Joseph Samuels and his brother Leon had a vision of building a merchandising venture that would appeal to customers from all walks of life. By the mid-twentieth century, they had realized their dream by becoming two of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the country.
Joseph and his brother Leon Samuels were born to James and Caroline (Katzenburg) Samuels in Washington, D.C. on June 7, 1868 and July 4, 1869, respectively. The Samuels family relocated to Philadelphia where the boys attended school. Working in the retail industry while still young, they had accumulated impressive knowledge of the clothing market by the time they reached adulthood.
Beginning with a small store on Weybosset Street in Providence, their Outlet Company, originally called the Manufacturers’ Outlet, eventually expanded to become one of the largest department stores in the Northeast. Believing that there should be a direct outlet from manufacturing to consumer, the brothers were able to defray the cost that would have been incurred by a middleman. By the 1920s, the store grew to a five-floor building with a basement, a warehouse and garage. It would eventually diversify to include thirty-five new departments.
What set the Samuel brothers apart from their competitors, however, was their philanthropic work. Whether authorizing the shipment of blankets to the Home for Aged Men following a disastrous fire that razed their building, or erecting a Dental Clinic for Children on the campus of Rhode Island Hospital, so those less fortunate would be able to obtain free dental care, the brothers set the standard high for customer service. For Joseph’s work, the American College of Dentists named him a fellow, a rare honor for a layman.
Joseph, especially, was consumed by the philosophy set forth by Andrew Carnegie and his Gospel of Wealth, that those who had achieved fortune should assist the downtrodden. With that in mind, he offered his clientele free band concerts in public parks, and declared July 29-August 3, 1907, “Old Home Week” commemorating the discovery of Providence by Roger Williams. The Outlet Company was also the first to celebrate Mother’s Day in Rhode Island by distributing free carnations each year to all mothers who shopped at their store.
The Outlet Company, as spearheaded by Leon Samuels, delved into wireless broadcasting. Recognizing the importance of radio to their future, Leon persuaded Joseph to install a radio station. Accordingly, WJAR became the voice of the Outlet Company, airing its first broadcast on September 6, 1922. Over the next ten years, the station became a money- maker for the brothers.
Sadly, Leon would pre-decease his brother Joseph by ten years, passing in 1929. In 1968, Joseph Samuels was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame for his innovation in the area of sales and manufacturing, and for his wide-ranging philanthropic work.
For further reading:
Smart, Samuel Chipman. The Outlet Story, 1894-1984. Providence: Outlet
Debra A. Mulligan