By Hasia Diner
Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History
New York University
Born in Plattsburgh, New York, to Emanuel and Regina Nusbaum, on December 27, 1868, Augusta, referred to as “Gussie,” engaged in social activism and philanthropy in ways parallel to and independent of her husband, Julius Rosenwald, multi-million dollar president of Sears and Roebuck and an important figure in American progressivism, and both African American and Jewish causes. Augusta’s parents, Emanuel and Regina, had immigrated to the United States from Germany, along with over 250,000 other young Jews. Like many other immigrants they lived in a number of places in the United States and worked in the clothing industry. The Nusbaums left New York City and settled in Plattsburgh, New York where he made a living as a clothier and then moved on to Chicago. They had seven children, six daughters and one son, Aaron. In Chicago they made their home in the Hyde Park neighborhood and here the family befriended another young man with a very similar background, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932).
Born in Springfield, Illinois of immigrant parentage, Julius Rosenwald spent a few years in New York, but then moved to Chicago and opened a small concern, Rosenwald and Weil, which manufactured men’s summer suits. Rosenwald, like the Nusbaum family, also lived in Hyde Park. Unlike Julius, Augusta had been brought up in a more religiously observant family, but as a teenager started attending services in a Reform congregation. Once in Hyde Park, the Nusbaums joined the Sinai Congregation, a Reform synagogue, led by Rabbi Emil Hirsch. Julius, known as “JR” to friends and family, befriended the large family and he and Augusta married in 1890. The couple would have five children, Lessing (1891), Adele (1892), Edith (1895), Marion (1902) and William (1903).
Augusta gave birth to the three older children during the years that Julius ran his suit manufacturing business, a not terribly successful concern, but had the two younger ones after a pivotal moment in the family’s life, one which enabled their social activism and philanthropy. Augusta’s brother entered into negotiations with Richard Sears, of Sears Roebuck and Company, a mail-order house which specialized in watches, jewelry, and other consumer goods, for a loan to bail out the cash-strapped company. Aaron Nusbaum approached Julius to join him in this venture, which had been structured so that the two brothers-in-law would become partners with Sears. Rosenwald borrowed the money from his father, also a small-time clothing merchant, and entered into the arrangement. Over the course of the first decade of the twentieth century, Rosenwald and Sears bought out Aaron Nusbaum. Sears also departed the scene, and Rosenwald, with the advice of Henry Goldman, of Goldman Sachs, transformed Sears into a publicly traded company, the second IPO (Initial Public Offering) in American history, and the Rosenwalds became millionaires.
Becoming wealthy changed Augusta Rosenwald’s life. She now had a large household staff to manage but it also made it possible for her to engage in an active social life. She joined the South Side Women’s Club in 1900 and also, as befit her newly achieved status, started doing volunteer work on the Women’s Board of Michael Reese Hospital, the city’s premier Jewish hospital. She also began to make small contributions on her own, independent of Julius. While not much of an intellectual, Augusta did deliver a paper at the 1906 conference of the National Council of Jewish Women. The Reform Advocate, a publication edited by Rabbi Hirsch, reprinted her talk on the subject of Jewish children’s religious education.
Over the course of the decades of her life as a wealthy woman, she and her husband participated together and jointly supported a number of causes. Together they befriended and generously supported Jane Addams and her work at Hull House. They both contributed in 1912 to Addams’s goal of creating a countryside home for working women, a place of respite from city life where they could go in the summers. Gussie, on her own, contributed $20,000 to build the cottages at the Waukegan, Illinois facility. Each cottage could house a mother and her four children. She also joined Julius on his many trips to Alabama to visit the Tuskegee Institute, on whose board he sat and to which they contributed substantially. In terms of Chicago cultural works, she, a greater lover of the arts than he, got him to agree to contribute to the Chicago Grand Opera, whose productions they attended.
Gussie had projects of her own. She sat on the national board of the Girl Scouts of America and worked energetically for it. Not that Julius opposed the organization, but he had no connection to it and she assumed her role completely on her own, not in partnership with him. Augusta, unlike Julius, embraced the idea of Zionism, the movement committed to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Augusta, moreover, befriended the founder of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold, hosted Szold at the family’s Hyde Park home, donated substantial sums of money on her own, helping to underwrite its medical facilities in Palestine, and attempted, at Szold’s urging, to convince Julius to endorse the movement. In that, she failed.
The two did not agree, at least initially, on the matter of women’s rights and the active campaign to secure woman suffrage. Gussie took Julius to a lecture by the British suffrage leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, who could not persuade him of the rightness of the cause. Indeed he claimed, whether or not with humor, that women already had too many rights. But by 1917 when the Rosenwald couple lived in Washington, while he did government-related war-work, she did convince him to contribute money to the suffrage struggle in America. She used her time in Washington to forge closer ties to the national movement based there. She became a financial contributor to the National Woman’s Party and sat on its National Advisory Council.
In 1926 Gussie became ill and, was diagnosed with cancer. She experienced periods of seeming recovery which allowed her to travel primarily to visit her children and to attend Herbert Hoover’s inauguration in March, 1929 and by May 23 of that year, she had died, marked only by a simple ceremony, attended by family and a few friends.
Peter M. Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
See also the Julius Rosenwald Papers at the Special Collections of the University of Chicago Library.