This Day in Jewish History |

1932: 'Greatest Donor in the 20th Century' Dies

Julius Rosenwald was equally noteworthy for growing Sears, Roebuck & Co, and for his support for African—American rights and education.

David Green
David B. Green
Julius Rosenwald.
Julius Rosenwald.Credit: Library of Congress
David Green
David B. Green

On January 6, 1932, the businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald died, at the age of 69.

Rosenwald is equally noteworthy for his leadership of the mail-order emporium Sears, Roebuck & Co, helping its sales grow from $750,000 to $50 million between the years 1895 and 1907 alone, and for the wide range of social issues his charitable foundation dealt with, in particular in the field of education among African Americans.

Julius Rosenwald was born August 12, 1862, to Samuel and Augusta, in Springfield, Illinois, a short distance from the adult home of President Abraham Lincoln. Both parents had immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, meeting and marrying in Baltimore.

By the time their second child, Julius, was born, the couple had moved to Springfield, where Samuel worked at the Capitol Clothing House, a prospering clothing store owned by his in-laws that was supplying uniforms to Union soldiers in the Civil War. The family was active in the establishment of a Reform congregation in town, where Julius had his bar mitzvah and confirmation.

Julius was introduced to the business world at a young age, and benefited from an extended family that was teeming with entrepreneurs. After time working as a clothier in New York, he moved back to Illinois, where he and his brother Morris began manufacturing clothes in Chicago.

It was an era when clothing began to be mass-produced according to standard sizes, and the growing population of the country allowed for almost limitless expansion.

In 1890 Julius Rosenwald married Augusta Nusbaum, also the daughter of prosperous German-Jewish immigrants. It was through her brother Aaron Nusbaum that he encountered the opportunity that changed his life.

In 1895, Aaron was invited by Richard Sears, who together with Alvah Roebuck had established a watch retailer that had expanded to sell a variety of household items and clothing by mail order, to buy a 50 percent interest in his company. Sears, Roebuck had grown so quickly that its original owners were unable to manage it properly, or fulfill customers’ orders.

Aaron Nusbaum accepted the offer but sought a family member to enter the deal with him: Julius accepted without a second thought.

As the United States expanded and its citizens spread westward, creating new communities as they did so, mail-order retailing was just waiting to take off. Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald became the leaders of the firm, and by 1900 (when they bought out Aaron Nusbaum for $1.25 million), there was almost nothing that wasn’t available through their mail-order catalog – which they were careful to keep smaller than the catalog of their main competitor, Montgomery Ward, so that consumers who had both would place the Sears catalog on top.

By 1910, Sears, Roebuck had built its own manufacturing plant in Chicago, financing it by going public in the second stock offering in U.S. business history. It was arranged by an old friend of Julius’, none other than Henry Goldman, now a senior partner at Goldman Sachs.

People waiting outside a Sears store on Thanksgiving Day, Manchester, New Hampshire November 22, 2012. Credit: Reuters

In 1908, Julius became president of the firm, which continued to expand: net sales were nearly $240 million in 1919. He saw it through some serious crises too before his retirement in 1924.

By way of Paul Sachs, the other senior partner of Goldman Sachs, Rosenwald was introduced to two African American educators, Booker T. Washington and William H. Baldwin. Through them, he joined the board of the Tuskegee Institute, a black university in Alabama, and also started building schools in 15 states throughout the rural South – 5,000 of them by 1932. He was an active member (and vice-president) of Chicago’s Reform Temple Sinai, and gave to a number of Jewish projects in Chicago, as well as experimental housing developments in his hometown.

He also provided key funding for the establishment of the American Jewish Committee and for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. In 2006, Philanthropy magazine referred to him as “the greatest twentieth century donor you never heard of.”

The philanthropic Rosenwald Fund established by Julius gave away some $70 million during his lifetime alone. In accord with his instructions, it spent down its entire endowment by 1948. Sears, Roebuck has been transformed several times since Rosenwald’s death, on this day in 1932, but today it still exists, in partnership with K-Mart, as a retailer and a service provider for home appliances.

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