- Historic Sites
He excelled at business and made Macy's highly profitable. But Nathan Straus was even better at giving away his earnings to help people in need.
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
People who obtain their view of the world only from movies and television know that business-men come in three varieties. They can be crooks (Wall Street), incompetents (Tucker), or both (The Solid Gold Cadillac). Those of us who live in the real world know that businessmen come in the same infinite variety as any other group of human beings. A few are even saints. One of these was named Nathan Straus.
Born in Otterberg, in Rhenish Bavaria, in 1848, Nathan Straus was the second of the four children of Lazarus Straus. In 1852 his father immigrated to America, and in 1854 he sent for his wife and children. Unlike most Jewish immigrants, Straus did not settle in a major city. Rather he opened a small store in Talbotton, Georgia, where his children attended a log-cabin schoolhouse. Being hundreds of miles from the nearest synagogue, the family went to the Baptist church. The local preachers were awed, to put it mildly, by Lazarus Straus’s ability to read the Old Testament in its original language. To them it was like hearing the word of God directly.
During the Civil War Lazarus Straus acquired a large stockpile of cotton, but in the disorders that followed the fall of the Confederacy, the cotton was burned, and he was wiped out. Undaunted he moved his family to Philadelphia and then to New York City. There he opened L. Straus & Son, importers of fine china and glassware from Europe, in partnership with his eldest son, Isidor. (In 1912 Isidor would refuse to enter a lifeboat while women and children remained aboard the Titanic. He was lost along with his wife, who preferred death at her husband’s side to life without him.)
Nathan joined the family business in 1866. The company began operating the R. H. Macy & Co.'s china and glassware departments under lease in 1874, and Nathan soon showed the sort of merchandising savvy that brings customers into a store and keeps them coming back. In 1888 the Strauses acquired a half interest in the company and a decade later became its sole owners. At Macy’s Nathan came up with the idea of the depository account (an early version of the layaway plan). He provided rest rooms for customers and had emergency medical care available.
Macy’s expanded steadily as the Straus family introduced more and more innovations. The Strauses invented bargain sales and exhibitions. They introduced odd-pricing ($15.95 instead of $16.00) to give the customer the psychological sense of getting a bargain (and, by forcing floor clerks to get change from cashiers, making it more difficult for them to pocket the cash). By 1902, when Macy’s moved to its present location in Herald Square, it was the largest store in New York City. By then the family had also started the highly successful Abraham and Straus store in Brooklyn and become very, very rich.
But money making had never been their sole concern. Nathan dabbled in politics, serving as the city’s park commissioner from 1889 to 1893. The following year he was offered the Democratic nomination for mayor but turned it down. The brothers had also become philanthropists. In the depression that racked the country in the 1890s, Nathan Straus did all he could to alleviate misery.
In the terrible winter of 1892-93, he provided 1.5 million buckets of coal to the poor. The following year he supplied 2 million tickets for coal, food, and lodging at shelters he established. Deeply conscious of human dignity, he charged five cents for these tickets to those who could afford to pay, giving them away free only to those who could not. In this way, when coal was selling for twenty cents a pailful, he supplied it at five cents a pail to those who were merely poor, while giving away fully two thousand tons to those who were desperate.
Great as Straus’s help was to the poor and to other causes (such as his passionate support of Jewish settlement in what was then Palestine), it was his tireless effort to secure a safe milk supply for the nation’s children that earned him enduring fame.
Before the Industrial Revolution the overwhelming majority of babies were fed at their mother’s (or, if the family was rich enough, a wet-nurse’s) breast. But as women increasingly went to work in factories in the nineteenth century, they turned more and more to cow’s milk to nourish their children. This posed no small menace.
Milk from any mammal is usually initially sterile and is often referred to in industry advertising campaigns as “nature’s perfect food.” Unfortunately milk is just as perfect a food for a myriad of microorganisms as it is for humans. Cows were milked by unwashed hands and milk was poured into unsterilized containers and transported long distances from farms to cities. Along the way microorganisms could enter and multiply quickly. Typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, and especially the variety of intestinal infections then known as “summer complaint” can all be contracted from contaminated milk, although there may be no sign of spoilage. In one test milk legally approved for sale at a grocery on Alien Street in New York City was found to contain bacteria in amounts of more than 125 billion per quart. There is no reason to think this was out of the ordinary.