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.
Before automobiles became ubiquitous, salesman from Pittsburgh traveled to the surrounding towns by train. A retired engineer named Walter Schwartz said that his father, who came to Pittsburgh from Russia, by way of Antwerp, around 1915, once reminisced about riding the train into Somerset, as a young salesman for a Fifth Avenue wholesaling house. Having deliveries to make all over town, and no local transportation, he simply left all his packages piled on the train platform. “He said, ‘I’d go deliver stuff, and I’d come back, and I’d pick up something else. And nobody ever bothered anything.’”
As a boy, Mel Pollock watched salesmen lug suitcases of merchandise into his family’s department store in the coal town of Gallitzin, just outside of Altoona. They would carry their samples from the station to the shop, or rent a wagon, or hitch a ride from someone heading into town. The salesmen were completely submissive to train schedules. “There was not always a train that you could get out of Gallitzin,” Pollock said. If a customer came into the store while the salesman was showing his wares, the customer would of course come first. The salesman might end up waiting around for hours. “It would be dinner time, and so we had dinner and they stayed at the house,” Pollock remembers.
Among the Fifth Avenue enterprises Pollock’s Department Store patronized in those early years was Sol Caplan, a wholesaler of leather goods, particularly gloves, who went into business in 1901 and operated out of 819 Fifth Avenue from 1910 to 1958. Caplan made speedy deliveries a centerpiece of his sales pitch to retailers. “Mr. Caplan has a large and constantly increasing trade and uses a large auto delivery vehicle for the quick dispatch of local orders,” the Jewish Criterion boasted in a brief on July 11, 1919. “He also has a large trade in the territory within a radius of 150 miles of Pittsburgh.”
The burgeoning automobile industry immediately saw the potential of this growing mercantile trade. Automakers and parts distributors advertised directly to wholesalers, touting the virtues of a vehicle that required neither a timetable nor a feeding trough. The Pittsburgh Truck Mfg. Co. “set about designing a truck that would meet certain exacting conditions which are peculiar to the hilly, rugged contour of Pittsburgh and the surrounding territory of Pennsylvania, and which from their observations, they state, could not be met except with a truck that was built for that purpose,” the Criterion proclaimed in October 1919. “The result is the Pittsburgher, Model-D, a 2 1/2-ton job.”