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.