It must have seemed like an insignificant detail when Louis Bamberger hung a clock outside the second floor of his department store in Newark in 1912. As it turns out, the rather large timepiece was central to the history of the city.
“Everyone in Newark knew if you said, ‘Meet me under the clock,’ it was automatically assumed that you meant the Bamberger’s clock,” said historian Linda Forgosh. “You could see it from Market and Washington streets all the way down to Broad Street.”
After an eight-year labor of love, Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ, is set to open an exhibit in conjunction with the publication in September of her biography, Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist (Brandeis University Press).
“Meet Me Under Bamberger’s Clock,” will open Thursday evening, Oct. 20, at the Aidekman campus in Whippany (and on Friday, Nov. 18, be moved to the NJ Historical Society in Newark). It will parallel the chapters of the book, which detail the entrepreneur’s rise and the use of his wealth for major philanthropy both inside and outside Newark’s Jewish community. It will include a panoply of photographs of the man and his store; the original menu from the store’s tea room, where hordes of shoppers ate lunch; and a recording of Al Jolson singing “April Showers” on the first broadcast of radio station WOR, which began inside the department store in 1922.
Bamberger learned his trade at Hutzler Brothers Company, a department store in Baltimore, where he was born, that was owned by two of his uncles. Once he realized that his uncles “were not about to share any kind of power or position of importance” at Hutzler’s, Forgosh said, Bamberger moved on, first to Philadelphia and then to New York, as a department store buyer.
Then, aiming to avoid stiff competition “he looked across the river and took one large chance,” Forgosh said. “He walked the streets of Newark and looked for a place to open a store.”
In 1892, Bamberger opened a store in a two-floor building on Market Street, selling goods he purchased from a bankruptcy sale; he sold the entire inventory within four days. In 1912, he expanded the business to an eight-story structure across the street. It opened with major fanfare, with music playing and people crowding the aisles and the store’s restaurant, which would become a fixture.
Soon, Bamberger and his partner, brother-in-law Felix Fuld, realized that patrons had walked off with plates and silverware, said Forgosh. “They looked at each other, laughed, and said, ‘That’s the best advertising we could ever get.’ Both men felt they would gain nothing but good will from the missing cutlery and crockery,” especially since it was imprinted with the store’s name.
As a hands-on owner, “Louis built the business advertisement by advertisement, window display by window display,” said Forgosh. “He was detail-oriented and advertising-oriented. You could get anything you needed at Bamberger’s. You could get a bird, a birdcage, birdseed — and if the bird died, you could return the birdseed.”
In June of 1929 he sold the store to Macy’s. The department giant eventually closed Bamberger’s in 1992 when it was no longer profitable.
After selling the store, Bamberger increased his involvement in the city’s civic affairs and in the Jewish community. He helped finance Newark Beth Israel Hospital and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1933 the institute recruited Albert Einstein, who had already published his theory of relativity. (The exhibit will focus attention on Einstein’s theory through a video clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert featuring Brian Green, a professor of theoretical physics, giving an easy-to-understand explanation of Einstein’s complex ideas.)
The exhibit will also focus on Bamberger as “the father of the Greater MetroWest federation” because he founded the Community Chest and the Newark Welfare Federation, an initiative that, at the outset, had its share of critics.
“He combined all the fund-raising that went on in the Jewish and gentile communities and distributed the funds,” said Forgosh. “This was an idea that didn’t sit well with what became the Conference of Jewish Charities, which was used to running their own show.
“But Bamberger, because of his clout, insisted they join forces. They existed on two tracks — one Jewish, one gentile. He treated both sides equally.”
His endowment of Jewish institutions such as “the Beth” and the High Street YM-YWHA benefited both Jews and non-Jews.
Many musicians and actors performed at the Y, before making their way to Broadway.
“He even brought the cast of the Metropolitan Opera to perform La Boheme on the stage of the Mosque Theatre,” now Symphony Hall, in 1936, said Forgosh. “All of this was Bamberger's baby. Newark would not have respect anywhere were it not for the cultural arts he brought to the city.”
Although Bamberger never completed high school, he was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Rutgers, the University of Newark, and what was then the Newark College of Engineering (now NJ Institute of Technology); these citations will be on display.
Dominating the exhibit will be a free-standing six-foot replica of Bamberger and of his store’s famous clock. “No one knows where the original is,” Forgosh said. “When the store closed in 1992, the building fell into disrepair. It was like history disappearing.”
Forgosh said that after all this time it’s as if she knows Bamberger very well.
“I feel like Louis and I have been married for all these years,” Forgosh said.
“I got to know him from doing all the research. He was by all accounts the greatest philanthropist that Newark and New Jersey have had in their corners. His philanthropic gifts and his remarkable legacy will continue to be told.”