Academics and Research

Fashion Bar history preserved at DU’s Beck Archives

This 1940 photo of the Fashion Bar store in Greeley, Colo., is among the papers donated to the Beck Archives.

This 1940 photo of the Fashion Bar store in Greeley, Colo., is among the papers donated to the Beck Archives.

In a fast-paced, future-focused metropolis like Denver, history has a way of moseying into the footnotes and settling in for a long hibernation.

But at the Beck Memorial Archives of Rocky Mountain Jewish History, history has lessons to share and connections to make.

Under the direction of Jeanne Abrams, a professor in DU’s University Libraries and at the University’s Center for Judaic Studies, the Beck Archives has amassed an enormous collection of manuscripts, private papers, oral histories, photographs and newspapers.

“We’re the address for the preservation of Colorado Jewish history,” Abrams explains, noting that the archives — which are housed on campus as part of the University Libraries’ special collections — also aim to publicize and share that history.

“Assessing where we are today and planning for the future requires that we understand our past,” Abrams says. “Studying the history of Denver and our state helps us to connect to those roots to better understand our area’s development. Jewish citizens played a pivotal role in growing our region.”

Over the years, Abrams has put the archives to work, telling stories — in books and articles — of entrepreneurial energy, of independent women, of immigrants who pursued the American dream and, she says, “of men and women who held on to their Jewish religious and cultural traditions while crafting an American identity”.

The latest such story focuses on a brother-sister duo who left Germany in the 1920s, as anti-Semitism was on the rise and as hyperinflation was strangling the economy. They made their way to Denver via New York, and once here, they shepherded a tiny hosiery shop into a merchandising empire — the legendary Fashion Bar family of go-to clothing outlets.

Abrams’ chronicle of Jack and Hannah Levy’s adventures in retailing will be published this spring by the German Historical Institute (GHI) at its online book project on immigrant entrepreneurship. Based in Washington, D.C., the institute fosters the study of German immigrant business history in North America and of American history in Germany.

The Levy story has special resonance for Abrams, who met Jack and Hannah not long after beginning work at DU. In 1983, she was offered the chance to interview them for an oral history, and as a scholar interested in the Jewish-American experience, she seized the opportunity. Just a year later, Hannah passed away, and Jack died shortly after that. When Fashion Bar closed its doors in the 1990s, Jack’s daughter, Barbara Levy Goldburg, and other members of the Levy family donated the company’s papers and artifacts to the Beck Archives.

The more Abrams learned about the Levy siblings, the more she wanted to share their experience. “They started out almost as a classic American rags-to-riches story,” she says. What’s more, their story resonates at a time when entrepreneurship looms large in the public’s imagination and as the country is experiencing fresh qualms about immigration.

Not only were Jack and Hannah resourceful immigrants who prospered in the boom-and-bust West, but they became stalwart citizens and philanthropists. “They came out to Colorado at a relatively young age,” Abrams says. “Jack came first, in about 1924, as a young boy of 14. He came out here because his uncle owned a wholesale clothing company and he went to work for him. Hannah was the elder of the two, and she came out a few years later, when she was 19 or 20.”

Jack worked for a relative, and Hannah landed her first Denver job at Neusteter’s department store. “Her English was so poor that when she interviewed for a job they wouldn’t hire her, but on her way out she ran into Mr. Neusteter, who knew her uncle,” Abrams says. “She said something like, ‘I would have so much liked to have worked here,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry; come in tomorrow and I’ll find you something.’ She started as a stock girl and soon progressed to a buyer.”

At the height of the Depression, Jack and a friend pooled their savings to buy a small hosiery store downtown. They called it the Hosiery Bar and hired Hannah to serve as sales lady.

The rest is Denver history. By the 1980s, Abrams says, Fashion Bar employed roughly 1,700 people at 80 specialty stores in Denver, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and California. And sales were impressive. In May 1984, Fashion Bar Inc. logged an estimated $112.5 million in sales.

“One of the Fashion Bar stores was called Hannah, in honor of Hannah Levy. That was their high-fashion women’s clothing outlet,” Abrams says, noting that Hannah, determined to bring high fashion to Denver, spent a lot of time traveling around the world as a buyer. She kept an apartment in New York, so she could attend the fashion shows and spot trends to bring back to Denver.

Abrams finds Hannah’s story particularly intriguing — she was single and an entrepreneur at a time when women were more likely to marry and devote their time to raising children and homemaking.

“She was really quite a powerhouse,” Abrams notes. And the accolades afforded her bear that out. In 1976, the Denver Post described Hannah as “one of the most successful women retailers in the United States.” Decades later, in 2001, she was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame.

The Levy story is not Abrams’ first contribution to the GHI project. Drawing on materials in the Beck Archives, as well as other archival collections around the country, she has authored chapters on several German Jewish businessmen, including one on Benjamin Altman, founder of B. Altman & Co., a major New York department store, and one on David May, who founded Colorado’s May Co. stores, which later became May D&F and which eventually merged with Macy’s. And just last year, she submitted a chapter on California’s Isaias Wolf Hellman, founder of what became Wells Fargo.

These histories, Abrams says, remind us “that people from diverse ethnic and religious groups contributed to the growth and development of the United States. Preserving and disseminating their stories allows us to add more threads to the tapestry that reflects the wider American experience.”


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