S. Karpen & Bros.—A National Furniture Company:
Tune into Antiques Roadshow and might see an ornately carved gold leaf settee or an oversized mission leather chair. The experts would point out the metal label reading “S. Karpen & Bros. You think, “Karpen Brothers, I never heard of that company.” In the 21st century that is true, but from the late nineteenth century until the 1940s, the name Karpen Brothers was well known in the furniture manufacturing industry. In homes, businesses, and government offices, Americans sat on Karpen furniture, read Karpen advertisements in the magazines and newspapers, and strived to achieve the ideals of design and style the Karpen name embodied.
The Smithsonian Museum, the Chicago Art Institute, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Flagler Museum (St. Augustine, Florida) have Karpen furniture in their collections. Forbes Magazine featured the family in a 1926 article “How Nine Brothers Built Up a $10,000,000 Business,” and the Chicago Historical Society’s definitive book on the Chicago furniture industry from 1833 to1983 highlighted the company.
Yet no book has been written about the company or the family.We will tell the story of the company, S. Karpen & Bros.; the story of the nine brothers who came to America as poor Jewish immigrants from Prussia in 1872 and quickly became millionaires; and the story of the emergence of the unique American style.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Solomon Karpen, the eldest of nine brothers, founded S. Karpen & Bros. in Chicago that quickly became the largest upholstered furniture company in the world. These poor Jewish immigrants quickly became leaders in the furniture business and millionaires. The growth of the company spanned all America during the decades of immigration, the emergence of a strong middle class, and two world wars.
Emily C. Rose’s Great Grandfather
I grew up looking at a large oil painting that hung over a softly curved couch in my parent’s house. The dignified gentleman, Solomon Karpen, known as “Sam,” was always watching me as his eyes followed me the length of our long living room. In search of my great grandfather’s story, I traveled four times from 1992 to 2003 to the town of Wongrowitz (Wagrowiec) in western Prussia (now Poland) from where the family emigrated in 1872. Jews in Prussia, unlike Jews in the other German areas in the early nineteenth century, were allowed to learn crafts. There the Karpens had been cabinet makers for several generations. While the rest of the town was bombed in WWII, amazingly their house and factory are still standing.
The Karpen brothers combined European craftsmanship with American innovative marketing and business acumen. S. Karpen Bros. was a business based on European design and craftsmanship that achieved success through American business techniques. They became an integral part of Chicago lore when the nine Karpen brothers formed one of the famous family baseball teams in the 1890s.
In the 1920s, S. Karpen Bros. branched out into the very competitive plastics industry and became “unwelcome” partners in the Bakelite Company. The diaries of the inventor of Bakelite, Dr. Leo Baekeland, relate his yet untold, hostile reaction to his Jewish partners.
Hundreds of documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found in archives in Poland, Berlin, Chicago, and Washington DC reveal details of the company and family story. Advertisements, catalogs, and furniture pieces from the 1880 to 1952 add visual interest and context.
The story begins in Prussia of the 19th century where the Karpen family worked as carpenters and owned a small furniture factory in the town of Wongrowitz. There, the family was an integral part of the Jewish community. But Moriz and Johanna had a dream to come to America with their 8 young sons; neither pogroms nor poverty forced them to leave. Drawn to Chicago by the building opportunities after the Great Fire, the family worked side by side with other recent immigrants. There, their only American son was born.
By 1880, the eldest son, Solomon, had saved enough money to open his own furniture workshop. One by one the brothers joined the family business, and the business expanded rapidly. From the beginning, the brothers employed craftsmen who were often recent immigrants. They treated their employees like extended family with many clubs and organization, social functions, newsletters, and financial support in times of need.
When an extremely successful business is analyzed the usual conclusion is that it was at the right time and in the right place to take advantage of certain opportunities. As well as seizing the moment, the leaders of the enterprise also create opportunities when none were evident. Such is the case with S. Karpen & Bros. Furniture Company. Nine brothers built the American Dream piece by piece.
S. Karpen Bros. worked with important designers, like Elsie deWolfe, Sterling MacDonald and Donald Deskey. Their public relations efforts were .creative and well-planned. The business expanded across America with factories and showrooms in New York and Los Angeles.
From the beginning, the brothers built a vertical company, almost a conglomerate.
The company invented and patented machinery and mechanical improvements that enhanced their products. In 1914, they funded a chemist under the Mellon Fellowship to invent a quick-drying varnish. Instead, a product similar to the plastic Bakelite, called Redmanol, was developed. Through a series of clever mergers, in1921 S. Karpen Bros. became a partner in the Bakelite Company, founded and still headed by Dr. Leo Baekeland. This business venture increased the Karpens’ wealth considerably. Dr. Baekeland’s personal diaries, however, belie the public perception of a merging of mutual and similar interests. Rather, Dr. Baekeland wrote angry and stereotypical anti-Semitic comments about the Karpens as businessmen and individuals.
Karpen Bros. left its mark on the Chicago skyline. It bought and sold buildings along Michigan Avenue and even built its signature building still standing at 910 S. Michigan Avenue.
Finally, this is a family story. The immigrant father lives to see his dream only barely realized; the Jewish matriarch rules the family for decades; the family baseball team plays well-publicized games in family leagues; some brothers marry Jewish women while others marry Christians; their opulent lifestyles brings troubles for the following generations; the continued relationship of one brother with their native Jewish community. The legitimate newspapers and the tabloids chronicled their story.
The last of the nine Karpen brothers sold the family business in 1952. The story of the nine Karpen brothers and S. Karpen & Bros. encompasses the decades of immigration and growth, of the world wars and the Great Depression, and the emergence of modern America. While this is a family story, a Jewish story, and an immigrant story, it is also a story of the development of a part of American industry by immigrants and of the change in the American family as reflected in home furnishings.
Story of Solomon Karpen as an immigrant entrepreneur. Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present.