The Guggen­heims: A Fam­i­ly History

Irwin Unger; Debi Unger
  • Review
By – August 27, 2012

The Guggen­heim name is best known for and immor­tal­ized by the Solomon Guggen­heim Muse­um in New York and the Peg­gy Guggen­heim Muse­um in Venice, Italy. This book, how­ev­er, tells the sto­ry of the entire Guggen­heim clan, tak­ing us back to their ori­gins in Leng­nau, Switzer­land, where Isaac Guggen­heim died the rich­est Jew in the city from his mon­ey – lend­ing activ­i­ties. We then trav­el to Philadel­phia where his sons, Mey­er and Simon, immi­grate in the mid 1800’s. We learn of their start as pack-car­ry­ing ped­dlers who soon dis­cov­er that cof­fee essence and black stove pol­ish are their best wares and so begin their for­ay into indus­try by man­u­fac­tur­ing these goods. Many pages are giv­en over to delin­eat­ing the dif­fer­ent stages of their empire – build­ing: from their first fac­to­ry, Amer­i­can Con­cen­trate Lye Com­pa­ny, to their sil­ver mines out west, to ASAR­CO— Amer­i­can Smithing and Refin­ing Co. — and Guggenex, to their lat­er cel­e­bra­tion as cop­per kings.” And, as Mey­er Guggen­heim and his sev­en sons’ accu­mu­la­tion of wealth grows, they also come under attack for exploit­ing the nation’s nat­ur­al resources, as well as for their avarice as Jew­ish capitalists. 

The Guggen­heims’ eco­nom­ic rise is told against the back­drop of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Where­as they rode the wave of pros­per­i­ty that fol­lowed from the rebound from World War I, aid­ed by Euro­pean eco­nom­ic growth, the spread of elec­tri­fi­ca­tion into the devel­op­ing world, and the era’s pro-busi­ness Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion, they also suf­fered from the 1930s Depres­sion and their unsuc­cess­ful nitrate ven­ture in Chile. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, it is only when they ceased to be indus­tri­al movers and shak­ers that the Guggen­heims became best known in pub­lic as patrons of the arts and sciences. 

Just as the authors describe the Guggen­heim fam­i­ly as oper­at­ing like a per­fect­ly dis­ci­plined army under the direc­tion of the com­man­der-in-chief old Mey­er,” so, too, is this book a dis­ci­plined, dry account under the direc­tion of the his­to­ri­an authors. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, one is left hun­gry for some per­son­al rev­e­la­tions, some insights into indi­vid­u­als’ psy­cho­log­i­cal per­son­ae, some amus­ing anec­dotes or inter­est­ing dialogue.

Karen J. Hauser received a B.A. in art his­to­ry from Stan­ford. She has worked at var­i­ous muse­ums and at Sothe­by’s and cur­rent­ly does com­mu­nal vol­un­teer work.

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