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Exhibit Pays Tribute to New York Immigrant Family Businesses - 2002-02-03


At a time when most of the business news seems focussed on large corporations, with thousands or even millions of stockholders, a new exhibition in New York pays tribute to family-run businesses. The New York Historical Society is taking a nostalgic look at 11 eclectic businesses, all more than 100 years old and all founded by immigrants to the United States.

Brown glass eyes peer from a wooden display case. A table and two chairs, from a cafe known for its Italian cannoli pastries, are also on display. And hanging on the wall are now-rusty metal tools, once used to make the roof-top water tanks that are still a feature of the New York skyline.

The exhibit: "Family Matters," features memorabilia from businesses with a rare trait in common, they have remained in family hands for a century or more.

Curator Ellen Denker says the show reveals the character of New York, a city of many small, so-called "mom and pop" businesses. But it also tells a bigger story about the city's history. "It's the story of immigrants who came to New York in the 19th century with a skill and passed that skill on to generations of the their own families," she says. "Plus, the will and desire to keep doing the same thing in many new ways."

The immigrants who founded the companies featured in the exhibit came to New York from Europe. Peter Gougelmann of Mager and Gougelmann's artificial eye company, was originally from Switzerland. He introduced the craft of custom-making artificial glass eyes in New York in 1851. The late blind and deaf American social activist, Helen Keller, was among the company's best known customers.

A black and white photograph of a small brick building on a New York street shows the first Modell's shop. Today, Modell's 90 large sporting goods stores are located in seven states.

Seventy-seven-year-old Doris Modell-Tipograph, like many of the owners, has memories to share. She remembers helping out as a child, with the rest of the family. "They used to open up these summer outlets at the beach and I used to stand on a box and sell bathing caps for a dime and that is going back a lot of years ago," she says. "My mom was a cashier, that was the growing up of the business. Now it's a different business, but family is still very involved."

Today, Mrs. Modell-Tipograph's nephew runs the company that was started by her grandfather, Morris, in 1889. A Jew who escaped the pogroms in Russia, he became a peddler in the United States, selling men's clothing.

Unlike Modell's, most of the companies featured in the exhibit employ fewer than 100 people and the owners remain closely involved on a daily basis.

Although the firms have changed with the times, many still fill a niche. One example is the Mali cloth company, founded in 1826, which manufactures the green felt used on pool tables.

Beautifying churches has been a mainstay of the Rambusch Decorating Company, founded by Danish immigrants over a century ago. Viggo Rambusch, whose grandfather started the company, gives three reasons for its survival. "One is that the family produced children who went into the business. Secondly, we have always had a good accounting system where we knew where we were making money and we knew where we were losing money," he says. "And third, we had a good continuing client through 103- years, and that is church work."

The companies featured by the New York Historical Society have their own organization, the "100 Year Association of New York." The president of the association is Richard Cook. "Someone has said that each of these companies is a person, and it really is. They have a life of their own, and they have a real soul that a stock company may not have, because they have a different kind of management, different kind of management style, necessarily so," he says. "So these kinds of companies are unique."

Mr. Cook adds that staying small and sticking to one or two things that they do very well have contributed to the longevity of many of these businesses. And he notes that their size and particularly the continued family involvement are what gives these businesses their singular character.

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