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A “Feminist” Jewish Department Store in Imperial Berlin?

Kaufhaus N. Israel

General: Free

Between 1899 and 1914, the Berlin department store N. Israel issued a series of breathtaking illustrated annual publications, which it distributed to its customers free of charge. Compiled using cutting-edge printing techniques, the albums addressed various current issues through text and extravagant and unusual displays of reproduced photographic images – with barely any direct advertising. From 1909, several volumes featured explicit “feminist” themes. These ranged from the valorization of women’s rights activists to visual celebrations of women’s contributions to western modernity in sports, politics, the arts, entertainment, and professional life – among these a female tattoo artist and snake farm owner – appearing almost a decade before German and American women gained the right to vote.

In her talk, Center for Jewish History Dr. Sophie Bookhalter Graduate Research Fellow Angelina Palmén (University of Oxford) in conversation with Dr. Mila Ganeva (Miami University, Ohio), explores how and why an esteemed Imperial German department store and fashion house, owned by an acculturated Jewish family, apparently took a public stance in support of women’s rights. There has been increasing public awareness in recent years about the company’s significant social justice legacy in securing the rescue of thousands of Jews from Nazi era Berlin under Wilfrid Israel, the store’s final director. Two decades before the calamities, however, N. Israel was a flourishing fashion retailer, a self-proclaimed “women’s paradise” at the heart of Berlin, shaping the tastes of German consumers for a century before the First World War. The lecture takes listeners on a journey into the converging worlds of German feminism and a “Jewish” niche in ready-made fashion before the world wars, showing how a prominent Jewish family took a leading role in endorsing and culturally constructing “new womanhood,” in an era when the real-life New Woman remained but a rare curiosity.