Chicago Stories Header
Julius Rosenwald: From Sears to Eternity Banner

From Sears to Eternity: the Julius Rosenwald Story

"History hasn't remembered him as well as some other, less humble philanthropists," said Chicago Stories host John Callaway, "but he was one of the greatest men in the history of Chicago."

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) founded the Museum of Science and Industry and built Sears Roebuck into the America's leading mail order house. But his most lasting legacy may be little known. Rosenwald, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, rose to become one of the wealthiest men in America as well as a beloved humanitarian whose commitment to social justice lead to historic change for black Americans.

Influenced by the social gospel espoused by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago Sinai Congregation, Rosenwald used his great wealth and talent for leadership to try to fix what he viewed as wrong with the world. All told, he gave away $63 million, which in today's dollars is more than ten times that amount.

Rosenwald took a leadership role in establishing social services to meet the needs of some 100,000 impoverished Jewish immigrants who settled in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century and, later, in uniting the city's splintered German and Eastern European Jewish communities. In 1923, Rosenwald became first president of the combined Jewish Charities of Chicago, forerunner to today's Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald spurred the establishment of 25 YMCA-YWCAs to serve African-Americans in cities across the U.S., including the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago. (Existing Y's at the time served only whites.) In addition, he established one of the nation's first housing projects, on Chicago's South Side, and, with challenge grants, seeded the creation of more than 5,000 schools for black children in southern states at a time when few received any public education.

Comments by Peter Ascoli
I think the thing that he was the most proud of was his work with African Americans, specifically the schools, but also the YMCA, and so many of the various other projects with blacks that he was involved in.

In 1928, he was awarded the Race Relations Award by the Harman Foundation. And although he couldn't actually pick up the award in person, because at that time his wife Gussie was very ill and the two of them were in Florida where she was recuperating, nevertheless he was immensely proud to have received this award. I really think he felt that in this particular area, he had made a tremendous difference, as indeed he did.

He would be disappointed in the fact that he was never able to see the Museum of Science and Industry open. This was his brainchild. He had thought it up. He had nursed it along. He had seen it through thick and thin. There had been all these roadblocks thrown in its way, and yet he died just before the building could open up initially in 1933. I think that he would be very proud of the museum today. First of all, it's being seen by enormous numbers of people. Secondly, its educational component, because one of the things that really impressed him about the need for such a museum was as an educational tool, as he made very clear. And so the fact that there are literally thousands of school children who go through this museum every year is something that would really please him. And finally, I think he would be glad that the museum is being supported by a large number of people, because when he built it, he was virtually the only supporter of it. It was during the Depression and although he hoped that others were going to come along and help support it, at that time nobody was particularly interested in doing so. They all had their own problems. And so it ended up that Rosenwald and his family and his estate ended up giving $10 million to the museum up until the early forties, and the most that had been collected from any other individual source was some $16,000. He wanted other people to participate, and so the fact that the museum now has lots of funders is something that I think he would be very pleased about.

Of course he was not a saint. I think that he could be certainly difficult to work for. He could be brusque. He could occasionally even be rude. But in the scale of things, he was a pretty good individual. There were many qualities about him that many people would have found and did find to be absolutely admirable. Not only his generosity, but the thoughtfulness that lay behind it, his willingness to work for the causes that he believed in, all of these things, his willingness to take risks in terms of funding and other things. I mean, there weren't exactly huge numbers of people who were giving money to African Americans in those days. And his Rosenwald Schools were something that was really unique. Even the General Education Board, which is the Rockefeller Foundation offshoot, which was supposed to fund education for whites and blacks, in the first decade of its existence from 1902 to 1912, funded almost exclusively white things because they were afraid of riling Southern sensibilities. J.R. didn't give a hoot about Southern sensibilities. He thought that this was a great idea, schools for blacks in rural areas, and he was determined to go ahead and it didn't matter what the results were going to be. And I think that kind of bravery and doggedness, if you will, was entirely admirable.

Peter Ascoli is Julius Rosenwald's grandson and biographer.

Robert Blattberg on Rosenwald's Role at Sears
Rosenwald created a structure that allowed Sears to be successful. Richard Sears was a great marketer, but he didn't really have the internal structure to turn Sears into what it became. Julius Rosenwald, in a way, was a person behind the scenes. He was, in today's terms, the Chief Operating Officer. But he was the genius behind the company.

He was like Sam Walton. Sam Walton understood concepts like logistics, moving the product from a manufacturer's warehouse to his distribution center to his stores. Julius Rosenwald did the same thing, except he figured out how you get product out to rural America in a time period when there weren't telephones, there weren't computers, there wasn't all the modern technology that exists today. It was done by railroad, and by horses and carriages, moving heavy appliances, moving furniture, moving clothing. So he was a genius before his time.

And if you look at what's gone wrong with most of the e-tailers today, it's the lack of ability to efficiently deliver product. Now people may think that that's a minor issue, but one of the reasons those companies don't make money is because they have not figured out how to efficiently deliver the product from the manufacturer through their distribution centers to the consumer. They can't do it cost-effectively. Julius Rosenwald was doing it in the year 1900, and recognized how critical it was. So ironically, in today's world, he'd be more sought after than he was in the year 1900.

Robert Blattberg is a Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University.

About the Program Producer
Beverly Siegel also produced "Romance of a PeopleÑThe First 100 Years of Jewish Life in Chicago: 1833-1933," which aired last season on Chicago Stories. Ms. Siegel found narrowing Julius Rosenwald's achievements to fit a half-hour format a formidable challenge. Citing his association with Jane Addams and the University of Chicago, as well as his agricultural colonies in Russia that provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of Jews, Siegel says, "Rosenwald made many important contributions that will have to be covered in another show."

Your $40 Gift Membership will include:

  • A one-year subscription to the Guide.
  • The WTTW11 Card – your ticket to a variety of members only discounts.
  • The great feeling of a gift that keeps giving.
  • Much more!

Learn more about membership!

Explore Stories