The digital age has changed a lot about our lives. Take banking, for example. Once upon a time, nearly every wage-earning employee was handed a physical check on payday that needed to be deposited or cashed at a bank branch or check cashing business. To spend money, you needed to withdraw cash from a bank branch or other ATM. And to keep track of your finances, every dollar spent was hand recorded. These days, technology and mobile apps have revolutionized that process – most of us use direct deposit, digital banking and mobile payments.
We don’t need as much physical paper and other tools to bank these days. And physical bank branches are becoming less and less relevant. Which is why our historic collection of pieces from Jarmulowsky Bank is so charming. Comprised of banking ephemera and, essentially, early marketing materials, the historic items have an air of whimsy and vanished ways of life. The pieces were donated to the museum by a descendant of the banks founder, because Jarmulowsky was also a founder of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Sender Jarmulowsky opened his bank on Canal and Orchard in 1912, the latest and grandest location for his successful business he had started in Europe a few decades earlier. The new Lower East Side location was a grand monument to immigrant success and the American dream. (The New York Architectural Digest described the building as a “shrine to American capitalism.”) And the Jarmulowsky Bank helped to make that dream a reality for others, too – the bank offered ways to help new immigrants bring their relatives to American from Eastern Europe, they employed Yiddish and Russian speaking tellers to help local users more easily access their services, and they were open on Saturdays, when nearly all other banks were closed, so that Jews who kept Sabbath could bank on the day they were able.
Sender Jarmulowsky was very successful in his business, and he was one of the wealthy men who helped get our synagogue building up and running. He was a capitalist with a religious heart and a sterling reputation for both honesty and piety, so Jarmulowsky was a natural choice to serve as the synagogue’s first president. He would help nurture traditional Jewish values on American soil. Yiddish newspaper Morgan Zhurnal called Jarmulowsky in 1912 “living proof that in America one can be a rich businessman but also be a pious Jew.”
Sadly, after all that success, Jarmulowsky died shortly after his grand new Canal Street bank was completed. His sons took over the business but they lacked their father’s business acumen and virtue. In 1914, at the start of World War I, the bank closed as many depositors made “runs” on the bank to get money to help their families in Europe. According to the New York Times, 2,000 people demonstrated on the Canal Street sidewalk in front of the bank and 500 people stormed the house where son Meyer Jarmulowsky lived, forcing him to escape across tenement rooftops. Jarmulowsky’s sons were indicted for banking fraud and the bank closed.
The State of New York took over the bank in May 1917 and auctioned it off. It held many tenants over the years, but has spend the last few decades languished in neglect. Not for long, though! It’s currently under restoration and will become a hotel. The rooftop cupola, long since disappeared, has been replaced and now stands gleaming over the neighborhood once again. Intricate lobby details, long since covered up or damaged from drop ceilings or modern alterations, will once again have the building shining with beauty. We think Sender would be pleased. And, who knows, maybe they’ll reissue Jarmulowsky-branded coin purses?