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Saint Straus

April 2024
6min read

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.

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.

As if the afflictions already mentioned were not bad enough, tuberculosis, the Victorians’ “dreaded dark disease,” can be carried by milk as well, and worse, it is one of the few diseases that can get past nature’s defenses and be directly transmitted through breastfeeding. Cows are as susceptible to TB as humans and often show few symptoms until they are near death.

For these reasons, milk, the staff of life to the young, was also the sower of death among urban children in nineteenth-century America. In the 1850s fewer than half the children born in New York City lived to see their fifth birthdays, and no one knew why. Enter Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

In the 1850s and 1860s Pasteur demonstrated that microorganisms were responsible for fermentation in wine and beer, for spoilage in milk, and for several diseases, including chicken cholera and anthrax. In 1882 Koch found the organism that caused tuberculosis. The germ theory of disease was born.

In the early 1890s Nathan Straus kept a “high-bred cow” at his camp in the Adirondacks in order to supply the household with good, clean milk. Suddenly the apparently healthy cow sickened and died. The autopsy revealed tuberculosis, and Straus was appalled.

It was not then certain that bovine TB was the same as the human variety; still, to Straus, who had no scientific training, “It was inconceivable . .. that the milk from tuberculous cows could be a safe food in its raw state.” Straus also knew there was a solution at hand. Pasteur had shown that heating liquids to a point below boiling and holding them there for a period of time killed most disease-causing microorganisms, including Koch’s deadly Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Straus immediately saw to it that his own children drank pasteurized milk and characteristically set to work both to provide it to needy children and to have the process legally mandated for all milk sold. He set up milk stations in poor areas in New York City to give away pasteurized milk, and proof of the efficacy of the program was not long in coming. In 1891 fully 24 percent of babies bom in New York City died before age one. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only 6 died.

There is no statue to Nathan Straus in New York. But there are thousands of memorials to him in every American city.

In 1898 Straus served as the president of the city’s board of health. He immediately donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan’s asylum. This grim institution received children abandoned by or removed from their families, so it is not surprising that they had a death rate four times that of children in general. In 1897, a typical year, 44 percent of the children housed there died. In 1898, with the introduction of pasteurized milk the only change, the death rate at the asylum plunged to 20 percent.

With results like this, one would think that pasteurization would have swept the nation. Instead it faced opposition from milk distributors and bureaucrats, among others. At one point Straus was even arrested for “adulterating” milk because he supplied mothers with infant formula. But he persevered. In 1908, when the infant death rate had been cut in half by voluntary pasteurization, Chicago became the first city to require it, and New York finally followed suit in 1914.

During his crusade Straus established at his own expense 297 milk stations in thirty-six cities. Over the course of twenty-five years, 24,009,498 glasses and bottles of safe milk were dispensed. The national death rate for children fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Altogether it is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children.

Despite these prodigious outside activities he remained active in the management of Macy’s until 1914 and retired from business completely only in 1925 when he was seventy-seven. When he died in 1931 his estate amounted to a million dollars, and he left not a penny of it to charity, explaining in his will that “what you give for the cause of charity in health is gold, what you give in sickness is silver, and what you give in death is lead.”

Today New York City has a touching memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife—they who loved honor and each other more than life itself—but there is none to Nathan. In a larger sense, however, there are thousands of memorials in every neighborhood of every city in the country. As Adm. George Dewey explained at the ground-breaking ceremony for one of the milk stations, “If all the little children whose lives [Straus] saved could mass themselves around the building now to be erected [he] would have the most splendid memorial ever made to man.”

So the next time you hear the laugh of a child or look into a little face shining with health, remember Nathan Straus, a saint who was, as it happens, a businessman.

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