The start of something new
With a single lecture in 1904, Bertha Rauh introduced a new vision for the role of Jewish communal work in the daily life of Pittsburgh.
Bishop Henry Codman Potter arrived in Pittsburgh by train the morning of Nov. 4, 1904. He was several hours late, “owing to a wreck,” as the local press explained.
Coming from the east, he stopped briefly in Greensburg, where he had started his career in 1857.
Greensburg was a village back then, and its Episcopalian population barely amounted to a congregation. In the half-century since, it had quintupled in size.
Codman was also bigger. He was bishop of New York, the largest Episcopalian diocese in the country, and he had become one of the most prominent religious figures of his day. He hoped to indulge the nostalgia of his long journey through life, but he was disappointed. His modest church and rectory had been replaced with grander structures.
Sometime late morning or early afternoon, Potter finally arrived at the home of Bertha and Enoch Rauh on Bartlett Street in Squirrel Hill. He attended a small luncheon at the house at 1 p.m., catered by the Union Restaurant. Attending were a select group of the leading religious, business and cultural figures of Pittsburgh. Following lunch, there was an open house reception from 3 to 5 p.m., attended by some 500 leading figures of Pittsburgh society. This was likely the first large Jewish social event in Squirrel Hill.
Codman came at the personal invitation of Bertha Rauh to deliver a talk on behalf of the National Council of Jewish Women–Pittsburgh Section. He was one of the best-known clergymen in the country, at a time when clergy were among the celebrity class.
Codman was outspoken on current issues, particularly the inequities of the Gilded Age. At the time of his lecture in Pittsburgh in early November 1904, he was among the most discussed and debated public figures in the country, owing to a recent controversy.
It was the type of controversy that neatly encapsulates the mood of the country at a particular moment, a controversy so heightened and prevalent that it acquires a moniker for easy reference. In this case, the controversy became known as “The Subway Saloon.”
Earlier in the year, Bishop Potter had started a tavern. It was located in the Bowery, at Bleecker and Mulberry, near a planned entrance to the subway. His idea was to fight the abuses of alcohol through control, rather than abstinence. By sidestepping the pressures of profit, a church-run bar might create an atmosphere where working people could dine and drink without the risk or the consequences of imbibing alcohol to excess.
Having a glass of wine with dinner is unremarkable today, but that was a more temperate era than ours. The backlash was immediate and soon became widespread. You likely already know the contours of the debate. The balance between allowance and abstinence is perpetual throughout every era of American life, just with different vices.
The debate helped the National Council of Jewish Women. It brought attention to a five-part lecture series Rauh had arranged for late 1904 and early 1905. Following the initial talk from Bishop Potter would be Dr. Toyokichi Igenaga on “The Russo-Japanese War — And After,” then suffragist Florence Ward Howe Hall on “The American Woman of the Twentieth Century,” then Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones on “The Three Reverences,” and finally Jacob Riis delivering his famous lecture “How the Other Half Lives.”
Of this group, only Riis remains well known today. In their day, though, these were some of the most prominent speakers around, talking about the most pressing issues of the day: industrial warfare, egalitarianism, global peace and economic inequality.
The Subway Saloon fits here. And yet, Rauh invited Potter to town before the tavern was created, and she asked him to speak on a different subject altogether.
Bishop Potter rested for a bit after the reception. He dined with the Rauhs that evening and then left for the Carnegie Music Hall, where he was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. After introductions from Mrs. Rauh, Bishop Potter spoke for 45 minutes. The title of his lecture was “The Lecture Bureau.” He lectured about the history of lecturing.
Specifically, he discussed the network of American lyceums and literary societies that emerged in the decades before the Civil War. This speaking circuit brought the greatest minds of the age into every town in the country, allowing ideas to filter through society directly, from person to person, rather than through the intermediary of print.
Bishop Potter considered these lectures to be a form of literature. In fact, he considered them to be the highest form of literature, placing them atop a literary hierarchy rising from the daily press, to the elite magazines, to great books. He felt that lecturing surpassed all these printed forms because it had “the largest personal note.”
By personal, he meant that the lecturer brought all of themself to the lecture, not only their ideas and opinions and arguments but also their essential qualities as a person, as well as their physical presence on the stage before an audience. Potter concluded by turning to the box where Rauh was seated and congratulating her for attempting to revive this tradition in Pittsburgh. “I believe that the work you are doing is one which will be most effectual in uplifting the intellectual standard of your community,” he said.
The lecture series was among Rauh’s first big initiatives as president of the National Council of Jewish Women–Pittsburgh Section. Since its founding 1894, the local section had focused largely on educational work within the Jewish community: the Columbian Kindergarten, study circles, the poorly named Mission School (which evolved into the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House) and the Sisterhood of Public Service.
The lecture series was different. None of the speakers were Jewish. None of their topics were Jewish, either. And yet all the topics were relevant to the Jewish community.
Rauh’s subsequent initiatives shared that vision, aiming Jewish concerns outward to encompass all of society. Consider Penny Lunches, which provided affordable meals for children in the public schools — needed for Jewish children, needed for all children.
Starting this undertaking the way she did shows her particular genius for social change — before the programs, before the initiatives, there were people talking to people. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.