Filene's Closing Ends Unusual Legacy

Century-Old Firm Was Founded by Reluctant Jewish Capitalist

Bargain Hunters: The closing of Filene’s Basement marks another milestone in the constantly shifting retail world. The store started as an experiment in a different kind of capitalism.
getty images
Bargain Hunters: The closing of Filene’s Basement marks another milestone in the constantly shifting retail world. The store started as an experiment in a different kind of capitalism.

By Ari Paul

Published December 11, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

This holiday season will be the last for two iconic discount clothing retailers with historic Jewish roots: Filene’s Basement and Syms, which acquired the former in 2009. Both recently declared bankruptcy and will cease operating in January.

While the commercial legacy of the Filene family may end soon, founder Edward Filene’s social legacy, as an exemplar of progressive management and labor rights, has suffered diminishing influence that long predates his store’s demise. Filene, in a sense, was emblematic of an urban, immigrant-centric political consensus between capital and labor that Americans have swept into the dustbin of history.

“The Jewish entrepreneurs — not to mention Jewish labor leaders — were important in the construction of an ideological political bloc that became the New Deal,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

In 1909, brothers Lincoln and Edward Filene — sons of a German-Jewish immigrant — embarked on a new venture: taking unsold items from their father’s department store and selling them at discount prices out of a low-cost basement location in Boston. Each week, unsold items would be marked down systematically. After a few weeks, if still unsold, the brothers would give them to charity. The business grew into a chain of retail stores in such cities as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Unlike the capitalists of the time who were battling militant unions, Edward Filene offered his employees an in-house mechanism — sometimes equated with a company union — to address their concerns about working conditions and raise their pay. It became a model for his core political beliefs.

Filene lobbied for workers compensation laws. His prominence later led to him to ally with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the development of New Deal projects, including the use of public works projects to ease high unemployment. He was also a key supporter of the National Labor Relations Act, signed in 1935, on the grounds that codifying collective bargaining would alleviate disorder stemming from worker unrest at the time. The NLRA, he believed, was also essential for raising workers’ wages, which would increase consumer demand.

While his brother had taken over majority control of the company by the time Roosevelt came into office in 1933, Edward Filene’s prominence as a successful businessman made him the perfect endorser for Roosevelt’s capitalism with a Democratic face. But Filene wouldn’t live to see the post-war prosperity. He died in 1937.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.