Portrait of David May, c. 1900

Portrait of David May, c. 1900

David May


The founder of the May Department Store chain, David May was one of the most influential businessmen and philanthropists in early Denver.


David May (Born: June 10, 1848 in Kaiserslautern, Bavaria; died: July 22, 1927 in Charlevoix, Michigan) was born to Jewish parents in Kaiserslautern, in the province of Bavaria, in 1848, and immigrated to America as a teenager in search of greater economic opportunity and to escape poverty, persecution, and restrictive laws back in Europe. May arrived in New York City in 1863 at the age of fifteen and soon joined an uncle in Cincinnati, where he first found a job in a clothing factory. In 1872, May traveled to Colorado for health reasons and remained there to open a store in the mining town of Leadville. This store became the foundation of a merchandizing empire that eventually evolved into one of the largest department store chains in the United States. The relative absence of anti-Semitism and the fluid social structure of the newly established Colorado mining boomtowns allowed many Jewish pioneers to enter society, business, and politics with greater ease than Jews had known in other areas.[1] Like many of the approximately 250,000 German-speaking Jews who had immigrated to America by World War I,[2] May relied on religious and cultural traditions and on robust ethnic and kinship networks that extended across the country. May died in 1927 at the age of seventy-nine. That year, the May Department Stores Company had sales totaling nearly $107 million (approximately $1.3 billion in 2010)[3].

Family and Ethnic Background

At the time of May’s birth, Kaiserslautern was a developing industrial town, with a growing cotton and wool industry. Very little is known about the May family in Germany. David’s father Wolf May operated a small dry goods store, which generated only a very modest profit, making it a challenge to support his wife and four children, two boys and two girls. It is likely that David first developed his business skills by helping out in his father’s establishment.

Significant numbers of German Jews immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, particularly after 1840, in search of greater economic opportunity and religious and political freedom. Crop failures in the “hungry forties” and modernization brought deteriorating economic conditions for many residents of the German provinces, but especially for Jews, who often faced particular religious, economic, and social restrictions. At the time of May’s birth, as much as fifty percent of the Jewish community in Germany lived in dire poverty.[4] Governmental and societal anti-Semitism barred Jews from voting, imposed special taxes on them, and burdened them in various other ways. David’s father realized that anti-Semitism, general economic dislocation, and the failure of the 1848 revolutions, which had sought to promote republican governments and equality, meant that his son would have little opportunity for advancement. Apparently, all of these factors prompted a family discussion of the advantages of young David’s emigration. Like so many European immigrants, the Mays were undoubtedly influenced by glowing reports on the “Golden Land” by relatives who had already immigrated, and indeed an uncle helped David find his first job in Cincinnati in 1863. When David graduated from the local high school [Gymnasium], Wolf May was able to provide his son with a third-class railroad ticket to the port of Hamburg and enough money to purchase a steerage berth on a ship bound for America. Two other boys from Kaiserslautern joined David on the voyage, and he later recalled “We were as lively and full of curiosity [for our new country] as young monkeys.” May is said to have docked at Castle Garden, New York, filled with enthusiasm for the opportunities that awaited him but with less than a dollar in his pocket and almost no knowledge of English.[5]

Despite his bright hopes for the future, it was surely daunting for a young boy to say goodbye to his mother, father, and siblings, and to leave the continent on which his ancestors had lived for centuries. Although May probably only saw his parents a few more times during their lifetime, family remained pivotal for him, and he worked to found a family business dynasty that featured his three sons as well as other relatives such as Alfred Triefus, the son of one of his sisters who had settled in England. Over the following years, May continued to maintain close ties with relatives in Europe. In 1880, at the age of thirty-two, David May married twenty-year-old Rosa Shoenberg, the American-born daughter of Bavarian immigrants and the sister of Moses Shoenberg, May’s business partner in Leadville, Colorado. Extant records for passport applications from 1890 on show that David May visited Europe numerous times, often with his wife, and it is likely that he reunited with relatives on these buying trips and vacations. In postponing marriage until he was in his thirties, May followed the typical pattern for young German-Jewish immigrants, who generally delayed marriage until they had sufficiently established themselves in business so that they could support a family. Rosa, born in 1860, was over a decade younger than David May, a common age difference between German-Jewish husbands and wives at the time.[6] The couple went on to have three boys and one girl. The youngest of their four children was born in 1903, when Rosa was forty-two and May was fifty-four.

Business Development

Arriving in New York City in 1863 at the age of fifteen, David May reconnected with an uncle, who provided train fare “out west” to Cincinnati. There, a job awaited him in a clothing factory, where he would earn five dollars a week (approximately $69 in 2010). In addition to working, he spent two years attending night school at Cincinnati’s Nelson College to hone his business skills, improve his English, and eliminate his German accent. May’s early experience reflects the importance of chain migration and kinship ties for mid-nineteenth century German-Jewish immigrants. Like so many of his fellow Bavarian newcomers, May was an enterprising, ambitious young man, and he was quick to take advantage of commercial opportunities in nascent urban centers in the growing nation. Indeed, commerce opened a very accessible avenue for German-Jewish immigrants to find a comfortable place in American society.[7]

May soon left his factory job to become a salesman, selling lithographs of presidential candidates during the 1868 campaign, working both door to door and supplying stores. The position suited his outgoing, friendly personality. This job, however, was just one step up from working as a peddler, and he set his ambitions higher. During this period, May was introduced through ethnic networks to a German-Jewish clothing store owner with the surname of Kirshbaum, who was impressed with May’s sales skills and later offered him a job in a store he owned in Hartford City, Indiana. May moved to Indiana, where his new position allowed him to demonstrate his budding merchandising skills and growing business savvy. The key to his success was his emphasis on customer satisfaction and quick turnover. He began at a salary of twenty-five dollars (approximately $346 in 2010) a month, which included room and board, and he sometimes worked as many as sixteen hours a day, beginning at 6 a.m. Within two years, however, Kirschbaum offered the twenty-year old May a quarter-share in the business in recognition of his role in increasing sales at the Hartford store from $20,000 to $100,000 (approximately $333,000 and $1.65 million in 2010) within two years. May remained with the enterprise for nine years.[8]

David May had arrived in America as a somewhat frail, slender teenager with a mild asthmatic condition. In the spring of 1877, when Kirschbaum’s Indiana store caught fire, May ventured out into the bitter cold to retrieve as much stock as possible. He saved a good deal of merchandise but contracted bronchitis, which evolved into full-blown asthma. The condition severely compromised his lungs and left him vulnerable to tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in nineteenth-century America. At the time, Colorado, with its high altitude and dry and sunny climate, attracted thousands of consumptives and other health-seekers, who came to “chase the cure” in a state that soon earned the nickname “the World’s Sanatorium.”[9]

May hoped that a visit to Colorado would improve his health, so he decided to sell his share in the Hartford business for $25,000 (approximately $537,000 in 2010), and on the advice of his doctor, he traveled to Manitou Springs, Colorado, a well-known health resort at the time. One day, May joined a group on a fishing trip to nearby Twin Lakes, and the fishing party heard fabulous reports of rich silver strikes in nearby Leadville. May and two friends abandoned their vacation and headed out to seek their fortunes in that leading Colorado silver boom camp, which, at its height in the early 1880s, boasted approximately 30,000 residents, about 300 of whom were Jews, making it the second largest Jewish settlement in the state at the time. After he arrived in Leadville in the summer of 1877, the twenty-nine-year-old May teamed up with Jacob Holcombe, a former lumber dealer, to prospect for silver, but they were unsuccessful. Holcombe had also migrated to Colorado for his health, but neither of the two men had any mining experience, and the back-breaking physical labor proved too challenging.[10]

However, like so many other German Jews who migrated to Colorado in search of health and wealth, David May soon turned to “mining the miners” by providing them with necessary supplies. Indeed, the unpredictability of mining and the growing need for supplies encouraged many Jewish pioneers to establish small businesses in new mining camps and towns around the state.[11] David May and Jacob Holcombe purchased the stock and tent shack of a failed merchant, took in Thomas Dean, another local budding merchant as a third partner, and opened for business in September. The store was named “Holcombe, May, & Dean, Dry Goods and Clothing Merchants,” and May soon began importing large quantities of the popular riveted work pants later known as Levi’s, which were produced by another German-Jewish immigrant from California, Levi Strauss. With the addition of red woolen long underwear, which sold at a brisk pace for one dollar (approximately $17.20 in 2010), well below the regular asking price, David May successfully launched what would later become known as the May Company.[12]

May was an innovative businessman with a knack for predicting which items would sell best, and the early Leadville store also sold a variety of luxury items such as fine silks, silverware, gold-lined mugs, and silver jewelry cases for the wealthier clientele. As one reporter later observed, May had the “faculty of knowing what people wanted and supplying it to them.”[13] However, his other two partners were more conservative. Local real estate prices were rising, and May hoped to get in on the ground floor of the land boom. When May decided to build a permanent frame store building at the 318 Harrison Avenue site, then Leadville’s main thoroughfare, Holcombe and Dean were reluctant, and their partnership was dissolved. Still, they all remained on good terms. Dean opened his own business, and Holcombe served as an accountant and bookkeeper for May until Holcombe’s death in 1925. May’s new establishment, “The Great Western Auction House and Clothing Store,” opened on January 1, 1878, in the heart of Leadville. Thanks to May’s genial demeanor, the store soon became a popular social gathering place for local miners, who regularly assembled around the pot-bellied stove to ward off the cold and discuss politics.[14]

By the end of the following year, May became associated in business with his future brother-in-law, Moses Shoenberg. Like David May, Shoenberg was a Bavarian Jewish immigrant, and he was just a year older than May. Moses was born in 1847 and arrived in America soon thereafter. He opened his first store at the age of eighteen in Springfield, Ohio. His father, Elias Schoenberg, and his brothers, Joseph and Louis, both of whom were born in America, also became Leadville clothing merchants. Joseph operated a store called “Cheap Joe’s” and Louis owned “Boss Clothier.” The Shoenbergs also opened the short-lived Shoenberg Opera House, demonstrating their cultural appreciation for the German tradition of opera.[15] May and the Shoenbergs testify to the fact that it was “in the retail trades that a disproportionate number of German Jews found their economic niche in America.”[16] May’s close business association with fellow German-Jewish immigrants and family members illustrates the importance of ethnic and religious networks in entrepreneurial success. These relationships provided critical social and economic support for new ventures. Services for Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year, were held at the short-lived Shoenberg Opera House in 1879, and May undoubtedly attended, as he was active in Jewish affairs in Leadville from the beginning.

May’s career in Leadville was crucial because it established the business strategies he would employ during his lifetime: economies of scale achieved through the purchase of a wide variety of merchandise in bulk quantities to reduce cost, deep discounts to foster a quick turnover of stock, robust advertising, and experimentation with various locations. He was known as a hard-headed but fair businessman. According to one advertisement, the new firm of May and Shoenberg offered “clothing and gents furnishings, boots, and shoes,” and prospered quickly. On January 3, 1880, the Leadville Carbonate Chronicle announced the opening of a “large business enterprise in which two of our most popular and enterprising young merchants [May and Shoenberg] open with a mammoth stock of goods . . . we saw unloaded upon the sidewalk bales of California goods, so popular throughout the West.” The new business at the same Harrison Avenue location was to feature an auction and commission house (short-lived) on one side and a retail store on the other, and the article described May and Shoenberg as “both young, yet ripe in business experience, and [they] have the respect and confidence of the community.”[17]

In August of 1880, David May married Rosa Shoenberg. They were wed in her brother’s Leadville home, where family members and select friends gathered to witness the ceremony. As befitting the wife, daughter, and sister of successful merchants, Rosa wore a lavish gown decorated with diamonds and trimmed with velvet, and guests were treated to an extravagant meal at a table graced with huge flower arrangements. Handsome wedding gifts, which included a complete set of dinnerware from the bride’s parents, Elias and Fannie Shoenberg, a piano from the bride’s sister, and silverware from May’s former partner Jacob Holcombe, were on display. Following a honeymoon on the East Coast, the new couple set up housekeeping in Leadville at 203 West Fifth Street, and they soon took an active part in the town’s social life, hosting and participating in numerous dinners, parties, and charitable events.[18] Within a year, the couple’s first son, Morton Jay, was born on July 13, 1881, followed by another son, Tom, on June 3, 1883. Rosa appears to have suffered a miscarriage or the loss of an infant sometime after Tom’s birth in about 1886. A third son, Wilbur, was born in Denver on December 28, 1898, and their last child and only daughter, Florene May Marx Strauss, was born in Denver four years later on February 27, 1903. Upon reaching adulthood, all three of the May sons became executives in The May Department Stores Co., perpetuating the family business dynasty.

After his marriage, David May continued to grow his business and expand his product line. One of his many early sales coups in Leadville occurred after a buying trip to Chicago, where he purchased a large stock of lavish and expensive women’s gowns that had languished in the Windy City. May understood that many of Leadville’s nouveau riche mining families craved an opportunity to display their newfound wealth, and all the dresses, priced from $200 to $400 (approximately $4,400 to $8,800 in 2010) each, sold out within a week. May and his partner had a flair for self-promotion and took advantage of the emerging field of advertising and marketing, running regular ads in the local newspapers to entice customers with low prices and fashionable merchandise. For example, in an 1883 newspaper ad, May claimed that his merchandise was offered for “twenty per cent below the ruling Leadville prices,” and later, in an 1888 ad, May announced “A Splendid Selection of Boys’ and Children’s Clothing, as Heretofore, We Quote the Lowest Prices in the City for The Finest Grade of Goods.” At the same time, the two partners also ran numerous regular ads in which they stressed their reputations as fair and reliable merchants, who made “Integrity, Honesty, Fair and Square Dealing . . . the secret of our success.”[19]

Before long, May and Schoenberg were expanding their Leadville headquarters and opening branches of their business in other Colorado mining outposts. In May 1880, in the newly remodeled Leadville store, they premiered a new innovation, the “Boston Square Dealing One Price Clothing Rooms.” These sections displayed fine “select clothing” for the “first-class trade” purchased in the East, all for sale at one common price, perhaps a prophetic forerunner of todays “dollar” stores.[20] Ruby Camp, which became the town of Irwin, Colorado, was the site of May’s first branch store, “D. May & Company”, which opened in 1881 and closed the following year when the boom there went bust. Around the same time, the partners opened a shop in the Gunnison area, where saloons were the most plentiful businesses. Later, May also established a store in the Colorado mining camp of Kokomo and one in Aspen in 1886 called “Johnston & Co.” May had been one of the leading supporters of the construction of a new road to enhance trade between Leadville and Aspen.[21] Another May store named the “Manhattan Clothing Company” opened in Glenwood Springs in 1887, and was managed by May’s nephew Joseph Preis.

By the fall of 1880, May and Shoenberg were heavily advertising their large assortment of fine men’s clothing and low-priced miners’ goods, and a local Leadville newspaper reported that they were “Making special efforts this season . . . to take the lead in the clothing trade of the city.”[22] The partners continued to concentrate on men’s and boy’s clothing, but by 1882 they were also advertising women’s seal, mink, and other furs for “half [of] what other houses ask for the same goods.”[23] In 1883, as the business continued to prosper, they expanded their first Harrison Avenue location and opened another store farther up at 808 Harrison Avenue. That same year, May began manufacturing his own clothing goods at a factory he bought in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, cutting out the middle man and selling his merchandise at even lower prices.

May and Shoenberg continued their policy of aggressive marketing, taking advantage of events such as minor store fires to proclaim major “fire sales” on all their merchandise and challenging their competitors to offer lower prices. Fires in wood structures in early frontier towns like Leadville were common, and in 1883, several of May’s Jewish business colleagues were accused of arson at the Leadville “Palace of Fashion” store. Both May and Shoenberg testified in defense of the men, who were exonerated. Despite the veneer of civilization, Leadville remained a rough frontier town in the 1880s. In 1884, for example, there was a shoot out in front of May’s store; it involved the infamous western gunslinger Doc Holiday, who shot a rival in the arm. Holiday was acquitted in the spring of 1885 after a three-day-trial.[24]

In August 1885, after five years in business, May and Shoenberg announced a $65,000 (approximately $1.52 million in 2010) “Going out of Business Sale,” which lasted until the end of the year. In reality, David May had simply bought out Shoenberg’s share in the Leadville enterprise, since Shoenberg and his wife had decided to move back East. Rosa May even hosted an elaborate good-bye luncheon for Mrs. Shoenberg before her brother and sister-in-law left Leadville. The partnership was publicly and amiably dissolved on January 1, 1885, as explained in large ads in the local newspapers. May and Shoenberg announced that they had dissolved their firm by “mutual consent,” and they thanked all their loyal patrons for their past support. May would remain at the 318 Harrison Avenue location and proclaimed that all existing merchandise would be for sale “at almost half price” to clear the way for his new stock. The new “David May” store promised to follow the following rules: “One Price System, Large Sales and Small Profits.” At the time, May’s biggest competitor was Charles Sands, whose men’s clothing store was located nearby at 312 Harrison Avenue.[25] In the late- to mid-1880s, Leadville’s post-boom depression deepened. However, even though many merchants were concerned that Leadville was headed for a serious downturn in 1885, the ever-optimistic May remained confident that it would be “the most prosperous season since ’80.” As proof, he reported that his former partner Shoenberg had written that he regretted leaving Leadville for the “dull” business climate of the East.[26]

In early 1889, the steadily worsening economic situation in Leadville prompted May to begin scouting out better business prospects in Denver, which was growing rapidly, primarily because of the proliferation of railroads. Like so many other Jewish families in small towns across the nation, David and Rosa also likely wanted to raise their children in a bigger city where they would grow up among a larger Jewish population. Beginning in 1870, when the first three railroads arrived, trains helped transform the “Queen City of the Plains,” as Denver was nicknamed, from a mining camp into a bustling metropolis. Between 1870 and 1890, Denver’s population grew from approximately 5,000 to nearly 107,000, making it the largest city in the Rockies. By the mid-1880s, a hundred trains passed through the city per week.[27] As a start, May bought out the stock and business of a bankrupted merchant for a reported $31,000 (approximately $758,000 in 2010) and set up temporary quarters at Larimer and Fifteenth Streets. May sold his clothing business in Leadville to Meyers Harris in late 1888 and the family’s “handsome residence” to a Mr. A. V. Hunter for $5,000 (approximately $118,000 in 2010) at the beginning of 1889.[28] Leadville’s silver economy weakened even more significantly after America abandoned the silver standard in 1893, and the Jewish population there declined precipitously.

Before May sold his Leadville store, he organized one of his typical exuberant sales, advertising “Great Clearing Sale! In the history of the Carbonate Camp such a slaughter of prices has never been equaled.”[29] In January 1889, the forty-year-old May and his family relocated to a fashionable home at 2546 Champa Street in Denver (in 1900, May purchased an even more impressive home at Logan and Twelfth Avenue), and soon thereafter he opened a permanent retail operation at 1614-1620 Larimer Street. Located in the heart of downtown Denver, at the intersection of Larimer and Sixteenth Streets, the new “May Shoe and Clothing Company” was his largest store to date. The Mays’ departure for Denver was noted in the local mining town newspapers, and one reporter observed “Mrs. David May and family left for Denver Wednesday night. She will make that city their future home, much to the regret of their many Leadville friends.”[30] Soon enough, May’s brothers-in-law Joseph and Louis Shoenberg joined him in running the expanding Denver business enterprise.

On April 12, 1889, David May kicked off his Denver operations with a major advertising campaign, which included a marching band in front of his temporary quarters to attract predominantly middle-class customers. It was the opening salvo of a price war with local competitors. His creative, if flamboyant, marketing tactics were so successful that he sold out of his merchandise in just one week. The self-styled “Gladiator of Low Prices,”[31] May had apparently developed an advertising tactic that suited his era. In advertisements in the very same newspaper edition, other competitors such as the Bavarian- born Jewish merchant Leopold Guldman, founder of the Golden Eagle, a low-priced Denver department store, also made exaggerated claims and announced “fire sales.”

In 1892, May and his partners made their first foray into the national market by purchasing the Famous Department Stores chain in St. Louis for a reported $150,000 (approximately 3.7 million in 2010). This launched the May Company on its path to becoming what Fortune magazine described more than fifty years later as the country’s “oldest and most successful department-store group.”[32] May proudly (if rather immodestly) described the Famous Company acquisition as “the boldest mercantile adventure of the 19th century.” In the meantime, in 1892, a fire had broken out in the St. Louis store, so May’s Denver establishment brought in the large quantity of clothing and furnishings that had already been ordered but could not be sold there until that venue was rebuilt. May used the fire as an opportunity to hold yet another major sale in which he claimed to offer all his merchandise to the public for less than half price.[33]

In the late 1890s, May turned down the honor of an invitation by President McKinley to serve as the consul in Frankfurt am Main because he did not want to divert his attention from his business activities. May had been singled out because of his German background, his business success, and his political experience. In 1898, May made another bold business move when he and the Shoenbergs spent $300,000 (approximately $8.1 million in 2010) to acquire the old Hull & Dutton store in Cleveland, Ohio, which was renamed the May Company. May soon enlarged the Cleveland enterprise, adding a three-story annex and later a nearby building. Louis Schoenberg moved to St. Louis to manage company operations there and to oversee the Cleveland branch. In 1904, however, the local Jewish businessman Nathan Dauby became the manager of the Cleveland enterprise, which he ran for over half a century. Dauby not only turned the business into Ohio’s largest department store by 1931, but he also became a major lay leader at National Jewish Hospital, the Denver institution that May had helped found in 1899. David May appreciated Dauby’s business acumen, and in 1910 Dauby became a director of the May Company’s national operation and was appointed vice president in 1918. In 1911, May purchased yet another St. Louis group of stores, the William Barr Dry Goods Company, and combined his two chains into the Famous-Barr Company.[34]

Meanwhile, the Denver May Company continued to expand. In 1895, it added another building on Lawrence and Sixteenth Streets, followed in 1906 by a brand new million-dollar, four-story building a little farther down Sixteenth at Champa. In August 1958, it finally moved to more impressive, modern quarters at Denver’s Court House Square.[35] During his Denver days, May continued to refine his marketing strategies. For example, his policy of giving a baseball bat and a glove to anyone who purchased a boy’s suit apparently prompted many young men to pressure their mothers to shop at the May Company. Some observers have even credited May with indirectly promoting the growth of baseball throughout the city! In addition, like many other contemporary retailers, he promoted team spirit among his employees by introducing a store baseball team.[36] In 1905, to grow the business, May and his family moved to St. Louis, which became the company headquarters until the company merged with Federated Department Stores a century later. The May Department Stores Company was formally incorporated in New York in 1910, and by 1911 it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

In their new St. Louis home, the Mays and Shoenbergs and their descendants continued their philanthropic tradition, donating generously to a variety of charities, civic projects, and the arts. David May became a vice president of the St. Louis Commercial Investment Trust, a director of the St. Louis Federation of Jewish Charities, and also remained a vice president of the Denver National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives. He often engaged in more personal acts of charity as well. When the store of a fellow Chicago merchant was destroyed by fire, May sent a check for $10,000 (approximately $256,000 in 2010) to help the man get back on his feet.[37] It is said that May knew most of his many long-time employees by their first names, inquired regularly about their families, and also established a pension fund for his workers. In his last years, he frequently walked the floors of his stores, genially mixing with both customers and employees. At his funeral, the presiding rabbi noted that “his co-workers were not mere hired hands, they were fellow beings with ambitions and hopes like himself. His great establishments were not crushing machines. Faithful workers when unable to work longer, were not thrown on the scrap heap but generous provision was made for their old age.”[38]

May was forward-thinking when it came to employee welfare, apparently influenced by the Progressive Era’s emphasis on reform as well as the German tradition of paternalism, which probably led him to view his employees as part of an extended family, which he shepherded as a father figure. He knew most of his employees by name and took an interest in their lives. Operating from both a philanthropic impulse and the premise that content workers were more productive, he reflected the corporate trend toward welfare capitalism that had originated in America in the late 1880s. This mode of operation “attempted to shield workers from the strain of industrialism” and at the same discouraged organized discontent through such venues as unions. Like other successful heads of large businesses, May had amassed a great fortune, and he likely viewed his welfare activities as a means of “discharging the moral obligations it imposed.”[39]

David May’s son Morton J., who had worked his way up the corporate ladder from a lowly stock boy and had begun his administrative career at May’s Cleveland store, took over the presidency of the company in 1917, although David May stayed on as chairman of the board. David’s son Thomas May served as the vice-president of the May Company and his son Wilbur D. functioned as treasurer. In 1923, David May, then a sprightly seventy-five, purchased yet another major department store, “A. Hamburger & Sons,” in Los Angeles for $4.2 million (approximately $53.7 million in 2010). It was renamed “The May Company”, and he personally supervised the transition, which helped the company top the $100 million dollar mark (approximately $1.23 billion in 2010) in 1926 for the first time in its history. By this time, May had also acquired various European offices, which served as the branch headquarters for May Company merchandise buyers there.[40] In his last year of life, May and his wife Rosa sold their exclusive family home at 5 Washington Terrace in St. Louis and spent most of their time in Los Angeles, where they moved in social circles that included some of the era’s most famous Hollywood movie idols, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.[41]

David May died suddenly at his family summer home in Charlevoix, Michigan, on July 22, 1927, at the age of seventy-nine. Until the last months of his life, May remained active in his business. He had gone to what he called the “cottage” in Charlevoix (in reality a mansion) for rest and relaxation after being diagnosed with heart disease, and suffered a sudden heart attack during a nap after a game of golf. His wife Rosa and daughter Florence of Chicago were with him at the time, and his eldest son Morton was on the train to Charlevoix for his customary weekend visit to his parents when he learned of his father’s death. Even though he had not lived in Denver for over twenty years, David May’s death made front-page news there, and his nephew Alfred Trieifus, then manager of May’s Denver store, noted that he had looked up to his uncle not only as an astute businessman but also “as a father.”[42]

David May’s funeral was held on Tuesday July 26, 1927, at the reform Temple Israel in St. Louis and was attended by an overflow crowd of relatives, friends, and employees. It was presided over by Rabbi Dr. Samuel Sale, the spiritual leader of the congregation, who described May as “a merchant prince, indeed a true philanthropist.” Sale praised May as a “true son” of his [Jewish people] and especially noted his twin devotion to his family and his work. He also described him as “a plain, blunt man, whose every word was welcome and whose smile was the kindliest.” The funeral was followed by a private service and interment at the New Mt. Sinai Cemetery, and all the May stores throughout the country were closed in memory of the founder and head of the corporation.[43]

After May’s death, the company continued to prosper, and by 1948 the May Department Stores Co. included twelve branches that together offered 3,726,000 square feet of retail space and netted $358 million dollars (approximately $3.2 billion in 2010) in sales in 1947. By that time, it was known as a “store for the masses,” and its main clientele were lower- and middle-class shoppers looking for value and a bargain. Its President, Morton J. May, was said to have successfully followed the “freewheeling merchandising ways of his late father.”[44] In 2000, the St. Louis-based May Department Stores was regarded as the second-leading department store chain in the United States, with the Federated Department Stores holding the top title. At that time, the May Department Stores Co. included eleven department store chains, such as Lord & Taylor, Kaufmann’s, Foley’s, Filene’s, and the Famous Store, which totaled nearly 600 retail stores in forty-three states.[45] However, in 2005, May’s merged with the Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy’s, and the May Department Stores Co. ceased to exist as a separate entity.

Social Status, Networks, Family and Public Life

Although David May became an acculturated and patriotic American, his German origins and Jewish religious affiliation remained a source of pride throughout his life. They also provided him with important political, social, and economic networking opportunities. Leadville’s Jewish merchants were fully integrated into the town’s mercantile establishment and philanthropic endeavors. The mining town’s Jewish population was held in high esteem, and Jewish businessmen were influential in its growth. Twenty-three Jewish-owned clothing and dry goods stores graced Leadville’s streets in 1881. As one newspaper article put it, “The Hebrew population of Carbonate camp is, to a greater degree than elsewhere a progressive, energetic and prosperous one, and no small percentage of Leadville’s wealth and importance is due to it.”[46] Indeed, nineteenth-century Jewish merchant families throughout the American West were welcomed as civilizing cultural influences and sources of civic leadership and philanthropy in frontier towns.[47] Moreover, German Jews throughout America during this era were not only influenced by strong Jewish traditions of charity, but also believed that philanthropy and charity were twin expressions of the strong civic responsibility of the Jew in American society at large. As members of a rising middle class who hoped to enlarge and enhance their position in American society, German Jews felt that they could not help but gain from “chalking up an impressive record in philanthropy.”[48]

In 1880s Leadville, May retained his German ties and was an active member of the German Independent Club, serving as its treasurer. He also supported the formation of a “German-American Blaine and Logan Republican Club,” which called upon “fellow German-American citizens” in Lake County, Colorado, to support the Republican candidates in the 1884 American presidential election. (At that period in time, the Republicans were liberal in nature, a political stance that appealed to many German immigrants who had left the German states after the failed 1848 revolutions. It had also been the party of Abraham Lincoln.)[49] Retaining solidarity with his countrymen likely helped ensure that they would patronize his business. To be sure, the general German community across Colorado was prosperous and highly respected before World War I. As early as 1870, Denver’s German community enjoyed the highest level of wealth of any immigrant group in the city, and by 1890 it made up a significant part of the city’s population. As May’s Leadville experience demonstrates, the Colorado German community was extremely close-knit, generally bilingual, and commonly “patronized, hired, elected, and married their co-nationalists.”[50] Although Germans were considered a “desirable” immigrant group at the time, inexperience, cultural differences, and the need for mutual social and economic assistance often led them to cluster together and rely on one another for support during their early years in the United States.[51]

May was a staunch Republican who certainly took his civic responsibilities seriously, and he developed a reputation for being a good manager as well as a generous contributor to local charities and social causes. He also took an active part in local politics and community affairs. In 1881, he was an incorporator of the Leadville Electric Light Company, and he also served as county treasurer from the beginning of 1884 through 1885, when he was defeated by the Democratic candidate during Leadville’s post-boom depression. In the 1884 election, May had been taken to task for his aggressive collection of taxes by a few of Leadville’s wealthy businessmen, who claimed he was harassing them because of their support for another candidate. May wrote a strong rebuttal, which was published in the Evening Chronicle, and with the endorsement of local papers such as the Leadville Daily Herald, he prevailed as the winner in the close race for the position of county treasurer.[52] May was generally considered a responsible treasurer, but during his term, a Denver businessman brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against Lake County and May, hoping to force the county to pay back money it had borrowed.[53] In 1887, in recognition of his pivotal role as a leading Leadville businessman, May was named to the newly created Leadville Board of Trade.[54]

May was active in the Leadville Jewish community from the beginning as a founder of the Leadville Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1877 and as an early member of the local philanthropic fraternal order B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant), which was founded in Leadville in 1879. He served on the reception committee at the organization’s first anniversary ball, and for years he was a judge at the annual Jewish Purim Bal Masque, a popular fundraising event sponsored by the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society for the general community in Leadville. May was also a primary organizer of Leadville’s Jewish Reform synagogue, Temple Israel, which opened on September 19, 1884. Temple Israel had acquired land from W. H. Benge and from May’s friend H. A. W. Tabor, a Colorado silver mining legend, who was then mayor of Leadville and was supportive of the Jewish community. Like most other Jewish Reform congregations of the era, Temple Israel adopted customs geared toward acculturation and Americanization. By reforming a number of traditional Jewish practices (e.g., by introducing sermons in English as well as choir and organ music) this group of upwardly mobile German Jews felt that they were “modernizing” and becoming more like their gentile socio-economic counterparts.[55] May became the vice-president of the temple association and also served on the Temple Israel building committee. His duties as vice-president primarily related to overseeing the congregation’s burial grounds and serving as an ex-officio member of all committees.[56]

It has been suggested that May was perhaps more supportive of traditional Judaism then many of his German-Jewish contemporaries. He brought Dr. John Elsner in from Denver to perform the age-old Jewish Brit Milah, or circumcision rite, for his sons in Leadville, and he later hired a Jewish scholar to teach Hebrew to his eldest son, Morton. In its heyday, Leadville had two synagogues. In addition to Temple Israel, May eventually lent his support to the Orthodox group’s Kneseth Israel congregation as well.[57] An intriguing notice in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News suggests that May also teamed up briefly with a Denver Jewish wholesaler named P. Schlesinger to sell kosher meats and cold cuts.[58]

As he had done in Leadville, David May forged close ties with the local Jewish community in Denver, and played a leading role in the city’s Reform congregation Temple Emanuel. When Temple Emanuel’s burial ground was transferred to a newly created Jewish section in Riverside Cemetery, May bought the first burial plot for $150 (approximately $4,000 in 2010) in 1896.[59] At the synagogue, he was part of a wealthy group of elite leaders that included Colorado State Senator Simon Guggenheim of the famous American German-Jewish smelting business dynasty. May was a member of the Temple Emanuel Board of Trustees in November 1887, when a serious fire broke out in the synagogue building, and he led the movement to find a new site and erect a new building, to which he contributed five hundred dollars, a significant sum at the time. An impressive new edifice in the Moorish style was dedicated at Sixteenth and Pearl Streets at the beginning of 1889.[60]

May also never forgot the health benefits provided to him by the Colorado environment, and he was instrumental in the creation of the famed National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives (NJH), which opened in Denver in 1899 to provide medical treatment for victims of tuberculosis from around the country. It was founded and funded primarily by acculturated well-to-do German Reform Jews who were bonded by religion, common ancestry, and cultural heritage. The hospital sanatorium provided all services free of charge, adopting the motto, “None May Enter Who Can Pay, None May Pay Who Enter.” May, along with Rabbi Friedman of Temple Emanuel and local businessman Edward Monash, traveled east to raise funds for the fledging institution, which was formally non-sectarian, but predominantly treated poor Eastern European Jews in the early years. NJH leaders not only provided state-of-the-art medical treatment but also classes in English and vocational training to help Americanize their co-religionists.[61]

May and Louis and Joseph Shoenberg all became major NJH financial donors, and David May remained on the hospital board until he died in 1927. The following year, a prominent plaque was erected at NJH in May’s memory. Louis Shoenberg, who formally changed his surname to Beaumont amidst anti-German sentiment during World War I, became a president of National Jewish Hospital (1927-1939), as did May’s nephew Alfred Triefus (1944-1946), and his business partner in the Cleveland May Company, Nathan Dauby (1921-24). May’s son Morton J., who graduated from the University of Colorado, later became an NJH trustee, and a building on the hospital campus was named in his honor in the 1950s.[62] Morton J. May and his wife, Sarah Hirsch May, were members of the reform Temple Israel in St. Louis, and he was active in a number of Jewish, educational, and medical institutions, serving as a director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Centers, the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, and co-founder of St. Louis’s Municipal Theater Association. The May Amphitheater Park in St. Louis is named after Morton’s son, Morton D., who took over as president of the May Company in 1951 and was also an avid art collector.


David May initiated and built what one writer described correctly as “one of America’s biggest and best-known department-store chains.”[63] A newspaper report published after his death described May “as the leading retail merchant of the country.”[64] By the time he passed away, May presided over a business empire that included more than 14,000 employees. During May’s prime, one writer characterized him as the “living epitome of the department store idea.”[65] In a newspaper interview on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, May maintained that his recipe for success could be summarized in one word: “Work,” but it was also noted that he was highly sociable and derived great satisfaction from his many friendships.[66] May also exhibited a lifelong commitment to his family members, his religion, and what he perceived as his civic and philanthropic responsibilities to his adopted country.

While May appreciated the cultural aspects of his German background, he identified fully as an American. His commercial success in America and that of many other German-Jewish immigrants who formed a central part of the nation’s commercial elite in late nineteenth and early twentieth century can be attributed to a number of factors. These included merchandising skills that had already been honed back in Germany, the openness of the American economy in the wake of the Civil War, and ethnic and religious traditions that shaped German-Jewish immigrants’ social and business values and promoted the formation of networks that facilitated their rise as emerging entrepreneurs. Indeed, as one journalist put it succinctly, the American kings of retail, “German Jews almost every one of them . . . changed the way America shopped.”[67]


[1] Moses Rischin, “The Jewish Experience in America,” in Jews of the American West, edited by Moses Rischin and John Livingston (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 32-33; and Jeanne E. Abrams, Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail, A History in the American West (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 5-10.

[2] See Avraham Barkai, Branching Out: German Jewish Immigration to the United States (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994).

[3] All current values (in 2010 USD) are 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.

[4] Jonathan Sarna, ed., The American Jewish Experience (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994), 41-43.

[5] Forbes Parkhill, “The May Story,” Denver Post, Part I, September 23, 1952, 2, 28. The article was printed in six brief sections which ran in the Denver Post daily from September 23-28, 1952.

[6] William Toll, “The Domestic Basis of Community: Trinidad, Colorado’s Jewish Women, 1889-1910,” Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Notes 8.9 (Summer/Fall 1987): 5.

[7] Andrew Heinze, Adapting to Abundance, Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 189.

[8] Forbes Parkhill, “The May Story,” Part I, 28.

[9] See Jeanne Abrams, Dr. Charles David Spivak, A Jewish Immigrant and the American Tuberculosis Movement (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2010); and Jeanne Abrams, “On the Road Again: Consumptives Traveling for Health in the American West, 1840-1925,” Great Plains Quarterly 30 (Fall 2010): 271-87.

[10] Ida Uchill, Pioneers, Peddlers, and Tsadikim (Denver, CO: Sage Books, 1957), 98-99.

[11] Jeanne E. Abrams, Jewish Denver, 1859-1940 (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2007), 7.

[12] Don L. Griswald and Jean Harvey Griswold, History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado (Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 1996), 143.

[13] Obituary, Rocky Mountain News, July 23, 1927, 1.

[14] Allen Breck, The Centennial History of the Jews of Colorado, 1859-1959 (Denver, CO: The Hirschfeld Press, 1960), 126.

[15] Forbes Parkhill, “The May Story,” Chapter II, 32.

[16] Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 157.

[17] Carbonate Chronicle, January 3, 1880, 4.

[18] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), September 20, 1880.

[19] Leadville Daily Herald, March 29, 1883, 4; Leadville Daily Herald, April 11, 1883, 4; Leadville Daily Chronicle, May 3, 1888, 2.

[20] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), May 21, 1880, and May 19, 1880.

[21] Carbonate Chronicle, April 11, 1885.

[22] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), September 3, 1880.

[23] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), November 23, 1882.

[24] Carbonate Chronicle (Leadville), March 16, 1883, and April 4, 1885.

[25] Leadville Daily Herald, January 7, 1885, 4.

[26] Carbonate Chronicle, February 7, 1885.

[27] Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1990), 32, 41.

[28] Leadville Evening Chronicle (Leadville), January 29, 1889.

[29] Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle, September 4, 1888, 2.

[30] Carbonate Chronicle (Leadville), January 28, 1889, 8.

[31] Rocky Mountain News, May 5, 1889.

[32] “May Stores: Watch Them Grow,” Fortune Magazine (November 26, 1948): 109.

[33] Rocky Mountain News, May 27, 1892, 28.

[35] Allen Breck, The Centennial History, 122.

[36] Rocky Mountain News, July 23, 1927, 2.

[37] ibid.

[38] “David May’s Life Praised by Rabbi at Funeral Rites,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1927.

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

[40] Rocky Mountain News, July 23, 1927, 1-2.

[41] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 1927, 2.

[42] Rocky Mountain News, July 23, 1927, 1-2.

[43] “David May’s Life Praised by Rabbi at Funeral Rights,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 26, 1927, and unidentified clipping “David May is Laid at Rest as Throng Pays Sad Tribute” (July 29, 1927, May Biographical File, Missouri State Museum).

[44] Fortune (November 26, 1948): 109.

[46] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), November 10, 1880.

[47] See Earl Pomeroy, “On Becoming a Westerner,” in Jews of the American West, 202; and Glenda Riley,” Writing, Teaching, and Recreating Western History through Intersections and Viewpoints,” in Where is the West?, edited by Gordon M. Bakken and Brenda Farrington (New York: Garland Press, 2000), 109.

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

[49] Leadville Daily Herald, October 7, 1884, 4; and Leadville Daily Herald, October 10, 1884, 4.

[50] Stephen J. Leonard, “The Irish, English, and Germans in Denver, 1860-1890,” The Colorado Magazine 54 (Spring 1977): 132-33.

[51] Thomas Dublin, ed., Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773-1986 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 22.

[52] Evening Chronicle (Leadville), October 31, 1884.

[53] Don L. Griswold and Jean Harvey Griswold, History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado, Vol. II, 1807.

[54] Leadville Herald Democrat, July 29, 1887.

[55] 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, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).

[56] Allen Breck, The Centennial History, 128, 133; Evening Chronicle (Leadville), January 15, 1884.

[57] Ida Uchill, Pioneers, Peddlers, and Tsadikim, 99, 100.

[58] Rocky Mountain News, September 24, 1881, 8.

[59] Temple Emanuel Board Minutes, April 21, 1896, Temple Emanuel Archives, Denver, Colorado.

[60] Allen Breck, A Centennial History of the Jews of Colorado, 86-87.

[61] Jeanne Abrams, Blazing the Tuberculosis Trail (Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 1990), 18-20.

[62] Mary Ann Fitzharris and Jeanne Abrams, A Place to Heal, The History of National Jewish Medical and Research Center (Boulder, CO: Johnson Publishing Company, 1997), 2, 13, 60, 138.

[63] Leon Harris, Merchant Princes: An Intimate History of Jewish Families Who Built Great Department Stores (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), xi.

[64] “David May, Head of May Stores Co., Dies Suddenly,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 1927, 1.

[65] “David May,” The Mirror, 231, David May, Biographical File, Missouri State Museum.

[66] Obituary, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 1923, 1.

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

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title David May
  • Coverage 1848-1927
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 18, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018