The History of the Rosenbaum Bank Building


By Jorge M. Danta

The former Rosenbaum Bank building located at 603-05 S. 3rd Street possesses great significance in the social, commercial and banking history of the City of Philadelphia. It is also a noteworthy example of the Beaux Arts style and the work of accomplished architects Louis Magaziner and William Woodburn Potter through their partnership in the firm of Magaziner & Potter.

Artists rendering of the Rosenbaum Bank Building

Artists rendering of the Rosenbaum Bank Building
T-Square Club Annual Publication, 1906.

The Rosenbaum Bank was a pivotal financial institution to the Jewish community in early twentieth century Philadelphia. The Rosenbaum Bank served the immigrant Jewish Community at a time of massive Jewish immigration from Europe.

The Jewish presence in Philadelphia can be traced with certainty to the 1760s. However, it is likely that people of the Hebrew faith settled in Philadelphia at a much earlier date. The first minyan1 was reported in 1747. It is not until 1782 that the Jewish community erected its first synagogue; known to this day as Mikveh Israel. This early community was mostly comprised of German and Spaniard Jews, but not exclusively. The Jews of German descent tended to be the more established and educated members of the community. Great numbers of Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the United Stated in the last decades of the 19th century. These immigrants came to America as a way to escape the horrors of the pogroms2 in the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe. The pogroms, however, was not the only reason for Jewish immigration. They establish strong communities in America to fulfill dreams of religious freedom and economic prosperity like many groups before them. New York City, and specifically the Lower East Side, became the center of Jewish life in America, but other cities on the North Eastern seaboard received a notable share of the immigrants. It is estimated that only half of all Jewish immigrants that arrived during the great migration between 1880 and 1914 arrived through Ellis Island in New York City. The rest of those immigrants arrived through the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and to a lesser extent New Orleans and Galveston. A substantial percentage of these immigrants settled in Philadelphia. Immigrants arriving in the port of Philadelphia landed at the Washington Avenue Wharf in South Philadelphia. The area around the wharfs in South Philadelphia became the center of Jewish life in the city. The new immigrants not only settled there but peddled the streets of ethnic neighborhoods and opened small businesses to cater to their burgeoning community. It is in the heart of this ethnic enclave where Morris Rosenbaum opened his bank to serve this community.

The “Jewish ghetto”3 reached over 100,000 residents in 1900 and by 1920 that figure had risen to 175,000 residents.

The banks that were owned and operated by Jews in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century were non-traditional banks. The banks took deposits from patrons, but they were mostly involved in the sale of transatlantic ship tickets. They were in many ways glorified transatlantic ship ticket agencies. Immigrant Banks were, in nearly all cases, non-traditional banking houses and their patrons were exclusively newly arrived immigrants. The United States government formed a special Commission in 1907 to study the effects of the recent wave of immigrants into the country. This Commission is known as the Dillingham Commission or the Immigration Commission4 (I.C.). The Reports of the I.C. from 1911 described the Immigrant Banks as follows:

Rosenbaum Bank Building

Rosenbaum Bank Building
City of Philadelphia Records Department, Historical Commission Files, 1976.

“These banks bear little resemblance to regular banking institutions. They are without real capital, have little or no legal responsibilities, and for the most part are entirely without legal control. Immigrant bankers, as a rule, are also steamship-ticket agents, and usually conduct some other business as well.”

It should be noted that Immigrant Banks were not common in all immigrant populations and across ethnic groups. These institutions specifically catered to Eastern and Southern European immigrants. The I.C of 1911 found that Western European immigrants did not patronized such institutions and instead used traditional banking houses or established institutions to conduct their business. The 1911 report also investigated Chinese immigrants and found that no such institutions existed on the Eastern seaboard for this demographic. The Chinese, just like Western Europeans, used traditional institutions that had branches in the Orient or the vast British Colonial financial network to conduct their business.

The great majority of the Jewish population on Eastern seaboard or Midwestern cities at this time had recently arrived. These communities were poor and had little in savings. This population not only faced the challenge of language and cultural assimilation but of noted anti-Semitism in all aspects of American society at that time. The Immigrant Banks performed many services for their patrons, which no other institution could provide, least of all a regular banking house. These services included the writing of letters, receipt of personal mail, public notary services, real estate, general advice, employment procurement and financial counseling. These institutions were not formal banks and any transfer of funds abroad had to be conducted through established institutions. These institutions were not just the middle man, but in many ways the embodiment of a godfather for their local immigrant community.

Rosenbaum Bank Building

Rosenbaum Bank Building
Philadelphia Historic Commission, 2010. Photograph by Jorge Danta.

The Immigrant Banks received deposits from immigrants, which were held by the institutions for safekeeping. These deposits were without any interest-bearing benefits in most cases; deposits were also held for the purchase of transatlantic tickets for relatives still living in Europe. The banker acted as the transatlantic liner agent for those immigrants already living in the United States. The Rosenbaum Bank was not an exception. The bank was situated in the Jewish enclave of South Philadelphia to cater to the thousands of newly arrived immigrants who wished to bring their relatives still living in Europe. The Bank served as the agent for the immigrant, who in most cases only spoke Yiddish.The Rosenbaum Bank ledgers are filled with transactions that attest to their heavy involvement in the sale of steerage tickets for Jews wishing to immigrate to the United States.

Immigrant Banks were widespread throughout all metropolitan areas with large concentrations of Eastern or Southern European immigrant populations. The majority of these institutions were concentrated on the Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest. It is estimated that in 1911 there were a total of 2,625 such banks throughout the United States. New York had the greatest number with a total of 1,000 banks, followed by Pennsylvania with a total of 410 banks. These banks were not exclusively Jewish-owned or for a Jewish clientele. In fact, the largest number of these institutions catered to Italian immigrants. The Jewish institutions were a distant second. The ratio between Italian and Jewish Immigrant Banks was nearly two-to-one. The third spot belonged to non-Jewish Poles. These banks played a sizeable and important role in the transfer of monies between the United States and Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is estimated that in 1907 a total of $275,000,000 was transferred abroad and nearly one half of that amount passed through Immigrant Banks. These institutions were insular but their role and scope were far from it.

The Rosenbaum Bank was not unique in Philadelphia at this time nor was it the only institution catering to the Jewish immigrant population. It was, however, one of the best known. It is not know when the Rosenbaum Bank was founded. The bank occupied its location on South 3rd Street as early as 1890. The earliest known record of the bank dates from 1894. The extant Beaux Arts building does not date from this period. The building dates from 1907. Morris Rosenbaum purchased the building at 603 S. 3rd Street in 1900. The bank had strong competition from three other Jewish banks that specialized in the steerage ticket market for Jewish immigrants. The Lipshutz Bank, the Blitztein Bank and the Rosenbluth Bank were three Philadelphia Jewish Banks that also served the immigrant Jewish community. The Blitztein Bank was located at the corner of 4th Street and Lombard Street, also in the Jewish Ghetto. This bank catered mostly to the Russian Jewish community. The Rosenbaum Bank catered to German and Austro-Hungarian Jews. Little is known about the Lipshutz Bank. The Rosenbluth Bank survived and evolved into a travel agency that is still in business today.

The Rosenbaum Bank operated until the financial crash of 1929. The Rosenbaum Bank as well as its two other defunct competitors ceased operations at this time. The two other banks disappeared as institutions and their buildings have also disappeared from the cityscape. The Rosenbaum Bank building not only physically survives, but it survives intact. The building is the only surviving building associated with the important and pivotal financial institutions that catered to the Jewish community of Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. The Rosenbaum Bank was instrumental in facilitating the massive Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century through its primary function as a tickets agent for Transatlantic Liners. The building stands as a testament of the Jewish Immigrant community that centered around South Philadelphia and to the process of European immigration in the early twentieth century.

1 Minyan: A quorum of ten Jewish males required by the Talmud, in order to conduct a public reading of the Torah or to assemble for public prayer as well as other religious practices.

2 Pogroms: A wave of violent anti-Jewish riots that spread throughout the Russian Empire after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which was blamed on the Jews. There were two major waves of pogroms 1881-1884 and 1903-1906.

3 Ghetto: A confined area of a city where Jews were forced to live. The word originates in late Medieval Venice and the root of the word means foundry, which refers to the foundries that were located in the same island of the Venetian lagoon were Jews were forced to live.

4 Dillingham Commission: A special congressional committee formed in February 1907 by the United States Congress to study the origins and consequences of recent immigration into the United States. The chairman of the Commission was Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont. The Commission takes its name after him. The studies presented by this Commission led to sweeping changes to immigration laws in the 1920s.

5 Yiddish: A dialect of Germanic origins that spread to Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe throughout the late middle ages. The earliest written record of the language dates from the late Thirteenth-century. Yiddish was the primary language for Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in rural communities.