Joseph Samuels

Inducted: 1968
Born: 1868 - Died:
1939

To those who grew up in Rhode Island, the Outlet Department Store was as familiar and as dominant in the downtown area as were such familiar establishments as the Albee Theater, Gibson’s, the Boston Store, Gladdings, Shepard’s, and Tilden-Thurber. When Joseph and Leon Samuels opened a small store on Westminster Street in 1894, every possible card was stacked against them. The country had not yet shaken off the inertia of a widespread depression. Capital had gone into hiding, and credit had disappeared. Manufacturers brooded over stocks of goods that no one could buy. Men loitered outside of mills that had shut down for lack of orders.

The brothers also had no Chamber of Commerce to welcome them into the neighborhood. Merchants in the area resented their marketing strategies, and The Providence Journal refused to accept their advertising. The brothers succeeded by buying quality products and turning them over fast, at the smallest possible profit. They came up with remarkable new ideas and enterprise and readily overcame the obstacles placed in their way by their adversaries. They attracted hordes of customers who could not afford the prevailing high prices of their competitors.

Joseph Samuels was born in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 1868, the son of James and Caroline (Katzenberg) Samuels. He spent his childhood in his native city of Washington, where he attended the local public schools, proving himself to be an alert and earnest student. As a youth, he accompanied his parents to their new home in Philadelphia, where he obtained his first business training. He worked for several clothing stores in Philadelphia before deciding that to become successful, he had to work for himself. He became a traveling salesperson, selling clothing in small towns throughout New England and advertising by distributing handbills from door to door. He opened his first permanent store in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1891. Samuels came to Providence with his brother Leon in 1894. Leon was one year younger than Joseph, having been born on July 4, 1869. Like his brother, he attended the public schools of Philadelphia. At age 12, Leon was selling papers in the street, but before reaching 21, he reportedly acquired a good knowledge of the advertising business.

The small store they opened on Westminster Street was bare of furnishings, and the stock was piled on packing cases used as counters. It was called the Manufacturers’ Outlet because it was a direct outlet from the manufacturer to the consumer with no middleman costs. From the beginning, their advertising methods were unlike any Rhode Island had ever previously been exposed to. They sent men wearing signboards announcing bargain prices. The angry reaction of the conservative downtown merchants to the “sandwich men” parading up and down in front of their stores brought an advertising ban from The Providence Journal. The Samuels brothers answered the Journal’s rejection of their advertising by starting The Outlet Bulletin, a weekly free newspaper distributed by their carriers, with a circulation of 100,000, the largest in Rhode Island. It was no throwaway; it was a crusading newspaper with an editorial policy. The motto under their heading of “Weekly—Reliable and Interesting News” was “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in our advertisements.” 

An editorial in the first issue of The Outlet Bulletin on November 7, 1901, stated: “The Journal and Bulletin point blank refuse to print our advertisements and give us no reason for doing so. If our ads were not truthful, we would not blame them. If we attempted to fool the public, we would not blame them, but their intellect is so badly clogged that they cannot even invent an excuse, but then, what can you expect of a paper that does so many ridiculous stunts.” They used their newspaper to publicize the values they offered to the public. “Talk About Colossal Nerve. When manufacturers come to us and want to buy back the merchandise they sold us at our prices, it is mighty good evidence that we are tramping on someone’s toes. Only last week, a well-known silk manufacturer came to us with the above proposition and said other merchants objected to our cutting prices. There are many things they object to. They probably would remove Weybosset Street from the Providence map if they had their way. They object simply because they know we give standard values and undersell them. It is such extraordinary silk, velvet dress goods and lining values as we offer you in this advertisement that we are drawing the knowing ones to our store. Trading stamps, premiums, and other alluring tactics have no weight with the people in the face of our genuine value-giving.”

The Outlet Bulletin also crusaded against a powerful bloc ruling the Rhode Island Street Railways at the turn of the century. The greatest popular grievance against their control was that the bloc would permit no transfer of tickets from one streetcar line to another. For every ride, a full fare was charged, and it was only when the voice of the people screamed the political house down that transfer tickets were introduced. The Outlet Bulletin succeeded in issuing free transfers as of July 10, 1902. The newspaper took up other issues on behalf of the people. It exposed the “Money Loan Sharks” who charged exorbitant rates. It advised its readers that it was the “duty of every citizen to register” to vote and that it would print reviews of candidates’ speeches. It explained the laws on registration and naturalization to the many readers who were recent immigrants. In this connection, there was an unfavorable editorial on Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, who was referred to ironically as “our great boss of Rhode Island.”

The newspaper also contained a section titled “The Outlet’s Home Corner,” which included a children’s column featuring puzzles and games, an article on physical culture, cooking recipes, advice from the family physician, and health and beauty tips. A considerable portion of the newspaper was devoted to advertisements showing values in men’s, women’s, and children’s furnishings and such items as suitcases. Accompanying the pictures of the sale items was a column on “What Fashionable Women Wear.”

Joseph Samuels married Alice March Murr, Lewis and Bertha (Silverberg) Murr’s daughter, in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1900. He had one daughter, Bertha Carol, born in Providence on June 4, 1903.

The store expanded and outgrew its quarters in the Hodges Building at 176 Westminster Street. The land in the rear of the Hodges block, fronting Pine Street, was cleared, and a brick building was erected. The original front space was more than doubled. As time went on and the business grew, more space was needed, and finally, the whole of the Hodges Building was occupied by this enterprising concern. In 1902, the firm purchased the old City Hotel property adjoining the present quarters and began the erection of a modern business block. Thirty-five new departments were added, and the Outlet Company became one of the largest department stores in New England. Plans for their modern building of steel construction to be erected at Pine and Eddy Streets were announced in The Providence Sunday Journal on March 28, 1920. The structure was to consist of five floors and a basement, giving the company a total additional floor space of 78,000 square feet, with a frontage of 148 feet on Pine Street and 78 feet on Eddy Street. There would be an entrance on Pine Street and a continuous straight central aisle from Weybosset Street to Pine Street, devoted exclusively to bargain tables. The steel structure was to have “fancy gray brick and terra cotta trimmings.” Angell and Swift were the architects.

To carry out this expansion, some familiar buildings were demolished. The old City Hotel on Weybosset Street, built in 1832, where Charles Dickens had stayed when he paid his only visit to Providence on February 20, 1868, was torn down in 1903. For the expansion of 1912 (mainly on Garnet Street), three buildings, including the old Hof Brau Haus and numerous saloons, were razed. Expansion was not only for store space. In 1914, the old Oriental Saloon on Pine Street was purchased and torn down to make room for a new warehouse and garage. The warehouse and garage at the corner of Eddy and Pine Streets, comprising 14,000 square feet of floor space and six stories high, was considered one of the most modern fireproof buildings in Providence. The famous old Jacob Wirth’s Cafe property was first acquired by lease in March 1917. On February 25, 1922, The Providence Journal reported that the “Samuels Land Company gets Weybosset Street property. $110,000 worth of revenue stamps attached to the deed. The property at the corner of Weybosset and Garnet is owned by Jacob Wirth of Boston and Eliza Wirth Fitler of Philadelphia.” When that was also demolished, the Evening Tribune of Providence reported nostalgically on June 21, 1923: “The demolition of the small two-story building at the corner of Weybosset and Garnet Streets marks the passing of a landmark which was famous in pre-Volstead days. Formerly occupied by Jacob Wirth & Co., it was a gathering place for the elite of the beer-imbibing fraternity for many years. Many overworked or overheated businessmen found rest and pleasure at tables or leaning upon the bar, consuming countless Narragansett, Pilsner, or Wurtsberger steins.”

On the first floor of the Outlet Company, near the Garnet Street entrance, there was a plaque bearing the following inscription: “1894. Presented to the Founders, Joseph and Leon Samuels, by the employees of the Outlet Company on the completion of this entire block. 1923.” Thus, they occupied the entire block, which included a street initially chosen because it was in the low-rent district. Weybosset Street was in marked contrast to the high-rent retail establishments on lower Westminster Street between Dorrance Street and the Turk’s Head Building.

The Samuels brothers saw to it that the Outlet Company became a well-known institution throughout Rhode Island. It was the first store to commemorate Mother’s Day in Rhode Island and encouraged the observance of the day by giving away free carnations each year. Free band concerts were provided for the people in various public parks throughout the Providence metropolitan area by the Outlet Company. Arrangements were made with Fay’s Second Regiment Band to give these concerts each Friday evening during the summer. Their showmanship was legendary. Leon Samuels, who handled the advertising for the Outlet Company, dreamed up the “gimmicks” to sell the store to the public. It was no coincidence that the brothers were such good friends of Edward M. Fay, a well-known theater empresario. Many publicity stunts originated with Fay, who was helped by the Samuels’s financial backing. A good example of this teamwork was the appearance of the magician Houdini in February of 1906 at Fay’s Theater. The Outlet Company made Houdini’s performance a sellout. The Samuels provided a specially constructed box for the event. Houdini was bound and tied with a strong rope as he was lifted into the box. It took him 11 minutes to escape.

Another way the Outlet Company’s name was kept before the public was in its various acts of philanthropy. For example, 500 tons of coal were distributed among poor families each Christmas. In the Outlet Bulletin, an advertisement solicited applicants for this coal. In a 1919 publication, the free coal distribution was described as follows: “For over twenty years, we have distributed free coal to the worthy poor at Christmas time.” There are many examples of the types of charitable services rendered. A Providence Journal news story of August 18, 1920, told of a truck donated to ex-servicemen at Wallum Lake, the Rhode Island state tuberculosis sanatorium. During the summer months, the Outlet Company placed its automobiles at the service of the various orphanages throughout Providence. On these outings, the children were taken for rides into the country and served refreshments. A story from March 16, 1931, in The Providence Journal refers to the Outlet Company sending a truckload of blankets to the Home for Aged Men on Broad Street in Providence when fire destroyed much of the building.

The best-known and most enduring act of charity is the Joseph Samuels Dental Clinic for Children. News of the gift appeared first in the Providence Journal on September 7, 1929, announcing that Samuels had presented $300,000 to the Rhode Island Hospital for the construction and endowment of a children’s dental clinic. This endowment was an outgrowth of his interest in the sponsorship of a dental clinic in Cranston, which provided the children of needy families with oral treatment and education in oral health. A resolution was passed by the Rhode Island Legislature lauding Joseph Samuels for this magnanimous act. Samuels replied: “The people of Rhode Island have been very good to me, and I know of no better way to show my appreciation for their goodness.” In March of 1933, Joseph Samuels was made a fellow of the American College of Dentists. He was the first layman to receive this award.

The Samuels brothers were always interested in sports and sponsored “The Outlet Marathon,” held on February 22, 1909. The runners started from Greystone, Rhode Island, and finished in front of the Outlet store. It attracted thousands of people along the entire route. In 1914, Joseph promised that if the Providence Grays won the pennant, he would give the team $500 in gold to distribute to the players. They did win, and one of the recipients was a young man named Babe Ruth. Like many department stores in the 1920s, the Samuels entered radio to promote their products to a broader audience. In 1922, Outlet founded WJAR, which in 1926 became the first affiliated station of NBC. 

The Samuels brothers were fascinated by the advances being made in the field of transportation. They arranged a display of what their publicity department called “the first genuine airplane”. It was called “The Bleriot.” a French airplane, 26 feet, 3 inches long and 27 feet, 7 inches from wingtip to wingtip. It was the first to cross the English Channel and was brought to the Outlet Company at considerable expense. After the exhibit it was shipped to Los Angeles. This was in 1909. Later they displayed Charles A. Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis”. Their interest in the field of communications, which led to the founding of radio station WJAR, first manifested itself in exploring the possibilities of the telephone. In 1915 when the first transcontinental telephone circuit was completed, Providence Mayor Joseph H. Gainer talked to the Mayor of San Francisco from the office of Joseph Samuels. In January of 1927 there were front page articles about Samuels’s telephone conversation with a man in London, England. The headline reported: “Providence man phones London as service is opened. New England marvels at ease in which another country is linked with the United States.” At a cost of $25 per minute, Samuels spoke for three minutes and is quoted as saying, “I couldn’t have heard any better if I had been talking to a friend in Pawtucket.” He went on: “It certainly is most remarkable to think we in Rhode Island can establish direct contact with the life of a nation 4,000 miles away. Before many years I believe we will be able to go to London in 48 hours’ time. Perhaps then our talk will be about the good old days when it took six days by ocean liner from New York.”

When Leon Samuels died on September 25, 1929, his obituary described his contribution in building the Outlet Company to its high level of success. It also listed his many charitable contributions. In 1922, he had been chairman of a successful drive to reduce a $74,000 of indebtedness to the Miriam Hospital. That same year, he helped raise $100,000 for erection of a new home for the Jewish Orphanage of Rhode Island. Joseph Samuels was left to carry on, which he did for the next ten years. He had the reputation of being interested in every detail of the store’s management even after the business had hundreds of salesclerks and buyers.

Ironically, Joseph Samuels died on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1939, a holiday he helped promote at the Outlet. In his biography of Joseph Samuels, author Ralph Begleiter said, “When he died, the Outlet Company and WJAR lost the kind of ultimate management which only Joseph Samuels could provide. With his passing, a spirit of family ownership and personal care and attention to the store and station slipped away, which pervaded these institutions only because the man who nurtured them through spectacular growth could take risks and make decisions on his own. That spirit never returned to the Outlet or WJAR.”

The Outlet Company sold the original downtown retail store to United Department Stores, and the flagship Outlet location on Weybosset Street was shuttered in 1982. The building was destroyed by fire on October 16, 1986.

Joseph Samuels was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1968.

For additional reading:

  • “Biography of a License,” by Ralph Begleiter, Columbia University Press, 1971.
  • “The Outlet Company Story and the Samuel Brothers,” by Eileen F. Horwitz, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, 1974.
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