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Jacob Goldsmith (1850-1933)

Jacob Goldsmith and his older brother, Isaac, were significant Memphis merchants in post-Reconstruction Memphis. Jacob Goldsmith established one of the state’s best-known department stores, Goldsmith’s, which operated in downtown Memphis until 1990. Goldsmith’s was a family-controlled business until 1959, when it became a part of Federated Department Stores, Inc. In 1988 Goldsmith’s became a part of the Macy’s retail chain when Federated and Macy’s merged. The store’s name was first changed to Goldsmith’s-Macy’s in 2003 and finally changed to Macy’s on March 7, 2005, ending more than a century’s tradition of Goldsmith’s as a brand name in the Bluff City.

The Goldsmith brothers immigrated to Memphis from Hainstadt, Germany, in 1867. Their uncle, Louis Ottenheimer, had already established a store, in partnership with Moses Schwartz, on the city’s Main Street. At the time of their relocation, Jacob was just finishing school and Isaac was working. They were both young men with ambition. Initially, the brothers lived with their uncle, learning English and the storekeeping business while working in their uncle’s provisions store. After saving five hundred dollars, they opened their own tiny store in 1870 at 81 Beale Street, which soon expanded to include 81-83 Beale Street. Driven by the brothers’ hard work (Jacob slept in the rear of the store), the store expanded in 1881 when Jacob and Isaac purchased their uncle’s shop on Main Street. This location then became the main store, and the brothers renamed the enterprise “I. Goldsmith & Bro.”

Isaac Goldsmith died in 1884. Jacob bought Isaac’s share of the store but kept the I. Goldsmith & Bro. name. Goldsmith’s effective management skills spurred the store into a period of continued success. As historian Selma S. Lewis points out in A Biblical People in the Bible Belt: The Jewish Community of Memphis, Tennessee, 1840s-1960s, Goldsmith’s “optimism was famous and infectious, and he trained his sales force accordingly.” After outgrowing its previous building, the store moved in 1894 to a building that Goldsmith had built on the southeast corner of Main Street and Gayoso. In October 1901 the store moved to the southwest corner of Main and Gayoso. Shortly after this expansion, Goldsmith’s became the South’s first “department store”--that is, a store arranging merchandise by departments. It also purchased one of the first full-page newspaper advertisements--soon a common marketing tool for department stores--for “The Yellow Ticket Sale” in 1903. In 1904 Jacob Goldsmith changed the store name to J. Goldsmith & Sons Co. The company continued to break new ground in the retail world. To spur Christmas sales, Goldsmith began to greet Santa Claus at the Memphis depot and escort him to the store. Soon this escort became a Christmas parade, predating the more famous Macy’s parade by at least a decade. Goldsmith’s also pioneered radio advertising in 1922 when it sponsored “Goldsmith’s Supreme Jazz Band” on WKN.

Goldsmith was active in different civic and business organizations. He was an Odd Fellow for over forty years, served on the boards of various Memphis financial institutions, and served as vice-president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He also served on the Board of Trustees for Temple Israel and was named the temple’s honorary president late in his life.

Jacob Goldsmith died at the age of eighty-three on November 24, 1933. At the time of his death, he was still the company president. His survivors were his wife, Dora Ottenheimer, and his seven children.

After his passing, Goldsmith’s oldest son, Fred, became president of the company and led the store to several more milestones.

Suggested Reading

Paul R. Coppock, “Bridging the Generations of Business Growth,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, November 28, 1976;

Selma S. Lewis, A Biblical People in the Bible Belt: The Jewish Community of Memphis, Tennessee, 1840s-1960s (1998);

Perre Magness, “Oldest Goldsmith’s store soon to pass into history,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, May 24, 1990.

Published » January 04, 2010