The following is the second in an occasional series of posts drawn from Generation to Generation, a website I helped compile for the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. The website profiles more than 150 Jewish families in Western Pennsylvania.
Baruch May was the son of a Bavarian farmer and cattle dealer. His first job was bringing lunch and beer to the field hands, who worked several miles from town. His second job was working in the fields. His third job was peddling trinkets through Quebec and Ontario, where he immigrated in 1858, at fifteen, to join his sister and brother-in-law, who had opened a jewelry store in Montreal. On the road, he learned English and started going by “Barney.” His fourth job was prospecting for gold in British Columbia with his older brother. (This was before the transcontinental railroad. May travelled from Quebec to British Columbia through the Panama Canal.) The brothers established a camp they called Mayville. “Being wise in their generation, the Mays attempted no actual mining operations themselves, but preferred to develop the claims, to which they held title, on a share basis with practical miners,” George M. P. Baird wrote in The Story of Barney May, Pioneer in 1917. They stayed in British Columbia for four years, until an outbreak of “mountain fever” forced them to seek medical care in San Francisco. Barney May’s fifth job was in New York City, where two of his sisters had opened a millinery shop. (This time, to get back across the continent, May sailed to Nicaragua and crossed the isthmus on foot.) The New York hat market proved to be a little too crowded, and so the siblings started over in Williamsport, a growing logging town along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, just northeast of the geographic center of Pennsylvania. Barney May was a travelling salesman for the Williamsport operation. This was his sixth job. He spent time in the western half of the state and took note of the booming oil economy. In 1872, Barney May married Pauline Fleischman, who came from one of the oldest Jewish families in Pittsburgh. They moved to Philadelphia, where the older brother had started a wholesaling business. This was Barney May’s seventh job. The business was destroyed in a fire in 1884.
Remembering wealthy western Pennsylvania, May moved to Pittsburgh. He started a dry goods business with his brother-in-law Solomon L. Fleischman under the name Fleischman & Company. This was his eighth job. The business closed during the Panic of 1893, amassing huge debts. Creditors trailed the former proprietors until Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. Fleischman & Company filed in late 1899 and, for a short time, had the distinction of being the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history. Their 210-page petition listed some 675 creditors. Fleischman told the court he had $300 in assets and $189,160 in liabilities. May said he had $150 in assets and $181,160 in liabilities. The court discharged the former partners in January 1900. But before that, in 1894, May started his last job. Using a series of personal loans, he opened a patent medicine counter in a rented corner of a storefront on Market Street. This became the May Drug Company.
This time, May operated entirely on cash. He offered money-back guarantees and cut-rate pricing. He advertised heavily. His newspaper promotions featured long lists of products, changing season-by-season and need-by-need. For winter coughs, he sold May’s Dutch Cough Syrup and May’s Laxative Quinine and May’s Bronchial Tablets and Munyon’s Cough Cure and Brown Mixture (“the old family standby”) and Vinol and Peruna and Scott’s Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil and licorice sticks and rock candy and horehound candy flavored sage and marshmallow. For congestion, he sold chest protectors made from chamois, flannel and felt. For cramps and upset stomachs, he sold hot water bottles line in cloth or flannel. For cold feet, he sold sole insoles made from cork and hair. He sold medicated skin soap and pine tar soap and carbolic soap at a dime a cake and sulphur soap at three cakes for a quarter. He sold baby food. He sold stationery and playing cards in the popular “Steamboat” and “Kazoo” brands. May Drug Company quickly became the largest in the local trade. In 1909, Barney May hired the architect Charles Bickel to design a twelve-story “mercantile apartment building” at the corner of Fifth and Liberty avenues, downtown. It had high-speed Otis elevators for passenger and freight service and hardwood floors on every level. May used the bottom floors for the flagship branch of his pharmaceutical operation and rented out the other floors. By the time he died, in February 1921, May Drug Company was operating ten stores across the Pittsburgh area.
Barney and Pauline May had four children: Herbert, Walter, Edwin and Estelle. All four worked for the company in some capacity. Walter May earned an engineering degree from Cornell University in 1894 and practiced the profession for a short time before joining the family business about 1900. On April 27, 1903, he married Mollie Brilles, who had moved to western Pennsylvania from Cadiz, Ohio, in the 1890s, when her father started a cigar factory on a side street near Exposition Park, in old Allegheny City. They held the ceremony in the assembly room of the original Concordia Club, in Allegheny. The bride wore a white chiffon gown and a veil fastened with a wreath of orange blossoms, and she carried a bouquet of lilies of the valley. The world of wealthy German Jews living in Allegheny was self-contained; two years earlier, Walter’s older brother Herbert had married Mollie’s sister Lillian , and two years later his younger brother Edwin May married her sister Gertrude Brilles. (Estelle May married an Affelder, not a Brilles.)
Walter and Mollie May lived far up on Perrysville Avenue, along an undeveloped plot of land now contained within Riverview Park. They had a telephone and an Ampico player piano. They later moved to Squirrel Hill. Walter May assumed the presidency of May Drug Company after his father died and continued expanding the company, as his father had done. By the middle of the 1920s, it was the largest chain of drug stores in the region and one of the largest in the country. Walter and Mollie May enjoyed their wealth. They purchased paintings displayed in the Carnegie International exhibitions, particularly those of the Belgian painter Antoine Carte. They hosted dance and dinner parties. They travelled frequently. They went to Atlantic City, of course, but they also visited more exotic locales, including a two-month cruise around Africa in early 1928. They were charitable. They contributed to all of the Jewish charities common to their social circle and also took some highly progressive actions. Mollie May sponsored a turkey dinner at the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. Walter May was the first president of the Urban League, in 1918.
Their biggest expenditure came in 1928. Early that year, while in Africa, Walter and Mollie May sent invitations to their upcoming silver anniversary party in Paris. “Transportation and hotels will of course be at their expense and will be arranged by them,” Walter May’s secretary, Dorothy Paulin, wrote to the invited guests. Sixty-three guests joined them. By one estimate, the party cost $100,000 — some $1.4 million today. The Pittsburgh contingency left for New York by train on April 17, 1928. Each guest traveled in a private berth, on special cars provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation. The train arrived at Penn Station the following morning. The party convened across the street at the Pennsylvania Hotel for lunch and a nap before boarding the RMS Aquitania that evening. Each guest had an outside stateroom for the journey to Cherbourg, France. A team of newsreel cameramen traveled along. They filmed guests boarding the ship, eating lunch and playing shuffleboard on the main deck and driving through the streets of Cherbourg. The fashions of the day are evident. All the women are wearing Cloche hats and overcoats with fur collars and cuffs. All the men are wearing three-piece suits, shirts with tall collars and wide golf caps. In addition to covering railroad fare to New York, steamship expenses to France, transportation from Cherbourg to Paris, taxis throughout the country, hotel accommodations, meals and laundry, Walter and Mollie May also gave each guest $100 — some $1,400 today — to cover unforeseen expenses. Concierges arranged theatre tickets and restaurant reservations. Guides escorted guests on daytrips to notable sites, including the Palace of Versailles, famous World War I battlefields and the field where Charles Lindbergh landed after his transatlantic flight. The Mays even brought along a stash of American telephones, which they considered to be easier to use than their French counterparts, to allow guests to make a long distance calls to their loved ones back home.
The event attracted the attention of reporters. International wire services covered the trip in detail. One local report called it “one of the most unique and costly entertainments ever held in the history of Pittsburgh.” The centerpiece of the trip was the anniversary banquet, at the Grand Hotel, in Paris, on April 27, 1928. “The menu of last night’s banquet was worthy of the day of Louis XIV and for those who chose there were wines bottled before Pittsburgh had been chartered as a city,” the Associated Press wrote. The meal culminated in a concert, where the guests entertained one another by singing songs that had been composed for the couple at their wedding, a quarter century earlier. The Jewish Criterion, in Pittsburgh, was conspicuously quiet during the month-long trip. In May 1928, after guests had returned to the United States on the RMS Berengaria, Charles Joseph, the editor of the local newspaper, finally addressed the matter. “It’s their money and the party is their business, not ours,” he wrote. “I personally think the Mays showed imagination plus great generosity. Some folks say they would rather have spent the money, such an immense sum, some other way. Well, no one is stopping them. But they surely cannot expect someone else to think and to do as they think and do.” His only criticism, he added, “is that the May party was badly press-agented because the character of the publicity trespassed on good taste, but knowing Mr. and Mrs. Walter May, both of whom are unassuming and modest, the blame cannot be laid at their door.” The following year, in early 1929, the Mays sold their company to Liggett Drug Company, and Walter retired.