by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There are few more apt examples of the dramatic growth of Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries than the impressive expansion of the mercantile business of Asher Hamburger and his sons, Solomon, David and Moses, which from 1881 to 1923 was a thriving establishment in the Angel City.
The featured artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a 9 July 1913 letter from the company to Mrs. George D. Rowan and which was connected to the substantial real estate firm of Robert A. Rowan, subject of a post here previously, but the letter is really just a representative piece about the Hamburgers’ retail store enterprise.
Among the many Jewish business families that were high achievers in the Angel City during that era, such as the Hellmans and the Newmarks (of Harris Newmark, check back with us on Monday for a post), the Hamburgers are not as well known, but very much should be. They were emblematic of the cadre of European Jews who found opportunity in Los Angeles, but were not just especially adept capitalists, but also highly community-minded.
Asher Hamburger was born in 1821 in Altenschoenbach in Bayern, or Bavaria, in what some fifty years later became the southern part of a united Germany. As so often the case, Asher, who was apprenticed to a rope-maker, and his brother Henry sought greater opportunities for themselves and headed for America when Asher was 18 years old. After working in a tassel-making factory in New York City, he earned enough money to open a store in Pennsylvania.
After some years as a merchant in Alabama, Hamburger joined the hordes who migrated by ship via the isthmus at Panama to California during the Gold Rush and ended up with retail store in Sacramento and a wholesale business in San Francisco. For about three decades, he operated these enterprises, suffering losses from fires and floods (William Workman’s older brother, David, opened a store in Sacramento in 1852, but it and, likely the Hamburger place, burned later that year when nearly the entire city was consumed by a conflagration.)
In 1855, he married Hannah Bien, a native of Kassel, a city in central Germany, and the couple had four daughters and three sons, all of whom grew up in Sacramento. By the early 1880s, however, the sons were eager to try their hand in a more promising region of California and implored their father to investigate southern locales. While Asher favored San Diego, his youngest son Moses convinced him that Los Angeles had more potential.
In October 1881, the Hamburgers opened the People’s Store and, from the beginning, emphasized a particular advertising strategy geared to the rising middle class as Los Angeles began to grow and as American industrialization and commercialization expanded by leaps and bounds. While, when the store opened at the corner at the corner of Main Street and Requena Street (this latter no longer exists, but went east from Main to Alameda about where Temple Street is today), the local economy was still not recovered from the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank and a long broader depression, things would change within a few years.
At the end of June 1884, the People’s Store moved to the new Bumiller Block (this is a different structure than the 1906 Bumiller Building, which still stands, on Broadway south of 4th) on Spring Street. The Los Angeles Herald of 1 July reported:
At 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon the bolts shot back, the massive doors, creaking upon their hinges, and amid the strains of beautiful music, the portals of the People’s Store swung back and opened this magnificent establishment to the Los Angeles public.
Without any flattery, it is the largest and handsomest dry goods emporium in Southern California, and one may travel a long way ere its superior is reached. It is another evidence of the thrift and prosperity of Los Angeles, and an ornament that the mercantile community may well be proud to have as one of its compeers.
The paper went into great detail about the establishment, its arrangement and its goods including the trio of show windows, said to be the largest in town, displaying items from the millinery, silk and and dress goods departments. It added that “by the jingle of the coin and calls of cash from all sides, one would imagine the New York Stock Exchange in heated session.”
Carpeting and wall decorations were also noted and there was a “Japanese and bric-a-brac department” that was identified as “a new feature of the business and one that is, to say the least, attractive and interesting.” The Herald continued that “the young gentlemen in charge [Solomon, David and Moses] deserve especial mention for the care, precision, exactness and neatness in the arrangement of their stock. On the second floor, near the men’s and boys’ sections, Professor Engels and his ensemble played for patrons.
The paper concluded that, “the People’s Store is one of the most deserving establishments in Los Angeles. Its proprietors are energetic, enterprising, faithful, upright and honest. They are constantly on the alert and ever watching the interests of the community.” Having lacked decent space in the first location, the expanded quarters were such that “the public will marvel at the extraordinary bargains that they will constantly offer” and it was observed that “if ever there was a store rightly named it was the People’s Store, for eminently and in every sense it is a store of and for the people.”
Within two years, the opening of a direct transcontinental railroad line from the east to the region helped largely to usher in the great Boom of the 1880s, so it was hardly surprising that the Bumiller quarters proved lacking. Another prominent Jew, Louis Phillips, who was a rare rancher and farmer among the Jewish community, built a commodious block adjacent on the south to the Bumiller Block south where the old adobe courthouse and brick and adobe jail long stood and the People’s Store moved there exactly four years later.
In its coverage of the grand opening of this third location, the Los Angeles Times of 1 July 1888 noted,
Pedestrian traffic along Main [Spring] street was much impeded last night in the neighborhood of the Phillips block, for the doors of the People’s Store, now located in the magnificent edifice, were thrown open and all who so desired invited inside to examine and admire the new premises.
The paper reported on surging crowds lured by the electric lights that were only introduced to the Angel City about a half-dozen years prior and those who entered were entertained by the Meines band and many admired an organ made entirely of fabric, including satin pipes, a frame of silk and a keyboard of toothbrushes, while elsewhere there was a fountain comprised of buttons.
The millinery department was declared to be “the most attractive feature of the establishment” and there were twenty-five female employees for this section alone. A carpet and furnishing department appeared to be new and there were over sixty registers, more than four times what was in the previous location. Notably, however, that Bumiller Block space was to remain as an adjunct of sorts for men’s clothing and furnishings.
In early December 1897, Asher Hamburger died in San Francisco at age 76 and his body was brought to Los Angeles for a service and interment at the original Jewish Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills west of the Calvary Cemetery (he was later moved to Home of Peace in Los Angeles, where other family members are interred in a fine mausoleum). About a year-and-a-half later, another major change was made for the People’s Store as it took occupancy of the entirety of the Phillips Block and it was rechristened the “Greater People’s Store” as a $75,000 remodeling meant that, as noted in the 31 May 1899 issue of the Los Angeles Express “Los Angeles now has the largest and most complete single store in the far west, and a mercantile establishment that would do credit to any city in the world.”
The paper gushed further that “it is as near perfection as money, brains and good taste can make it” and it noted that “the perplexing task” of remaking the building, taking five months, “reflects the highest credit upon the energetic and progressive proprietors” as well as Phillips because, it averred, the renovations were “a big advertisement for Los Angeles as a commercial center.”
Among the work, leaving just the original walls, windows and first floor ceiling, was making each floor independently supported with massive iron columns from the basement to the roof, taking out all the floors to have them redone, redoing the foundations and other improvements so that “the entire building throughout is to-day probably the strongest and most carefully built structure in Los Angeles. When Phillips completed the building, there were rumors that it was shoddily constructed and he went to great lengths to show that this was not the case.
The paper went into great detail regarding the layout of the four floors, comprising some three acres of floor space, while the Bumiller space (also known as the Ponet-Bumiller, because cabinet maker, undertaker, real estate investor and Belgian consul, Victor Ponet, was a part-owner) was dedicated to linen, cotton, calico, domestics and wash goods. Later, space was added at the back off New High Street, which then paralleled Spring Street as far south as 1st Street.
Less than a year later, and as the 19th century came to a close, the Hamburger brothers decided to retire the “People’s Store” name and officially became “A. Hamburger & Sons, Inc., with an opening and reception held to welcome the spring season on 21 March 1900. Special window displays of rural foothill scenes with dress forms arrayed in fine silk clothing, a rendering of a drawing room with a back window looking on to a park scene, a park promenade, and a state capitol scene for men’s clothing were noted by the Express in its coverage. The fourth floor was made up as an Oriental” space, while, as before, music was supplied, courtesy of the Arend orchestra, vocalists and the Ladies’ Venetian Mandolin ensemble.
The next major boom for Los Angeles and its environs took place in the opening years of the 20th century, so, again, it was hardly surprising that the Hamburger brothers looked for yet another expansion of their burgeoning business. This time, they decided to build their own structure and the family’s Hamburger Realty and Trust Company, which handled other real estate projects, as well, purchased a parcel at Broadway and 8th Street and sold the two houses there prior to breaking ground in October 1905 for the new structure.
The Hamburgers, as per usual, however, made an event out of what was usually the turning of shovels and a few speeches and a parade was included with a reported several thousand people in attendance. The Herald of 18 October reported that
The event marked an important epoch in the history of the firm, as well as in the history of Los Angeles, for it not only meant the elaborate enlargement of the Hamburger store, but pointed the way to the immediate further expansion of the business district of Los Angeles, indicating to home people and all home visitors in a substantial manner that the great metropolis of Southern California is growing with rapid strides.
The parade purportedly involved some twenty blocks of autos (not to have been seen in 1900 even) decorated with flags and banners, while there were also horse-drawn carriages “to lend color and added beauty to the parade.” A band played and an elevated stage allowed for speakers. Moses Hamburger was one of these, with David and Solomon unable to attend, and told the crowd, “let us work together, not as strangers, but as members of the same family, to the end that greater success may be ours” and he added, “I trust that everyone here present will be with us on the opening of the largest department store west of Chicago.”
It took some time, certainly longer than anticipated, but the new structure, which also contained the Los Angeles Public Library and Woodbury Business College among other tenants, finally welcomed the expanded Hamburger’s store on 10 August 1908. The Express marked the occasion by declaring, “southward the course of the city’s business empire surely is taking its way, a fact that needs no further confirmation than the establishment of this great store . . . it is not unlike an empire itself, with everything essential to life, and alike grounded upon and guarded by the honesty which is more of a principle than a policy.”
On the expansive fourth floor, David Hamburger made some brief opening remarks and a welcome and Mayor Arthur C. Harper (who resigned in March 1909 amid scandal) praised the opening and introduced U.S. Senator Frank P. Flint, who paid tribute to the Hamburgers and their firm. Niles Pease, president of the City Council and a key member of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, prognosticated that the Hamburger Building would be the center of a great business section of the Angel City in ten years’ time.
David Hamburger returned to the stage and told the assemblage:
We have tried to treat everybody with uniform courtesy and the large crowd [estimated to be up to an astounding 80,000] is but another evidence of the always kindly reception we have received in Southern California.
This is the crowning event of our lives . . .
If this building is a monument it is one of gratitude to the people of Southern California, and it has been erected through stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance and honesty which are the principles of success in all things. We dedicate it to you.
Among the gifts mentioned was one from William Cline, the first employee hired by Asher Hamburger more than a quarter-century before, and it was a horseshoe of flowers with the years “1881” and “1908” along with a photo of the first store with Hamburger and Cline standing in front. The store was described in some detail and emphasized were the women’s rest rooms and lounges, dentist’s office, children’s nursery, a house doctor’s office, a chiropodist, and hairdressers and manicurists—all showing the continued spirit of innovation that manifested the Hamburger family’s approach to customer service.
The Herald also went into considerable depth, as did the Times, in its coverage of the opening, but did note that the 1200 employees were well drilled to provide service to the throngs that day and it was reported that the motto for the store was “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Some patrons marveled that it was “a city in four walls,” while another visitor stated it was “seven big cities in one because of the number of floors.
As for the building, the paper enthused, “west of Chicago [and Marshall Fields] there is perhaps no more modern or wonderful mercantile monument than this great building of the Hamburgers, which stands as a mighty tribute to the progressive spirit of Los Angeles and Southern California.” Moreover, “it is replete with architectural triumphs, a marvel of modern sanitary science, [and] luxurious comfort and convenience.” Highlighted was the “moving stairway,” or escalator, along with quiet elevators, up-to-date lighting, air control and other aspects. Also built was the Majestic Theatre, the subject of a very recent post here.
Five years later, several months after this letter was created, Solomon Hamburger, the eldest of the three brothers and who moved to New York and operated a company office there (it is noted at the top of the letterhead, along with others in Paris, Berlin and Yokohama), died just shy of his 60th birthday. It was stated in an obituary that Solomon was responsible for the opening of the Los Angeles store because “he was intranced [sic] with the great activities of the then small village and immediately decided that he would cast his fortune with the growth and prosperity of Los Angeles.”
Another decade went by, during which such department stores as The Broadway and Bullock’s became major competitors, and, after more than forty years in the business, Moses and David decided to sell the store to David May (1848-1927), another Jewish immigrant from Bavaria in what became Germany. May started his mercantile empire in Leadville, Colorado in 1877 and then bought a store in Denver, before purchasing a well-known establishment in St. Louis, which became his flagship. There were more stores in Cleveland and Akron in Ohio before the deal was swung to purchase Hamburger’s on 1 April 1923.
There was extensive coverage in the press about the acquisition, but David and Moses Hamburger did not retire, but, instead, turned their attentions to banking, real estate, and philanthropy. Moses died in 1930, not long after he turned 70, and he was noted for being a founder of Blackstone’s, another prominent Angel City department store, along with his work in banking, business organizations, and his leading role in building the Majestic.
The last of the brothers to survive was David, who died in September 1944 just a few weeks before what would have been his 87th birthday. Notably, it was reported that his move to Los Angeles in 1883 was for health reasons, a very common situation for what was often called a “health-seeker’s paradise.”
David was also recalled as a graduate of Harvard Law School, who practiced as an attorney for 64 years until not quite a year prior to his death, while he remembered for his active work in real estate, as president of the famous aviation meet at Rancho Dominguez in January 1910, a director of Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, and founder of the Hamburger Home for Jewish Working Girls.
This letter is a basic communication, but it is representative of a remarkable Jewish family, whose fortunes grew as the Angel City expanded over many decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meanwhile, the Hamburger Building, known commonly as the May Company Building, is still with us.
Hi Paul. It seems to me that Los Angeles has some very deep Jewish roots. Outside of Newmark’s memoirs, has anyone written a book about the crucial contributions made by Jews in the development and growth of Los Angeles? Thanks, Ion
Hi Ion, thanks for the comment and, yes, there is a great deal of remarkable Jewish history in our region. Though a half-century old, Vorspan and Gartner’s book on the history of the Jews in LA is a good place to start. Karen Wilson’s recent Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic is a book to obtain—she curated an exhibit at the Autry on Jewish LA several years ago. Wrestling with the Angels by Blazer and Portnoy was published about 15 years ago Rabbi William Kramer and Dr. Norton Stern also wrote valuable articles and edited the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, which has great material if you can find those issues. There are likely many other sources (an Arcadia photo book was published in 2020, for instance), but these are some examples. Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming Homestead program in early December by Edmon Rodman on his collection of LA Jewish historical artifacts—this will likely be hybrid, meaning in-person and virtual via Zoom (or, depending on the pandemic, the latter only).