Winnetka’s Spiegel Family: Installment Credit Pioneers

By Tane Beecham

For more than four decades, 410 Sheridan Road was home to the Spiegels, founding family of the Chicago-based mail order company, Spiegel Inc., and its iconic “Spiegel Catalog.” Universally known to consumers in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, the company opened its doors in 1865 under the name “J. Spiegel & Company” and remained a family owned business for nearly 100 years.

Their mail-order catalog has been credited with introducing the European fashion market to American consumers. While focusing on furniture, clothing and household goods for many years, Spiegel gained a national reputation in the 1950s for selling the least likely things by mail – pigs to farmers and household pets to the growing suburbs. One might order from the mundane collection of dogs, cats, birds and fish to the more exotic – burros, ponies and even a 2000 pound elephant at $5,500 including shipping – making the company a virtual Spiegel Ark.

Father, sons and grandsons remained at the helm well into the 1960s when the company continued to retain the name of Spiegel after other corporate interests bought the business. In its heyday, Spiegel exemplified creative marketing and salesmanship while capitalizing early on the mail-order trend and introducing the innovative concept of installment credit to the mail-order industry.

But the history of the Spiegel family – their flight from Germany during the revolution of 1848, their humble beginnings in New York and their reinvention of the old peddler skills of their native village life – also provides us insight into the family’s enormous success in Chicago.

It is Joseph Spiegel, born in 1841, who is credited with starting the early furniture business that would eventually become Spiegel Inc. He began his new life in New York working in his father Moses’s dry good business.

Enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War, he was taken prisoner and interned for many months in a Texas stockade. In 1865, as war drew to a close, Joseph Spiegel boarded a train to Chicago at the prompting of his sister Theresa who had promised him a job with her husband, Henry Liebenstein, a prominent furniture wholesaler. Joseph opened “J. Spiegel and Company” in a small space on Wabash Avenue featuring home furnishings from the Liebenstein factory.

With that auspicious start in this sprawling city on the move, Joseph Spiegel got busy learning the furniture business, assuming command of the business in 1870, marrying Mathilde Liebenstein (Henry’s niece), buying a home on Prairie Avenue, and producing three sons – Modie J. in 1871, Sidney in 1872 and Arthur in 1884.

Disaster struck in 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire left the business district in complete ruins, including Joseph’s Spiegel’s building. However, with much of his merchandise stored in his backyard on Prairie Avenue, Joseph reopened quickly and within the year was prospering by selling to thousands of homeowners refurnishing their burned out houses.

By 1880, J. Spiegel & Company was a thriving, commercial success. The business explosion that occurred after the fire helped re-launch the company and by 1886 Spiegel had expanded rapidly and Joseph’s two sons Modie and Sidney were brought into the business. But in the 1890s, as population trends shifted, Spiegel was struggling and facing a shrinking customer base as the prosperous families they had long catered to moved away from the city’s center and immigrants took their place.

It was with the entrance of the younger Spiegel generation – sons Modie and Sidney – that the business was rescued. It is Modie who realized the need to transition the company from a purveyor of highend, quality furniture on strictly “cash only” terms to selling lower cost furnishings on credit.

This dramatic shift in the family business, much opposed by Joseph initially, is regarded as the most important business decision in the history of Spiegel. With the waves of new immigrants to Chicago, it was installment buying that allowed them to purchase the furniture and other household goods they would need in their new home.

With the addition of third son Arthur to the company in 1903, another historic milestone would be realized. It is Arthur at age 19 who is credited with starting Spiegel’s mail catalog business and mining an untapped market by becoming the first company to sell furniture by mail, on credit. By the 1930s Spiegel closed their furniture stores to focus solely on mail order. By the 1950s Spiegel had become the 3rd largest company in the mail order business.

The Spiegel connection to Winnetka goes back as far as 1910 when the architectural firm of Lebenbaum and Marx were commissioned with designing Sidney M. and Maud Spiegel’s home at 410 Sheridan Road, which would remain in the Spiegel family for close to 50 years. The following year Lebenbaum and Marx would design the Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans – now called NOMA, and Samuel Marx would later design another prominent home in Winnetka at 915 Sheridan, dubbed “Edgecliff.”

In the early years of their residence, Sidney Spiegel, a cocker spaniel enthusiast, evidently ran Blackstone Kennels on the premises, until his neighbors threatened a lawsuit causing him to close the enterprise. By 1912, his parents Joseph and Mathilda Spiegel had moved to Winnetka as well, and set up residence across the street at 411 Sheridan. Middle son Modie took up residence in Kenilworth.  Joseph’s youngest son Arthur and his wife Mae were also established in Winnetka at that time, around the corner at 497 Ash St. By 1915, Arthur had become interested in the film business and soon started the World Film movie studio with early film pioneer, Lewis Selznick. If you go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you will find a very early Hollywood Star in his name. In the 1920s, Sidney’s son Sidney M. Spiegel Jr., while manager of the Winnetka Community House Theater, often used his influence as Arthur’s nephew to obtain films for the theater many weeks before other theaters could get them. Arthur Spiegel’s life was a short one, dying in 1916 at age 31 from pneumonia. His funeral was conducted at 410 Sheridan. Patriarch Joseph Spiegel and his wife Tillie continued to live in Winnetka until their respective deaths in 1918 and 1937. Sidney‘s daughter Katherine Spiegel stayed in the house at 410 Sheridan after her father died in 1940 until her death in the early 1960s, at which time the house was sold. The third generation of Spiegels – grandsons Sidney Spiegel Jr., M.J. Spiegel and Fredrick Spiegel would soon be at the helm of this innovative, mail-order powerhouse.

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