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.
After Oscar Simon died suddenly at the Schenley Hotel on a Sunday evening in May 1923, his obituary in the Jewish Criterion listed only the most basic details about his life: He had been born in Poland around 1875, had immigrated to the United States as a boy and had died at 48. His funeral service was held on Beacon Street, at the home of his sister-in-law in Squirrel Hill. The obituary mentioned no surviving spouse or children.
In the next issue, though, the Criterion dedicated its lead editorial to Simon. “He was a modest man who limited his contacts to a small group of friends and relatives,” the editorial read. “Through a well developed business sense he created a successful manufacturing concern. Not big in the meaning of what big business is recognized to be in this age and day, but a good, substantial enterprise promoted on a sound basis.”
From 1905 until his death, Simon ran a pants factory on the second floor of 824 Fifth Avenue. He was among its first tenants; the thin, four-story building is still standing, and proclaims “1904” from its cornice. During his eighteen-year tenure on the second floor, Simon had many downstairs neighbors, including the Enterprise Cloak & Suit Co. until 1912, Bernstein & Esman ladies clothing in 1913 and 1914, Kamin Co. menswear in 1915 and Escovitz Brothers “dry goods” (or textiles and such) from 1916 to 1922.
This business allowed him to move from Bluff Street in Uptown to the Schenley Hotel in Oakland during the latter half of his life. Although he held no leadership posts in the Jewish community, Simon often gave small amounts to local, national and international causes, particularly to persecuted Jews in Russia. “Those who knew him knew well that he had a heart; that he was a man of strictest integrity and that nothing he would ever do would reflect upon the Jewish name,” the editorial continued.
“So we come to his will.”
“He didn’t leave a fortune, but he left enough to prove that he was a man of feeling and thoughtfulness,” the editorial read. Specifically, Simon gave $100 to every woman working in his factory and more to his managers. He gave $500 each to the four Orthodox rabbis in Pittsburgh. He gave $1,000 to groups in his hometown. And he gave $28,000 and a fourth of his residuary estate to a collection of Jewish institutions in the city, including Montefiore Hospital, the Hebrew Institute, the Free Loan Society, the Home for the Aged, the Gusky Orphanage, the Sivitz Talmud Torah, the Cemetery Association of Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and the Jewish Home for Babies.
All told, Simon willed $31,000 (some $420,000, today) to friends and charities. It amounted to half his estate. The rest went to his relatives. “Many men much wealthier than this man will find something to think about in this will,” the editorial concluded.