Sanger Brothers, a pioneer Texas dry-goods wholesale and retail firm, was established by Philip, Isaac, and Alexander Sanger, as well as the other sons of Elias and Barbetta (Mandelbaum Heller) Sanger—Lehman, Jacob, David, and Sam. Isaac, the principal founder of the business, served an apprenticeship in a German mercantile house before moving to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1852 to work at his uncle Jacob Heller's clothing store. He also worked as a bookkeeper at Waldheimer and Grossmier, a New York City men's clothing factory, where he gained a knowledge of accounting. In 1857, with the help of his former employer, Isaac opened the Baum and Sanger store in McKinney, Texas, at a time when McKinney had become a market center for fur trappers and ranchers and was larger than Dallas. Lehman joined his brother at the McKinney store in 1859, after a series of unsuccessful business ventures that included peddling notions in New Haven, learning the cigar business in Montreal, and working in a general store. Soon the brothers moved to Weatherford, Texas, then a new trading center, and in 1860 Lehman set out to manage a subsidiary store in Decatur. Philip Sanger worked for a jobber who provided goods to peddlers in Savannah, Georgia, before joining the firm. By 1858 Sanger Brothers began to advertise, and after the Civil War the Sangers initiated a policy of opening stores along the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Beginning at Millican, the northern terminus, they moved on to Bryan (location of the first store to be called Sanger Brothers), Hearne, Calvert, Bremond, Kosse, Groesbeck, Corsicana, Dallas, and Sherman. By 1872 the Dallas store was managed by yet another Sanger brother, Alexander, who was an experienced bookkeeper. Sam Sanger, who had been employed at a New York shoe store before joining the firm, operated the Waco store. Partners such as Morris Lasker, who had initially joined the firm, left it as more Sanger brothers, including Jacob and David, arrived in the United States, and the stores henceforth were managed largely by members of the family.
Isaac attended auction sales of merchandise in New Orleans until 1868, when the business became the first in Texas to establish a buying office in New York. This office enabled Sanger Brothers to purchase a wider array of stock than was available on the Houston-Galveston-New Orleans market and to obtain price discounts and other advantages. The brothers maintained detailed sales records that included size, color, fabric, price, and frequency of sale for each item, and sent them to Isaac in New York for use in making subsequent purchases. In 1874 the firm opened a wholesale division, which hired drummers to visit outlying retailers and gave the firm access to a group of smaller merchants as regular customers. At the same time it consolidated, closing stores in Bryan, Bremond, and Corsicana, and later in Sherman and Calvert, in response to the panic of 1873. By 1875 the company's annual sales reached $750,000. Next, the brothers restructured their organization, imposing a departmental system in which each department kept separate records and competed with the rest. The company also began to extend credit, using mortgages as collateral, a practice through which the Sangers eventually accrued considerable acreage and diversified into real estate. Free home delivery to Dallas customers—another Sanger first—began in 1879, and by 1881 an advertising department had been established. Among the firm's early salesmen were Frank James, brother of the legendary outlaw Jesse James, and Herbert Marcus, founder of Neiman-Marcus. Sanger Brothers made early efforts at employee training and in 1886 established the fifth Employees' Savings and Loan Association in Texas. In 1889 the company began to publish the Sanger Brothers' Monthly Magazine, designed as a literary publication but used largely as an advertising organ. By 1891 the company was selling through mail order. Though a store in New Birmingham that opened in 1889 failed after three years, by 1892 Sanger Brothers had 250 employees and an annual sales volume of $2 million. Unlike major department stores in the East, Sanger did not offer furniture and general household merchandise until the early 1900s, but continued to add new stores with innovative facilities in them, including gas fixtures, electricity, telephones, and passenger elevators. Sanger Brothers was the first firm in the state with these amenities. Like other business leaders who took a paternal role in their communities, Alexander Sanger enhanced the firm's public image. While Philip managed details of the business, Alexander became a booster and benefactor who helped to organize the Dallas State Fair and the Dallas Public Library, participated in civic activities, and eventually established a night school for workers. In time, he was known to Dallasites as "Uncle Alex."
According to some scholars, Sanger Brothers' decline can be attributed to the lack of aggressive leadership that resulted from keeping the firm too long under family management. Between 1893 and 1908 the Waco store grew little, while the Dallas store increased disproportionately to 140,000 square feet with 650 employees. The 1893 panic hit the company during a large expansion program. Philip Sanger died in 1902 and was replaced at the head of the firm by Alexander. Lehman died in 1912. By World War I the credit-based wholesale aspect of the business had caused a shortage of operating capital. With the help of local bank loans, the firm survived the crisis, but competition increased and profits declined. In 1918, when Sanger expanded to Fort Worth and Isaac died, the company incorporated, with Alexander as president. In the 1920s, by which time 2,000 employees were on the payroll, the company faced serious financial difficulties despite sales of $30 million, a 1922 Golden Jubilee Sale that ran for fourteen business days and brought in significant profits, and the closing of the wholesale department in 1923. With no executive prepared to take over top management at the time of Alexander's death in 1925, the company reorganized with Philip's son-in-law Clarence Linz as president and hired a management specialist, Gregory E. Toole. Recovery efforts failed, however, and in 1926 St. Louis-based Stifel, Nicholaus, and Company purchased Sanger Brothers. The surviving company, known as Sanger Investment Company, moved to the Southland Life Insurance Company building. Sanger Brothers retained its name until 1987, when Federated Department Stores, owner of Foley's, changed the name.
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Leon Joseph Rosenberg, Sangers': Pioneer Texas Merchants (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1978).
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Texas in the 1920s
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Diana J. Kleiner,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 10, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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