1037 Fifth (1931-1971): Jacob Fienberg of Fienberg and Siff

The following is part of the Fifth Avenue Project, an ongoing effort to document the world of wholesaling merchants who operated along Fifth Avenue in Uptown Pittsburgh from 1880 to 1980. This article explains the project. I’ll be giving a talk on the history of the Fifth Avenue wholesaling district at the Rauh Jewish Archives on Sunday, April 21.

Photo by The Associated Press

Photo by The Associated Press

Jacob Fienberg was born on Miller Street in 1894, the youngest of seven children born to Russian immigrants. His father hand-rolled stogies, one of the most common professions among Jews in the Hill District at the time. He sold them four for a nickel. The big family was too poor to afford meat. “We ate nothing but coffee and bread,” Fienberg later said.

After his father died, around 1910, Fienberg supported his mother by taking a job as a salesman for the Princess Mfg. Co., a ladies clothing store on Fifth Avenue. His starting salary was $6 a week. “They were paying the help nine dollars,” he later quipped. He would leave early Monday morning to travel around the region making sales calls to small-town retailers, and get home Friday night. Saturday nights were for socializing. “Courtships I had plenty,” he said. He and his buddies would take their dates to the North Side to hang out with the legendary high-roller Milton Jaffe. On Sunday nights, Fienberg would pack his gripper with clothing samples to be ready for the next week of sales.

In 1931, Fienberg and an associate named Hyman Siff opened a wholesale ladies’ clothing operation called Fienberg and Siff at 1037 Fifth Avenue. The building originally housed the Bianichini confectioner shop and later the Big Seven Overall Co., and today is it one of the many lots occupied by the Consol Energy Center. The two men started the business with a $10,000 loan from the Washington Trust Co., which Fienberg later claimed to have received based solely on his 20-year reputation as a salesman. “I says, ‘I ain’t got no collateral to give you, nothing to show for it, just my name,’” Fienberg said he told the banker. “He said, ‘I know you so doggone well, I couldn’t turn you down.’”

In 1946, Fienberg and Siff bought 1037 Fifth in a deal tangentially involving Reverend Lawrence O’Connell, pastor of Epiphany Catholic Church just up the way. Without the burden of making rent, Fienberg and Siff weathered the 1960s, when manufacturers sidestepped wholesaling houses by selling direct to retailers. “There was no differential in our line between the retailer and the jobber. There was no differential whatsoever. We all paid the same prices.” By catering to loyal customers, they stayed open until 1971.

The photograph above shows a pleased-as-punch Fienberg chomping on a big stogie in September 1960. He was a season-ticket holder for the Pirates that year, and he’s got tickets to the four potential home games of the upcoming World Series between the Pirates and the Yankees. If he attended all four, he would have been in the stands when Bill Mazeroski hit the series-winning home run over the left field fence of Forbes Field.

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