Saturday, April 08, 2006

B. Altman and the Fleishmans

When Sophia returned to New York with her children after her husband's murder, her brother Morris led the business that had been founded by their father. In 1872, however, the youngest Altman sibling, Benjamin, established his own “fancy” and dry goods store under the name “B. Altman and Company.” Morris died suddenly at the age of thirty-nine in July 1876, leaving Benjamin to manage the family businesses. At the time of Morris Altman’s death, the Altman brothers were already quite successful merchants and employed over two hundred people. Morris had been a greatly respected businessman and was a prime mover behind the effort toward advocating shorter working hours for dry goods clerks (New York Times, July 14, 1876, p. 4. Henry Hall, ed., America’s Successful Men of Affairs: An Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous Biography, vol. 1 (New York, 1895-96), 16). Morris’ widow died shortly after him and Benjamin assumed responsibility for raising Morris’ four children. Consequently, in addition to operating a large and growing business, Benjamin Altman, thirty-six years old, now had ten fatherless young nieces and nephews in his care. These burdens may very well explain why Benjamin never married and had children of his own.
At his death in 1913, the New York Times estimated Altman to be worth forty-five million in real estate, art holdings and his B. Altman stock (New York Times, October 8, 1913). He donated his celebrated art collection to the Metropolitan Museum Art which was acclaimed at the time as the “most splendid gift that a citizen has ever made to the people of the city of New York” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guide to Altman Collection, 13. His collection included, at various times, thirteen major Rembrandts). Altman also became known as a patron of American artists and was commended as a philanthropist who avoided publicizing his charitable works. A biographical note commended Altman for his devotion to the care and education of Morris’ four orphaned children (Hall, America’s Successful Men, 17). Altman remained attached to Judaism and was a member of Temple Emanu-El. After Altman’s death in 1913, Adam Schiff unsuccessfully urged the editors of the Evening Post to mention that Altman “had lived and died as a Jew” (David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois - Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York, 1993), 488-9). Altman left his store, B. Altman & Co., in the care of his foundation for the benefit of charitable causes and the employees.

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