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B. Altman and Co.

Lawrence Bush
July 11, 2017

Benjamin Altman, the founder of the B. Altman and Co. department store, was born in New York on this date in 1840, five years after his parents emigrated from Bavaria and opened a small dry goods store. Altman opened his own store in 1865 and grew it into a department store chain with a flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York, which was designated a New York landmark in 1986 and is now used by the City University Graduate Center. Altman’s store was one of the first to separate clothing for different ages into departments and was one of the first of the New York stores to open out-of-town branches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. When Altman died at 73 in 1913, he donated his collection of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including twenty Rembrandts and the museum’s first Vermeer. To see some very notable artworks from Altman’s collection, click here. Altman also established the Altman Foundation in 1913, giving it control of the store so that, as Jane B. O’Connell, the foundation’s president puts it, “essentially everyone who shopped in Altman’s until 1985 was in some way contributing to charity.” The Altman Foundation has given away more than $235 million in cultural, health, and educational grants since the department store closed its doors in 1989.

“Altman was an intensely private man, and few details are known about his personal life. . . .He had two siblings, his older brother Morris Altman, born in 1837, who also attended public schools and worked in the family business, and his sister Sophia Altman Fleishman, born about 1835. . . . Around 1856, Benjamin’s sister Sophia married Samuel Fleishman, another Bavarian Jewish immigrant, a peddler and then a merchant in Jackson County, Florida. They had six children. Fleishman worked for the Altman Brothers when they ran their late father’s store for a period during the Civil War when Samuel left the South to escape the draft. . . . In 1869, during the violent Reconstruction Era, Fleishman, a Republican who was supportive of freed slaves, was murdered by the local Ku Klux Klan. . . . Benjamin Altman never had children of his own, but evidently felt a keen responsibility for his ten nieces and nephews, the four children of his brother Morris and the six of sister Sophia Fleishman.” --Dr. Jeanne Abrams

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.