Louis Bamberger (1855−1944) 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.
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.