Benjamin Altman Portrait

Benjamin Altman Portrait

Benjamin Altman


Benjamin Altman founder of B. Altman & Company.


Benjamin Altman (born July 12, 1840 in New York City; died October 7, 1913 in New York City), the son of Bavarian-Jewish immigrant parents, was born in New York City in 1840 and at the age of twenty-five founded what would become B. Altman & Company, one of the city’s premier and most successful department stores. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in the United States after the Civil War provided unprecedented opportunities for hardworking and ambitious young Jewish men like Benjamin Altman to succeed in business endeavors. He developed his business skills first in his German-born father’s small dry goods store in New York as a young boy and then in a larger retail establishment in nearby New Jersey run by other German-Jewish immigrant merchants. His talent for organization and innovation in merchandising vaulted him into a leading role in American retail. By the time Altman died in his impressive Fifth Avenue mansion on October 7, 1913, at the age of seventy-three, B. Altman & Company had developed a national reputation for retailing excellence and Altman’s personal net worth, which included real estate holdings, his majority share in the business, and rare fine art, was estimated at fifty million dollars (approximately $1.1 billion in 2010).[1] The story of the Altman family and Benjamin’s trajectory to the status of “merchant prince” serves as an illustration of how the search for a better life propelled a number of German-born Jews of modest origins and their children to economic success as they utilized ethnic and kinship networks, drew upon cultural legacies, and honed merchandizing skills that they had first acquired in Europe to become part of New York City’s commercial elite.[2] Indeed, the history of retailing in America was significantly influenced by German-Jewish immigrants and their descendants. As one journalist put it succinctly, the American kings of retail, “German Jews almost every one of them… changed the way America shopped.”[3] Benjamin Altman honed his skills as a taste-maker and trend-setter within this vibrant Jewish mercantile community and transformed New York City’s broader retail environment through his entrepreneurial activities.

Family and Ethnic Background

Benjamin Altman was the son of Philip and Celia Friedsam, who arrived in America around the year 1836 from Memmelsdorf, Bavaria, a small community located near the town of Bamberg (approximately fifty kilometers/thirty miles north of Nürnberg).[4] Benjamin was born a few years after the couple arrived in New York City and grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood. Sometime before 1854, Philip opened a modest dry goods or millinery store on Attorney Street on the Lower East Side, and as a young boy Benjamin began working behind the counter after classes at the local grammar school.[5] Benjamin had two siblings, his older brother Morris Altman, born in 1837, and his sister Sophia Altman Fleishman, whose exact year of birth is unknown. Like Benjamin, Morris also attended public schools and worked in the family business. Before his untimely death at the age of thirty-nine, Morris was known as a respected businessman who employed 200 workers and as a supporter of the “Early Closing Association,” which pushed for shorter working hours for dry goods clerks.[6]

During the Civil War era, the Lower East Side was an enclave for German immigrants of all faiths. Most of these immigrants were involved in small-scale agricultural endeavors in the neighborhood, but German-born Jews such as Altman senior generally worked as peddlers or small merchants after they arrived in New York. Philip Altman died in 1863 when Benjamin was twenty-three. Just two years later, at the end of the Civil War, the twenty-five-year-old Benjamin Altman opened his own small three-story store at Thirty-Nine Third Avenue near Tenth Street on the Lower East Side. Using capital he had accumulated through his earlier jobs in retailing, Benjamin began with a one-year lease and rented the property for forty dollars per month (approximately $550 in 2010).[7] The lease stipulated that the property was to be “occupied as a Dry-goods and fancy store, with privilege in the Wood-house.”[8] Soon the establishment flourished, attributed in large part to Benjamin’s “years of patient, unremitting labor,”[9] and he expanded it to include Forty-Three Third Avenue. Morris Altman is also listed in the 1868 New York City Directory at the same address. However, by 1869 Morris had opened his own branch store at 331 Sixth Avenue, and the two stores were listed side by side as Altman & Brother, or a similar variation, until Morris’s death in 1877.[10] A February 1871 advertisement in the New York Times, for instance, referred to the store at 331 and 333 Sixth Avenue as Altman Brothers & Co. and advertised merchandise at “astonishingly low prices.”[11]

Altman was an intensely private man and few details are known about his personal and family life. Benjamin’s maternal grandfather, Moses Hirsch Friedsam, worked as a watchmaker in Memmelsdorf, where he and his first wife Babet raised five children, including Celia Friedsam Altman and her brother Hirsch. One of Hirsch’s grandsons, Benjamin’s cousin Michael Friedsam, joined the Altman firm around the year 1875 at the age of seventeen after having attended Weston Military Academy in Connecticut. Other members of the extended Altman and Friedsam families in America also established dry goods businesses of their own.[12]

Around 1856, Benjamin’s sister Sophia married Samuel Fleishman, another Bavarian-Jewish immigrant, who worked as a peddler and then a merchant in Jackson County, Florida. Fleishman probably met his bride on a merchandise buying trip to New York City, and the couple became the parents of six children. At the beginning of the Civil War, Fleishman left the South to avoid the draft, but was forced to leave Sophia and their children behind in the care of his unmarried brother Philip. He worked with the Altman brothers in New York during the conflict. After the war, Samuel returned to the South, identified himself as the “authorized agent” for the Altman firm, and established a branch of the Altman Brothers store in Marianna, Florida, once again demonstrating the importance of family business ties for German-Jewish immigrants. Local court records over the next few years recorded a number of modest business lawsuits brought by and against Samuel Fleishman and Morris and Benjamin Altman, primarily for breach of contract. What is rather odd is a $2,000 breach of contract action brought by Benjamin against Samuel, which Fleishman did not contest and which was settled in Benjamin’s favor for a little over $1,000 (approximately $32,000 and $16,000 respectively in 2010).[13] This action did not seem to have caused any lasting damage to the family relationship as the brothers-in-law continued to do business, and Benjamin remained close to his sister. In 1869, during the violent Reconstruction Era, Fleishman, a Republican who was politically supportive of freed African Americans, was murdered by members of the local Ku Klux Klan.[14]

Although Benjamin Altman never had children of his own, he appears to have felt a keen responsibility for his ten nieces and nephews, the four children of his brother Morris Altman and the six offspring of his sister Sophia Fleishman. He provided funds for Sophia’s family and helped raise her children when she returned to New York after her husband’s tragic death. After Morris Altman died suddenly of cholera in 1876 at the age of thirty-nine, Benjamin Altman took over management of the new palatial Altman department store on Sixth Avenue that Morris had been planning before his death. When Morris’ wife passed away soon after his death, Benjamin provided care and education for his brother’s orphaned children, who were between the ages of five and twelve. One contemporary observer reported that Benjamin “has been as kind as a father” to them and that “the tender care bestowed upon these four orphan children cannot be too highly commended.”[15]

In his final will, Benjamin left seven of his nieces and nephews a relatively modest, though far from inconsequential, portion of his estate. They received bequests ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 (approximately $2.25 to $4.5 million in 2010). The latter legacy, a sum that was augmented by Altman’s personal household goods, including furniture, china, silver, and jewelry, was left to his favored niece Lulu Fleishman Heymann, the daughter of his sister Sophia. At the time of Benjamin’s death, Lulu lived on West Ninety-Second Street in Manhattan and was present at Altman’s bedside when he passed away; probably indicating that she was the relative with whom he had retained the closest ties in his later years.[16]

Business Development

Benjamin Altman was part of a rising group of New York City entrepreneurs who clearly understood the value of making their stores attractive venues that would appeal to a wide variety of consumers, particularly female shoppers. Indeed, fashionable female clothing became a symbol of the middle and upper-class urban lifestyle during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although Altman had little formal schooling, he was an astute and innovative businessman with an eye for fashion and soon joined the ranks of the city’s business elite. Little is known about his father, but we can assume that like so many other German-Jewish immigrants, the senior Altman had acquired a legacy of hard work and literacy back in Bavaria and was attracted to America by the opportunity to escape restrictions placed on Jews in his homeland. To paraphrase one modern writer, some despotic Bavarian rulers had perhaps made more merchants than the Harvard School of Business.[17] B. Altman & Company’s evolution from a small family business into a large firm reflects the general pattern of German-Jewish business development in America, which was heavily influenced by chain migration, kinship, and ethnic networks. One important sociological case study of 136 early Jewish-American entrepreneurs found that ninety percent of the businesspeople examined had foreign-born fathers. In addition, family entrepreneurship in the United States was significantly higher among German Jews when compared with Eastern European Jews and non-Jewish entrepreneurs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[18]

Altman grew up working in his father’s store, and also spent a brief period of time working in a general store in Clarksville, Virginia.[19] Benjamin received much of his early retail training working at Hart & Dettlebach, a pioneer department store in Newark, New Jersey where he worked alongside two other future Jewish merchant princes, Abraham Abraham of Abraham & Straus and Lyman G. Bloomingdale of Bloomingdale’s department store. Their salary is said to have been one dollar a week (approximately twenty-six dollars in 2010).[20] All three men were born within a year of each other and all three left school as teenagers to work in retail establishments. Like Altman, Abraham and Bloomingdale were sons of Bavarian-Jewish immigrants. The owners of Hart & Dettlebach, Morris Hart and Cyrus Dettlebach were both immigrants from the Kingdom of Württemberg, which shared a border with the Kingdom of Bavaria.[21] Altman’s association with these men highlights the robust German-Jewish personal business networks of the era.

New York City provided many opportunities for an ambitious German-Jewish businessman in the post-Civil War era due to its expanding population and growing wealth. American society during the period encouraged entrepreneurship and the city’s middle and upper-class residents provided a reliable customer base that supported Benjamin Altman’s retail activities.[22] From a young age, Benjamin appears to have acquired a sophisticated grasp of business principles and strategies. He also possessed insights into the minds of consumers. For decades he was a trend-setter in women’s fashions. By 1872, Benjamin and Morris had closed their earlier location on the Lower East Side and had begun to concentrate on their store in what they perceived would become a new trendy shopping district on Sixth Avenue. The brothers appear to have worked well together, but Benjamin seems to have been the primary force behind the large and “unpretentious” new store located between Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Streets.[23] This is evident in an advertisement from the spring of 1872, which publicized “improvements and alterations” to the newly renovated store and read “B. Altman & Co., formerly Altman Bro & Co.”[24]

Before long the brothers completed plans for a more impressive store farther up Sixth Avenue. After Morris’s untimely death in 1876, Benjamin became the sole proprietor of the enterprise.[25] In April of 1877, the new B. Altman & Company store opened in spacious quarters on Sixth Avenue. The four-story (later six-story) gray, cast-iron, neo-Greco style building, dubbed the “Palace of Trade,” was remodeled several times over the next thirty years, reflecting the ongoing transformation of the company into one of New York City’s leading shopping emporiums. Altman made it a point to outdo his competitors in style and elegance, and the store featured an impressive central court, a glass-domed rotunda, mahogany woodwork, and carpeted elevators.[26] The store was located in the “Ladies Mile” (also known as “Fashion Row”) shopping district, an area designed to draw middle and upper-class female consumers who had sufficient leisure time and funds for frequent buying excursions. The New York Times welcomed the new establishment just a few days after its opening, noting that Altman promised to “keep the old standard, while making prices lower than ever.” Early in his business career Altman had realized that “bargain” prices brought in more shoppers, resulting in a higher turnover of merchandise and greater profits. The Times article also stressed the beauty and elegance of the merchandise, praising in particular an elaborate bridal gown, with “showy” details and trims.[27]

Altman was the first retailer to open a department store in the “Fashion Row” district that featured designated areas for displaying clothing for customers of all ages, as well as a diverse variety of household items at fixed prices. His example was later mimicked by other notable establishments such as the gigantic Siegel-Cooper Department Store, which opened in direct competition to B. Altman & Company. Altman’s store remained on Sixth Avenue for over thirty years. A company history maintained that its “elegant appointments, its atmosphere of refinement, appealed to the most exclusive members of society, not only of its own city, but far afield; while the superiority of its varied merchandise became a household word in the world of fashion.”[28] In 1904, the New York Evening Sun described Altman’s Sixth Avenue establishment as “one of the greatest stores in the world… a Bon Marche of the New World.”[29] Many observers at the time viewed Paris’ Bon Marche, likely the world’s first department store, as the standard by which all other department stores should be judged. The Evening Sun’s favorable comparison of the two stores reflected positively on Altman’s standing in the New York retail community.

B. Altman & Company’s reputation for excellent service, reliability, and the latest in fashion, which included luxurious silks, velvets, and satins, many imported from France, made the store a favored shopping stop for affluent New Yorkers. Delivery of goods was often made in shiny, maroon, horse-drawn wagons or carriages driven by uniformed men. Altman may have kept as many as 500 horses in the stables next to his store in order to provide home delivery services for his many wealthy patrons. He also rented stables in the upper-class New York resorts of Saratoga Springs and the Hamptons so he could provide efficient delivery services to customers on vacation.[30]

Altman’s consumer base continued to grow during the late-nineteenth century, and he reinvested his profits as the business prospered. Soon Benjamin was looking for an even larger and better situated site for his store. As early as 1895, Altman recognized the business potential of the area along Fifth Avenue near Thirty-Fourth Street in Manhattan, and over the next decade he secretly purchased property there, including a commercial building at the northeast corner of Thirty-Fourth Street. It took some time for Altman to acquire several small holdout properties abutting his store on the Thirty-Fourth Street side. One was a brownstone house which was occupied by an art firm and the others were two private homes and their adjacent stables. It is said Altman paid around $800,000 (approximately $21.4 million in 2010) to owner Margaret Howard for one of the properties and about $1,250,000 (approximately $33.5million in 2010) to the Union Trust for the other parcel of land. These properties all had originally belonged to the estate of a famed German-American society family from a previous generation, the Astors.[31]

The relocation of B. Altman & Company uptown to its fashionable lower Fifth Avenue site brought the department store concept, with its emphasis on a diverse assortment of merchandise for the home and the individual located in separate areas but under one roof, to its apex. Altman’s success at the new location encouraged other large retail fashion enterprises such as Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor to follow Altman uptown. As one commentator put it, Altman undertook “a prophetic breach,” when he moved to the then exclusively residential neighborhood.[32] Another writer observed that Altman’s store “was a major catalyst for the transformation of Fifth Avenue into a boulevard lined with magnificent stores.”[33] The area was attractive to businesses because shoppers had convenient access to the El, the elevated rail line that ran along nearby Sixth Avenue. It became even more desirable after plans were unveiled in 1902 for a new Pennsylvania Station at Thirty-Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue and in 1903 for a remodeled Grand Central Terminal at Forty-Second Street and Park Avenue. The New York Times called the new site of B. Altman & Company “an ideal one from the viewpoint of the shopping public.”[34]

In September of 1906, after nearly a year of construction, work was completed on Altman’s flagship, eight-story department store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street. The landmark store was deluged with thousands of customers when it formally opened on October 15, 1906, and the next day the New York Times observed “from morning until evening there were streams of vehicles coming and leaving the three entrances… The store adds materially to the beauty of Fifth Avenue.”[35] Goodhue Livingston of the architectural firm of Trowbridge and Livingston, well known for its work on New York’s St. Regis Hotel and later the Hayden Planetarium, designed the Italian Renaissance-style Altman Building. The building design reflected the popularity of Beaux Arts style in New York City during the era. The neighborhood at the time was still home to many of New York’s social elite, and the architectural style of the elegant B. Altman & Company edifice was designed to blend in with the impressive residential structures that surrounded it and which gave the neighborhood its exclusive character. To this end, the name of the store was consciously omitted from the outside of the building. This fourth home of Altman’s was formally incorporated in 1909. In 1913, the twelve-story addition on Madison Avenue was erected, adding fifty per cent more floor space, but Altman died before its completion. With that addition, Altman’s occupied an entire city block between Madison and Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Fifth Streets.

The ornate but stately Altman’s building included imported French limestone and reflected modern building design at the time. “Within this immense building every modern improvement known to architectural and engineering science is in active operation,” gushed the author of a publicity booklet. “It is technically perfect as to light, heat, ventilation and distribution of floor space.” Brightly lit, spacious and airy display areas attracted contemporary shoppers, for whom shopping had become a form of entertainment instead of simply a necessity. A generator in the power plant in the basement supplied all the electricity needed for the building’s lighting, sewing machines, and elevators. Certainly the stores’ fashionable clientele enjoyed the luxurious surroundings and personalized customer attention provided by salespeople trained to cater to their whims. For example, women shoppers were able to view imported gowns in a Parisian-style display room, and the young men’s department displayed “everything that is smart in apparel for the modern young man, for street, sports, or dress wear.”[36] Altman’s goal was no less than “a store in which shopping was to become a pleasure instead of a task; a store in which the patron’s needs were not merely to be supplied, but anticipated; a store in which the personal comfort, not of patrons only, but of employees also, was to receive the most thoughtful consideration.”[37]

Altman’s new Fifth Avenue store embodied his retailing aesthetic in its design. New York City stores had first begun using large plate glass windows to display merchandise to passers-by beginning in the 1850s. Altman utilized them in his Fashion Row location in the 1870s. In his new store, spacious display windows at the store’s corners and on the ground floor reflected Altman’s appreciation for great European art and design. The large storefront windows at street level included sculptures and ceramic decorative items along with clothing that appealed to the customers’ aesthetic sensibilities. The building featured a central rotunda which afforded an enticing view of the upper floors from the main floor. In the earlier years, the more affluent shoppers arriving by carriage or motor car could be dropped off under a marquise extending from the front door to the curb, providing shelter as they entered the main vestibule. Those who had finished their shopping could wait in comfort for their uniformed chauffeurs or carriage drivers in an enclosed portico to protect them from the elements in inclement weather.[38]

Altman personally supervised nearly every single business detail and transaction in his company during his years as owner. Publicly, B. Altman & Company publicity literature claimed that “as an organizer, [Altman] had no superior.” He was known as an extremely precise man, who scheduled appointments to the exact minute. Altman had been long recognized for his artistic sensibilities, and the brochure noted his “fine artistic taste and infallible sense of values,” which made his establishment, with its “elegant appointments… its atmosphere of refinement… and superiority of its varied merchandise” appealing to even the most “elusive members of society.” In the imposing Fifth Avenue location Altman used electricity and elevators to augment “gracefully proportioned stairways” and enhance customers’ shopping experiences. From women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing, lingerie and maids’ uniforms, to decorative home items, including linens, fine lace, oriental rugs, and even art objects, virtually everything was available under one roof at Altman’s store.[39] By 1913, Altman’s even featured a large Camera Department, “liberally stocked with Kodaks of every type.” B. Altman & Company representatives regularly combed the Far East to locate antiques and the best in modern merchandise, often offering fine rugs at their famous annual Oriental Rugs sale for substantial savings over other vendors.[40]

A souvenir publicity booklet issued by B. Altman & Company in 1914 offers insights about Benjamin Altman’s business philosophy during this era. His goal was to “render shopping as agreeable as possible by reducing to a minimum the labor and fatigue involved.”[41] In this respect, Altman was consciously catering to modern middle and upper-class consumers, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, who were influenced by the material abundance of America. They welcomed not only a wide selection of merchandise but convenience and luxury as well. The years between 1850 and 1890 witnessed the rise of mass-marketed products and widespread consumption in America. By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, urban Americans were demanding “more refined merchandise,” and Altman’s increasingly offered shoppers a greater variety of goods displayed against refined, often luxurious backdrops.[42]

Altman was a path-breaking innovator in the retail sector, always seeking ways to attract a broad clientele to his store. Arthur Brisbane, who served as editor of the New York Post during Altman’s tenure as proprietor of B. Altman & Company observed he was “a man who was never satisfied with products as he found them, he always strove to have them made better.”[43] His shopping emporium was known for its style and elegance. Not only did Altman’s store feature ready-to-wear-clothing, which became popular after the Civil War, it also sold custom men’s shirts and high quality fabrics for custom-made dresses for wealthier, more affluent female patrons. Wealthy female shoppers could even place custom orders in the store with a team of skilled seamstresses. The retail salon provided a luxurious backdrop “which every woman of taste and breeding appreciates.” Altman’s store was said to have the most extensive retail fur department in America. It also developed a respected and lucrative interior decoration department.

Additionally, Benjamin Altman introduced catalog mail order delivery to his expanding base of loyal, affluent clients.[44] The mail order service made shopping even more convenient for Altman’s customers, especially for those who lived out of town or at a distance from the store. Beginning in 1886, B. Altman & Company began issuing extensive and lavishly illustrated seasonal trade catalogs that allowed customers to choose from hundreds of items in the store’s inventory, including apparel and home furnishings.[45] Benjamin Altman also recognized before most other retailers that sewing machines could be used to enhance customer service.[46] In his Fifth Avenue store, the most up-to-date sewing machines were used for both custom tailoring and repair of damaged garments, bringing even more convenience to shoppers.

Unlike his successful German-Jewish competitors, the Straus family, who became the sole owners of Macy’s in 1887 and had a cash and carry policy, Benjamin Altman extended credit to his more genteel clientele.[47] It is said that during the Panic of 1907, Altman allowed some of his customers to draw cash against their accounts to help tide them over.[48] Although Altman did not operate sales on a strictly cash and carry basis, he insisted as a matter of business policy on paying “cash for every bill of goods he purchased,” which established “a reputation for reliability which has never been assailed because it is unassailable.”[49]

Consumers at the time wanted to be assured that they could depend on the merchandise they purchased to be authentic. In its advertising, Altman’s emphasized that its merchandise was both of the highest quality and affordable. Altman relied on buying directly from manufactures to eliminate the expense of the middleman, reportedly enabling him to pass onto his customers “the benefit of the saving, and to offer their goods at prices that are frequently far below the actual market values.”[50]

As an astute businessman, Altman understood the value of loyal and satisfied employees. Although he may have run his company with a very firm hand (even B. Altman & Company’s highly laudatory publicity materials made reference to Altman’s “dominating personality”), he appears to have been a benevolent despot where his workers were concerned.[51] Altman can even be considered forward-thinking regarding employee welfare, perhaps influenced by the Progressive Era emphasis on social reform, as well as German traditions of paternalism. The German cultural influence may have led him to view his employees as part of an extended family, which he shepherded as a father figure. A brief notice about Altman’s death in the American Hebrew, a weekly Jewish newspaper published in New York City, referred to his “plans for the improvement of the condition of his employees. In this respect, the establishment of which he was president was highly regarded by industrial reformers.” The newspaper also praised Altman for dispensing “charity and philanthropy in an exemplary modest fashion.”[52] One example was his generous support of the National Urban League, created in New York in 1910 to better the working lives and living conditions of African Americans.[53]

Operating from both a philanthropic impulse and the premise that contented workers made the best employees, Altman established a foundation for employee welfare and provided medical care and other benefits to his staff. His actions were part of a broader corporate trend toward welfare capitalism that had originated in America in the late 1880s, and which “attempted to shield workers from the strain of industrialism” in order to discourage organized discontent through such venues as unions. Like many other successful heads of large businesses, Altman amassed a great fortune, and he likely viewed his welfare activities as a means of sharing his wealth and “discharging the moral obligations it imposed.”[54] His Fifth Avenue department store was the first large scale retail establishment in the area to offer low cost, subsidized meals to employees in their own cafeteria and provide employees with their own restrooms. The store also closed on Saturdays during the summer months and operated under shortened business hours compared to other leading New York retail stores (where the normal work week was over sixty hours per week) during the rest of the year.[55] The medical department featured seven beds and employed a doctor and two nurses to minister to the needs of employees, as well as customers, on an emergency basis. A classroom for younger employees, which offered training in reading, writing, and arithmetic, was an unusual business amenity that Altman introduced.[56]

Altman even made provisions in his will for a donation of $50,000 (approximately $1.1 million in 2010) to the Altman’s Employee Benevolent Association and generous bequests of $2,500 to all employees who had worked in the store for twenty years; $1,500 to those who had worked for eighteen years; and $1,000 to those who had been with the company for fifteen years (approximately $57,000, $34, 000, and $23,000 respectively in 2010). In addition, he left $5,000 (approximately $115,000 in 2010) each to nine especially loyal longtime Altman staff members; $10,000 each to his personal secretaries; $5,000 to his housekeeper; and more modest legacies to his coachman and others who had been employed in his Fifth Avenue home. In total, more than a million dollars was distributed to 400 employees.[57] The fact that so many of his workers remained in his employment for so many years indicates that Altman likely paid fair wages and maintained a good relationship with them.

To ensure his philanthropy would continue after his death, Altman formally incorporated the Altman Foundation in February 1913 under a special act of the New York State Legislature. Its initial purpose was, in large part, to “promote the social, physical, and economic welfare, of the employees of B. Altman & Company.” In addition, it provided funding for charitable and educational institutions. The original charter specifically directed that it be “for the benefit of such charitable and educational institutions in the City of New York as said directors shall approve.” [58] For over seventy years the foundation utilized the profits of B. Altman & Company for charitable purposes as Altman’s stock holdings in his firm, originally valued at about thirty million dollars (approximately $680 million in 2010), were left entirely to the charitable trust.[59]

In his will, Altman also donated his impressive art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, it was the largest gift in terms of value and scope that the museum had ever received. In addition to his gift of rare art to the Metropolitan Museum, Benjamin made generous bequests to local hospitals, including the Jewish Mt. Sinai Hospital and the German Hospital, the National Academy of Design, and the Educational Alliance.[60]

Like so many other successful German-Jewish entrepreneurs, Altman’s charitable endeavors may have reflected a desire to confirm his identity as a loyal, productive American citizen and demonstrate his commitment to American ideals and values. German Jews throughout the United States during this era believed that philanthropy and charity were two ways that Jews in American society could express civic responsibility. Members of a rising middle class who hoped to enlarge and enhance their position in American society, German Jews felt they could not help but gain “by chalking up an impressive record in philanthropy.”[61] A lifelong bachelor, Altman did not sire a business dynasty like so many other German-Jewish entrepreneurs, but he left legacies totaling nearly three quarters of a million dollars (approximately seventeen million dollars in 2010) to three nephews and four nieces.[62]

Altman’s strong personality and business philosophy, which emphasized customer satisfaction, quality merchandise, and efficient organization, was clearly imprinted on his department store in all its iterations. In his eulogy, Dr. Bernard Sachs, Altman’s physician and confidant, recalled, “In business relations he was the exacting general whose commands must necessarily be obeyed,” but at the same time beneath the “stern exterior,” there existed great kindness and sensitivity.[63] In his will, Altman directed that his company continue on the “principles and plan upon which I directed the same during my lifetime,” as well as the “name, style, manner, and system.” He also expressed the wish that his friend and cousin Colonel Michael Friedsam, who had served as Altman’s right hand since the 1870s, be named president of B. Altman & Company and be accorded an “important voice” in the affairs of the corporation. The board acquiesced to Altman’s desire. Friedsam also became president of the Altman Foundation. Altman left his personal library to Friedsam, who served as one of the four executors of the Altman estate.[64] By all accounts, Friedsam ran the company with great efficiency and flair, carried out Altman’s ideals, and continued to build the enterprise’s reputation.[65]

The department store chain that Benjamin Altman founded became, after his death, one of the first American stores to open out-of-town branches. Following the success of other chain stores like the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P), the enterprise eventually grew to seven stores located in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. B. Altman & Company flourished for decades after Altman’s death, but was ultimately unable to compete with the rise of shopping malls and discount stores in the second half of the twentieth century. After several acquisitions, the chain closed in 1989, and the flagship Altman’s store on Fifth Avenue was converted into a mixed-use, public-private facility. Today it is occupied by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the New York Public Library, Science, Industry, and Business Library, and the Oxford University Press.

Social Status and Personality

Benjamin Altman inherited a robust work ethic which emphasized honest business dealings and hard work from his German-born Jewish family. According to an early store publication, Altman was “an upright, honest merchant who could make fair dealing and impeccable reliability the watchwords of his life.”[66] He appears to have been involved in only a few minor legal disputes during his life, most arising out of uncollected payments from customers or breach-of-contact issues. In 1898, when Altman and the Otis Company were sued for damages in the accidental death of an Otis employee who was working on the extension of Altman’s Sixth Avenue building, only the Otis Company was found liable.[67]

In his private life, Altman appears to have been a rather solitary man, wedded to his business and art. Altman remained a lifelong bachelor and indeed seems to have been somewhat of a social recluse, perhaps “the most retiring man in New York,” spending most of his free time in the privacy of his luxurious home surrounded by his fine art collection.[68] Although one writer characterized him as a “silent, strange man,” a close friend observed Altman “knew how to be intimate, cordial, and amiable, always putting the real man to the fore instead of the owner of millions.”[69] Despite his reputation as a “king” among merchants and his famous art collection, Bernard Sachs, Altman’s personal physician for many years and one of the executors of his estate, maintained after Altman’s death in 1913 that his patient had belonged to no social clubs and avoided social gatherings. Sachs observed that “although Mr. Altman’s name was well known through his business and art purchases, I doubt if there were 100 persons in this city who knew him by sight.”[70] Yet, when Altman died scores of friends, business associates, and employees visited his bier to pay last respects.[71]

The New York Times echoed Sachs’ view, observing that “Mr. Altman was a man of two great enthusiasms, his business and his art collection… to these he devoted himself with passionate affection.”[72] In his first large home at Madison Avenue and Twenty-Fourth Street, Altman established an art library and displayed his growing collections. Altman moved to his 626 Fifth Avenue home (leased from Columbia University) in 1905 and lived there the final eight years of his life. Despite ill health and heavy business responsibilities, the bulk of his art collection was acquired during this period. Altman was an avid collector of European paintings, Chinese porcelain, glass, and silk Persian rugs, and according to one writer was, along with the Strauses of Macy’s fame, the only Jewish department store owner who “had the wealth and the conservative taste to compete even occasionally with the Mellons and Morgans in collecting works of art by the great masters.”[73] Altman’s remarkable collection of paintings was mounted in a straight line over the many glass cases that housed his porcelain and glass collections within two enormous galleries in the mansion.

Altman began collecting art in 1882, when he purchased a fine pair of Chinese enamel vases that reportedly cost only thirty-five dollars (approximately $770 in 2010).[74] However, according to the New York Times, by the time of his death Altman’s estimated fifteen million dollar (approximately 340 million in 2010) art collection comprised “one of the finest private collections of paintings and porcelain in existence.”[75] Altman acquired most of his collection through the services of prominent art dealer Joseph Duveen. He made an almost weekly habit of visiting with Duveen at his art gallery on Saturday evenings after the close of business, and Altman helped Duveen relocate his business to 302 Fifth Avenue around the turn of the century. Altman eventually bequeathed all of his thirteen Rembrandts and paintings by other renowned artists such as Holbein, Botticelli, Hals, Velazquez, van Dyck, and Giorgione, a total of seventy-five old masters, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also left a monetary legacy of $100,000 (approximately $2.3 million in 2010) to the National Academy of Design to support American artists. In addition, the Metropolitan received his rare collection of ivories, jades, carved crystal vessels, sculptures, Renaissance tapestries, and silk Persian and Indian rugs. Altogether he left around 1,000 items to the museum. [76] A few days after Altman’s death, the director of the Metropolitan called Altman’s magnanimous art bequest: “The most splendid gift any citizen has ever made to the people of the city of New York.”[77]

In 1914, the Metropolitan published an illustrated catalog titled The Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection that included over 150 pages of information about the artworks. Altman’s collection was described: “Whether from a pecuniary or an educational standpoint… the greatest gift ever made by an individual to the Museum, notable alike for the wide range of interest it embraces and the uniformly high quality of its contents in whatever branch of art they represent… It was Mr. Altman’s ambition to leave to the people of [New York] with which his success in life had been identified, for their perpetual use and enjoyment, a collection of works of art of the highest possible standard.” Altman relied on experts like Duveen for advice in purchasing his art works, but never bought anything that didn’t appeal to him personally, no matter the piece’s reputation. He shied away from publicity about the collection and never discussed what he had paid for works, but many of the works were considered priceless treasures. Some thought that Altman paid one million dollars (approximately $25-$28 million in 2010) for two important portraits by Velasquez and a similar amount for four of his later Rembrandts, a very considerable sum at the time.[78]

Benjamin Altman’s daily life revolved around his business activities and he interrupted his routine on only three occasions: once on a year-long tour of the world in 1888-1889 when he was in his late forties, a short stay in Paris the following year in 1890, and a vacation and art buying spree in Europe in 1909.[79] The serious-minded Altman recorded the specific details of that trip in an 1100-page diary. Despite its length, the diary was reportedly a rather dry and mundane account of his trip that did not reflect any inner personal thoughts or feelings he might have experienced during his travels.[80] Altman’s nephew, Benjamin Fleishman, a French valet named Baptiste, and Michael Friedsam, also an avid art collector, joined Altman on this excursion. Altman returned to New York in September of 1909 aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II and was reportedly met by local newspaper reporters to whom he revealed his intention to loan some of his paintings to the Metropolitan for a major exhibit on Dutch art in conjunction with the city’s Hudson-Fulton Celebration, commemorating the discovery of the Hudson River. This event hinted at his decision to donate his art collection to the museum upon his death, for in June he had already committed the bequest in his will.[81]

Altman’s mansion housed an extensive art library, and he maintained a steady stream of correspondence with collectors and dealers around the world. Altman developed friendships with many of them. He was especially delighted with a catalog that documented J.P. Morgan’s art collection. Altman valued his association with the prominent financier and art collector and was especially pleased that Morgan had personally autographed the volume and inscribed it “To my friend, Benjamin Altman.” One noted art expert even rated Altman’s Ming porcelain as superior to Morgan’s. Despite his reticent personality, Altman loved to show off his collection to visitors, which included such notables as one of the sons and daughters-in-law of Queen Victoria, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, and their daughter Princess Patricia.[82] His actions perhaps indicate that Altman was proud of his financial and social success and that he believed that in America even the son of poor immigrants could socialize with American industrial magnates and European nobility.

In his later years, Altman suffered from kidney and heart disease, and rarely left his home to visit his Fifth Avenue store. However, he had full confidence in his protégé and business partner Michael Friedsam, and Altman kept a careful eye on the bustling department store from afar. He employed three full time secretaries who worked in the mansion assisting him with his correspondence, updating his art and library catalog, and overseeing his art collection.[83] During the final year of his life, Altman’s health deteriorated seriously, especially after a brief vacation in September of 1913. In the last month of his life he was confined to his house, but he still managed to direct his business affairs. His two personal physicians, Dr. Sachs and Dr. J. Kaufman, lived in his neighborhood and visited regularly, and Sachs noted that the day before Altman died was the “first time [Benjamin] had actually taken to his bed.” Altman’s relatives at the time consisted of only the children of his deceased siblings, who he had helped raise, and their offspring. Mrs. Charles (Lulu) J. Heymann was with him when he died on October 7, 1913.[84]

Benjamin Altman was born into a Jewish family, identified as a Jew, and had formal involvement with the wider New York City Jewish community. When Altman died, New York banker and Jewish leader Jacob Schiff chided Oswald Villard, publisher of the Evening Post, for not calling attention to the late civic philanthropist’s Jewish roots. Villard replied it was unnecessary as “Everybody knows that he was a Jew.”[85] Altman was a member of the city’s elite German-Jewish “Our Crowd” and the prestigious Reform Jewish synagogue Temple Emanuel-El, which was founded in 1845 on the Lower East Side by upwardly mobile immigrants. In 1868 the synagogue relocated uptown to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, reflecting the increasing prosperity of the congregation’s German-Jewish members. The membership of Temple Emanuel-El at the time included other prominent descendants of German Jews such as Adolph Ochs, owner of the New York Times, and leading attorney and Jewish communal leader Oscar Straus, whose brothers were the co-owners of Macy’s.[86]

Altman’s funeral service was held at Temple Emanuel- El on October 10, 1913. In his eulogy, Rabbi Joseph Silverman, the officiating rabbi at the synagogue, observed that “whatever [Altman] did he did well. Call him the Prince of Merchants; call him a Prince among art collectors; but let me, who knew him well, call him a “Prince among men!”[87] Altman was buried in an impressive sarcophagus at Salem Fields Jewish Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. He left the considerable sum of $50,000 (approximately $1.1 million in 2010) in his will for the care and restoration of a family plot and for “suitable” monuments to be erected over his grave and those of the graves of his parents and other close relatives.[88] Members of many prominent early German-Jewish families were interred at Salem Fields, including mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim and leading American financier Felix M. Warburg. B. Altman & Company closed for several days after the passing of its owner to honor his memory.

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

Although mid-nineteenth-century residents of many German-speaking lands were affected by the political upheavals and economic dislocations that came with modernization, Jews were subject to special discriminatory legislation. In Bavaria, limitations were even placed on the right to marry and settle through the Matrikel regulations, although in some ways Bavaria exhibited one of the more modest levels of discrimination against Jews in continental Europe at the time. Still, economic conditions were the primary factor in German-Jewish migration. As much as fifty percent of the Jewish community in Germany at the time lived in dire poverty.[89] The loss of traditional occupations and anti-Semitic restrictions on entering trades and professions made immigration to America with its rapidly growing economy especially attractive for those from small towns and villages in rural southern Germany. Information about the “golden” opportunities available in America spread quickly, and many German-Jewish immigrants emigrated through chain migration, following friends and relatives to the New World. A large number settled in New York City, but many German Jews fanned out across the United States, beginning as peddlers and often becoming small shopkeepers. Once in America, they often assisted one another in settling, finding jobs, and even mates.[90] Though they had great antipathy for the German governing nobility and the often anti-Semitic aristocracy, most German-Jewish immigrants shared an appreciation of German culture, particularly music and literature, with non-Jewish German immigrants. Indeed, German culture was widely lauded in America at the time. The rate of return migration for German Jews compared to their gentile counterparts was understandably quite low, and it was “in the retail trades that a disproportionate number of German Jews found their economic niche in America.”[91] Benjamin Altman reflects that entrepreneurship pattern, although relatively few German-Jewish immigrants and their descendants attained his spectacular level of success.

German-Jewish entrepreneurship in America was enhanced by the close commercial and social networks that members of this group developed. The fact that Benjamin Altman clerked in a German-Jewish firm with the sons of other German-Jewish immigrants, attended New York City’s major German reform synagogue, participated in Jewish communal events, and developed friendships with other members of New York City’s German-Jewish elite demonstrates his frequent interactions based on common interests and backgrounds as well as shared religious faith. Moreover, the cultural and ethnic inheritance of German-Jewish immigrants and their descendants instilled in them the necessity of accumulating capital as the source for future income through business ventures.[92] This was certainly the path which Altman followed from a young age, reinvesting his profits in order to expand his retail business.

The new German-Jewish immigrants and their children remained proud of their German-Jewish heritage and maintained ethnic and religious links to Europe, but at the same time they worked toward acculturation and Americanization in their new homeland. In the 1890s, Altman served as an honorary vice-president of the local German-American association, where he supported the removal of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall government. In 1895, he served on the organizing and reception committee of a major Hebrew Fair held at Madison Square Garden to raise money for Jewish charities.[93]

Altman’s bequests to Mt. Sinai Hospital and the German Hospital indicated his enduring ties to both his Jewish and German roots, but his longtime position as a member of the New York City Chamber of Commerce and his major gift of art to the Metropolitan signaled his appreciation for civic responsibility and his primary identification as an American. By 1880, America’s Jewish population grew to 250,000, but over the next several decades it was augmented by a massive wave of immigration of well over two million Eastern European Jews. It is noteworthy that Altman left a bequest of $50,000 (approximately $1.1 million in 2010) to the New York Educational Alliance, of which he had been a longtime board member and which was founded in the late 1880s as a settlement house primarily to help educate and Americanize the new Russian-Jewish immigrants. The gift indicated that like so many established German Jews, Altman felt a keen responsibility toward his co-religionists but desired that they speedily shed their “Old World” customs to become what he considered to be full Americans.[94]


As one cultural historian has observed: “The history of the American department store was inextricably bound up with the history of America’s Jews, many of them German Jewish immigrants or their children.”[95] Many of those German immigrants transitioned in a remarkably short time, in most cases within one generation, from peddling to operating modest dry-goods stores. A select few including Benjamin Altman, the Straus family, the Gimbels, and the Goodman families even became members of an entrepreneurial merchandizing elite who operated grand and wildly successful department stores.[96]

Altman was a key figure in the elite German-Jewish commercial community that emerged in the United States in the second-half of the nineteenth century and included both merchant princes and financiers. Such a network was unusual, if not unique, among the various immigrant groups of the day. The success of these German Jews can be attributed, in part, to merchandising skills already evident back in Germany, the openness of the American economy after the Civil War, and ethnic and religious bonds that included shared cultural values, backgrounds, and ties of friendship and often kinship. Although the degree of anti-Semitism in America at the time was far milder than in Europe, it did often encourage German Jews to rely on social and economic networks of support from their co-religionists.[97]

Benjamin Altman left an enduring legacy in American retailing, as well as generous and ongoing gifts of millions of dollars to numerous New York charitable and cultural undertakings via the Altman Foundation. He was undoubtedly influenced by Jewish traditional charity imperatives, as well as examples set by other philanthropic Gilded Age business magnates such as Andrew Carnegie.[98] Most importantly, Altman helped make the department store, which had originated in Europe, an American institution through his innovative business practices and his innate skills as a taste-maker and trend-setter in fashion and home décor.[99]


[1] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1, 3. The first estimate in the obituary was $45 million, but was corrected upward to $50 million in “Altman Fortune to Charity Trust Art to the City,” New York Times, October 15, 1913, 1. This was only one of the subsequent articles about Altman’s fortune and business legacy that made the front pages of the New York Times for days after his death. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[2] See Andrew Godley, author of Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London 1880-1940 (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 3. Economic historian Godley has speculated about the important influence of cultural background on business success, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and maintains that “culture matters in economics.” Although his study focuses on eastern European Jews, many of the themes have relevance for the German-Jewish migration as well.

[3] Jason Maoz, “Retail Kings,” The Jewish Press, January 25, 2006: 1.

[4] For a highly informative case study of Jewish migration to America, see Stefan Rohrbacher, “From Wurttemberg to America: A Nineteenth-Century German-Jewish Village on Its Way to the New World,” in The American Jewish Experience, ed. Jonathan D. Sarna (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1997), 44-58. See also, Avraham Barkai, Branching Out: German Jewish Immigration to the United States (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994).

[5] Robert Hendrickson, The Grand Emporiums (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), 159. By 1862, the Altmans had moved to 258 Delancy Street according to the New York City Directory, 1862.

[6] Henry Hall, America’s Successful Men of Affairs, Vol. 1 (New York: New York Tribune, 1895), 16. See also Obituary for Morris Altman, New York Times (July 14, 1876), 4.

[7] Philip J. Reilly, Old Masters of Retailing (New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 1966), 13. Altman’s 39 Third Avenue store is first listed in the New York City Directory in 1866. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[8] Nan Tillson Birmingham, Store, 223.

[9] B. Altman & Company, B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store (New York: Bartlett-Orr Press, 1914), 10.

[10] New York City Directories, 1869 – 1877.

[11] New York Times, February 5, 1871: 7.

[12] New York Times, April 8, 1931: 16. I am grateful to Leo Hoenig, a Friedsam descendant, for sharing his valuable family genealogical research with me.

[13] 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[14] For a very fine and detailed essay about Fleishman and his connection to the Altmans, see Daniel R. Weinfeld, “Samuel Fleishman: Tragedy in Reconstruction – Era Florida,” Southern Jewish History 8 (2005): 32-75. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[15] Hall, America’s Successful Men of Affairs, 16.

[16] New York Times, October 15, 1913: 2. See also copy of Last Will and Testament and Codicil of Benjamin Altman, May 2, 1912; codicil dated June 12, 1913. Three of Sophia’s children are not mentioned in the will, indicating perhaps that Altman was estranged from them or they had predeceased him.

[17] Leon A. Harris, Merchant Princes: An Intimate History of Jewish Families Who Built Great Department Stores (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), xv.

[18] Bernard Sarachek, “Jewish American Entrepreneurs,”The Journal of Economic History 40 (June 1980): 359, 363, 366-373.

[19] The New York Community Trust, “Benjamin Altman, 1840-1913,” (New York: The New York Community Trust, 2000), 1. Altman may have had family or friends in Clarksville and the work helped expand his retailing experience.

[20] 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[21] Philip J. Reilly, Old Masters of Retailing, 13. In Tom Mahoney and Leonard Sloane, The Great Merchants (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 110, the authors maintain (very probably in error) that the three young men were employed by the small firm of Bettlebeck & Company rather than Hart & Dettlebach. Morris Hart was born in Aldingen and Cyrus Dettlebach hailed from Jebenhausen.

[22] See Andrew Godley, Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London, particularly Chapter 4.

[23] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10.

[24] New York Times, March 31, 1872: 6 and Hendrickson, 161. Hendrickson suggests that Morris may have actually left the joint business in 1872.

[25] Hendrickson, 161. Benjamin may have bought out another early partner in the enterprise, David Frankenberg, in 1886.

[26] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10.

[27] The New York Times, April 18, 1877: 8.

[28] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10.

[29] As quoted in the New York Times, December 11, 1904: 8. Around 1850 in New York City, Alexander Turney Stewart established the “Marble Palace” in New York, which was probably the city’s first nascent department store.

[30] Jason Maoz, “Kings of Retail,” 2; Gerald R. Wolfe,New York: 15 Walking Tours, An Architectural Guide to the Metropolis, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 231-232.

[31] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 3. See also, “B. Altman & Company Department Store Building,” New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 12, 1985. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[32] Norval White and Elliot Williensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 227.

[33] Matthew A. Postal, ed., Guide to New York City Landmarks (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2009), 97.

[34] New York Times, December 11, 1904: 8.

[35] New York Times, October 16, 1906: 6.

[36] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 15, 24, 40.

[37] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 13.

[38] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 15.

[39] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10, 22, 45.

[40] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 21.

[41] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 16.

[42] Andrew R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance, Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 180-184.

[43] As quoted in Philip J. Reilly, Old Masters of Retailing, 14.

[44] In 1888, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis initiated the popular Sears & Roebuck Home Delivery Catalog, initially only offering watches and then later expanding their stock to include home furnishings and clothing over the ensuing years. However the company focused primarily on providing goods to rural customers in remote areas.

[45] B. Altman & Company Enlarged Store, 29, 38.

[46] Sewing machines were first patented in the 1850s, but were not perfected until the late 1860s. See Andrew Godley, “The Global Diffusion of the Sewing Machine,” Research in Economic History 20 (2001), 1-4

[47] For more on the Straus Family, see “The Strauses of New York,” in Harris, Merchant Princes, 36-68.

[48] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1.

[49] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 16.

[50] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 16.

[51] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10.

[52] American Hebrew, October 10, 670.

[53] David Levering Lewis, W.E. B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), 488.

[54] Sanford M. Jacoby, Modern Manors, Welfare Capitalism Since the New Deal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 13, 14.

[55] Some of these reforms predated the opening of the Fifth Avenue store although he had already initiated some of these programs in his earlier Fashion Row enterprise.

[56] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 36-37.

[57] New York Times, October 15, 1913: 1-2; January 15, 1914: 1. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[58] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 3. After Altman’s death, the New York State Comptroller maintained that the Foundation should be taxed because it was not primarily a charity. After a year of legal negotiations, at the end of 1914, a Surrogate Judge found that it was a “benevolent corporation,” not subject to tax. New York Times, October 30, 1914.

[59] In 1985, the Altman Foundation relinquished its ownership of the company in compliance with new tax laws. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[61] Naomi Cohen, Encounter with Emancipation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1984), 114, 117.

[62] New York Times, October 15, 1913:1-3.

[63] New York Times, October 11, 1914: 5.

[64] New York Times, October 15, 1913: 3. The full text of Altman’s will was reprinted in the article.

[65] Hendrickson, 162.

[66] B. Altman & Company, Enlarged Store, 10.

[67] New York Times, April 16, 1898: 12.

[68] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1.

[69] New York Times, October 18, 1913: 12; March 29, 1914: 1.

[70] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1.

[71] New York Times, October 10, 1913: 11.

[72] New York Times, October 16, 1913: 5.

[73] Harris, 103, 356.

[74] The New York Community Trust, “Benjamin Altman, 1840-1913,” 5.

[75] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1.

[76] Handbook of The Benjamin Altman Collection, vii, viii. ix, x.

[77] New York Times, October 15, 1913: 1. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[78] Handbook of The Benjamin Altman Collection, xii; Obituary, New York Times, October 8, 1913, 3. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[79] Handbook of The Benjamin Altman Collection (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1914), xii.

[80] Hendrickson, 160. Hendrickson does not cite specific sources and the location of that diary is unknown.

[81] The New York Community Trust, “Benjamin Altman, 1840-1913,” 11.

[82] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1.

[83] Handbook of The Benjamin Altman Collection, xi; Obituary, New York Times, October 8, 1913, 1.

[84] New York Times, October 8, 1913: 1, 3.

[85] As quoted in Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race, 489.

[86] See Leon A Jick, “The Reform Synagogue,” in The American Synagogue, A Sanctuary Transformed, Jack Wertheimer, ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 85 – 100. For a detailed account of the rise of American Reform Judaism see Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism, A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[87] As quoted in Philip J. Reilly, Old Masters of Retailing, 14.

[88] New York Times, October 15, 1913: 2. 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[89] Jonathan Sarna, ed., The American Jewish Experience, 41-44.

[90] Stephan Rohrbacher, “From Württemberg to America,” 44-58.

[91] While one in seven German emigrants returned to Europe, very few Jewish Germans did. See Roger Daniels, Coming to America, A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 157.

[92] Barry E. Supple, “A Business Elite, “A Business Elite: German-Jewish Financiers in Nineteenth- Century New York” in The American Jewish Experience, Jonathan D. Sarna, ed. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1997), 100.

[93] New York Times, October 28, 1892: 1; December 8, 1895: 20; December 18, 1895: 7; January 8, 1897: 4; February 17, 1908:12.

[94] 2010 dollar figure based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[95] Jenna Weissman Joselit, “Department Store Lore: A History,”, October 1, 2004 (accessed September 7, 2011).

[96] Other member of this elite group of Jewish immigrants included financiers such as the Seligmans, Warburgs, and Jacob Schiff, one of the primary leaders of the American Jewish community during the era. See Barry E. Supple, “A Business Elite: German-Jewish Financiers in Nineteenth-Century New York,” in Sarna, The American Jewish Experience, 99-112.

[97] Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1976), 76-80.

[98] Carnegie was born to a poor Scottish weaver, but he amassed a fortune in America in the new steel industry. In his later years, Carnegie devoted himself almost exclusively to philanthropy.

[99] Harris, 356.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Benjamin Altman
  • Coverage 1840-1913
  • Author
  • Keywords Benamin Altman, Biography
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018