Monday, February 27, 2017

The History of Isaac Woolf, "Newsboy's Friend," and Owner of Woolf’s Clothing Store, Chicago, Illinois.

Isaac Woolf was born in London, England on January 4, 1852. He came to the U.S. as a child with his parents and they settled in Lafayette, Indiana. His family was poor, and he began his business life as a newsboy.

From that, he went to stripping tobacco, but he found time to attend school and also to enroll at a business college.

He spent several years in Cincinnati learning the clothing business and then came to Chicago where he was employed as a retail salesman by the Barbe Bros. clothing house. In 1880 he embarked on the clothing business on his own account with his brothers at 183 W. Madison Street in Chicago.

In 1896 he opened his establishment at 160 S. State Street. His brothers Benjamin, Edward, and Harry took employment at Woolf's Clothing Store.

Isaac Woolf decided it was time to give something back.  He decided to provide a full Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for any and all newsboys in Chicago who wanted to attend. 

The tradition began in 1882 when owner Isaac Woolf invited about a hundred newsboys to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. Called “newsies,” the boys were employed as the main distributors of newspapers to the general public. Typically earning about thirty cents a day, they were wretchedly poor, often sleeping on the streets. 

Having been a penniless newsboy himself, Woolf understood their plight and that of others who were impoverished. Paying for the meals out of his own pocket, the kind-hearted retailer expanded his annual dinner to include other poverty-stricken families and destitute elderly couples, as the ranks of the poor swelled during the severe economic depression called the Panic of 1893.
By 1895, Woolf was providing over 10,000 dinners each year to those in need on Thanksgiving evening. Everyone was welcome.

On March 17, 1898, Isaac Woolf opened his grandest store yet at the southwest corner of State and Monroe, Chicago. He billed his store as "The store with a horseshoe over the door and the Palmer House over the way."
In the afternoon of November 28, 1900 it was unseasonably cold; the temperature had already dropped into the teens when the store clerks sprang into action. In what had become a well-orchestrated ritual, they stored away the goods and removed the counters from the main floor. Next, the tables were brought in, covered with marbled oilcloth, and decorated with flowers, fruit, and pyramids of small cakes. After carefully arranging a thousand place settings, reportedly with as much precision as you would find at a fine hotel, the clerks donned white aprons and jackets just before opening the doors at 6 PM, ready to serve old-fashioned turkey dinners to the multitudes who would begin filing in from the frigid weather.

For twenty-four years Woolf, president of Woolf's Clothing Store closed early on the day before Thanksgiving, as it had done for years, in order to get ready to serve a holiday dinner for the poor of Chicago. 

Woolf died after 2 days of sickness on October 21, 1906. Woolf Clothing Company was in trouble without Isaac at the helm. Within two years, Woolf Clothing Company filed for bankruptcy.
Chicago Examiner, December 31, 1908
This impressive monument marking his burial place can be found in Section L of Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. What a kind and generous man. People like Mr. Woolf made the world a better place. My grandparents were of similar character, if on a smaller scale. My Grandfather owned a small coal and ice business in Chicago on Grand Avenue. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter my grandparents would make an extra holiday meal and they would set up tables in the cleaned stable and feed any hobos who came by. They would also feed anyone who came to the door and asked for food during the Great Depression. Personal kindness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who has fallen on hard times.

  2. That was really heartwarming. Especially thinking about how back before the mid-20thC and the advent of social welfare programs, the luck of finding kind and generous people really were all that many poor people had to help them.
    I heard one account out of the Great Depression; the man owned a small farm, fortunately out of the dustbowl areas, so while they were still poor they were lucky enough to never go hungry. They got many, many men who'd come by tipping their worn-our hat and asking if they could do some work for a meal, and every man would be told "Well, I've got a stack of firewood that I've been meaning to move over to the other side of the yard. If you could do that for me I'd be happy to have you for dinner". They'd serve up a good dinner and send the guest away with the leftovers and a little of pride restored that they earned their keep, and the stack of wood probably got moved a hundred times in that decade.


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