­er, one that leaves the door open for future researchers.

Relat­ed Content:

    Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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