Nathan Straus: Businessman and Philanthropist Extraordinaire

Nathan Straus on March 7, 1922. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Born in the Kingdom of Bavaria, Nathan Strauss moved as a young child with his family to the southern US state of Georgia in 1954. Unfortunately, during the Civil War the family lost everything and moved to New York City. There Nathan’s father Lazarus started a business selling glassware and crockery.

After selling their wares to the relatively unknown department store R.H. Macy & Company, Nathan, and his two brothers Oscar and Isidor became partners in Macy’s in 1888 and then co-owners in 1896. In 1893 Nathan and Isadore bought Joseph Wechsler’s share of Abraham and Wechsler, a Brooklyn dry goods store which became Abraham & Straus.

Near the end of the 1880s Nathan became an active philanthropist and worked as a public servant. He was the Parks Commissioner in New York City from 1889 until 1893. He was the Commissioner of the Department of Health and the president of the Board of Health in 1898.

In 1892 Straus and his wife Lina supported the Nathan Straus Pasteurized Milk Laboratory. The goal was to provide pasteurized milk to children to help prevent tuberculosis and reduce infant mortality.

In 1893, during the economic panic, Straus’ milk stations were also used to sell coal at the extremely low price of 5 cents for 25 pounds. Those who could not even afford the 5 cents were given coal for free.

Straus created housing for 64,000 people charging 5 cents for a bed and breakfast. He also funded 50,000 meals for 1 cent each. He also gave away for no cost at all, thousands of turkeys anonymously. In response to seeing two employees at Abraham & Straus starving themselves to feed their families, Straus created what might be the first company subsidized cafeteria.

In 1904 Nathan and Lina visited Palestine. They were so moved by what they saw there that they became lifetime Zionists after their visit and helped the nascent settlement materially and morally. Among the many ways he helped the early Zionists by building soup kitchens, supporting workrooms to employ unemployed workers, created health stations which helped people with malaria and trachoma. He gave $250,000 to establish the Jerusalem Health Center and helped the Hebrew University.

The city of Netanya in Israel is named for him, as well as a main thoroughfare in Jerusalem which is called Straus Street.

This amazingly generous man said ten years before his death in 1931:

“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.”

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