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 on Isidor Straus

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.