The Family that Perfected the Department Store
By Nick Ripatrazone
An issue of Time magazine dated February 3, 1947 contained a short profile of architect Richard Joseph Neutra, who “ranks second only to lordly Frank Lloyd Wright.” The author explains that Neutra’s designs were diverse and utilitarian; he designed schools and hospitals in Puerto Rico and made “a moated desert mansion” for Josef von Sternberg, director of The Blue Angel. Part-architect and part-counselor, Neutra’s overzealous clients who came armed with floor plans were met with the response that he is “more interested in the plan of your life.” The architect had them document their days, down to who visits their home, and even how they preferred to sleep. On the occasion of Time’s profile, Neutra was hard at work designing a new family home in Palm Springs, California. The family’s current home was in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, and was designed by Wright—a “cantilevered castle-in-the-air” that overhung a waterfall. But the couple wanted a “desert hideaway,” and millionaires tend to get what they want. Department story scions Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife Liliane were ready to escape Pennsylvania’s winters.
If you know the name Kaufmann, then you know how this story ends—the famed department store shuttered its downtown Pittsburgh location in 2015, and the chain went defunct shortly after. Yet a new book offers a comprehensive look at the family that built this store. Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store by Marylynne Pitz and Laura Malt Schneiderman begins with a short preface, in which the authors tease the volume’s angle: “As we researched the family and its store, we realized that the Kaufmanns’ public triumphs had, with the passage of time, obscured their personal tragedies and imperfections. The drama of their lives was forgotten.”
Pitz and Schneiderman are correct—and the book delivers on its promise. The Kaufmanns were an ambitious and successful family beset by tragedies, largely unknown to the generations who patroned their Pittsburgh store—or enjoyed a bite at the Tik Toc counter within. The story behind the family’s namesake store—and its descent—is a microcosm of American economics.
Jacob Kaufmann, the first of the family to emigrate to America in 1868 at 19 years old, peddled “buttons, combs, lace, mirror, pins, needles, ribbons, and thread” as he walked over ten miles a day in, around, and beyond Pittsburgh. His exhausting stretch took him “through the Youghiogheny River Valley and as far southeast as Connellsville, Pennsylvania.” Kaufmann was able to afford a horse-drawn wagon, and soon Isaac, his brother, came to America.
The brothers continued to successfully peddle, leading up to a fortuitous decision. In May 1871, they spent every dime they had—$1,500—and opened a tailor shop: J. Kaufmann and Brother. Nearly a decade later, the Kaufmann’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, and the brothers would be millionaires. In New York and Philadelphia, Chicago and Pittsburgh, the department store would change how American’s enjoyed consumer goods, which in turn had an effect on how Americans understood themselves.
“The lady of the porcelain department / Smiles at the world through a set of false teeth.” So begins “In the Department Store,” written by T.S. Eliot around 1915, a poet notorious for his antisemitic opinions, and who no doubt would have had an uncharitable position about the Kaufmanns. Although Eliot’s character is “business-like,” a pencil stuck in her hair, she is perceived by the narrator to be taken by fancy—musing about “summer evenings in the park / And heated nights in second story dance halls.” The final stanza is cryptic, but suggests the narrator’s desires: “Man’s life is powerless and brief and dark / It is not possible for me to make her happy.”
A few years earlier, in 1912, Eliot received a letter from a literary-minded medical student, Jean Jules Verdenal, whom he met at the Sorbonne in 1910—and to whom Eliot would later dedicate Prufrock and Other Observations. Verdenal laments how preparation for an intensive exam caused his head to feel “rather like a department store stocked with anything and everything to hoodwink the public.”
Robert Frost once wrote that poets get their knowledge “cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books.” Poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Verdenal died at war in 1915, so there’s something vaguely romantic and memorializing to wonder how the simile of a department store as a cacophonic space might have lodged in Eliot’s mind.
Verdenal would have been confident that Eliot understood his reference. Le Bon Marché, the first department store in France—actually, anywhere—opened in 1852. Founded by Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut, the idea was to offer a range of items in a single location. Customers would not have to travel to various shops; everything could be available in one space. The department store, then, was a curious evolution of the peddler, a direct genealogy from Jacob Kaufmann traipsing through the Youghiogheny River Valley to their flagship shop on Fifth Avenue.
One subtext of Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store is how money, fame, and identity intersect. Pitz and Schneiderman note that as the Kaufmann’s became wealthy, prominent, and influential, “they sought entrée into the city’s social circles,” including the Duquesne Club. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Thomas Mellon dined and smoked cigars there, but at the time Jews were not welcome. Indicative of the antisemitism which permeated the upper echelons of Pittsburgh’s Protestant elite, the authors share an anecdote about Mellon during his time as a judge for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Josiah Cohen, representing the Tree of Life congregation in Sharpsburg, petitioned to create a Jewish burial ground. Mellon’s response: “A place to bury Jews? With pleasure, with pleasure.”
The Kaufmanns forged their own social path, helping to found the Concordia Club with other immigrant German Jews. Like many other members of the club, the Kaufmanns identified with Reform Judaism. The authors argue that it is best to conceive of the Kaufmanns’ Jewish identity through the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 which established and defined American Reform Judaism. The Kaufmann’s synagogue, Rodef Shalom, operated firmly in this movement.
One salient example from Pitz and Schneiderman is the Haggadah (the prayer book for Passover) prepared by Dr. J. Leonard Levy, the chief rabbi of Rodef Shalom. Levy called for a distinctly American Passover service. The American flag should be centrally placed on the dinner table. Diners should sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” before giving thanks for their emigration from Europe. Levy wrote: “It is not surprising that we love this country so dearly. America is the child of the Old Testament. It is the ‘Moses and the Prophets’ of modern times.”
The sentiment can be seen as reflected years later. The August 15, 1945 edition of The Pittsburgh Press details Japan’s surrender during World War II. Crowds jammed Fifth Avenue, and in the pages of the newspaper, retailers ran congratulatory ads. May-Stern’s took a solemn route: “With hearts humbled in tribute to those who gave so much, let us go forever forward united in peace as in victory.” Gimbels quoted lines from Isaiah calling for an end to war: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Similarly, most stores opted for solemnity and thanks, with most spanning a quarter of the page or less. In the American economy, it was common that businesses often struck a secular tone—like the Kaufmanns, the Gimbels and the May-Sterns were Jewish immigrants. Yet in embracing Christian iconography, the Kaufmanns completed a process of assimilation. The department store ran a full page ad for victory in the Second World War, the letter V spanning over most of the page. In the background: a soldier’s helmet hanging on a cross.
In 1904, Jacob Kauffman had a mansion built in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The home had “fourteen rooms, three bathrooms, hardwood floors, porch, terrace, conservatory, and astonishing $5,000 landscaping budget.”
The next year, Jacob was dead – complications from an emergency appendectomy. His death, Pitz and Schneiderman reveal, “created division [in the family] right away.” The remaining Kauffman brothers hoped to keep the store in family control if something happened to them. Lawsuits ensued. Henry Kauffman and his wife Theresa were especially rattled; in 1907, Irene, their nineteen-year-old daughter, died by suicide—ingesting carbolic acid. Theresa “never recovered from the loss of her daughter,” and died by suicide herself in 1916.
Despite the family tragedies and rivalries (some cousins fomented revenge by starting their own department store), Kauffmann’s success only increased in the 1920s: “In 1924, the store sold more than $30 million in merchandise, making it one of the top ten department stores nationwide.” Pitz and Schneiderman describe the Kaufmanns approach to management as “paternalistic,” in a most positive sense; as one executive of the time was quoted, “The merchant bears a certain moral responsibility to this community [of workers].”
In the 1930s, Liliane Kauffman ran her own boutique in the store. Vendôme sold “antiques, couture and designer clothing, jewelry, and museum-quality Steuben glass.” She later gave a speech to longtime store employees affirming her “active share” in the store: “Running a department is more exciting than running a house; meeting the public is more broadening that meeting other women at afternoon tea; watching customers and how they act and react is more amusing than any movie and juggling figures and keeping abreast of that yellow sheet in Mr. Clarkson’s office is far more stimulating mentally than a bridge game.”
Unfortunately, her husband Edgar was in the midst of a litany of rather-public affairs. The strain on their marriage was irreversible.
A few years after Time teased the Kaufmann’s Palm Springs house, Life magazine was there to document the final product.
The photo was taken by Julius Shulman, noted architectural photographer—handpicked by Neutra (who loathed to cease control of anything—including the position of Sherman’s camera). In Mary Melton’s iconic story about the photographer, entitled “Lens Master,” she documents Shulman’s meticulous work to capture the legendary image: “As the sky darkened, the house glowed. For the next 45 minutes Shulman ran in and out of the glass house, switching lamps on and off, opening and closing the shutter to burn in the light.”
In the final version of the photo, Liliane Kaufmann lies next to the pool—almost a ghostly image, as phantom as the San Jacinto Mountains in the background.
She died by suicide five years later. Like other family incidents, it seemed to create a chain reaction of tragedy. Edgar married Grace Stoops; even before Liliane’s death, the two had presented as a couple while hosting celebrity parties. A year after his Liliane’s suicide, Edgar died of heart disease. Grace, stricken with “creeping paralysis,” would die the next year.
Great department stories are the synthesis of ambition and artifice. The long beloved Kaufmann’s store ultimately fell prey to the proliferation of mass, and later, online shopping. As Pitz and Schneiderman astutely note, the Kaufmanns would have responded in disbelief as to how people now shop for clothes: “never having touched, seen, nor tried on a garment before buying it.” There was something deeply material about buying items on site: the texture and color of the garments, the feel against one’s skin. Even the interaction with salespeople was a rhetorical dance. After all, the genesis of Kaufmanns was young Jacob Kaufmann, the first of the family to emigrate—who peddled buttons, combs, ribbons, thread, and other items in the 1860s. First on foot, and then by horse-drawn wagon, Jacob had to sell by hand and mouth; each sale was a personal encounter. Long after his death, the store operated with that spirit.
In Kaufmann’s ideal vision of the department store, there was a pleasant illusion that a shopper could not only shop for almost anything within their building, but experience almost anything. In addition to the Tik Toc counter and the celebrated, massive, and detailed bronzed Victorian style clock with its depiction of Atlas hoisting the world and which loomed over Fifth Avenue, the store was known for its intricate Christmas window displays. Residents loved the tableaux, with many traveling from throughout the region to see the meticulous creations—known for often including live models. Staging that in its own way was as exacting as Shulman’s photography, or Neutra’s architecture.
In Palm Springs, back in 1947, Shulman got his perfect shot—despite Neutra’s needling. Dusk turned into night, and the Kaufmanns went inside their house. The photo, steeped in a languid hue, somehow captures the melancholy of the family—even if the house was the actual subject. Perhaps that was Shulman’s design and desire all along.
Nick Ripatrazone’s most recent books include Longing for an Absent God and Digital Communion, both from Fortress Press. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, and The Atlantic, and is the Culture Editor for Image Journal.