Friday, July 6, 2012


Earlier this year I was contacted by someone who noticed that I had done a lot of research on people buried at Rosehill Cemetery.  They were interested in getting photographs of the graves of relatives buried there:  Isaac Woolf and his wife Clara Spiegel Woolf.  It took me a while but I was finally able to locate the impressive Woolf monument at Rosehill and in doing that I "dug up" an interesting piece of Chicago history as well.  This is the story of Isaac Woolf "The Newsboy's Friend."

Isaac Woolf

Isaac Woolf was born in London, England on January 4, 1852.  He came to the U.S. as a child with his parents and they settled in Lafayette, Indiana.  His family was poor, and he began his business life as a newsboy.  From that he went to stripping tobacco, but he found time to attend school and also to enroll at a business college.  He spent several years in Cincinnati learning the clothing business and then came to Chicago where he was employed as a retail salesman by the Barbe Bros. clothing house.  In 1880 he embarked on the clothing business on his own account with his brothers at 183 W. Madison Street.  In 1896 he opened his establishment at 160 State Street.  Associated in business with Mr. Woolf were his brothers Benjamin, Edward and Harry.

On March 17, 1898, Isaac Woolf opened his grandest store yet at the southwest corner of State and Monroe -

He billed his store as "The store with a horseshoe over the door and the Palmer House over the way."

In 1882 Isaac Woolf decided it was time to give something back.  He decided to provide a full Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for any and all newsboys in Chicago who wanted to attend.  A writeup of the 1903 feast is typical:


Merchant Gives Annual Thanksgiving Dinner in the First Regiment Armory - Thirty-Five Hundred Visitors Enjoy Seeing the Youths at Banquet - All Parade to Hall, with Band at Head of Line, and are Urged to Eat Until Satisfied - Clerks as Waiters. 

"Come on, son: never mind if you have eaten; come and fill up again."

This was the spirit in which seventy-eight of Isaac Woolf's employees took care of 5,000 newsboys last night and fed many youths as they have never dined before.

Each year has increased the number of boys at the Thanksgiving dinner given by Mr. Woolf, and this season, for the twenty-first of the feasts, the First Regimental Armory was engaged.  It was here that 3,500 visitors had almost as much pleasure as the boys while again and again the long tables were filled and emptied.

The boys started to the armory at 5:45 o'clock, headed by the band, which was followed by a platoon of police.  Mr. Woolf and his brother came next.  Then followed the employees of the two clothing houses in three coaches.

Great Crowd At Armory.

At the armory the crowd was so great that visitors were kept waiting some time, and many of the boys staid three hours for their supper, fighting vigorously for a place in the line.  In the dining hall a degree of order was kept and although the noise was so great that the band could not be heard, there was no roughness to the fun.   

This was effected by Mr. Woolf's system.  He asked the largest and best known newsboys to act as captains, and those kept the other boys in line and showed them where to sit and how to leave.  The captains, as they are known among their fellows, were:  Spike the Red Handed, Eddie the Tough, Nutty, Josh, Jimmie Meatpie, Dago Monk, Bulldog, Humpy, and Sleepy Louie.

Plenty of Food For All.

The boys had placards bearing legends such as: "Don't you wish you were one of us?" and "Six hundred turkeys! Wow!"  When the newsboys plates were filled again, and when they had eaten all they could, their pockets were filled with fruit.  At the door they were welcomed, and when they were through they were told if they could eat any more they should come in again.

The boys were served at twenty long tables seating 1,000 persons.  The seats were filled from 6:30 until 10 o'clock.

Mr. Woolf gives the annual dinner in memory of his own boyhood life as a newsboy in London, and in observance of a vow he made at the time. The last dinner cost $6,000 and the supplies included 520 turkeys, 250 large bunches of bananas, and wagon loads of baked goods.
Chicago Daily Tribune - November 26, 1903

Of course, being a good businessman, Isaac Woolf did not hesitate to make good use of the newsboys' feast:

All good things must end, and the newsboys were shocked when they picked up their newspapers on October 22, 1906 and saw this:  

Isaac Woolf, Clothing Merchant, Expires in Home.

Servant Makes Discovery - End Coming During the Night - Physician Called Two Days Previous, But Ailment Was Not Considered Serious - Started His Business Life as a Newsboy and Gave Big Annual Dinner for Street Urchins 

Isaac Woolf, president of Woolf's Clothing, was found dead in his bed yesterday morning at his residence, 3431 Michigan Avenue.  He had died during the night of a contraction of the windpipe, which caused strangulation.

3431 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago

He was 54 years old.  Although Mr. Woolf's death was unexpected, he had been ill enough for the two days previous to require the services of a physician.  Dr. I. A. Abt had attended him the night before at 10:00 o'clock.  Mr. Woolf was cheerful and talked about a social engagement that he expected to keep on Sunday.

Mr. Woolf's death will be felt not only by his family and a large circle of friends.  For the past twenty-five years he had been known as the "Newsboys' Friend."  Every year he gave a newsboys' dinner.  From unpretentious beginnings - there were 100 ragged and hungry little guests served at the first - the feast has grown to one of increasing importance, numerically considered.

Feeds 10,000 Boys on Thanksgiving

Last year 10,000 newsboys and other hungry urchins from  the street and the poorer tenement districts   attended the Thanksgiving dinner.   Everyone considered Mr. Woolf  as his personal friend and the clothing merchant encouraged this feeling.  Many of them had been to previous dinners given by the man who in his boyhood had been a newsboy himself.  There were 500 turkeys and many other good things.  The expense was $5,000.  "The newsboy dinners will be continued", said Benjamin Woolf, a brother, yesterday.  "They will be given every year in memory of my brother.  We have made preparation already for this Thanksgiving.  the dinner will be at the Casino."

Servant  Finds Mr. Woolf  Dead.

Mr. Woolf said that his brother had been in poor health for fifteen years. Two weeks ago he caught a severe cold, but paid no attention to it, but  on  last Friday Benjamin Woolf insisted that he consult a physician.  At 6 o'clock Sunday morning one of the servants looked into the room and saw that Mr. Woolf was dead.  What time he died no one knew.  His daughter had heard him breathing shortly before midnight.  His 14 year old son, Hamlin, slept at his father's bedside, but heard nothing unusual during the night.

He Begins Life As Newsboy.

Mr. Woolf  was born in London, Jan. 3, 1853, and  came to this country when a child with his parents,  who   settled in Lafayette, Ind.  His father and mother were  poor,  and  he began  his  business life as a newsboy.  From that  he went to stripping  tobacco, but he found time to attend school  and also to go to a business college.  He spent several years in Cincinnati learning the clothing business, and then came to Chicago, where he was employed as a retail salesman by the Barbe Bros. clothing house.  In 1880 he embarked in the clothing business on his own account with his brothers at 183 West Madison Street.  Ten years ago the establishment at 100 North State Street was opened.  Associated in business with Mr. Woolf were his brothers-Benjamin, Edward and Harry.  The business will be continued under the corporation name.

Gave To Charity Here

Mr. Woolf was a widower.  he is survived by three children, Marion, Lucille and Hamlin.  Mrs. E. Woolf, mother of the clothing merchant, and more than 80 years old, is living at the home of her daughter, Mrs. J. Bernhard, 580 Forty-fifth Street.

Although the annual dinner for newsboys was Mr. Woolf's favorite philanthropic enterprise, he gave largely to Hebrew charities.  He was a member of Sinai Congregation, and belonged to the Standard Club, Masons, and Royal Arcanum.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday from the late residence by carriages to Rosehill.  It is probable that newsboys will turn out in large numbers.
Chicago Daily Tribune - October 22, 1906

ISAAC WOOLF'S funeral was  held  yesterday at his  late residence, 3431 Michigan Avenue.  The house  was filled with those who had known Mr. Woolf .  Dr. Emil G. Hirsch delivered the address in which he paid tribute to Mr. Woolf's generosity, and told his hearers of' a success better than that measured by dollars.  Mr. Woolf, a successful merchant, was widely known as the "Newsboys' Friend" Because of the assistance he gave those in whose class he had started life.  
Chicago Daily Tribune - October 24, 1906

Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch
The 1906 and 1907 banquets were held as usual.  They were hosted by Isaac's brother Benjamin Woolf who sponsored them as a tribute to his late brother.  There was no Thanksgiving dinner for newsboys in 1908.  The Tribune explained why:

Woolf's Clothing Company Into Hands of a Receiver.
Failure Comes Quickly
Concern Which Fed Thousands Was Prosperous
Two Years Ago

Woolf's Clothing Company,State and Monroe streets, widely known for its practice of giving Chicago newsboys a Thanksgiving turkey dinner every year, went into involuntary bankruptcy yesterday.  Judge K.M. Landis of the United States District Court, acting upon a petition presented by a number of major creditors, placed the concern in the hands of a receiver, appointing the American Trust and Savings Bank to act in that capacity.

Under court orders, the business will be continued for the present, although plans for selling off the stock as rapidly as possible were under way last night.  Liabilities of the firm are generally estimated at $200,000 with inventoried assets ranging, according to reports, from $160,000 to $200,000.

Indebtedness Piles Up Quickly

Failure of the concern, which, until two years ago, prospered steadily, came with a rush.  The entire indebtedness is said to have piled up within a few months, and yesterday eastern creditors reached Chicago to push their claims.  After a conference with the law firm of Ringer, Wilharts & Louer, counsel for the Woolf company, it was agreed that the petition should be filed in the names of some of the heaviest creditors.  Those decided upon were Alfred Benjamin & Co.,and Samuel Peck & Co. of New York, Rosenwald & Weil of Chicago, and the adjustment bureau of the National Wholesale Clothiers' Association, representing all told some $40,000 to $60,000 in liabilities.

The death of Isaac Woolf, newsboy-merchant two years ago was credited on all sides with being the essential cause of the failure.   Recently it was found necessary to sell the original store at West Madison and Halsted streets in order to protect the downtown establishment where the rent was $65,000 per year.  Lack of "quick" assets and conservatism in the business world added to the difficulties facing the firm.

This year there was no Thanksgiving dinner for newsboys.

Due To Death of Founder.

Attorney Martin J. Isaacs of Wheeler, Bilber & Isaacs, counsel for the creditors said: "Apparently only Mr. Isaac Woolf knew how to make the business pay.  Fortunately he conducted it in such a way that the good will of the concern is now a big asset."

William T. Underwood, personal counsel of Mr. Woolf during his life, said that the liabilities amount to $100,000 and the assets to $218,000, exclusive of the lease and good will.

Mr. Woolf came to Chicago from Lafayette, Ind., in the early '70s.  In Lafayette he had been a newsboy and in Chicago, after opening first a small store at West Madison and Halsted streets, ad then a downtown store in 1897, started his custom of giving a Thanksgiving dinner to every newsboy who would come and eat it.  From 4,000 to 10,000 boys were treated every year.
Chicago Daily Tribune - December 31, 1908

The impressive monument marking the burial place of Isaac Woolf can be found in Section L of Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.

Isaac Woolf "The Newsboys' Friend" - May he rest in peace.


  1. Very nice job - I enjoyed this post and can see you did quite a bit of work to put it together.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. Isaac Woolf was an interesting person - a real American success story. The growth of Chicago as a world-class city is due in great part to people like Isaac Woolf. I do enjoy presenting these forgotten stories for the enjoyment of a new generation. More interesting stories to come!