There are a few things almost every Pittsburgher has: An unwavering preference for Heinz Ketchup (is there really any other kind?); A Terrible Towel—somewhere; and a Kaufmann’s story.
Longtime journalist Marylynne Pitz, who grew up in Indianapolis, remembers visiting her cousins in Midland, Beaver County. Her aunts would take her downtown to “buy me something for back to school.” She proudly started third grade in a Kaufmann’s Villager suit and red top.
Since 2016, Pitz, Jayson Avenue, has immersed herself in the history of our downtown icon, and the family that started it all. Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store, co-written with Laura Malt Schneiderman, is the result and a colorful narrative of a multi-generational, very American success story.
The book opens with the Kaufmann brothers’ emigration from Germany to western Pennsylvania after the Civil War. Jacob, the first to arrive, started as an itinerant peddler. Within 20 years, the store that bore their name took up an entire downtown block at Fifth and Smithfield.
The first generation of Kaufmanns brought several innovations to Pittsburgh retail, Pitz said.
“It used to be that if you went into a store to buy something, it wasn’t out on the rack. You’d have to ask to see it.” Then, she added, the clerk would name the price, based on how much they thought the customer would pay. Haggling ensued.
Kaufmann’s brought price tags to Pittsburgh. “When we advertise a price, we charge no more,” their ads announced.
Perhaps the stars of the saga are Jacob’s nephew Edgar and his wife and first cousin Liliane (nee Lillian).
“Edgar was groomed to be a retailer. And he was a risk taker,” Pitz noted. His marriage to Liliane solidified their hold on the company, much to the other cousins’ frustration. But they steered Kaufmann’s into its mid-century golden age. Edgar oversaw a massive expansion of merchandise: by the late ’20s, Kaufmann’s sold everything from furs (including ocelot, squirrel, and Japanese weasel) to linoleum flooring and installation. The store was transformed into an Art Deco showplace, with marble columns and ornamented metal elevator doors.
Around 1933, Liliane, named “Pittsburgh’s smartest dressed woman” by the Pittsburgh Press, created Vendome, an exclusive boutique on the 11th floor, stocked with couture fashion, antiques and decidedly non-costume jewelry. As she wrote in a letter to her son, Edgar Jr., she delighted in her work as a buyer and manager for Vendome.
“You can tell by reading this letter that she’s found her niche,” Pitz noted. “She has a purpose in life. I found her development as a person fascinating.”
Though their success brought great wealth to the Kaufmanns, the authors emphasize the family’s generosity to their community. They supported many Jewish institutions, including Montefiore Hospital, where Liliane served as the first woman board president. As a civic leader, Edgar helped raise more than $1 million to aid the unemployed during the Depression and headed a commission to redevelop the Point after World War II.
However, the family’s greatest legacy is Fallingwater in Fayette County, the couple’s weekend home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Now managed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the house is a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage site.
The book details Kaufmann’s expansion into the suburbs, including the opening of the South Hills freestanding location (now The Galleria) in 1965, its move to South Hills Village more than 20 years later, and the demise of its crown jewel. The downtown location, by then Macy’s, closed in 2015. The iconic clock remains.
Producing Kaufmann’s was “a lot of work,” Pitz said, “but I’m glad we did it.” She credited Schneiderman, her co-author, with having “the project manager gene,” which helped keep them on course.