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Isidor Straus

Isidor Straus

The American merchant Isidor Straus (1845-1912) was the owner of the department store R. H. Macy and Company and a U.S. congressman.

Isidor Straus was born on Feb. 6, 1845, in Otterberg, Germany, of a cultivated family. His father, a successful landowner and merchant, suffered political repression and emigrated to America in 1852. After traveling as a merchant in the South, he established a general store in Talbotton, Ga., bringing his wife and four children over in 1854. Isidor was the eldest of this family which was destined for distinction. He took responsibility for family affairs and was the real business head.

Straus was educated in local public schools but was prevented from going to West Point by the Civil War. He first worked in the family store; then a local business group sent him to Europe to buy ships and run the Union blockade, exporting cotton directly. This plan was abandoned, and Straus was left stranded in London with his life savings ($1,200 in gold) stitched into his underwear. He worked for 6 months in a Liverpool office and began trading Confederate bonds on the Amsterdam and London markets. He returned home with $12,000 and set up in business with his father, importing crockery.

L. Straus and Son (1866) did very well. His brother Nathan decided to reach more customers by opening departments inside existing great stores. They took over R. H. Macy's basement in 1874 and soon were doing over 10 percent of all Macy's business. Outlets were opened in big department stores in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia (Wanamaker's). They bought factories in Europe and began domestic crockery manufacture also. In 1888 the two brothers became partners in Macy's and in 1896 sole owners. Isidor reorganized the store; he was the business brains, Nathan the idea man. Straus' careful management built Macy's into the "biggest department store in the world."

Straus emphasized underselling, advertising, and the use of odd prices. From 1893 to 1919 the brothers also controlled a Brooklyn department store, and the two stores cooperated in joint purchasing, foreign buying, joint ownership of drug and food processing, and, in general, exchange of information. But the Straus family fortune was built essentially on Macy's.

Straus was a warm friend of President Grover Cleveland and a Gold Democrat of the Carl Schurz variety. He fell out with the party when it adopted free silver under William Jennings Bryan. He worked for Cleveland's reelection in 1892 and declined the office of postmaster general. Straus also firmly opposed the protective tariff. He served in Congress (1893-1895) but refused renomination. He worked for various charities and was a founder-member of the American-Jewish Committee. He drowned when the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912.

Further Reading

The best source on Straus is Ralph M. Hower, History of Macy's of New York (1943), which makes use of Straus's unpublished autobiographical essay. Isidor's brother Oscar S. Straus produced his own recollections, Under Four Administrations, from Cleveland to Taft (1922), but devoted little space to Isidor. □

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Straus

Straus (strous), family of American merchants, public officials, and philanthropists. Isidor Straus, 1845–1912, b. Rhenish Bavaria, emigrated (1854) with his brothers to the United States in order to join their father, Lazarus Straus, who had already settled in Talbotton, Ga. The family moved (1865) to New York City, and there Isidor took a large part in forming and directing the importing firm of L. Straus & Sons. Isidor, with his brother Nathan, became associated with R. H. Macy & Company in 1874, became a partner in 1888, and by 1896 had acquired ownership of the firm. As a Representative (1894–95) in the U.S. Congress, Isidor aided in drafting nonprotectionist tariff legislation. He later devoted his attention to philanthropy and reform. He and his wife were lost when the Titanic sank. His brother Nathan Straus, 1848–1931, b. Rhenish Bavaria, joined Isidor in business but was especially outstanding for his philanthropy. He established pasteurization stations to supply sanitary milk to the poor, made his milk stations relief depots in the Panic of 1893, and was a leader in the field of child health. He was a prominent Zionist leader and contributed generously to the general improvement of conditions in Palestine. Another brother, Oscar Solomon Straus, 1850–1926, b. Rhenish Bavaria, grad. Columbia (B.A., 1871; LL.B., 1873), was a diplomat and author. He practiced law in New York City until 1881 and then went into business with his brothers. He was minister to Turkey (1887–89) under President Grover Cleveland and again (1898–1900) under William McKinley and was ambassador to Turkey (1909–10) under William H. Taft. He was appointed (1902) to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (the Hague Tribunal) and was (1906–9) Secretary of Commerce and Labor under Theodore Roosevelt. He was candidate for governor of New York on the Progressive party ticket in 1912. He wrote several books, including Roger Williams (1894), The American Spirit (1913), and Under Four Administrations (1922). A son of Isidor Straus, Jesse Isidor Straus, 1872–1936, b. New York City, grad. Harvard, 1893, became president of R. H. Macy & Company in 1919 and served (1933–36) as ambassador to France. Nathan Straus, 1889–1961, b. New York City, son of the elder Nathan Straus, was a journalist and public official. He served (1921–26) in the New York state legislature and headed (1937–42) the U.S. Housing Authority. He wrote Seven Myths of Housing (1944) and Two Thirds of a Nation (1952). Family members ran the company until 1968, and the family held a large block of shares in the company until 1985, when the department store chain was sold in a leveraged buyout to a group of Macy's executives.

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Straus

STRAUS

STRAUS , U.S. family of department store merchants, industrialists, public servants and philanthropists. Its founder, lazarus straus (1809–1898), went to the U.S. in 1852 and settled in Talbotton, Georgia. Straus's three sons, all of whom were born in Otterberg, Rhenish Palatinate, and his wife joined him in 1854. Moving his family to New York City in 1865, Straus became a crockery importer there.

His eldest son, isidor (1845–1912), was a merchant, congressman, and philanthropist. During the Civil War he worked as (aide to) a London-based Confederate agent and as a Confederate bond salesman there and in Amsterdam. After returning to the U.S. in 1865, Isidor entered the family business in New York. He and his brother Nathan became partners in the R.H. Macy Department Store in 1874, and the store's sole owners in 1887. Isidor subsequently became a partner in Abraham and Straus (1893). He was elected to Congress to fill an unexpired term (1894–95), served as a member of the New York and New Jersey Bridge Commission, and was a founder of the Reform Club of New York. Active in Jewish affairs, he was president of the Educational Alliance, a member of the American Jewish Committee, and a founder of an endowment fund for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He died in the sinking of the Titanic.

Lazarus's second son, nathan (1848–1931), was a merchant and philanthropist. He served as New York park commissioner (1889–93), health commissioner, and as a member of the New York Forest Preserve Board. Nathan's lifelong interest in public health manifested itself in his establishment in New York City of a milk pasteurization laboratory and milk distribution stations (1892, 1894, 1897); an emergency relief system for the distribution of coal and food to the poor (winter of 1892–93); and a chain of boarding houses which supplied a bed and breakfast to the poor for five cents (winter of 1893–94). During the severe winter of 1914–15 Straus served one-cent meals in the milk stations he had established earlier. He also established the Pasteur Institute in Palestine, and endowed Hadassah's Nathan Straus child health welfare stations and the Nathan and Lina Straus health centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It was estimated that Straus gave two-thirds of his fortune to various projects in Palestine; in recognition, *Netanyah was named for him.

The youngest brother, oscar solomon (1850–1926), was a diplomat, author, public servant, and jurist. Oscar was educated at Columbia University (L.B. 1873). While his father and brothers were expanding their crockery store into a far-flung mercantile firm, he was drawn through his law practice into the circles of political reformers. A "mugwump" who worked for the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884, Straus was rewarded by the Democrats with the post of minister to Turkey. On that mission (1887–89) and during two subsequent missions (minister, 1898–1900; ambassador, 1909–10) he dealt with the problems of missionary rights, the protection of naturalized U.S. citizens, and the course of "dollar diplomacy."

In matters of foreign policy Oscar was usually the anti-imperialist and pacifist. Active in the organized peace movement, he labored continuously for the establishment of legal machinery for the amicable settlement of international disputes. During World War i and its aftermath he championed the idea of a league of nations. Theodore Roosevelt appointed Straus to the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague, an appointment which was renewed four times. In domestic affairs Straus stressed political reforms (e.g., direct primaries) as the best means to preserve the democratic system. A Cleveland Democrat who broke with the party when it backed free silver, he stood for sound money, low tariffs, liberal immigration policies, and civil service reform. He emphasized the interest of the public in the clashes between capital and labor, and, like Theodore Roosevelt, he advocated cooperation with business and regulation of trusts when he served as Roosevelt's secretary of commerce and labor (1906–09). In 1912 he followed Roosevelt into the Progressive Party, and he ran as that party's candidate for governor of New York.

The first Jew to hold a cabinet post, Straus displayed a strong sense of responsibility toward the Jewish community. On numerous occasions he interceded with U.S. and foreign statesmen on behalf of the suffering Jews of Russia and Romania. In 1906 he helped found the *American Jewish Committee. Opposed to political Zionism, he nonetheless contributed to various projects for the physical rehabilitation of Palestine and he supported territorialist schemes for the settlement of persecuted Jews. As a founder and officer of the Baron de Hirsch Fund he also worked to ease the plight of the newly arrived immigrants to the United States. Straus, a Reform Jew, found ideological similarities between the missions of Judaism and Americanism. As first president of the American Jewish Historical Society, and in numerous writings, particularly The Origin of the Republican Form of Government in the United States of America (1887, 1925), he stressed the impact of Hebraic concepts upon U.S. culture. His other writings include: Roger Williams, the Pioneer of Religious Liberty in the United States (1896) and Under Four Administrations (1922), an autobiography.

jesse isidor (1872–1936), the son of Isidor Straus, graduated from Harvard in 1893. He went to work for Macy's in 1896, was subsequently elected firm president in 1919, and supervised its growth into the world's largest department store. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Straus to serve first on the New York State Commission for the Revision of Tax Laws and then as head of the New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (1931). In his latter position he was responsible for supervising the disbursement of $20 million in unemployment funds. Straus, who organized the Roosevelt Business and Professional League to work for Roosevelt's election as president, was appointed ambassador to France by Roosevelt in 1933. As ambassador he urged the removal of trade barriers between the U.S. and France. He resigned in 1936 because of ill health. His son jack isidor (1900–1985) inherited the management of Macy's, of which he became director in 1928, vice president in 1939, president in 1940, and chairman of the board in 1956. A second son, robert kenneth (1905–1997), was active in New Deal politics in Washington, where he served as deputy administrator of the National Recovery Act before going into business.

nathan jr. (1889–1961), the son of Nathan Straus, was born in New York City and worked as a reporter for the New York Globe (1909–10). He resigned to devote himself to the family interests at R.H. Macy (1910–13), but soon resumed his editorial career. From 1913 to 1917 he was editor and publisher of the humorous magazine Puck. After World War i service as a navy ensign, Straus was assistant editor of the New York Globe. He resigned in 1920 in opposition to the paper's support for Harding and its anti-League of Nations stand. From 1920 to 1926 Straus served in the New York State Senate as a Democrat, where he became interested in public housing legislation. He subsequently served as state administrator for the National Recovery Administration (1934), was a member of the New York City Housing Authority (1936), and head of the U.S. Housing Authority (1937–42). He resigned from the latter position as a result of dissatisfaction among conservative congressmen over his leadership of the authority. As president of radio station wmca, he steered the station into an increasingly liberal stance on public issues. Straus wrote Seven Myths of Housing (1944), and Two-Thirds of a NationA Housing Program (1952).

His son, r. peter (1917– ), took over the management of wmca while purchasing additional radio stations to form the Straus Broadcasting Group. He also served as executive assistant to the director of the International Labor Organization in Geneva from 1950 to 1955 and director of the U.S. office from 1955 to 1958. In 1967 he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be assistant director of the U.S. foreign aid program to Africa until 1969. Under President Jimmy Carter he served as director of the Voice of America (1977–79). After wmca was sold in 1986, the company broadened into Straus Communications, a private chain that owns 11 radio stations and eight newspapers, of which Straus served as chairman. He was married to Ellen Sulzberger Straus for 45 years until her death in 1995. In 1998 he married writer Marcia Lewis, the mother of Monica Lewinsky. He wrote several books, including Is the State Department Color Blind? (1971); The Buddy System in Foreign Affairs; (1973); and The Father of Anne Frank (1975).

roger williams (1893–1957), the son of Oscar Solomon Straus, graduated from Princeton in 1913. He married the daughter of Daniel *Guggenheim, and joined the American Smelting and Refining Company, owned by the Guggenheim family, becoming company president in 1941 and board chairman in 1947. Active in Republican Party politics, Straus was New York City manager for Thomas E. Dewey's 1948 presidential campaign and vice chairman of the Republican National Campaign Committee (1944). In 1954 he served as a member of the U.S. delegation to the un General Assembly. Appointed in 1947 to the New York State Board of Regents, the supreme educational body in the state, Straus was named its chancellor in 1956. He was a founder of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1928) and of the World Council of Christians and Jews (1947), and a member of the executive boards of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Financial and Development Corporation for Israel. His son oscar ii (1914– ) served with the State Department in Washington from 1940 to 1945 before going into his father's business. In 1963 he became president of the Guggenheim Exploration Company. He was the first chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Rensselaerville Institute think tank and served for many years, after which he became honorary chairman. His younger brother, roger willams jr. (1917–2004), went into publishing and in 1945 founded the prominent New York publishing house of Farrar, Straus, and Company in partnership with John C. Farrar.

bibliography:

G.S. Hellman (ed.), The Oscar Straus Memorial Volume (1949); S. Birmingham, Our Crowd (1967), index; N.W. Cohen, Dual Heritage. The Public Career of Oscar S. Straus (1969), includes bibl. add. bibliography: M. Harriman, And the Price Is Right: The R.H. Macy Story (1958); I. Marmash, Macy's for Sale (1989).

[Naomi W. Cohen and

Hanns G. Reissner /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

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