Nathan Straus

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Nathan Straus

Nathan Straus (January 31, 1848 – January 11, 1931) was an American merchant and philanthropist who co-owned two of New York City's biggest department stores, R.H. Macy & Company and Abraham & Straus.


Nathan Straus was born in Otterberg, Germany, to a Jewish family, the third child of Lazarus Straus (1809–1898) and his wife Sara (1823–1876). His siblings were Hermine Straus Kohns (1846–1922), Isidor Straus (1845–1912) and Oscar Solomon Straus (1850–1926). The family moved to the U.S. state of Georgia in 1854. After the American Civil War the family moved to New York City where his father formed L. Straus & Sons, a crockery and glassware firm.

On April 28, 1875, Straus married Lina Gutherz (1854–1930) with whom he had six children, among them State Senator Nathan Straus, Jr.; and Sissie Straus who was married to Chief Judge Irving Lehman (1876–1945).

Macy's and Abraham & Straus[edit]

Straus and his brothers sold crockery to R.H. Macy & Company department store. The brothers became partners in Macy's in 1888 and co-owners in 1896.

In 1893, he and Isidor bought out Joseph Wechsler from the Abraham and Wechsler dry goods store in Brooklyn, New York, which they renamed Abraham & Straus.[1]

Public service and philanthropy[edit]

In the late 1880s, Straus began a period of philanthropy and public service in New York City. He served as New York City Park Commissioner from 1889–1893, president of the New York City Board of Health, 1898,[2] and in 1894 he was selected by Tammany Hall to run for Mayor on the Democratic ticket, but withdrew from the race when his friends in society threatened to shun him if he did.[3]

In 1892, he and his wife privately funded the Nathan Straus Pasteurized Milk Laboratory to provide pasteurized milk to children to combat infant mortality and tuberculosis. In his battles with the disease he opened the Tuberculosis Preventorium for Children at Lakewood Township, New Jersey (later it was moved to Farmingdale, New Jersey in 1909. Their book, Disease in Milk: The Remedy Pasteurization: The Life Work of Nathan Straus records that unclean, unpasteurized milk fed to infants was the chief cause of tuberculosis, typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, murno gladst and other diseases that were the main cause of, e.g., a 25% infant mortality rate in the US in 1890, 15% in 1903 (but 7% in New York in 1900, where pasteurized milk had already become the norm) (it is now below 1% in the US). Straus is credited as the leading proponent of the pasteurization movement that eliminated the hundreds of thousands of deaths per year then due to disease-bearing milk.

During the economic panic of 1893 Straus used his milk stations to sell coal at the very low price of 5 cents for 25 pounds to those who could pay. Those who could not received coal for free. He also opened lodging houses for 64,000 persons, who could get a bed and breakfast for 5 cents, and he funded 50,000 meals for one cent each. He also gave away thousands of turkeys anonymously. At Abraham & Straus, he noticed that two of his employees were starving themselves to save their wages to feed their families, so he established what may have been the first subsidized company cafeteria.

In 1898, during the Spanish–American War, Straus donated an ice plant to Santiago, Cuba. He was appointed by U.S. President William Taft sole United States delegate to the International Congress for Protection of Infants, Berlin, 1911, also delegate to the Tuberculosis Congress, Rome, Italy, 1912.[4]

Straus retired in 1914 to devote his time to charity. During the winter of 1914–15, he served 1,135,731 penny meals for the unemployed from his milk depots in New York City.[4] In 1916, as American entry into World War I loomed, he sold his yacht Sisilina to the Coast Guard, and used the proceeds to feed war orphans. Later, he fed returning American servicemen at Battery Park.

Straus donated money to the New York Public Library, specifically targeting young people. The Young People's Collection at the Donnell Library Center is named for him. He also helped the city's poorer inhabitants by building a recreational pier, the first of many on the city's waterfront.[5]

A hall in Nathan Straus Health Center in the late 1920s

Land of Israel[edit]

In 1912, a trip to Land of Israel was to affect Straus profoundly. On the trip he became fascinated with the area. His brother Isidor and Isidor's wife headed back to New York aboard the Titanic and perished when it sank. Feeling he had been spared by divine intervention, he devoted two-thirds of his fortune to helping Israel. He established a domestic science school for girls in 1912, a health bureau to fight malaria and trachoma, and a free public kitchen. He opened a Pasteur Institute, child-health welfare stations, and then funded the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Centers in Jerusalem (now part of Hadassah Medical Center) and Tel Aviv.

The modern Israeli city of Netanya, founded in 1927, was named in his honor, and Rehov Straus in Jerusalem, which was Chancellor Avenue during the British Mandate, was also named for him.

Nathan Straus died on January 11, 1931, in New York City. Twenty years before, at a dinner in his honor, he had given what could have been his own eulogy.

I often think of the old saying, "The world is my country, to do good is my religion. ... This has often been an inspiration to me. I might say, "Humanity is my kin, to save babies is my religion." It is a religion I hope will have thousands of followers.

Anne Frank connection[edit]

Nathan's son (Nathan Jr., 1889–1961) attended Princeton University and arrived in Heidelberg University in 1908 where he met a young art history scholar named Otto Frank. Otto accepted a job in Macy's with Nathan Straus, Jr., where he fell in love with New York and its brashness. But in 1909, Otto's father died and he returned to Germany where he fought in World War I and lived to see the time when he and his family would have to leave Germany because of anti-Semitism. One of Otto's daughters was Anne Frank.[citation needed]