E. A. Filene, A. Lincoln Filene, and Louis E. Kirstein, Boston's most successful Jewish department store magnates, led lives which can be recalled by means of a half-dozen existing Boston sites.
Foremost among these sites is the 1912 Filene's retail store building located at the corner of Washington and Summer Streets (top of photo).
Two additional sites commemorate the life of E. A. Filene: (1) a free-standing memorial tablet/stone on Boston Common at the corner of Charles and Boylston Streets (left in photo) and (2) the elegant, simple brick townhouse with turquoise painted shutters at #12 Otis Place (right in photo).
One site reminds us of Louis E. Kirstein: The Kirstein Memorial Business Library, a branch of the Boston Public Library, located directly behind Old City Hall at #20 City Hall Avenue.
Kirstein's residence in Kenmore Square at #506 Commonwealth Avenue was torn down during the winter of 2001-2002 in order to build a new hotel.
One site served as one of the homes of A. Lincoln Filene at #361 Beacon Street (His principal residence was located in Weston, Massachusetts.).
These sites can serve to stimulate our learning about and understanding the commercial, intellectual, and societal contributions by these three Jews to Boston and to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A public relations story told by Edward Bernays who briefly worked for Filene was that William Filene, the father and founder of Filene's, a Jewish immigrant to the United States in the late 1840s from Posen, Prussia/Germany, arrived at customs here in Boston with a surname of Katz. William Katz thought to substitute his surname with the equivalent synonym "feline" or, as mispelled, "filene."
As a peddler and small shopkeeper (principally for women's apparel), William Filene's ventures through Connecticut introduced him to a young Jewish woman, Clara Ballin. After a short courtship, the two married.
Over the next thirty years, the Filenes had five children (four boys and a girl), and, after fits and starts in small shops, eventually returned to the Boston area to make their
lives and livelihood.
The Filenes were enlightened "German" Jews who relished opportunities in America and concerned themselves more with ethics and progressive thinking than with ritual
By the 1890s, two of their sons, E. A. Filene and A. Lincoln Filene had become the chosen successors to their parents' business.
These two "boys", bright and capable, formulated theories on how to do business and then proceeded to implement them.
For assistance they sought out some of the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds of
their day. Legal counsel was obtained from Louis D. Brandeis. A merchandising partner was discovered in Louis E. Kirstein. Boston societal analyis was contracted from Lincoln Steffens.
If ever there was a talmudist (in a broad sense) in department store clothing, E. A. Filene was it. Filene was a constant inquirer about everything and anything in his life.
His incessant questioning eventually led him to write a half-dozen books, to give dozens of speeches, and to speak nationally on radio in behalf of President Franklin Roosevelt's
Together, he and his brother, catalyzed progressive
approaches to purchasing goods,
employee relationships, and selling their products.
A. Lincoln Filene also wrote books, with his focus more directed toward business personnel relationships.
While E. A. Filene did not overtly participate in Jewish community activities and A. Lincoln Filene ostensibly changed his religious affiliation in midlife; the two brothers
remained committed to two of Judaism's powerful tenets: tzidakah and fairness/justice.
E. A. Filene donated almost his entire multi-million fortune to two charitable
foundations which he had created: The Twentieth Century Fund
(a fact finding foundation now in New York City) and The E.A.
Filene Good Will Fund. A. Lincoln Filene and his wife Therese created their own foundation which gave substantial sums of money to universities and cultural programs.
Together, the two Filene brothers catalyzed creation of The Filene Cooperative Association, perhaps the earliest American pseudo-union, in which employees had an independent and
significant role in governing themselves. Not only did Filene employees determine such matters as their own wage scales but also they could adjudicate (and reverse) controversies such as employment dismissals.
Louis E. Kirstein, who joined Filene operations in 1911, had direct and influential involvement in Boston's Jewish community. During and after World War One, Kirstein served first as campaign chair and then later as President of Boston's Jewish Federation. His fund raising abilities were considered monumental by our Jewish community. In the span of one particular year (1917-1918), under Kirstein's leadership,
the dollar amount of Jewish community fundraising quadrupled!
For almost forty years, Kirstein lived in Kenmore Square close to Temple Israel (today Boston University's Morse Auditorium).
When the Boston Public Library was searching for an opportunity to start a business
branch, Kirstein provided personal funds for the entire such building.
E. A. Filene, for many years, lived in rented quarters in Boston's South End. In 1920, he purchased Elizabeth Glendower Evan's (L.D. Brandeis' close friend) home at
#12 Otis Place, where he lived the last seventeen years of his life.
The dapper bachelor E. A. Filene, like his friend and counselor Brandeis, loved walking the streets of Boston and his view of the Charles River.
From E. A. Filene's travels and creative mind constantly came new ideas and projects. His travel to India in the first decade of this century resulted in his creation of
credit unions here in the United States. That creation was recognized in the 1950s by the Credit Union Association when it placed a tablet/memorial stone honoring its founding father on one corner of the Boston Common.
E. A. Filene's most tangible product for Boston consumers was not only the supervision of the construction of the main department store building at Washington and Summer Streets but also the conception and implementation of Filene's Automatic Basement Store underneath it.
One of several books commemorating E. A. Filene's life is Liberal's Progress by Gerald W. Johnson, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1948.