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Younker, Samuel
(November 7, 1837–May 21, 1879)

Lipman Younker

(1834–May 22, 1903), and

Marcus Younker

(August 7, 1839–June 16, 1926)

–founders of one of Iowa's most successful retail companies—were three of six sons born to Isaac and Jennie Younker in Lipno, Poland. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, they received a traditional education through the local Hebrew school. When those studies concluded at age 13, they began considering options for employment. With little prospect for success in Lipno–a community that confined Jews to a residential ghetto and offered limited opportunities in its local trades–each brother, while still a teenager, emigrated to the United States in search of a more promising future.

    Lipman lived for a couple of years in the town of Louisiana, Missouri, before relocating to Keokuk, Iowa, in 1854. The decision to settle in Keokuk was probably well calculated; situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers, the state's "Gate City" was a key terminal for commercial steamboat traffic. The appeal of the town was possibly strengthened by the presence of a Jewish population that was, by some historians' estimates, the largest of any Iowa town prior to the Civil War.

    As Lipman was exploring career possibilities in Keokuk, brothers Samuel and Marcus were attempting to establish themselves in New York City. That proved a challenge from the first day of arrival, when Marcus had the misfortune of dropping a precious supply of business stationery–his only asset–into a dirty gutter while boarding a stagecoach. Although Lipman's younger siblings did not prosper in their initial ventures, and eventually moved westward to join him in Iowa, they undoubtedly acquired some valuable insights into the merchandising world during their time in the nation's trade center.

    Once reunited in Keokuk, the three Younkers opened a dry-goods and clothing store on the town's Main Street in 1856. Their merchandise would have included the "staple and fancy" stock typical of such an establishment: linens, carpet, small domestic furnishings, and a practical assortment of fabrics and garments. In the early years, the proprietors supplemented their local trade with peddling excursions into the rural areas of Lee and Des Moines counties, giving isolated settlers access to essential household products. In its first decade of operations, Younker & Brothers weathered the tentative economy and general disruptions of the Civil War, steadily increasing its public profile and inventory.

    Committed as they were to the success of their business, the Younkers did not allow those interests to interfere with their religious life. On Saturdays, when other Keokuk retailers were enjoying their most prosperous day of the week, the dry-goods store remained closed in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. The brothers were active in the B'nai Israel congregation and B'nai B'rith service organization, periodically serving those groups as officers and trustees. When members of B'nai Israel desired a permanent house of worship, Samuel was appointed to the building committee and had a lead role in erecting Iowa's first synagogue. During the 1860s, the merchants also found time to start families. Lipman and Samuel married sisters, Gertrude and Ernestina (Tina) Cohen, whose father, Falk Cohen, was a respected New York City rabbi. Marcus wed Anna Berkson, a first cousin who had originally settled in New Orleans.

    In the same year the Younker store was launched, construction began on a railroad linking Keokuk to Des Moines. On August 29, 1866, when the first passenger train made its historic run to the capital, Samuel Younker was among the Keokuk civic and business leaders the Des Moines Valley Railroad transported for the celebration. While his inclusion in the prestigious passenger list spoke to the success of the family enterprise in Keokuk, the triumph for the railroad would have implications for the company's future. With miles of new rail lines expanding into the state's interior, Keokuk and other Mississippi River towns lost a degree of their commercial edge. Having noted that the state capital was outpacing their community in growth, the astute merchants sent a half-brother, Herman Younker, to Des Moines in 1874 to launch a branch of their dry-goods firm in the city's Walnut Street business district. As focus shifted to the new location, the home store at Keokuk underwent an inevitable decline, and shortly after Samuel's unexpected death in May 1879 it was permanently closed.

    The loss of a brother and company president prompted several significant moves within the Younker family. Lipman headed to New York City to resume his career in the clothing trade, remaining there until his death in 1902. Marcus moved from Keokuk to Des Moines to assist Herman in converting the Younker Brothers "branch store" to company headquarters. Samuel's widow, Tina, also relocated to the state capital, where she was welcomed into the new commercial partnership. To accommodate an expanding inventory and staff, the Des Moines firm would move several times before locating at Seventh and Walnut streets in 1899, where it would remain until the headquarters closed in 2003. At the same time the firm's physical facilities were being upgraded, the Younkers were skillfully orchestrating the company's transition from main street dry-goods shop to urbandepartment store, and it was during this period that a significant personnel decision was made. Speculating that its large proportion of women customers would develop a profitable rapport with an employee of the same gender, the owners hired a female clerk in 1881. By some accounts, this was the first employment of a woman salesperson, not just within Younker Brothers, but within the broader Des Moines retail community.

    By the turn of the century, the business was mastering the advanced strategies of the mercantile world. With Herman Younker permanently stationed at a purchasing office in New York City, the firm could quickly tap into the latest fashion trends and monitor the trade innovations of its East Coast counterparts. And, after incorporating in 1904, Younker Brothers had sufficient capital to initiate a series of acquisitions and mergers that would ultimately place four local competitors–the Grand, Wilkins, Mandelbaum, and Harris-Emery department stores–under its management. While the company's growth over the next two decades was facilitated by corporate assets, its popularity and enduring success were secured through a responsiveness to customers, employees, and community. Expanded Services and amenities accommodated consumers of varied income levels and tastes: a bargain basement for thrifty shoppers, a tearoom for patrons seeking a touch of elegance. The retailers were equally attentive to the needs of their workforce, which had expanded to approximately 500 employees by 1910. Staff had access to a variety of in-house training opportunities and social activities, and could turn to the firm's Mutual Aid Association for assistance during difficult times. Through its contributions to local charities, war relief, and such local events as the Drake Relays, Younker Brothers earned a reputation as one of the most civic-minded businesses in the community.

    Although he officially retired in 1895, Marcus Younker remained close at hand to counsel his successors during the first quarter of the 20th century. In Des Moines, as in Keokuk, he balanced commercial interests with religious duties, serving several times as president of the B'nai Jeshurun congregation. When he died at his apartment in the city's Commodore Hotel in 1926, Younker Brothers lost the last of its original founders. Although the company would eventually shorten its name to "Younkers," the tradition of shrewd management and progressive thinking initiated by brothers Lipman, Samuel, and Marcus, would remain unaltered as the family business evolved into one of the region's largest department store chains, with branches eventually operating in seven midwestern states.
Sources A variety of materials documenting the history of the Younker business and family can be found in the Younkers, Inc. Records, Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. See also The Younker Story (1969), by longtime company employee William A. Temple.
Contributor: Becki Plunkett