Seligman Brothers Company 1849-1928: The Rise and Fall of an American Business

Pete's copy of Santa Fe


Although not a human member of my family tree, Seligman Brothers Company was a tremendous factor influencing the history of my Seligman family.  Because this business was such a huge part of the family history, I decided to devote a separate post to the history and development of the business over time.


As described here, Sigmund Seligman had started the business in 1849 with Charles Clever.  Then Clever had left to pursue a career in law, and Bernard had joined with his brother in the business. Later, their younger brother Adolph joined the business.  Bernard withdrew, at least in name, for a while, and after Sigmund died in 1876, Adolph took over running the company.  The business thrived, using the Santa Fe Trail to bring goods from the East to Santa Fe and the surrounding territory.


Sign for Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

Sign for Santa Fe National Historic Trail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Santa Fe New Mexican ran an article on January 21, 1903, discussing the history of the business.  The article described the way business had operated before the Santa Fe Railway system connected Santa Fe to other markets by train beginning in the 1880s:


“[A]ll goods brought into New Mexico were freighted by wagons drawn by oxen, mules and horses over the famous Santa Fe Trail from Kansas City.  Santa Fe was then the business center of the territory.  This was the distributing point for the entire region.  Money was plentiful, there were no banks…. Gambling and speculation consequently ran riot. Goods were freighted in once a year and mails were received from the east once a month….”  (“The Oldest Firm in the Southwest,” Santa Fe New Mexican, January 21, 1903, p. 1)


English: "Arrival of the caravan at Santa...

English: “Arrival of the caravan at Santa Fe” — Copy of original lithograph ca. 1844 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Marc Simmons, an expert on the history of the Santa Fe Trail, wrote, “Before the first bank was chartered in Santa Fe in 1870, Seligman Bros., in addition to its mercantile activities, engaged in private banking.  … The firm also helped finance construction of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.”





Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Another article written in the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1915 gave more detail about the early nature of the business:


“In the early years of its existence the old firm was engaged in a general merchandise business and bought and sold everything needed by the Indians and the Spanish and American settles of that period.  There was much bartering with the Indians and early settlers, as there was comparatively little actual money in the country and goods of all kinds were traded for skins, blankets, goods of all kinds, whatever the people had to offer and which could be turned into money in the markets of the East by the venturesome traders.” (“New Store at the End of the Santa Fe Trail Recalls the Ancient and Honorable History of Seligman Bros. Institution,” Santa Fe New Mexican, March 29, 1915)


The store moved in 1856 and then returned to its original location in 1890.  The 1903 article pointed out that although the store had originally carried a wide range of items including not just dry goods, but also groceries, hardware and crockery, after the move in 1890 it had limited its inventory to dry goods (clothing, hats, shoes, boots, carpets and “kindred lines”).


The 1915 article described the growth of Seligman Brothers wholesale business after the arrival of the railroad and the growth that followed:


“While Seligman Brothers carried on a retail business, the rapid development of the surrounding country and the establishment of stores in the new settlements formed in the outlying districts made it necessary that an immense stock be carried from which to supply the needs of the country merchants. This led to the building up of a wholesale business which in its day and generation was a marvel to the jobbers and manufacturers of the more populous trading centers of the East and North who could not understand how it was that a single concern in the sparsely populated country around Santa Fe could possibly need stocks of goods aggregating a quarter million of dollars in value, yet Seligman Brothers had, in fact, nearly always had, that much money invested in merchandise in order to be able to take of the country merchants who depended up them for supplies.” (“New Store at the End of the Santa Fe Trail Recalls the Ancient and Honorable History of Seligman Bros. Institution,” Santa Fe New Mexican, March 29, 1915)




English: Comparison map showing the Santa Fe T...

English: Comparison map showing the Santa Fe Trail and the Atchison. Scanned from: Santa Fe Railroad (1922), By the Way – A condensed guide of points of interest along the Santa Fe lines to California, Rand McNally and Company, Chicago, Illinois. Category:Atchison Category:Historical maps of the United States Category:Railroad maps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Thus, Seligman’s was successful on both a retail and a wholesale level. As I wrote in my last post, in 1903 Adolph Seligman withdrew from Seligman and Brothers, and the business was then incorporated as Seligman Brothers Company.  Bernard’s older son James became a stockholder and the president and general manager of the business with Bernard’s younger son Arthur, also a stockholder, serving as the treasurer and secretary.   The 1903 Santa Fe New Mexican article reported on the change in ownership and the withdrawal of Adolph from the business, observing that “the business of the corporation will be continued is all respects as heretofore” and that “The firm of Seligman Bros. is the oldest in the southwest.  It is well and favorably known through the section and has a high reputation for fair dealing and honesty.  The members are progressive and up-to-date, and there is no doubt that it will command a high percentage of the favor of the public and secure a large share of business.  It has done so for fifty years and indications are that it will do so for many years to come.”  (“The Oldest Firm in the Southwest,” Santa Fe New Mexican, January 21, 1903, p. 1)


The 1915 article reported on another relocation of the business and, like the article written twelve years earlier, predicted continuing growth and success for the business.  (“New Store at the End of the Santa Fe Trail Recalls the Ancient and Honorable History of Seligman Bros. Institution,” Santa Fe New Mexican, March 29, 1915)


Despite that optimism, it appears that the 1920s were not very good for the business.  A few ads indicate that things perhaps were not going as well as they once had.


1920 Seligman Bros. ad

1920 Seligman Bros. ad


Seligman Bros ad May 5, 1922 Santa Fe New Mexican

Seligman Bros ad May 5, 1922 Santa Fe New Mexican


Although I do not have any source explaining specifically why or when the business closed, in 1928 it was still listed in the Santa Fe city directory, but with a woman named Evelyn Conway as its general manager.  James and Arthur had moved on to different lines of business, as I will discuss.  By 1930 Seligman Brothers Company was no longer listed in the directory and presumably was out of business.  Perhaps competition from those other stores had had an impact on Seligman’s business.  Whatever the cause, it is sad that after more than seventy-five years as one of the first and most important businesses in Santa Fe, the store disappeared forever.[1]


Thanks once again to my cousin Arthur “Pete” Scott, who provided me with most of the news clippings discussed in this post. For more on the history of the buildings where Seligman Brothers was located from 1849-1926, see his article here.  There are also additional photographs located at that site.  In addition, Pete wrote an article about the history of the company, located here.



[1] William Seligman,son of Adolph Seligman, did continue for at least some time the family tradition in the dry goods business in Santa Fe.  He operated a store in Santa Fe under the name Seligman’s from at least 1948-1959.  In 1960, the store was listed in the Santa Fe Directory as simply Willie’s Shop for Men.  (“New Haberdashery to Open at La Fonda,” Santa Fe New Mexican, November 30, 1958.)  I do not know how much longer the store stayed in business.  There is no business called Seligman’s currently listed in the Santa Fe business directory.




A Man of Character and Integrity: A Profile of Reuben Cohen, The Pawnbroker

Reuben Cohen

Reuben Cohen

In 1921, The Literary Digest published a profile of Reuben Cohen, Sr., and his career as a pawnbroker.  As I posted previously,  I had a skeptical view of pawnbrokers before I started researching my Cohen ancestors.  Certainly some of that research has been consistent with that view, but overall my opinion of the pawnbroker business has changed dramatically, especially after reading from Wendy Woloson’s In Hock, Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (2006).

There appears to be no reason to doubt the integrity or the character of most of the Cohen men who went into the pawnbroker business in Philadelphia, starting with my great-great-grandfather Jacob and carried on by his sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons.

The profile of Reuben Cohen, Jacob’s son, my great-grandfather’s brother, provides a fitting end to my telling of the story of Reuben and Sallie and their seventeen children.  It appeared in the Literary Digest for April 23, 1921, pages 48, 50, just five years before Reuben died.  Most of the article consists of direct quotes from Reuben himself, making it a valuable piece of family history for me and for all my Cohen cousins and relatives.

Reuben is portrayed as an honest, good, man, an articulate and thoughtful man, a man who believed that his work was not only about making money for himself and his family, but also about helping people who needed money and were not able to get that money from a traditional bank.  I am quoting the article in full because I hope that it helps to preserve the legacy of Reuben Cohen and also to provide a more positive view of the role of the pawnbroker.


COFFINS, false teeth, wooden legs, anvils, anchors, horses, and auto mobiles—that sounds like an extract from the catalog of a museum of contemporary times, but, really, it is a partial list of odds and ends taken in by a Philadelphia pawnbroker. For fifty years, we are told, Reuben Cohen has performed the office of “uncle” to an innumerable army of more or less distant relatives whose ways of living, or misfortunes, led them to establish a connection with him. Once, he avers, it was an undertaker, to whom the continued good health of the community had meant serious financial loss. The undertaker had become overstocked with coffins, and needed hard cash for the butcher and groceryman he had failed to bury. At another time it was a horse dealer, who needed ready money more than a mount. At another time, still, it was a man who found that he could get along temporarily without his underpinning provided he could get something under his belt. False teeth form a ready article of sale and are more easily disposed of than anchors. But even an anchor may find a temporary resting-place in the back room of a pawnshop.

During his half century under the sign of the three balls Mr. Cohen evidently turned few away from his door. And he found that it isn’t only the poor who seek to be tided over an unlucky financial venture, or to raise money for an unexpected need. Sometimes people who are reputed rich ring the bell after nightfall, and come in lugging the family silver or a bagful of ancient heirlooms. Reuben Cohen has been “uncle” to them all, and he has had a rare opportunity to study all phases of human nature. Said he recently to a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

“A woman who had all the appearance of class came into my place one day and pawned a fine silver set. It was after I had been in business long enough to have saved enough money to take a real vacation.

“My wife and I went down to the old Hotel Stockton, at Cape May, three days later. And whom should I see, as I walked into the lobby, but that woman who had pawned the silverware. She was drest in the height of fashion. No, she didn’t recognize me then, and she never recognized me many other times when I saw her there. But I recognized her. Incidentally, she never redeemed her silverware.

“Now you don’t want to get the idea that everyone who comes to a pawn broker’s shop is a waster, a spender, improvident, you know, and all that. Maybe some of those with that richness bluff are that way, but the majority of the people who come to me are poor.

“I think a reputable pawnbroker can be described as the poor man’s banker. Poor people can not get loans from banks. Still there are lots of times when a poor family that has only so much income coming in each week has to have what is to them a large sum at one time. They go to a pawnbroker then, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

“Then there are some really well-to do people who can get loans from banks, but have real misfortunes and find themselves unable to pay off the bank loan. Then they pawn some stuff to get the money to pay off the bank loan.

“That was the case with the last fellow who pledged an automobile with me. He had to meet a note on a Camden bank, and he begged me to take the automobile as a pledge. I got stung on that deal, too. I had to sell that automobile later for a good deal less than I lent that man.

“I can tell the value of most things pretty well, but I don’t think I’ll take a chance on another automobile. I might still take a horse, but no more of them are being offered. I took quite a few in my day.”

Mr. Cohen gave a reminiscent chuckle as he told about the time an undertaker had pledged several coffins and some coffin trimmings: 

“My assistant was out when the coffins came in,” he said. “The coffins were stood up at the back of the store. When I heard my assistant coming in, I ran back and stood up in one of the coffins. When he saw me there, he gave a frightened jump and might have run out of the place if I hadn’t stept out and laughed. That undertaker’s business must have picked up, for he redeemed the coffins and the trimmings, and you can be sure I was thankful for that.

“Talking about business ups and downs, I had a funny experience one night ’way back. In those days Saturday nights were our busiest times. One Saturday night when old Maxwell Stevenson was running for Congress in this district he made a speech on the corner right across from my place.

“He talked for hours—in fact, until I closed in disgust. He must have been a wonderful speaker, for not a single customer entered my shop while that other attraction was running across the way. 

The veteran money-lender became curious when he was led into a discourse on the ethics of the business.  He said that he knew that the popular picture of the man in the establishment that advertised itself with the three golden balls was that of a merciless gouger.  That there were some of that type he did not doubt.

“But I know there are others.  Since you are asking me about my experience, I will tell you that the time with the automobile was not the only time I have been stung.  I took that machine at a value that I knew was higher than its true one because the fellow needed a certain amount of money to meet his note.  And the bank wasn’t going to wait for its money.

“The fellow promised, of course, to redeem the automobile, but I never said more than once, and, altho after each time I made up my mind to be more cautious, I’d make the same mistake, because I couldn’t resist the appeal some smooth tongued rascals could make. And, mind you, I don‘t pose as being unique in my business. I take great pride in the small success I have been able to make because I have always tried to get the confidence of my customers, and I am sure that is the reason for my success.”

Mr. Cohen is large, broad-shouldered and for all his sixty-seven years, presents a ruddy, healthy, well-preserved picture of a man who might well be taken for a prosperous insurance broker, the business of one of his sons. He has a cheerful appearance and a bluff, hearty manner.

He has never moved out of the neighborhood in which he grew up. He lives in a little house next door to his place of business. Despite his laughing good nature, he contest that he has had his share of sorrows. Of the eighteen children born to him and his wife only seven are living, four sons and three daughters.

There are two things of which he boasts. One is that his son, Simon L. Bloch Cohen, was a member of the First Division, and gassed, shell-shocked, and twice wounded, and was decorated with the Croix do Guerra by Marshal Foch. The other is that his lifelong friend, Warden Robert McKenty, of the Eastern Penitentiary, named one of his sons Reuben Cohen McKenty. 

Reuben died five years later, and thanks to Pennsylvania’s release of more recent death certificates, I now have access to his death certificate:

Reuben Cohen, Sr. death certificate 1926

Reuben Cohen, Sr. death certificate 1926

In Reuben’s memory and in memory of his son Simon of whom he was so proud, I will end this small chapter of my family history with a photograph of Simon’s Croix de Guerre and with the famous symbol of the pawnbroker, the three gold balls.

Croix-de-Gurre-Back Simon LB Cohen

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers--three connect...