Henry Oppenheimer (1865-1958)

A successful retailer and wholesaler and longtime president of Hutzler Brothers Company, Henry Oppenheimer used family connections to establish and further his career in the United States after emigrating from Baden.

Updated: October 10, 2013

Introduction

As a teenager, Henry Oppenheimer (born August 21, 1865 in Walldürn, Grand Duchy of Baden; died July 6, 1958 in Baltimore, MD) boarded the Westphalia in Hamburg, Germany, and sailed to America on his own.[1] After apprenticing at his uncle’s clothing manufacturing business in Baltimore, Oppenheimer opened his own wholesale clothing company there. Unfortunately, after five years in operation, his company was badly damaged in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Oppenheimer was married to Cora Hutzler, a member of one of Baltimore’s most renowned department store families. At the invitation of his father-in-law, David Hutzler, Henry Oppenheimer eventually became president and general manager of Hutzler Brothers Company. Oppenheimer was a founding member and the first president of the Baltimore Retail Merchants’ Association. He stepped down as president of Hutzler Brothers Company in 1919 but remained active on its board of directors; he also continued to serve in an operational capacity. After leaving his managerial position at Hutzler’s, he continued to be involved with the Retail Merchants’ Association and with various service organizations in Baltimore. Remembered as a kind person and a respected businessman, Oppenheimer died at age ninety-two after a brief illness.

Family and Ethnic Background

Heinrich (Henry) Oppenheimer was born on August 21, 1865, in the town of Walldürn, in the Grand Duchy of Baden. He was one of eight children born to Götz Oppenheimer (1828-1907), a court scribe, and Henriette (Hannchen) Strauss (1837-1900). Henry was the first of his siblings to leave home in search of better prospects in America. As a teenager, he sailed to America on his own.[2] His final destination was Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived with his uncle, Isaac Strouse (Strauss). Strouse, who was also from Baden, had immigrated to America as a fifteen-year-old in 1850. He had started off as a clerk at a store in Peru, Illinois, and then moved to Baltimore to start his own wholesale clothing business with his wife Sarah.[3] His business, “Strouse and Brothers High Art Clothing,” was established in 1868.[4] It was located at Lombard and Paca Streets in downtown Baltimore. Strouse also had a branch office at 650 Broadway in New York City.

The Strouse family socialized with many other German Jews who were involved in Baltimore’s dry goods industry. Their circle of friends and acquaintances included the Hecht, Hutzler, Hamburger, and Gutman families.[5] Through his uncle Issac, Henry met Cora Rosa Hutzler, the daughter of David Hutzler (1843-1915) and Ella Joline Gutman (1855-1942). Cora had been educated at Baltimore’s Girls’ Latin School and Goucher College. Her mother, Ella Gutman, was the daughter of Joel Gutman, the founder of the famous Baltimore department store Joel Gutman & Co. Cora’s father, David Hutzler, was one of three brothers who operated the storied Hutzler Brothers Company department store in downtown Baltimore. The company traced its roots back to 1858, when David’s brother, Abram Hutzler (1835-1927), set up shop in a small space on the corner of Howard and Clay Streets. Since Abram, then twenty-three, was too young to obtain credit in his own name, his father, Moses Hutzler (1800-1889), signed the necessary paperwork for him.[6] In 1867, Abram brought his brothers, David and Charles, into business with him. During the 1870s, the business flourished, not least because of the Hutzler brothers’ innovative “one-price-system,” which put an end to bargaining and guaranteed all customers the same fair prices. The business continued to expand in the 1880s, and in September 1888, the brothers erected a grand, multi-story “palace” on the site of their original store. Designed by Baldwin & Pennington, one of Baltimore’s leading architectural firms, the magnificent Romanesque building that housed Hutzler’s became one of the city’s most important commercial landmarks. In building a store of such size and opulence, the Hutzler brothers aimed to outdo their competitors, including Joel Gutman, who had opened a large, four-story retail emporium in Baltimore in 1886.

By marrying Cora Hutzler, whose parents represented two different Baltimore retail dynasties, Henry Oppenheimer became firmly tied to the city’s German-Jewish commercial elite. The two were wed on December 26, 1895, in Baltimore. The couple was extremely active in Har Sinai Congregation, where Cora was the first woman to serve on the board of directors. Through their affiliation with Har Sinai, America’s oldest continuously extant Reformed Jewish congregation, the Oppenheimers helped other German Jews relocate to Baltimore. Among other forms of assistance, they helped their co-religionists find housing, educational opportunities, medical care, and jobs. Henry and Cora had only one child, Ella Hutzler Oppenheimer, who was born in 1897.

Through the years, Henry Oppenheimer kept in close contact with his family back home in Germany. Henry, Cora, and Ella traveled from Baltimore to Baden every summer for lengthy stays. During the Second World War, Henry helped bring his three sisters, Caroline, Dora, and Bertha, to America. Distinctive in their old world “Germanic” appearance, the Oppenheimer sisters were apparently known for wearing black dresses and getting around with large black canes. One of Henry’s brothers, Ernst Oppenheimer, fled Germany for Baltimore before the war began, while another brother, Adolph, the youngest sibling, lost his life during the war. The fate of the other two siblings is unknown.[7]

Business Development

Like many Southern German Jews, many of Henry Oppenheimer’s relatives and co-religionists in Baden were involved in money lending. But young Henry wanted to pursue a different occupation and way of life. In Germany, Jews owned between one third and one half of the clothing manufacturing and wholesale houses.[8] Oppenheimer was confident that he could become successful in a manufacturing or trade environment. He knew about his uncle’s clothing business in Baltimore and was eager to become his apprentice. With his parents’ blessing, he traveled to America and went to work for his uncle. Henry was actively involved in “Strouse and Brothers” for over fifteen years.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Henry, who was now a married man, finally felt ready to start his own clothing house. In 1898, Oppenheimer partnered with Louis Steiner, Jr., to form the wholesale clothing company Oppenheimer & Steiner. City records show that the business was based out of Oppenheimer’s home on 1729 Bolton Street. In 1899, Oppenheimer founded Henry Oppenheimer & Company, which was formally headquartered at 113-115 German Street (now Redwood Street) in downtown Baltimore. From that point on, Steiner was listed only as a company salesman.[9]

By 1900, downtown Baltimore had become a center of commerce and was home to many financial institutions, legal offices, manufacturers, retail businesses, and wholesalers. Many of the city’s largest retail businesses had wholesale operations that supplied merchandise to local and regional merchants. These wholesalers acted as middlemen between manufacturers and retailers. Many dry goods operators had exclusive contracts with individual garment makers, and Henry Oppenheimer & Company was well known for its Eclipse brand of men’s clothing. Wholesalers and manufacturers, especially those involved in the garment and dry goods trade, dominated the western section of the city’s downtown. Oppenheimer’s large headquarters was a prominent feature in Baltimore’s commercial skyline.

On the morning of February 7, 1904, a fire broke out at the John E. Hurst & Company dry goods store at German and Liberty Streets and quickly spread to scores of surrounding structures. Within twenty minutes of the start of the blaze, the massive Hurst building collapsed. By noon, all mercantile buildings in the immediate area had been ruined. One of the first buildings damaged in the fire was Henry Oppenheimer & Company. Oppenheimer’s property loss was valued at $175,000 ($4,420,000 in 2010).[10] However, the building did not suffer a total collapse and much of the structure was salvageable. The company’s original namesake remained on the side of the rebuilt structure for many decades. Unfortunately, “Strouse & Brothers” was totally destroyed in the historic blaze. The loss was valued at $250,000 (approximately $6,320,000 in 2010). A total of 1,526 buildings were lost in the Great Fire of 1904. Fortunately, despite the extent of the losses, the fire spared Baltimore’s large retail core, which was centered around Howard and Lexington Streets.[11] The city worked to quickly rebuild its downtown commercial hub.

After the fire, Oppenheimer temporarily relocated his wholesale clothing business to 109 W. Fayette Street. He was able to restart the company because his fireproof safe contained a sizeable check for merchandise previously purchased by Hutzler Brothers Company department store. It would appear that his business rebounded relatively quickly – a Hecht’s advertisement that ran in the October 20, 1905, edition of The Washington Post, announced their “remarkable purchase of 2,900 Men’s Fall and Winter Suits from the celebrated firm of Henry Oppenheimer & Co.” The following year, however, Henry Oppenheimer injured his knee after tripping over a packing crate; the injury required surgery.[12] Purportedly frustrated by the challenges associated with restarting his business and dismayed by the slow pace of his recovery, Oppenheimer moved his family to Buchen, Germany. Located approximately eight kilometers from his birthplace of Walldrün, Buchen was the town in which Oppenheimer’s father had worked as a court scribe. Once there, he entered into early retirement at the age of forty-one.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Hutzler Brothers Company, the department store owned by his wife’s father and uncles, was thriving. The last decades of the nineteenth century had seen enormous growth in its operation. By 1890, the store employed 200 people, more than twice the number of workers in the 1880s, and by 1895, the company had 350 people on its payroll.[13] By the turn of the century, Hutzler’s had established itself as Baltimore’s premier department store. In 1907, the year after Oppenheimer’s return to Germany, Hutzler Brothers Company grew in both size and sales. Although David Hutzler had a successful hold on the large operation, he felt that he could benefit from the assistance of his son-in-law Henry Oppenheimer, whose business sense had always impressed him. Additionally, Hutzler missed his daughter and wanted to have her back in Baltimore. He knew, however, that Henry was content with his early retirement and that getting him to return to Baltimore would take some convincing. So Hutzler offered Oppenheimer an annual salary of $4,000 (approximately $95,700 in 2010) and 5% of the company’s interests. He also purchased a sizable amount of B&O railroad stock as a special bonus for Oppenheimer upon his return.[14]

The offer was too good to refuse. In 1908, Oppenheimer returned to Baltimore and joined Hutzler Brothers Company as vice president of business, sales, and merchandising. That same year, the company incorporated and also celebrated its 50th anniversary. Seven years later, Hutzler appointed Oppenheimer as the store’s new president and general manager. David Hutzler would have preferred to have his oldest son, Albert D. Hutzler, Sr., serve as company president, but he felt that Albert, who was only twenty-four, would not be ready to assume that responsibility until he was twenty-eight. So Henry Oppenheimer accepted the presidency of Hutzler’s in the realization that he would only serve in that position for four years.[15]

Soon after Oppenheimer became president of Hutzler Brothers Company, David Hutzler died of heart disease. In his first address to Hutzler’s board of directors, Oppenheimer stated, “We must perpetuate [David Hutzler’s] memory through business success. It would be a great personal joy to our late and lamented president.”[16] The prominent Jewish attorney and philanthropist Louis H. Levin wrote a testimonial to David Hutzler, praising him as a “merchant, citizen, friend, and Jew.” He noted, “David was a notable example of the solid right-thinking and far-seeing man, who probably contributes more than any other class to commercial and municipal progress.”[17] Levin later became the president of Baltimore’s Associated Jewish Charities, an organization that strove to improve relations between the business-minded “Uptown Jews” from Germany and the working class “Downtown Jews” from Eastern Europe.[18]

Henry Oppenheimer wanted to follow in his father-in-law’s footsteps and serve as a leader in Baltimore’s retail community. In 1917, he became a founder and the first president of Baltimore’s Retail Merchants Association (RMA). Originally established as the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, the RMA was unsuccessful until Oppenheimer took charge and reorganized it. Under Henry’s leadership, the organization became a key player in the commercial life of the city.[19]

Henry’s reputation and expertise also extended well beyond the retail world. During World War I, at a time when German immigrants faced increased scrutiny and discrimination, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Oppenheimer as the Maryland merchant representative of the Federal Food Administration, a government agency that monitored food distribution and food conservation from 1917 to 1919.[20] According to a 1918 article in The Frederick Post, encouraging potato consumption was one of Oppenheimer’s official responsibilities. That same article explained that Oppenheimer had received word from the Food Administration that potato consumption had to be increased by 75 per cent in order to avoid the spoilage of 30,000,000 bushels.[21] That Oppenheimer’s work was understood in patriotic terms was made perfectly clear by the title of the article, “Eat More Spuds; Help to Win War.” For Oppenheimer and other naturalized American citizens of German heritage, the war years must have called for a careful balancing of allegiances. On the one hand, Oppenheimer must have been proud to have been named to an important wartime post by the president of the United States; on the other hand, he must have still had a deep connection to the country of his birth and the place where many of his immediate family members still lived.

During Oppenheimer’s tenure as president of Hutzler’s, the company erected its first major building since the opening of the “palace” in 1888. In 1916, the company added a five-story building on Saratoga Street and two smaller properties on Howard Street to its downtown location. At the time, business was booming.[22] In 1919, as expected, Oppenheimer turned the presidency of Hutzler Brothers Company over to his brother-in-law Albert D. Hutzler, Sr. However, Henry continued to serve as the vice president of the board of directors and assumed several managerial duties. He retired from Hutzler’s management in 1927. Oppenheimer left his position with the Retail Merchants Association in 1921 but remained chairman of the association’s advisory committee for many years. In 1942, in celebration of the RMA’s 25th anniversary, the organization honored Henry, thanking him for his many years of guidance and support. He was honored a second time in 1957.

Hutzler’s department store continued to thrive for many years, and by the 1940s it was renowned for its four restaurants as well as its impeccable customer service. Hutzler family members were involved in the organization throughout the company’s existence. By the 1960s, the store had expanded into suburban Baltimore locations such as Towson, Catonsville, and Glen Burnie. Unfortunately, during the 1970s, its downtown store deteriorated along with the rest of the inner city. Unlike its competitors, which included the Hecht Company, Hochschild, Kohn, and Stewart’s, Hutzler’s was not backed by an out-of-town conglomerate. By the mid-1980s, the company had made a series of desperate business decisions in the hopes of remaining competitive with out-of-town retailers, discount houses, and the newly reinvigorated Hecht Company. Hutzler’s slowly closed store after store, and in October 1989, its once famous Towson store became the site of the company’s final liquidation. Society had changed along with shopping patterns, and Hutzler’s was no longer downtown Baltimore’s premier shopping and social destination.

Henry Oppenheimer passed away at age ninety-two on July 6, 1958, after a brief illness. A private funeral service was held on July 8, 1958. Though he had retired from the management of Hutzler’s in 1927, Oppenheimer served on the board of directors and maintained a presence at the store until his death.[23]

Henry Oppenheimer was survived by his wife Cora, who passed away on February 20, 1959, after a lengthy illness. She was laid to rest at the Har Sinai Cemetery at 3241 Erdman Avenue on February 22, 1959. Henry’s daughter, Dr. Ella Hutzler Oppenheimer Miller, a leader at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Pathology, passed away on January 14, 1981.

Social Status

Like most of Baltimore’s prominent German-Jewish citizens, the Oppenheimer and Hutzler families played key roles in the city’s social life and in various philanthropic initiatives. Henry Oppenheimer was a member of two famous Baltimore institutions, the Phoenix Club and the Suburban Club. Open to Jewish families, the Phoenix Club was founded in 1886 on Park Avenue and relocated to Eutaw Place in 1892. It was a social club that was open to all of Baltimore’s Jewish residents, especially those of German or Russian descent. Henry Oppenheimer joined the Phoenix Club in 1894 and was immediately assigned to the club’s entertainment committee. Oppenheimer was also a longtime member of the Suburban Club. The Suburban Club was founded in 1901 on Park Heights Avenue, eight miles north of downtown Baltimore. The club, also open to all Jewish residents, offered its members the opportunity to play golf, baseball, football, tennis, and other sports on more than fifty-four acres of land. Oppenheimer’s father-in-law, David Hutzler, had served as president of both the Phoenix Club and the Suburban Club.

Oppenheimer also served as a president of Baltimore’s Har Sinai Congregation, the oldest continuously extant Reform Jewish congregation in the United States. Har Sinai Congregation was founded in May 1842 in the home of Moses Hutzler, the father of David Hutzler and the patriarch of the Hutzler family. In 1938, Har Sinai Congregation moved from its downtown location to a seventeen-acre property in Park Heights, the center of Jewish life in Baltimore. Henry Oppenheimer also served as president of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Founded in 1872, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum helped provide shelter for orphaned young Jews. David Hutzler was also a former president of the Asylum. On the national level, Oppenheimer served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations throughout the 1920s.

Cora Hutzler Oppenheimer was also very involved in various philanthropic causes. For example, Cora served as president of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organization of Maryland from 1925 until 1929. She was the president of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods in 1930 and 1931. Cora was also the first woman to serve on the board of directors of Har Sinai Congregation; additionally, she served as a president of the congregation’s Sisterhood. In her later years, she was a member of the Golden Age Club, where she entertained many older and infirm Jewish people.[24]

Henry and Cora Oppenheimer spent many summers at the Hotel Traymore in Atlantic City. They also spent time at a summer residence in Margate, New Jersey. In Baltimore, the couple lived at 2708 Lawina Road in the Windsor Mills section of the city. In her later years, Cora spent time documenting the Hutzler and Oppenheimer family histories through the 1950s. The Oppenheimer estate was valued at $1.3 million (approximately $9.72 million in 2010). The Oppenheimers left sizable gifts to the Associated Jewish Charities, Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and the Provident Hospital and Free Dispensary.[25]

Conclusion

While still a teenager, Henry Oppenheimer left his hometown in Baden and immigrated to the United States on his own.[26] There, he settled in Baltimore, where he apprenticed with his uncle, Isaac Strouse, a clothing wholesaler who ran “Strouse and Brothers High Art Clothing.” After learning the trade from his uncle, Henry established his own wholesale clothing company, Henry Oppenheimer & Company. If family connections proved essential in Oppenheimer’s professional development, then they played an equally important role in his social life. Through his uncle, Oppenheimer became acquainted with many members of Baltimore’s German-Jewish elite, especially those involved in the retail trade. It was within this tight-knit community that Oppenheimer first met his wife, Cora Rosa Hutzler, the daughter of esteemed retailer David Hutzler, who, together with his brothers, Abram and Charles, operated Hutzler Brothers Company. David Hutzler, who admired Henry Oppenheimer’s business sense, eventually entrusted his son-in-law with increasingly important leadership positions within the company, ultimately appointing him president in 1915.

Family was extremely important to Oppenheimer – not just his wife’s but his own, as well. Throughout his life, Oppenheimer visited his family in Germany regularly; in his later years, he even helped family members relocate to America to escape the dangers of the Second World War.[27] Although Oppenheimer became an American citizen in 1887, he always maintained strong ties to the country of his birth. In 1906, after his business was partially destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, he even returned to Germany for a two-year experiment with early retirement. Henry’s granddaughter, Patsy Perlman, remembers him as “a very Germanic personality, someone who was very organized yet perhaps somewhat rigid.” Still, he was also known to be outgoing – in fact, it was said that, throughout his life, Henry Oppenheimer went to Hutzler’s Howard Street store every day to eat lunch with family members and employees.[28]

Oppenheimer’s commitment to family and heritage was inseparable from his Jewish faith. Both Henry and Cora Oppenheimer were active members of Baltimore’s Har Sinai Congregation, America’s oldest continuously extant Reform Jewish congregation. Henry was involved enough with the congregation to serve as its president for a time. He also served as president of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and, in his will, he left sizeable gifts to the Associated Jewish Charities and other institutions.

Notes

[1] There seems to be some uncertainty regarding the year of Oppenheimer’s emigration. According to family sources, he emigrated at the age of thirteen. Oppenheimer’s obituary, however, states that he emigrated at age fifteen (see “Oppenheimer Dies after Brief Illness,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 1958). Census forms and passport applications suggest that Oppenheimer emigrated in 1882, at age sixteen.

[2] See note 1.

[3] Isador Blum, The Jews of Baltimore: An Historical Summary of Their Progress as Citizens of Baltimore from Early Days to the Year 1910 (Washington, DC: Baltimore Washington Historical Review, 1910), 169.

[4] “Sidelights of Big Men in the Trade,” The Clothing Designer and Manufacturer, Volume IX, Number 1 (April 1916): 35.

[5] Dean Krimmel, “Merchant Princes and Their Palaces: The Emergence of Department Stores in Baltimore,” in Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore (Baltimore, MD: Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2001), 19.

[6] Michael Lisicky, Hutzler’s. Where Baltimore Shops (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009), 17.

[7] Patsy Perlman, interview by Michael Lisicky, January 4, 2012.

[8] Salo W. Baron, Arcadius Kohan, Economic History of the Jews (New York, NY: Schocken Press, 1975), 193.

[9] Baltimore City Directory, 1898-1900.

[10] 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. For an overview of property losses in the wake of the fire, see “Heavy Losers by the Great Fire,” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1904, 4.

[11] “Baltimore’s Great Fire”, Official Programme of Maryland Home-Coming Week, October 14-19, 1907.

[12] Perlman, interview, January 4, 2012.

[13] Krimmel, “Merchant Princes and Their Palaces,” 23.

[14] David Hutzler, correspondence with Henry Oppenheimer, 1907, in the Hutzler Brothers Company Papers, Maryland Historical Society.

[15] Perlman, interview, January 4, 2012.

[16] Henry Oppenheimer, letter by the board of directors of Hutzler Brothers Company, February 23, 1916, in the Hutzler Brothers Company Papers, Maryland Historical Society.

[17] Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, Number 25 (1917), n.p.

[19] “Testimonial to Oppenheimer, Founder of Retail Merchant Group to be Honored Next Week,” Evening Sun, April 30, 1942.

[20] “Oppenheimer Rites Being Held,” Baltimore Sun, July 8, 1958.

[21] “Eat More Spuds; Help to Win War,” The Frederick Post, April 17, 1918.

[22] Lisicky, Hutzler’s, 22.

[23] Notice from the National Retail Merchants Association, August 12, 1958.

[24] “Oppenheimer Widow, 84, Dies,” Baltimore Sun, February 21, 1959.

[25] “Oppenheimer Dies after Brief Illness,”Baltimore Sun, July 7, 1958.

[26] See note 1.

[27] Perlman, interview.

[28] Ibid.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Henry Oppenheimer." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved August 16, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=129

Chicago Style

Lisicky, Michael. "Henry Oppenheimer." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified October 10, 2013. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=129

MLA Style

"Henry Oppenheimer," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 16 Aug 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=129>

Henry Oppenheimer Portrait

  • Henry Oppenheimer, along with his parents and two of his sisters in 1866
  • Henry Oppenheimer, along with his father Götz, and his four-year-old daughter Ella in 1901
  • Strouse and Brothers High Art Clothing in downtown Baltimore
  • Henry and Cora Oppenheimer, with their daughter, Ella, in Germany, 1900s

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