By Amy Alves
Julius Joske, a German Jew, came to San Antonio in 1869 at the age of forty-four seeking a place to raise his family without fear of religious or ethnic persecution. He had learned commercial skills running his own store and from his wife’s family, prominent Prussian merchants named Wolfson. He and his wife Henrietta settled in San Antonio because her two brothers, Leon and Sol Wolfson, had ties to the area. They had come to the United States before the Civil War, and during the war, Sol Wolfson served in the Union Army while Leon Wolfson ran a store in Mexico. After the war the brothers reunited and opened a store in Gonzales, Texas, but when they got word that Joske planned to emigrate to Texas, the brothers moved to San Antonio and opened a dry goods store on the Main Plaza at the corner of Acequia Street. When Joske arrived in spring 1869 he too opened a store on the plaza, the business center of San Antonio.
Business flourished, and within just a few years J. Joske Dry Goods was such a popular store that Joske decided to bring his family to San Antonio, and at the beginning of 1873, he liquidated his stock and returned to Germany. In May, he arrived in New York with his wife and their five children, three sons and two daughters. His sons, Alexander and Albert Joske, went on to San Antonio, where they went to work in their uncles’ store. By that time Wolfson’s had become the largest dry goods store in town and two boys not only earned money but learned about the retail market of the southwestern United States.
Julius Joske returned to San Antonio in early 1874 and reopened his store. But instead of the plaza location, he opened the store northeast of downtown, off Austin Street at a location known as “Henry Bitter’s Place,” in the vicinity of the military supply depot at the Alamo and the government corral on Losoya St. The store’s proximity to the military establishment encouraged Joske to target merchandise to government employees and teamsters, and they became loyal customers.
At the family enterprise, the three sons stocked shelves, kept the store neat, and helped customers. Julius Joske managed the store and the ordered stock which came to town by covered wagon or, starting in 1877, by rail. At times he took one son in a covered wagon full of merchandise to sell to people on the outskirts of town.
By the end of the first year in business, J. Joske’s had grown into a successful store and needed more room but the building would not work for expansion. So at the beginning of 1875 Joske’s moved to a location on Alamo Street at Alamo Plaza. Other than being larger the plain building had no distinguishable architectural characteristics, but with the move came another name change from “J. Joske Dry Goods” to “Joske and Sons Dry Goods.”
When Joske’s moved to Alamo Plaza, it had sparse yet growing business activity with eight saloons, the Menger Hotel, Dreiss Drug Store, Beisenback Hardware Company, and a lumberyard and shoe stores nearby. Yet growth in central San Antonio soon affected Joske’s by increasing competition and by the expanding the customer base. Four major dry goods competitors opened in Alamo Plaza, with more in other parts of the city. Honore Grenet influenced Joske’s more than any other with his store in the Mission San Antonio de Valero convento, where he also had a museum in memory of the Alamo defenders. Despite the competition, the Joske family and Grenet developed close relationships and the Joske boys and their father learned a great deal from Grenet, like advertising techniques and how to make effective display windows.
In 1877, Joske’s location near the new GH&SA train depot, the busy Menger Hotel, and the new Alamo Plaza Post Office helped increase customer traffic. Joske’s responded with new departments and an increase in specialty merchandise, especially notions and fine fabrics for women’s clothing. One distinctive change that came to Joske’s during this time was the introduction of the bargain bin. The popular bargain bin was in a separate section of the store and offered clearance and sale items for five and ten cents. Aside from helping sell merchandise quickly, it targeted people with limited resources. By the beginning of the 1880s Joske’s had clearly begun to make the transition from dry goods store to department store, and physically, to keep up with an increase in clientele, the store expanded west towards Losoya Street.
The 1880s brought several changes to the commercial environment that faced Joske’s. For instance, to encourage industrial growth the city council in 1881 “passed an ordinance giving a ten year exemption from municipal taxes to all industries established in San Antonio during a three year period.” In June 1881, telephone service began in the downtown area, and by 1884 long distance service began, and Joske’s had a vital link to customers and merchandise suppliers. In 1883, Lucchese Boot and Shoe Company opened, giving Joske’s stiff competition in those lines of merchandise. More important, Julius Joske retired from running the store that year and returned to Germany with his wife keeping his ownership stake as his sons took over management, with Alexander Joske serving as president. To stay competitive with other stores in San Antonio and to continue meeting the needs of its clientele, Joske’s hired a resident buyer in New York City, a move that allowed the store to provide customers both the latest high end fashions as well as bargains.
Sales rose. Joske Brothers once again outgrew its building, and the brothers planned a new store. They built their new facility, which would be referred to as “The Big Store,” at the corner of East Commerce and Alamo streets, a prime spot in San Antonio, diagonal from the San Antonio Opera House and just west of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Local architects James Wahrenberger and Albert Felix Beckman designed the structure with two floors and a basement, each 150 by 240 feet, and Joske’s announced the building would “accommodate our rapidly increasing trade [with] a commodious and magnificent store house, larger than any in Texas.” The Big Store would include architectural design elements in granite and brick, as well as limestone from local quarries. In January 1887 they advertised a clearance sale to get reduce merchandise inventory. The new store opened in September 1888 with the first floor and basement for selling merchandise while the second floor had offices and storage.
With the retailing challenges of maintaining customer traffic and providing reasonable prices, Joske’s decided that an innovative use of the penny could help in both efforts. At the time, Texas and most of the Southwest retailers did not use one-cent pricing increments. Pennies did not circulate in these markets, so businesses priced merchandise in multiples of five. The Joske brothers felt that the lack of pennies in the market caused higher prices and was an injustice to customers; they felt that an attempt to change the situation might bring benefits to their customers and their sales ledgers alike. Thus, Joske’s made a special order for a supply of pennies from the United States Mint, received them through the San Antonio National Bank, and changed its lowest prices. Then on December 16,1886, Joske Brothers announced in the San Antonio Light that they had “decided to do away with the five cent nickel as the lowest standard of value in their store.” The one-cent plan let Joske’s proclaim in its ads that it had the lowest prices on a variety of merchandise. Throughout most of 1887 Joske’s ads reminded its customers of the store’s penny prices, while other dry goods stores and businesses were unable to match the Joske strategy before 1890.
By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Joske’s was at the center of San Antonio’s rapid development. Expanding the width of the store proved the best way to deal with the necessity of expanding the number of departments and the stock of merchandise at the store. Architects Alfred Giles and Henri Guindon designed a store expansion from 150 by 240 feet to 174 by 240 feet, and had workmen construct a 300-foot store front and gave it a striped effect in brick and stone. Additionally, they designed a framed arch to the Commerce Street facade and a turret and parasol shaped roof to the entrance. Such architectural elements conveyed English sensibilities, concepts that influenced Giles after his 1885 trip to England.
Joske’s expansion and remodeling coincided with a series of public improvements that came to the downtown area beginning in 1890. For instance, electric-powered streetcars replaced the original mule-drawn cars and made it easier for people to ride from residential neighborhoods to the business district. The city installed gas street lamps at various places where people gathered, such as Alamo Plaza, and that allowed people to stay out later in the evenings, encouraging stores like Joske’s to extend store hours.
At the turn of the century, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas and Joske’s was not only the largest department store in the state but the largest store southwest of the Mississippi River. The store served a varied and increasingly affluent clientele, while tourism increased with the popularity of Hot Well Springs and expanded military missions at Fort Sam Houston. A downtown building boom in hotels and businesses paralleled the growth of visitors.
It was during this boom that Joske’s management changed. In 1903 Alexander Joske bought his father’s interest as well as his brother’s, and he became the sole owner. Albert Joske nevertheless continued working at the store until his retirement in 1910, and his presence prompted Alexander Joske to change his store’s name to “Joske Brothers Company.” But that was only a name; Alexander Joske, as sole authority, proved to be an energetic and aggressive businessman. He undertook another expansion project in 1909, adding two floors to his store, elevators, and built another thirty feet east toward St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. With the construction, Joske Brothers occupied all the property on the Alamo Street side of the block, with the exception of the Plaza Theater.
During the 1910s and 1920s, growth in San Antonio and at Joske’s went hand in hand, but several Joske’s employees saw an opportunity to take the skills they learned working at the store and begin their own companies. W. C. Frost was one such employee who, with his brother J. M. Frost, opened Frost Brothers at 221 East Houston Street In 1917. Unlike Joske’s, Frost Brothers focused exclusively on the upscale ladies’ ready-to-wear market but Joske’s management nonetheless saw Frost Brothers. as a competitor.
That was one of many stores in the 1920s that gave Joske’s a run for its money, because three national chain stores opened in San Antonio during this time, too: J. C. Penney in 1921 and Sears Roebuck Company and Montgomery Ward’s in 1929. Wolf and Marx Company, was now a thriving department store and was located across from Joske’s on Alamo Street. The location of the department stores in downtown San Antonio created a shopping and fashion district along Houston Street much like the one Lord and Taylor had created in New York City.
Since many of the new stores starting up in San Antonio sold women’s fashions, Joske’s opened a dress shop on the second floor for women who wanted to select fabrics and have dresses made by a French dressmaker. Such custom dresses targeted upper-class women, especially Frost Brothers shoppers. To get the attention of middle and working-class women the women’s clothing line was expanded along with the notions department.
The increased competition of the 1920s moved Joske’s to undertake more aggressive efforts to develop its staff. Management sent employees to the East Coast to work in a national chain where they learned about store operations and organization. Alexander Joske also made sure that his store kept the feel of a family run store by working on the sales floor himself to ensure people’s experience at Joske’s was a pleasant one. He willingly took the salesman’s role to make sure customers found the items they were looking for and bought them. Joske’s also competed through involvement in the community through event sponsorship. To highlight the upcoming fashion season, Joske’s hosted fashion shows at local hotels and theaters targeted to upper-class women and teenage girls. The shows helped to put San Antonio in the fashion spotlight because fashion designers from New York attended.
Then in 1923, Joske’s reached a milestone with its golden anniversary, and publicized that it was the only department store or dry goods store in San Antonio to operate for fifty consecutive years. The store celebrated its unparalleled retail success in the region based having the largest selection of merchandise in Texas and the largest floor space of any retail store in the entire Southwest. “In relation to its volume of business to the population of its trade territory, it was one of the largest stores in the country.”
However, the second half of the 1920s brought loss, sorrow and many changes to the Big Store. In the summer of 1925, Alexander Joske took ill, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. Friends and family, including his son-in-law Dr. Fredrick G. Oppenheimer, a local pediatrician, encouraged him to rest, but he would not relax his efforts and continued to work many long hours at the store. His condition did not change, and on Wednesday evening, July 8, 1925, alone in the upstairs of his mansion on King William St., Joske shot himself. A servant found him dead with a bullet wound in his side.
Alexander Joske’s death shocked the city and retailers state-wide. In mourning, Mayor
John W. Tobin honored the merchant and community leader and ordered city flags flown
at half–mast. Joske Brothers Company closed for two days, while throughout the Southwest
people remembered Joske as a pioneer merchant who had played a key role in the transforming
Texas retailing industry by leading the change from dry goods stores of the last century
to the modern department store of the twentieth century.
According to the ship records Julius Joske left from the port of Hamburg and arrived at New Orleans on 31 March 1869. Since he arrived in New Orleans at the end of March, he probably did not make it to San Antonio until the end of April or beginning of May.
Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby, German to America List of Passengers Arriving to U.S. Ports (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1991), 253 – 54; Historical and Descriptive Review of the Industries of San Antonio, 1885 (San Antonio: Land Thompson, 1885), 84 – 86; San Antonio Light, 15 July 1923; France Kallison, “100 Years of Jewery in San Antonio” (Master’s thesis, Trinity University, San Antonio, 1977), 29.
“Alexander Joske Pioneer Merchant, Patriotic Merchant, Civic Publicist” The Pioneer Magazine of Texas, October 1928, 8 – 10; Light, 17 June 1923 and 15 June 1923.
Lois Wood Burkhalter, “The Enjoyable Joske Story, 1873 – 1973: Centennial Celebration,” Special Section, 3, San Antonio Light, 15 April 1973; San Antonio Express, 7 October 1923.
Express, 7 October 1923; Cecilia Steinfiedlt, San Antonio Was: Seen Through a Magic Lantern: Views from the Slide Collection of Albert Stevens (San Antonio: San Antonio Museum Association, 1978), 177.
Express, 7 October 1923. Richard R. Flores, Remembering the Alamo: memory, modernity, and the master symbol ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002) p. 52.
Retail expansion also took place beyond Alamo Plaza. In 1877 the dry goods store A.A. Wolf, later known as Wolf and Marx Company was established along West Commerce Street. By the 1880s Wolf and Marx Company had become Joske’s major competitor. Steinfiedlt, 28 – 30, Light, 17 June 1923.
House, City of Flaming Adventure, 196.
Ibid.; Marianne Odom and Gaylon Finklea Young, The Businesses That Built San Antonio (San Antonio: Living Legacies, 1985), 54 – 55.
Odom, The Businesses That Built, 58 – 61.
Burkhalter, “The Enjoyable Joske Story,” 5.
Andrew Morrison, ed, Historic San Antonio (San Antonio: The Metropolitan Publishing Company, 1887), 89; Mary Carolyn Holler Juston, “An English Architect in Texas: Alfred Giles: 1853 – 1920” (Master’s thesis, University of Texas, Austin, 1970), 183 – 184.
Light, December 16, 1886.
Ibid., 6 August 1887 – 4 October 1887; WOAI Business Weekly, 1 February 1993; Express, 9 September 1917.
Express, 8 September 1889; Juston, Alfred Giles, 100 – 101, 184 – 186.
Pearson Newcomb, The Alamo City (San Antonio: Pearson Newcomb, 1926), 112; San Antonio Remembered Downtown, DVD (KLRN – TV: Alamo Public Telecommunications Council, 1996).
Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio, The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 52.
Burkhalter, “The Enjoyable Joske Story,” 5.
Texas Jewish Historical Society Records, University of Texas at Austin, Box 3A168, Folder 5; Odom, The Businesses, 70 – 71.
Mary E. Livingston, San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 101 – 117; Jules Appler, Jules A. Appler Directory and General Directory and Householder Directory of Greater San Antonio 1924 – 1925 (San Antonio: Jules A. Appler, 1925).
Burkhalter, “The Enjoyable Joske Story,” 5.
Ibid.; San Antonio Remembered Downtown, DVD (KLRN – TV: Alamo Public Telecommunications Council, 1996).
Burkhalter, “The Enjoyable Joske Story,” 5.
Ibid., Light, 7 October 1923.
Light, 9 July 1925; Express, 9 July 1925.
Light, 9 July 1925; Express, 9 July 1925, 10 July 1925, and 11 July 1925.