Nathan Straus was one of the greatest retail merchants in American history, a co-owner of the Macy’s and Abraham & Straus department store chains. He used his fortune to help the poor in New York City, fund Jewish causes at home and abroad, and provide safe milk to children throughout the country. One of the most successful businessmen of his time, Straus gave away almost all of his money during his lifetime. For Straus, it was a point of principle. “What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold,” he wrote in his will, invoking a Jewish proverb. “What you give in sickness is silver, and what you give in death is lead.”
Nathan Straus joined his family’s glass and china import business in 1866 at the age of 18. In 1874, L. Strauss & Son (the company launched by Nathan, his father, and his brother Isidor) began to operate the china and glassware department at Macy & Co. Within a few years, they had the highest profits of any department and accounted for 18 percent of the total gross at Macy’s. By 1898, the Straus family owned both Macy’s and the Brooklyn store Abraham & Straus.
Nathan Straus had an instinct for merchandising. He was the first to offer depository accounts, against which customers could draw as they shopped. He was at the forefront of bargain sales, demonstrations, and exhibitions at the store. Perhaps most importantly, he opened a lunch counter at Macy’s—not to mention public restrooms—making shopping into something more than an errand. He helped turn it into a recreational activity, a way for middle-class women to spend part of a day.
All of this brought the Straus family great wealth, and Nathan and his brothers were instilled with a sense of civic duty. Sometimes it was expressed by serving in public office. Nathan was Parks Commissioner of New York from 1889 to 1893, and was offered the Democratic nomination for mayor. (He declined.) Other times the brothers exercised civic leadership in a private capacity. During the Panic of 1893, for example, Straus saw firsthand the widespread human suffering. In New York City alone, over 39,000 families found their breadwinners without work. Thousands of homeless men wandered the streets, searching for work, or food.
It is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children.
Nathan Straus did all he could to alleviate misery. As the terrible winter of 1893–94 blanketed the city, he provided 1.5 million buckets of coal to the poor. The following year, he supplied 2 million tickets for coal, food, and lodging at shelters he established. When coal was selling for 20¢ per pail, he supplied it at 5¢ to those who were poor, and gave away 2,000 tons for free to those who were truly desperate.
Straus undertook many other charitable initiatives. During the Spanish-American War, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf alerted him of the need for pure water for the American troops in Santiago de Cuba. Straus sprang into action, buying a water distillation plant (with a daily capacity of 20,000 gallons) for the soldiers. In 1909, he led earthquake relief efforts in Italy; when the Great War triggered widespread layoffs, he provided more than a million 1¢ meals for the unemployed. He paid for the construction of dozens of tuberculosis clinics from coast to coast—as well as a Catholic church in Lakewood, New Jersey.
But the great philanthropic crusade of his life was providing safe milk for the nation’s children. Before the Industrial Revolution, the overwhelming majority of babies were breast-fed. And most Americans lived on farms, where fresh cow’s milk was readily available. But as the population moved increasingly to cities, the milk supply became a problem. The urban rich could keep a cow in their stables, but the less affluent had to depend on “swill milk.” Produced by cows kept by brewers and distillers, it was of the poorest quality imaginable.
The railroads changed the situation in some ways, allowing fresh milk to be brought quickly to cities. It looked and tasted wholesome, but all too often it was not. Cows were milked by unwashed hands, and the milk was poured into unsterilized containers and transported long distances from farms to cities. Along the way microorganisms could enter and multiply quickly. Typhoid, diphtheria, and cholera can all be contracted from contaminated milk, although there may be no sign of spoilage. In New York in the 1850s, fewer than half all children born lived to see their 5th birthday, and bad milk was one of the biggest culprits.
Straus knew there was a scientific solution to this problem: pasteurization. He set to work both to provide pasteurized milk to needy children, and to have the process legally mandated for all milk sold. He set up milk stations in poor areas in New York City to give away pasteurized milk, and proof of the efficacy of the program was not long in coming. In 1891, fully 24 percent of babies born in New York City died before their first birthday. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only six died.
In 1898 Straus served as president of the city’s Board of Health. He immediately donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan’s asylum, located on what is now Roosevelt Island in the East River, which was run by the board. Nationally, Straus established, at his own expense, 297 milk stations in 36 cities. The national death rate for infants fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Altogether it is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children.
Straus’ interest in eradicating disease and alleviating poverty extended beyond the shores of America. In 1912, he and his wife Lina traveled to Europe to attend the International Tuberculosis Conference in Rome. (Brother Isidor and his wife also went on the same trip, but sailed home aboard the Titanic and famously refused seats offered to them in the lifeboats.)
Before the conference, Nathan and Lina stopped in Palestine, which was ravaged at the time by disease and famine. The couple both opened up a soup kitchen and founded the Health Department there. Straus became active in the movement to create a Jewish state. He served as chair of the American Jewish Congress Committee and fought for the organization to adopt a stronger Zionist stance. The town of Natanya on the Mediterranean was named after him.
Straus returned to Palestine many times and his support would never waver—he gave over $1.5 million during the course of his life. He offered one of the first major gifts to Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization, for the support of a medical mission to Israel. He funded the construction of the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center in Jerusalem, which he said was to be for all the inhabitants of the country, irrespective of race, creed, or color. In 1927, after a great earthquake shook Palestine, Straus wired $25,000 to Jerusalem to help alleviate the suffering of all. At the age of 80, he served as the honorary chairman of the New York United Palestine Appeal, to which he donated $100,000. In 1931, Straus passed away at the age of 82, having spent the great majority of his fortune on good causes.
“Candidly, as a Jew,” Straus once reflected in the Christian Herald, “I have often felt that I owed this apology or explanation to my co-religionists, for the fact is that I have done a great deal more for Christians than I have for Jews. But when, as a Jew, the impulse has come to me to do more for my own people, the controlling thought has been that the God of all mankind does not draw any racial or religious lines in the distribution of his bounties.”
- Philanthropy magazine article, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_milk_man
- June Hall McCash, A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus (Mercer University Press, 2012)
- Lina Gutherz Straus, Disease in milk: the remedy, pasteurization—the life work of Nathan Straus (E. P. Dutton, 1917)