Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Rare postcard, “Hanadiv [philanthropist] Natan Straus.”
Nathan Straus (1848-1931) was a Jewish philanthropist and social activist who co-owned two of New York City’s largest department stores, R.H. Macy & Company and Abraham & Straus, but, as we shall see, he was much more than a successful American businessman.

The Zionist Organization of America dedicated the February 1, 1928, issue of its official organ, The New Palestine, to Straus on his eightieth birthday. One writer noted:

The name of Nathan Straus will be linked with that of Louis Pasteur through the centuries. A great many achievements in the field of public health and social welfare will be forgotten in the next few decades, but I make bold to say that the contribution made by Nathan Straus to the prolongation of life of all of his fellow, without regard to creed or race, especially in making commercial pasteurization practicable, will endure as an historical event of signal importance.

Straus autograph, July 1928.

Another writer, the chairman of the Child Welfare League of America, wrote:

… for generations to come the heart and soul of Nathan Straus will go marching on through thousands of children that he has saved for mankind – children who would have died but for his persistent battle [on] their behalf.

History has proven them wrong. While Straus remains best known for building Macy’s into the largest department store in the world, his far more important contribution to saving the lives of millions of children has been sadly forgotten.


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Straus, who was particularly sensitive to the issue of child mortality because of the deaths of two of his own children (including his two-year-old daughter, who died aboard ship during a European trip), became obsessed with taking action to reduce the high mortality of infants and children. Although pasteurization – the process by which milk is heated and quickly cooled to rid it of germs – had been discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1865, the process had not become standard in the food industry, and Straus became convinced that the infant mortality problem was due, in large part, to what he came to characterize as the “white peril”: the consumption of unsanitary raw milk. He arrived at this conclusion when, shocked by the sudden death of a healthy cow on his farm, he ordered an autopsy that showed that the animal had died of tuberculosis.

Worrying about the risk that the cow may have transmitted the disease to his family, he made certain that his children drank only pasteurized milk but, always dedicated to promoting the greater public good, he determined that protecting his family was not enough. Deciding that Pasteur’s work presented the best way to combat infant mortality and tuberculosis, he privately funded the Nathan Straus Pasteurized Milk Laboratory (1892) to provide pasteurized milk to children.

In 1893, and at his own expense, Straus opened the first of 18 milk distribution depots throughout New York City, which sold his sterilized milk for only a few cents and made free milk available to those unable to afford even that. That year, he dispensed 34,400 bottles of milk from one depot and, by 1896, his efforts expanded to seventeen milk stations that distributed 3,142,252 bottles and 1,078,405 glasses of pasteurized milk. He also used his milk stations to sell coal at the very low price of five cents for 25 pounds to those who could pay, and for free to those who could not; he distributed more than 1.5 million buckets of coal and obtained city permission to use its piers for his coal depots.

Believing that ensuring the safety of milk was ultimately a governmental responsibility, Straus undertook a single-minded campaign describing the dangers of raw milk not only to urge Americans to action but also overseas, where he built pasteurization plants in Europe and the Middle East to demonstrate the technique to foreign governments. However, many dairymen, farmers and commercial milk distributors were disinclined to assume the expense of pasteurization, and Straus’s campaign was also resisted by many doctors and scientists who were skeptical of these “unscientific” ideas and opposed what they characterized as government-mandated social experiments.

Photo of the Straus Exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, aka the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (copy).

Straus, who had become president of the NYC Board of Health, was broadly vilified by bureaucrats and politicians – to the point that he was arrested in 1897 and brought before the Manhattan Court of Special Sessions and convicted of serving “adulterated” milk at the Hebrew Institute Roof Garden on East Broadway. (He received a suspended sentence.)

Straus was relentless in spreading the milk pasteurization message, testifying before state legislatures and Congress; speaking at medical, social, and other conferences; and generating a steady stream of correspondence to the press and municipal health officers. Through his singular efforts, he ultimately prevailed when statistics established beyond doubt that infant mortality rates in the areas around his milk depots had dropped precipitously.

Chicago became the first city to enact a pasteurization law (1908), and many cities followed suit. It took a typhoid epidemic to finally convince New York City to mandate pasteurization in 1914. In 1920, when Straus had 297 milk stations distributed through 36 cities, he donated his New York pasteurization plant to the city and turned his milk depots over to public agencies. In short order, Congress enacted national milk health regulations and, according to a Treasury Department report, the general death rate of children under five was quickly halved due to the pasteurization of milk.

Straus launched another major health initiative when, concluding that the inception of many cases of tuberculosis in adults had its roots in childhood exposure to the disease, he determined that children could be protected from the ravages of tuberculosis by removing them from their homes and caring for them in a healthful environment. Accordingly, he developed the idea of a preventative, rather than a remedial, sanitarium for children, and he housed his “preventorium” in “The Little White House,” a cottage in Lakewood Township, New Jersey (1909), which went on to become the model for similar institutions throughout the world. In 1912, President Taft appointed him to serve as a delegate to the Tuberculosis Congress in Rome, and the first international Child Welfare Congress held under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1925 put on record its praise for his pioneer life-saving work.

Nathan’s great-grandfather, Jacob Lazar Straus, was an important Jewish leader who was a leading member of the Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon in 1806. The great Straus rags-to-riches story begins in 1848, when Nathan was born to a Jewish German family in Otterberg. He immigrated with his family (which included his brothers Isador and Oscar Straus, both famous in their own right) and settled in Georgia in 1854, where they worked as itinerant peddlers of general merchandise on Georgia plantations before their father, Lazarus, opened a dry goods store. While attending a local Baptist Bible School for two years, Nathan received Jewish religious instruction from his father, a Hebraist who loved the traditions of Jewish life.

When the family lost everything during the Civil War, its wealth in cotton burned and its savings wiped out, the family moved to New York City, where Lazarus formed L. Straus & Sons, a crockery and glassware firm. Nathan and his brothers began by selling crockery in the basement of Rowland H. Macy’s department store on 14th Street, but they moved on to become Macy’s partners in 1888 and co-owners and managing directors in 1896. In 1893, he and Isidor had purchased Joseph Wechsler’s interest in the Abraham and Wechsler dry-goods store in Brooklyn, which they renamed Abraham and Straus.

Original photo, from left to right: Straus, Louis Brandeis, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.

Straus was among the first to care about his workers and to champion workers’ rights. When it came to his attention that one of his saleswomen had fainted from starvation because she was saving her wages to feed her family, he established what may have been the first subsidized company cafeteria and installed bathrooms and medical facilities on site for his workers.

A proud Jew, Straus was fiercely loyal to the Jewish people, and the strong Jewish traditionalism of his father’s home and his wife’s deep Jewish feelings were important religious influences in his life. Though raised in a community where his family were the only Jews, he became a “synagogue Jew” by choice, becoming affiliated with Reform Judaism when he moved to New York. In his later years, however, he came to believe that Reform Judaism had rejected too much of what was necessary for the survival of Judaism; speaking at a convention of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America a few years before his death, he unequivocally declared that the Reform movement was failing to hold on to the younger generation and that the future of Judaism was in Orthodoxy.

Straus signature dated January 14, 1911, as treasurer of Rabbi Wise’s Free Synagogue.

Straus was a staunch defender of Jewish interests in America and the world, and he became a shtadlan of note. He stated that he fought antisemitism because “the Jews have a work to do in the world not merely in fighting for toleration of their own race, but in defending the cause of religious freedom throughout the world.”

The stories are legion. For example, when some members of the Straus family were refused admission to a Lakewood hotel because they were Jews, he purchased adjacent land and built the Lakewood Hotel, open to all, which he operated at a great loss. (One famous couple who pointedly made a statement against restricting Jews by being guests at the hotel were his close friends President and Mrs. Cleveland.) When Henry Ford’s campaign against Jews was at its height, Straus publicly challenged Ford to submit the fictional and horrendous Protocols of the Elders of Zion to an impartial jury before whom he would refute them. The publicity given to this challenge by the best-loved and most trusted Jew of the land drew nationwide attention which, many historians believe, played an important role in Ford’s recantation.

When Ignacy Paderewski denied that there had been any anti-Jewish pogroms during his term as Polish prime minister, Straus, as chairman of the Committee for the Defense of the Jews in Poland, publicly challenged him through extensive evidentiary documentation and citations. Shortly after World War I, Straus traveled to lay a wreath at the Confederate Vance Monument in Asheville, North Carolina, as a “debt of gratitude” to U.S. senator and North Carolina governor Zebulon Baird Vance, a staunch defender of Jews and an outspoken critic of antisemitism who lauded Jews as “wondrous kinsmen” and “our spiritual fathers.” (In the wake of the George Floyd leftist violence and insurrection in 2021, the Ashville City Council voted to remove the city’s Vance memorial.)

Straus was an active supporter of movements and organizations dedicated to the defense of Jews and Jewish rights, including serving as chairman of the first American Jewish Congress (1916 and 1920) and later as its president (1922), and served as honorary chairman of the New York United Jewish Appeal. An enthusiastic advocate for the physical development of young Jews, he was also a strong supporter of Young Judea and of Jewish sports meets arranged by other such organizations.

It was in 1904 while on a Mediterranean tour that Nathan and his wife, Lina, first visited Eretz Yisrael, a visit that, despite its discomforts for tourists, spiritually moved them to the point that they decided to remain in Jerusalem rather than travel on to Damascus, as per their planned itinerary. As Nathan wrote:

On reaching Jerusalem, we changed our plans. All that we saw in the Holy Land made such a deep impression on us that we gave up the idea of going to other places. Visiting the holy sights of which one hears and reads since childhood, watching the scenes in life as pictured in the Bible, was most soul-stirring. From that time on we felt a strange and intense desire to return to the land.

In 1912, Nathan and Lina joined his brother Isidor and his wife, Ida, on a trip through Europe, during which Nathan, excited by the prospect of another visit to Eretz Yisrael, suggested that the two couples take a side trip there. During that trip, Straus worked to raise the economic standards of Jews in Eretz Yisrael by, among other things, opening a soup kitchen in the Old City to dispense free meals to the destitute; building health bureaus to fight malaria and trachoma and ministering to its victims; establishing a domestic science school for girls; and founding and financing a factory for making buttons and souvenirs. He also laid the foundation of the work for public health in Eretz Yisrael with which his name would later become prominently associated by founding a Health Department to help people suffering from malaria, trachoma, and other sanitation-related ailments that were being largely neglected in the Holy Land.

Perhaps considering aliyah, he purchased land outside of Bethlehem opposite Kever Rachel and another piece of land – which is now the center of Talpiot, a Jewish Jerusalem suburb – which he planned as either the site of the Hebrew University or a personal home in Jerusalem.

Nathan became overwhelmed by the experience of being in the Promised Land and, in particular, with his work helping the needy Jewish communities there, but Isidor quickly decided he’d had enough: “How many camels, hovels, and yeshivas can you see? It’s time to go.” Nathan, however, was not ready to leave his beloved Eretz Yisrael, so Isidor and Ida returned alone to London, where Isidor booked passage for all four to sail back to America. As departure time drew near, Isidor sent an emergency cable to his brother advising that if he and Lina did not get to England they would, quite literally, miss the boat. Nathan again delayed because he felt he had so much more work to do on behalf of Jews in Eretz Yisrael and, by the time he and Lina reached London on April 10, the ocean liner had already left Southampton with Isidor and Ida aboard.

That liner was the Titanic.

Nathan saw his close call as a heavenly message, and the knowledge that he’d escaped almost certain death because of his dedication to Eretz Yisrael would preoccupy him to the end of his days. He announced, “Others may be better able than I to talk about Zionism, but none can feel it more deeply than I,” and he demonstrated the truth of that statement every day for the rest of his life. He withdrew from most of his business activities and dedicated the last 15 years of his life to supporting and advocating for Eretz Yisrael. Beginning with his return to the land in 1913, Nathan gave more than two-thirds of his vast fortune to Jewish institutions and individuals there, with his known gifts to the Zionist cause exceeding $2 million.

With Hadassah only recently being founded by Henrietta Szold and lacking funds for many of its planned activities, he brought two Hadassah nurses with him to Eretz Yisrael and settled them in Jerusalem, thereby launching Hadassah’s pioneering presence in the Land of Israel. He also established a Pasteur Institute in Eretz Yisrael which, together with his Health Department, played an important part in controlling epidemics during World War I.

He provided material support to the farmers and colonists in Eretz Yisrael and, in one famous case, he was thrilled to settle Abraham Krotoshinsky, the World War I hero of the Lost Battalion, as a farmer on the soil of Eretz Yisrael. In 1916, he sold his beloved steam yacht to obtain funds for the aid of war orphans in Eretz Yisrael; supported the nascent Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and helped to found the American Jewish Congress. In 1917, he launched the Jewish War Relief Fund with the single largest financial contribution of its kind given by an individual up to that time; he initially tried to sell his classic home on West 72nd Street to underwrite the Fund but, unable to find a buyer, he liquidated part of his investment portfolio at a great personal loss to generate the capital for the Jewish War Relief Fund.

The Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center building in Jerusalem, designed by English Jewish architect Benjamin Chaikin.

When the problem of a Jewish Eretz Yisrael became more immediate after the British conquest of the land, Straus rose to the occasion. It is almost impossible to detail his incredible largesse to the Zionist cause, but suffice it to say that he led and responded to every Palestine appeal, beginning with his supplying half of the cargo of $100,000 worth of provisions (over $3 million in today’s dollars) sent from America to Eretz Yisrael in 1915 aboard the U. S. Vulcan. He founded and equipped Hadassah’s Child Health Welfare Stations and, during a visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1923-1924, established the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center in Jerusalem (he returned to Eretz Yisrael in 1927 at an advanced age to lay its cornerstone, and he turned the building over to Hadassah in 1929) and later a similar Health Center in Tel Aviv.

All his life, Straus corresponded with Jewish leaders in support of Jewish claims to Eretz Yisrael and the welfare of its Jews. For example, in this remarkable December 18, 1929, correspondence written a few years before his death to Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, then Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, he writes:

Straus’s letter to Rav Kook regarding the Shaw Commission.

I refer to my cable of December 14th, reading as follows:

“My heart goes out to you in greatest admiration for your testimony in public. Every fair-minded person will agree with you.”

I have read with great pleasure the courageous and wise manner in which you answered the cross-examination.

Don’t let this whole sad affair worry you. I feel confident that everything, with G-d’s help, will come out all right in the end.

With warmest greetings, very cordially your friend, Nathan Straus

Straus is referring to Rav Kook’s brilliant and emotional testimony before the “Shaw Commission” board of inquiry led by Sir Walter Shaw, which was established to investigate the responsibility for the Arab riots of August 1929. Rav Kook made a commanding case for the Jewish right to the Kotel and declared that the British government has the duty to abolish the humiliating conditions to which Jews praying there are subjected. With the Shulchan Aruch in hand, he discussed Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur practices as pertaining to the Kotel, and he reportedly held the rapt attention of the Commission as he explained Jewish Messianic beliefs regarding rebuilding the Temple. He completed his testimony by reading the warning letter that had been sent to him by the Moslem Committee for the Defense of the Mosque of Aksa in which the Jews were threatened with dire consequences if they continue to claim more than the limited right to visit the Kotel in silence.

Straus’s letter evidencing interest in “colored people.”

Among other things, Straus was an early promoter of equal rights for African-Americans; witness this February 7, 1928, correspondence on his “Pasteurized Milk Laboratories” letterhead in which he writes to Mrs. Marion Colvin Deane at the Hampton Institute that “I am also very much interested in colored people, and have no doubt that you are doing good work for them.” The goal of the Institute, which Straus supported, was to educate Black students as leaders and teachers including, among others, Booker T. Washington.

Over and above his public welfare efforts on behalf of milk pasteurization and preventing tuberculosis, Straus’s largesse and contributions were by no means limited to Jewish institutions and causes. For example, he donated an ice plant for soldiers suffering in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War (1898); opened homeless shelters for 64,000 people, who could get a bed and breakfast for five cents; provided 50,000 meals for one cent each to those who could not afford more; sent food, clothing and medical supplies for the victims of the Messina earthquake (1909); and, on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I, he sold his yacht, the Sisilina, to the Coast Guard and used the proceeds to feed war orphans (1916).

After the war, he fed returning American servicemen at Battery Park; donated the use of land in Lakewood, New Jersey, for the erection of Red Cross and army hospital buildings to the government (1918); presented a model dairy to the National Farm School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and provided for the free distribution of pasteurized milk to soldiers and sailors (1918); donated money to the New York Public Library for American youth (the Young People’s Collection at the Donnell Library Center is named for him); and helped the city’s poor by building a recreational pier, the first of many on the city’s waterfront.

In the wake of the July 1927 earthquake that shook Eretz Yisrael, he immediately cabled $25,000 to Jerusalem, specifically stipulating that it was to be used for all the sufferers from the disaster without regard to race, creed, or nationality. He also made a point to support the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael, including substantial gifts to a Moslem orphanage in Jerusalem and to the poor.

Original newspaper photo of Straus on his 75th birthday at the Breakers in Atlantic City sorting through a stream of congratulatory telegrams and letters.

In 1923, when the 25th anniversary of the creation of greater New York was celebrated, Straus was chosen by popular vote as the citizen who had made the greatest contribution to the city’s public welfare. His 70th, 75th (see exhibit), and 80th birthday (when he announced that “if the true friends of Zion would show their affection for me, and if they want to afford me genuine joy on my eightieth birthday, they will intensify their aid in the cause of the rebuilding of Palestine”) were celebrated across the United States. President Taft characterized “dear old Nathan Straus” as “a great Jew and the greatest Christian of us all,” and “the Grand Old Man of American Jewry.”

Straus died on January 11, 1931, in Manhattan. He was interred at Beth El Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens, with some 3,500 people packing Temple Emanuel for his funeral service and more than 7,000 more standing outside.

At a dinner in his honor twenty years earlier, he gave what could have been his own eulogy:

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.

The modern city of Netanya (founded in 1927) is named for him, as is Jerusalem’s Rechov Straus, and President Taft hailed him as the greatest Jew of the previous quarter century.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].