Once upon a time, Homestead was well-known for its business district on Eighth Avenue, and Jewish shopkeepers were disproportionately represented amongst the merchants on the avenue. There were Jewish merchants in town from almost the beginning. The first to become well-known locally were Abraham Skirball, the first Jewish resident of Homestead, who moved to town in 1881 and opened a saloon and later a shoe store, and Ralph Segelman, the first president of the shul, who opened a jewelry store in 1884. By the turn of the century there were many more Jewish merchants opening stores in town, amongst whom the best known were Isadore and Ignatz Grossman (1890 & 1897), the Grinberg Bros. (1893), Joseph Lasdusky (1893), Morris Frankel (1895), Goldston & Mervis (1897), Philip Cohn (1897), the Half Bros. (1899), and Benjamin Friedlander (1899).
The earliest of these merchants bet on Homestead before it was a sure thing. Their gamble was rewarded by a strike in 1892 and a country-wide depression through the end of 1897, which led to unemployment and a population dip in Homestead. But during the summer of 1897, for the first time in years the mill began running in full. The steel company soon announced plans to expand and kept on making additions into the early 1900s. Simultaneously, “four gigantic works,” including the Mesta Machine Company, began construction in late 1899. These were far from the only new businesses in town. As an advertisement in the paper proclaimed, “An army of 5,000 workmen means a population of at least 15,000 people….The grocer, the butcher, the baker, and a host of other trades people must be there to supply them with what they need.” 1 As was typical in the small towns of Steel Valley, many of the new tradespeople in Homestead were Jewish, and those who came to came to clothe the workers were overwhelmingly Jewish.
This post tells the story of one of these new merchants through his advertisements.
***Benjamin Little (1883-1951) was the youngest of six Hitowicz siblings who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Lida, Poland (today Belarus) starting in the 1880s. (In case you’re wondering about that name change, my Russian-speaking friend Jennifer Murtazashvili theorizes they derived Little from Lida. Update September 17, 2018: A grandson of Ben’s emailed me to say that his family believes the original last name was Illutovich. As Hitowicz showed up on the one and only one immigration record I located, more research is needed here.) R.G. Dun and Co. business listings suggest that brother Jacob went into the clothing and dry goods business between March and July 1903, by the end of the year partnering with brother Hyman (H.L.), newly returned from the gold rush in Klondike, Alaska (!). They shifted focus slightly to selling clothing and shoes and began advertising in the paper in 1905, by 1906 referring to their store as “Homestead’s leading shoe store.”
Around that time their little brother started up for himself. Probably? The earliest surviving evidence of B. Little’s clothing and shoe store is the 1906 advertisement above. Surviving Dun listings have a gap from 1905-7 for Pennsylvania, so all I can say for certain is that his store didn’t exist in Homestead in September 1904, but definitely by November 1906 (and possibly not in the summer of 1906 when that year’s city directory was compiled, because it’s unlikely a store on the Avenue would have been missed). 2Ben joined the town’s businessman’s association in February 1907 and was thereafter mentioned regularly in connection with its activities, as was his brother H.L. Along with all the town’s leading merchants, Jewish and non-Jewish, they contributed floats and costume contest prizes to the annual Hallowe’en parade, which drew visitors from all over the Mon Valley (and from 1908 and 1909 was headlined by the KKK!). They served on committees for its annual picnic and supported its causes, like the summertime “early closing movement” and eradicating trading stamps. The Jewish merchants were especially involved with the monthly “Home Trading Day” events, inaugurated in 1911 by then-synagogue president Joseph Lasdusky, to dissuade Homesteaders from shopping in Pittsburgh.
All the merchants were prominent men in Homestead. They were expected to contribute to charity, and lists of contributors were printed in the paper for all to see. Many merchants, like H.L., were mentioned in the paper in a personal context — H.L.’s 1911 wedding received a lot of coverage, as did his and his wife’s subsequent trips and illnesses — and some appeared in connection with the town’s fraternal groups, as when B. Little helped to organize the town’s new Owls chapter in 1912. Because the Avenue was so important to Homestead’s self-images, its merchants were expected to have attractive display windows decorated appropriately for holidays and patriotic occasions, and their efforts were reviewed by the paper. Business moves and improvements were reported with breathless excitement.
Sometimes the merchants were mentioned in less flattering ways. When disputes with customers took a legal turn, often because merchant, customer or both engaged in “disorderly conduct,” the whole town knew. Same with when they violated borough ordinances, like not throwing away their trash properly, blocking the sidewalk with their displays, or in Ben’s case in July 1907, building an extension to his store out of wood, not brick. And the frequent robberies of Ben’s business were par for the course. One such double-hit on his and Morris Grinberg’s store in August 1909 featured amusing detective work; the local police decided that a piece of bent pipe found at the scene “might possibly lead to the identity of the person who attempted to enter.”
Ben experienced all that Homestead had to offer its merchants. He built his reputation and overcame the standard challenges, despite significant competition:
The style of advertising then in vogue gave the merchants a place to tell the town their story in their words. There was a narrative style to these advertisements, individually and especially collectively. Yes, the ads were almost always about sales, deals, or just plain quality service, but the marketing message was often connected to the ongoing progress of the merchant and his store. This 1910 advertisement, for example, gives Ben the space to brag about two important milestones in his business — its anniversary and its expansion!
The dynamism of the Avenue was good for all of Homestead, and the paper was a booster for its businesses. An article from earlier in the year explained what the ad’s original readers already knew:
Ben Little, the well known merchant on the upper end of Eighth avenue, like his brother, H.L. Little, is branching out. He has leased the store room adjoining his place of business and fitted it out for his gents’ furnishing and clothing and will use his old room for shoes exclusively. He has added a large stock of ladies’ shoes to his stock of men’s and boys’ shoes and will cater to the ladies’ trade in this department in the future. He had also added to his stock of gents’ furnishing and clothing. He has also added to his stock of gents’ furnishings and clothing. He has improved both of the store fronts and now has the most attractive place on the upper avenue.
Both stores are open for business today.
—The Daily Messenger, May 14, 1910
By this point the Little name was synonymous in Homestead with good shoes and successful businesses. In case townspeople missed the point when they walked past their stores on the Avenue, the brothers helped their cause by filling the newspapers with advertisements touting the virtues of both Ben’s shoe & clothing store and H.L. & Jacob’s shoe store. In return, the paper accorded them respect and promoted them as leading, respected citizens.
The trait that tickles me most about the narrative style of these old ads is that a sale was never just a sale. There was always a labored explanation: I’m selling my goods at a reduced price because they were damaged in a fire, because I’m short on cash, because I’m going out of business, because my landlord is kicking me out, because my contractor is behind schedule (my personal favorite), because I bought them cheaply in a bankruptcy sale, because the unseasonable weather does not suit my season-specific goods, or — as the above advertisement explains — because I’m changing business strategies. Often the ads presented the sale as a chance to assist the merchant: you help me by taking all this stuff off my hands, and I’ll help you by often the best deals you’ve ever seen.
The obvious reason for this sale was that Ben was switching businesses, but both the ad and the paper recognize that a major sale before Christmas was not standard practice.
Ben Little, who has for a number of years been in business at 609-611 Eighth avenue, announces that he is going to quit the clothing business and hereafter devote all his time to his other lines and with this end in view he announces a big sale for this week, which is something out of the usual for the week before Christmas. He announces that he will sell hos (sic) clothing at one-half off and will also offer his other lines at greatly reduced prices during the sale, which starts today and lasts the week out. This is an unusual chance to get Christmas gifts cheap.
—December 20, 1911
The backstory to this strangely-timed change is lost. Is the ad copy merely positive spin on his having over-extended himself with the two stores? Was he crowded out by his clothing competitors? The ad says, “Our Other interests which will develop later is one reason of our going out of the Clothing business” — what were these “interests” and did they necessitate the timing? Was it, perhaps, that he had an opportunity to take a better location if he downsized? Because, it soon became apparent was that he was moving his store to a more central location in town. “Ben Little will move from the upper end of Eighth avenue to the building about to be vacated by Clarence Botsford,” announced the paper on March 6, 1912. This address was a great one, right by the streetcar stop! Soon, an ad confirmed the news in the usual style:
Ben began remodeling the building by 3/26, moved into the building 4/4, and opening the evening of 4/6. The formal opening came the following week.
The same day, the paper elaborated,
Ben Little has completed arrangements for the opening of his new shoe store at 207 East Eighth avenue, tomorrow and Saturday. He has [one of the best] locations on the avenue, it being near the corner of Amity street, and the store has been handsomely remodelled (sic) and is well suited for the purpose. Mr. Little has been in business here for ten years but he [now] has the largest and most complete stock he has ever carried. The display windows are nicely decorated for the opening.
During this period many merchants on the Avenue underwent similar business shifts, relocations, and expansions, which were reported in similar fashion. So far, these ads and accompanying articles are typical. What is not typical is the front-page publication of this photograph!
It was extremely rare in this period to see photographs in the paper of any Homesteaders other than politicians. Here, on the front page of the paper, is a twenty-nine year old naturalized citizen proudly displaying a storefront he know stands up to any in town.
That summer also brought changes in the other Little shoe store. On June 6 H.L. put a long notice in the paper, accompanied by his own headshot (!), which began, “I desire to inform my friends and customers that I am now the sole owner of ‘The Home of Good Shoes’ at 319 and 321 Eighth avenue. I have purchased the interest of my brother, and have just started a big sacrifice or dissolution sale in order to get the money necessary to make the final payment on this purchase.” Of course, a full page ad announcing the sale followed (at right). After being bought out, what did brother Jacob do? Why, he opened his family’s third shoe store in Homestead in a building right between his brothers’ stores! He called it the Victor Shoe Co., since a third Little store would create an even bigger confusion than there already was.
Meanwhile, it appears Ben’s business changes were working out well for him. Just a year later,
Ben Little the shoe merchant is keeping abreast of the times. This week he had the petition removed from the rear of his store and has thrown the entire building into one big room. This will given him a third more floor and shelving to allow to add to his already large stock of Men’s, ladies, misses and childrens shoes.
It is only a little over a year since Mr. Little moved into his present quarters and started in the shoe business exclusively and he has met with great success, he being acknowledged as one of the leaders in his life in the town and his ever increasing business made the enlargement of his room necessary.
Not only does the addition give him more room but it makes the store much more attractive on account of the big windows in the rear. He is holding his fall opening today and invites every lady to call in and look over his stock.
—September 26, 1913
By the end of that year, Ben had another claim to fame: the town’s finest Christmas window display. In the past it was usually H.L.’s store that got the plaudits; his clerk, Samuel Fogel (son of charter member Morris Fogel), was singled out for his skill. But Christmas 1913, Ben at last bested his brother. The paper reported on 12/13, “On down the street can be found a novel display arranged by Ben Little, who is a genius, and who has arranged a miniature flying machine, which soars up and down, being operated by a concealed electric motor. This window is attracting no end of attention, especially among the children who want to find out what makes it go.”
Though the town’s leading merchants were treated as leading citizens, they weren’t all residents of the town. Running a business in Homestead did not require living there, since street car lines linked the town with Pittsburgh. Jacob Little never lived in Homestead; at this time he made his home in the Uptown neighborhood of Pittsburgh. H.L. and Ben did live in Homestead, which may be why their names appear frequently in connection with the town’s business and civic activities and Jacob’s never ’til he opened his own store.
Though they lived in Homestead, neither H.L. nor Ben belonged to the shul. I’ve found just a couple hints of Ben’s involvement in Jewish social life in town — he was the warden of Homestead’s B’nai B’rith lodge 1909-10, and he was on the board of directors for the Y.M.H.A. in 1919. 3 However, there was another Little in Homestead who did join the shul. You haven’t met him yet, because he was not a merchant on the avenue. He was the oldest brother, Henry, who immigrated in July 1907, later followed by his wife and five children. His first address in Homestead was the same as Ben’s store. There, he, and probably also his wife and older children, made cigars, a very common occupation for Jewish immigrants. This work was at the very bottom of the economic ladder, which suggests he wasn’t getting much assistance from his successful younger brothers. By 1910 he opened a confectionery store in the ward (a shop that sold candy, tobacco, cigars, ice cream, soda, &c.), then around 1912 he moved out to Homeville, where he had a dairy farm, before going into business in the teeny-tiny town of Eldersville. All this evidence suggests he never quite got his economic footing. He first appears in the synagogue records in 1908, including his first annual purchase of High Holiday tickets. He was not able to afford to join the shul ’til just before the High Holidays in 1916, a common delay likely related to his financial circumstances. He was suspended in the mid-20s for not paying his dues, possibly because of his departure for Eldersville. He got sick there in 1926 and was buried in the Homestead cemetery later that year.
Widowed sister Rose and her children immigrated around 1928 (late!) and also settled out in Mifflin Township where her grown sons farmed. They kept this up for 5-6 years before moving to Squirrel Hill. She and one of her sons were also buried in the Homestead Cemetery. Whether they participated in the shul or not I could not say (as it is extremely difficult to trace single women in the synagogue records, since they could not join).
The years 1900-1920 saw Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood just across the Monongahela River from Homestead, transformed from an area of wealthy country estates and farms into a built-up residential community. The same street car lines that linked Homestead to Squirrel Hill created residential, then business districts along Forbes and Murray Avenues. During World War I, Eastern European Jews began to move there in significant numbers. The first synagogue, the “Squirrel Hill Congregation” (renamed Beth Shalom to commemorate the end of WWI), was organized by 35 families in September 1917. The changes in the first two decades of the century set the stage for a rapidly increasing Jewish population in the neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s. 4
Jacob and H.L. Little were early adopters of Squirrel Hill. Jacob was the first to move there sometime after 1914. In October 1919 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the new Beth Shalom Congregation of Squirrel Hill, but he didn’t complete his term, dying in April 1920. H.L. moved there in the spring of 1919, but he, too, died a few months later.
Back in Homestead, H.L.’s store lasted until 1926 or 1927, when it was sold and renamed. Jacob’s oldest son, Hyman, took over operation of the Victor Shoe Co., and that store lasted well into the 70s or 80s. By the late 1920s, the only shoe store on the Avenue to proclaim the Little name was Ben’s. But by this point Ben was no longer a resident of Homestead. He, too, had made the leap to Squirrel Hill, moving in with H.L.’s widow and two young children shortly after H.L. died. The change of scenery did him good. At the age of 39 he took a wife!
Mr. J. J. Streng announces the marriage of his daughter, Regina J., to Mr. Ben Little, of this city, on Sunday, July Ninth. After an Eastern trip, Mr. and Mrs. Little will reside at 6443 Forward Avenue, Squirrel Hill.
— Jewish Criterion, 7/14/1922
Born to Mr. and Mrs. Ben Little (nee Regina Streng), of Forward Avenue, on Monday, December Thirty-first, at the West Penn Hospital—a daughter, Henrietta Pearl.
— Jewish Criterion, 1/4/1924
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Little, formerly of Forward Avenue, are now residing on Shady Avenue.
— Jewish Criterion, 7/17/1925
At some point he joined Rodef Shalom, where his daughter attended Hebrew school. Despite his new family obligations on the other side of the Mon, Ben kept up his business in Homestead — for a while. The 1931 Homestead city directory includes his shoe store. The next directory didn’t appear until 1937 — no shoe store. Where did it go?
Yup, he moved his store to a prime location in Squirrel Hill! In fact, this photograph was taken not long after it opened!
And, yes, it is our Ben Little:
Ben did not long outlive this anniversary. He died on August 10, 1951. His obituary in the Jewish Criterion called him “one of Pittsburgh’s pioneer merchants in the shoe field.”
If every advertisement is a page out of the merchant’s story, then this present-day marketing is about the loss of history.
What happened to the store after 1951 I could not tell you, except that today the Little name is still there in the middle of Forbes Avenue, tempting us all with its display windows (not as fabulous as in the days of Ben’s genius model airplanes, but handsome enough to tempt me). I guess I could just walk down there to ask again, but when I tried that after discovering the first of the early 1900s Little advertisements, I was told the store had no connection to Homestead. Maybe they really have forgotten their roots, as their shopping bag suggests.
Correction, 4/22/2016: In my original post I stopped just short of re-assembling this history correctly. Long-time Homestead businessman Stan Levine of the Levine Bros. Hardware Store corrected me that it was Victor’s Shoes that was the precursor of Little’s in Squirrel Hill. (Thank you, Stan!) Of the three shoe-selling Little brothers of Homestead, it turns out that it was not Ben, but the dark horse, Jacob, who prevailed, through the efforts of his son, Hymie.
Indeed, with a bit more research I now see that the advertisements in various Pittsburgh newspapers show that after Ben died, his store at 5860 Forbes closed. Various business cycled in and out of the space (see at right); it became a shoe store again in the early 70s. Meanwhile, Hymie Little, Jacob’s son, who continued running Victor’s Shoes in Homestead after his father’s death in 1920, opened a second shoe store, this one in the new shopping hotspot of Squirrel Hill. As early as 1934 Little’s — as in Hymie Little’s, not Ben Little’s — moved into 5850 Forbes, where it still stands today, selling fashionable shoes in re-usable neon-green tote bags. When Hymie’s Uncle Ben moved his store from Murray to Forbes around 1945, he put his “Ben Little Shoe Store” right next door to his nephew Hymie’s “Little’s!”
Egg on my face aside, my original point stands. If this Little’s, opened in the 1930s in Squirrel Hill, invokes its “parent” store to get a founding date in the early 1900s, then this Little’s, like the others, came out of Homestead.
Does it really matter that this store has its roots in Homestead, not Pittsburgh? Even Jacob and Hymie, who never lived in Homestead, knew that to have been a merchant on the Avenue was once a big deal, and to have been a leading merchant, especially in as competitive an area as their family was in, was no small achievement. Not for nothing did Ben show off his roots in his 1930s advertisements after he relocated to Squirrel Hill. At that time everyone would have understand the reputation implied by that simple statement, “Originally from Homestead, Pa.” Together, H.L., Ben, Jacob, and Hymie exemplified the large group of Jewish merchants who proudly represented Homestead and of whom Homestead was proud.
Update, 4/27/2016: To be clear, my sole intention in writing this article was to praise the store by demonstrating that it has a much richer and more impressive history than what was passed down to the current management. I do not believe the store is intentionally obscuring its origins. This whole web site is about overcoming the limitations of memory and repairing the breaks in the transmission of our collective history. I am sure that this kind of break is what happened here. I truly regret if my words were taken otherwise.
I found a lot more advertisements than I was able to include in this post, but never the one I was looking for. For months I eagerly hoped to chance upon one that read something like, “Bring in this ad and get any pair of shoes in our store for only $1.29.” I’ve managed to time at least some of my shoe purchases with the store’s sales, but for the bargain price I got at my last visit, in 1918 I could have rented Ben’s last Homestead location… plus the five rooms above it… with bath, water, and gas included! 5
(The News-Messenger, October 20, 1899 ↩
There is just a general dearth of early info on Ben. The first census in which he appears in 1920. There, his immigration date is listed as unknown. No ship or naturalization records have turned up for him. He never appeared in the Pittsburgh city directory in the years before he was definitively in Homestead. The one remaining record to check are the R.G. Dun business records for Pittsburgh in the early 1900s, but consulting these requires another trip to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. ↩
The Criterion, 8/14/1909 and 3/28/1919 ↩
Jacob Feldman, The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, pp. 190-2; Images of America: Squirrel Hill, p. 69 ↩