As a Jewish kid growing up in Harrisburg, I went to the Jewish Community Center on Front Street multiple times per week.
Often, I would end up in the main auditorium, more commonly known as “The Mary Sachs,” for the woman whose Mona Lisa-like portrait hangs above the doorway. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized she was a Jewish woman and entrepreneur whose story is woven into the fabric of Harrisburg.
“She was seen as a merchant, philanthropist and benefactor,” said William Greenberg, Sachs’s grandnephew and chairman of the Mary Sachs Trust.
Now, a new book details her life and success in this city’s heyday. Barbara Trainin-Blank’s “Mary Sachs: Merchant Princess” (Sunbury Press) takes us back to the first half of the 1900s, when Harrisburg was a bustling, industrious city.
Trainin-Blank describes her book as a second edition of sorts to Bern Sharfman’s 2003 book, “Their Gifts Keep Giving: The Saga of Mary Sachs and Her Two Co-worker Sisters.”
“What else was there to say?” Trainin-Blank said she remembers thinking after reading that book.
Quite a bit, it turns out. Using resources like the Mary Sachs Trust, the Dauphin County Historical Society and Pennsylvania State Archives, Trainin-Blank focuses mainly on Sachs and her entrepreneurialism, while incorporating details about her sisters and their collective philanthropy.
Born on March 10, 1888 in Lithuania, Sachs immigrated to the United States with her mother and two sisters—five more siblings would be born in this country—in 1892. After living in various places around Maryland and Pennsylvania and gaining experience in retail, she settled in Harrisburg around 1916, writes Trainin-Blank.
The Mary Sachs Store opened in Harrisburg on Sept. 6, 1918, with Lancaster and Reading locations following in 1921 and 1923, respectively. According to Trainin-Blank, success came quickly, as the store grossed more than $200,000 in sales during its first year.
Between 1955 and ’58—the “high water mark,” Greenberg said—Sachs employed about 200 people. Initially selling just women’s apparel, the Harrisburg location at 208 N. 3rd St. eventually expanded to include men’s and children’s clothing, a home goods section, a paper shop and a candy shop.
Aunt Mary was Ms. Sachs in her store, recalled Greenberg, speaking of his days as a store clerk in the 1950s. Her demeanor commanded respect, but she was personable, friendly and caring toward those around her, he said.
The stores’ advertisements reflected those values, often boldly and unconventionally. In reference to her refusal to join the “Chain Store Age,” one of her ads, included in Trainin-Blank’s book, stated, “I am too individual in my approach to fashion to be a link in a chain. And the women I cater to are too individual in their requirements to be counseled by proxy…I have a fierce attachment to Harrisburg…It’s my town, and I love it.”
Ahead of the Curve
The Mary Sachs Store was the first in central Pennsylvania to carry certain high-quality, unique designers and manufacturers, said Greenberg, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Sachs traveled with her sisters, Hannah and Yetta, to New York several times per year and Paris annually to purchase merchandise.
“She was ahead of the curve of what was going to sell and be popular,” Greenberg said.
He remembers “many an afternoon” working on his aunt’s personal delivery vans, and the stores’ distinctive gray-and-red wrapping paper was held as a status symbol.
Sachs’s personal attention to both her customers and clothing earned her acclaim beyond Harrisburg. First ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower were both customers and personal friends, and she often welcomed important public figures to Friday night dinners at her Front Street mansion. Along with promoting her business, Sachs used her ads to appeal to the public and comment on current events, Greenberg said.
“I wish she was better known,” said Trainin-Blank, a long-time Harrisburg-area writer and contributor to TheBurg. “That was the purpose [of the book].”
Trainin-Blank’s connection to Sachs goes back to her early years in Harrisburg in the late 1980s when Hannah, Mary’s youngest sister, approached her about the book that Sharfman would later write. Almost a decade later, after a meeting with Sunbury Press founder Larry Knorr to discuss another of Trainin-Blank’s books, the two mutually agreed that a Mary Sachs monograph was needed.
Sunbury Press, based in Mechanicsburg, often publishes local historical books, and Knorr wanted to do one involving Harrisburg’s Jewish community.
“This was a woman in the early 20th century who owned her own retail business,” Knorr said. “There’s something there.”
“Mary Sachs: Merchant Princess” contributes to an often-quiet legacy that has spanned decades since Sachs’s death in 1960. That legacy now largely rests with the Mary Sachs Trust, on whose board Greenberg has sat since 1973. He said that Sachs was as much a philanthropist as she was a businesswoman, and the trust aims to support organizations and institutions that she supported in her time.
“What would she do and observe as a need?” he said, regarding the trust’s mission.
Today, Mary Sachs’s place in history reaches beyond the auditorium at the Jewish Community Center or the downtown building that still bears her name. It reaches to local colleges and universities, to girl and boy scouts, and around the world.
“Mary Sachs: Merchant Princess” by Barbara Trainin-Blank can be found at local bookstores, online and at www.sunburypress.com.