What We’re Reading in March

Books Editor Kristofer Collins reviews “Kaufmann's: The Family That Built Pittsburgh's Famed Department Store”


Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store
by Marylynne Pitz & Laura Malt Schneiderman
University of Pittsburgh Press, $26.95

Jacob Kaufmann arrived in America from his birthplace of Viernheim, Germany, in 1868 at the age of 19. Jacob quickly made his way to Pittsburgh, where he began working as a peddler. “He trudged across the region’s hills and deep valleys, carrying a pack that likely included buttons, combs, lace, mirrors, pins, needles, ribbons and thread.”

Jacob eventually sent for his brothers Isaac, Morris and Henry to join him. He opened his first storefront in 1871 in what would become the South Side. By 1879, the brothers had moved the business Downtown to the familiar address at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street.

The early days of the landmark shopping destination are fascinating, particularly the Kaufmann family’s earnest striving to offer the city’s immigrant population necessities (for a while they had a dedicated grocery in the building) as well as reminders of the homelands that were left behind (a reading room with an abundance of foreign language newspapers). The heart of the book, though, is the tumultuous marriage of first cousins Edgar and Liliane, a union that would ultimately result in the construction of one of the most famous private residences in the world — the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater.

Theodore Dreiser wrote of the early department stores in his controversial novel “Sister Carrie,” published in 1900: “(t)he nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation.”

Of course, we don’t know if the Pittsburgh journalists Marylynne Pitz and Laura Malt Schneiderman had Dreiser’s words in mind when they began working on their history of the Kaufmanns’ department store. However, the richly detailed book they have produced, “Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store,” not only elucidates “an interesting chapter” of American enterprise, but it also illustrates how Kaufmann’s in particular wove itself into the cultural fabric of our city.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment