Karpen Bros. Furniture: Nine Brothers from Prussia to American Style 1880-1952
Solomon Karpen: Immigrant Entrepreneur
"Solomon Karpen," in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: The German-American Business Biography, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, German Historical Institute.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Solomon Karpen, the eldest of nine brothers, founded S. Karpen & Bros. Furniture in Chicago that quickly became the largest upholstered furniture company in the world. These Jewish immigrants became leaders in the furniture business and millionaires. The growth of the company spanned all America during the decades of immigration, the emergence of a strong middle class, and two world wars.
I grew up looking at a large oil painting that hung over a softly curved couch in my parent’s house. The dignified gentleman, known as Sam or S.K., was always watching me as his eyes followed me the length of our long living room. In search of my great grandfather’s story, I traveled four times from 1992 to 2003 to the town of Wongrowitz (Wagrowiec) in western Prussia (now Poland) from where the family emigrated in 1872. Jews in Prussia, unlike Jews in the other German areas in the early nineteenth century, were allowed to learn crafts. There the Karpens had been cabinet makers for several generations. While the rest of the town was bombed in WWII, amazingly their house and factory are still standing.
The Karpen brothers combined European craftsmanship with American innovative marketing and business acumen. They became an integral part of Chicago lore when the nine Karpen brothers formed one of the famous family baseball teams in the 1890s.
In the 1920s, S. Karpen Bros. branched out into the very competitive plastics industry and became “unwelcome” partners in the Bakelite Company. The diaries of the inventor of Bakelite, Dr. Leo Baekeland, relate his yet untold, hostile reaction to his Jewish partners.
Hundreds of documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found in archives in Poland, Berlin, Chicago, and Washington DC reveal details of the company and family story. Advertisements, catalogs, and furniture pieces from the 1880 to 1952 add visual interest and context.
The story encompasses the decades of immigration and growth, the world wars, the Great Depression, and the emergence of modern America. S. Karpen Bros. was an integral part of the development of American style.
In 2009 the Russell Senate Office Building celebrates its 100th Anniversary. S. Karpen & Bros. built much of the furniture for the senators. To learn more about it: