Nathaniel Moses Washer, businessman, civic leader, philanthropist, and public speaker, was born April 12, 1861, in Somerville, Tennessee, the last of seven children born to Benjamin and Eva (Greenwald) Washer. His parents had separately emigrated from Germany to the United States where they met. Benjamin and Eva married, probably in Memphis, in 1851. By 1852 they were living in Somerville where Benjamin seems to have established a successful business by 1860 because he is described in the census that year as a merchant who owned real estate valued at $3,000 and had $30,750 in personal wealth.
After Eva died on January 23, 1863, just months before Nat's second birthday, Benjamin took the children to his sister's home in Philadelphia, returning to Memphis himself to attend to his business. In March 1864 he married Henrietta Blumenfield, a 26-year-old German woman. The new Washer household, including six children from Benjamin's marriage to Eva, settled in Philadelphia where they remained for the rest of the Civil War. By 1867 the family had moved to Memphis; between 1865 and 1873 Henrietta bore Benjamin six more children.
Nat attended public schools in Memphis where many of the teachers at his high school were former Confederate officers whom he described in his autobiography as "men of talent and attainment." His school days imprinted him with a lifelong belief in the importance of education. Benjamin and Henrietta Washer were both Jewish, and Nat's religious faith would always be a central element of his character and his approach to life. Benjamin died in 1873 in a yellow fever epidemic. About two years later, the family's reduced financial circumstances obliged Nat to leave school, and he went to work at a Memphis wholesale clothing establishment for $15 per week. He worked there for the next three years, rising from a lowly door sentinel to become a stock manager by the time he was seventeen. Nat's understanding of the mercantile business developed rapidly, and in 1878 his employer sent him to New York City.
Washer worked in New York for several months in 1878 and 1879, boarding with his brother in a home near the Bowery. Sometime in 1879 Washer moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where his Memphis employer had moved to escape the 1878 epidemic, and before long he became a "drummer," a traveling salesman, for the business. His route followed new railroads west through Kansas City and Dodge City, Kansas, into New Mexico and places like Raton, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Deming. From the New Mexico railroad towns he took stagecoaches and rented hacks to isolated frontier towns like Silver City, Georgetown, and Las Moras.
In 1882 Nat returned to St. Louis and then moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he and his older brother, Jacob, established Washer Brothers Clothiers. The store specialized in ready-to-wear clothing for men and boys. Advertised as "The Western Outpost of Texas," it also sold a variety of goods to cowboys and ranchers. Washer came to know many of the frontier characters who inhabited Fort Worth then, and he befriended the city's progressives who worked to improve the city while building their fortunes. In 1888 Washer was initiated into Fort Worth's Masonic Lodge #148 and began an almost meteoric rise in the ranks of Masonry. He became a senior deacon at Fort Worth's Lodge #148 in 1889, and its most worshipful master in 1892; by 1899 he was the senior warden of the statewide Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas. In 1891 Washer married Isabel (Belle) Schloss. After their wedding in Baltimore, Nat took Belle to Fort Worth. Their first child, Pauline Eva, was born in 1895, and the next year their son, Jay Burnett, was born.
In September 1899 Washer and his family moved to San Antonio to open a branch of the Washer Brothers store. Like the Fort Worth store, Nat Washer's San Antonio business first specialized in ready-to-wear clothing for men and boys. By 1905 it had expanded to become an upscale three-story store with an atmosphere of elegance and exclusiveness. The first floor was devoted to men's clothing and furnishings, and many lines of luxury items for women were added. Sixty girls and women worked in the women's department alone to give customers the best possible service.
Soon after he arrived in San Antonio, Washer became one of the city's leading citizens. In 1900 he became the most worshipful master of the statewide Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas. In 1902 he was elected president of the Board of Trustees of San Antonio's Temple Beth-El. In 1903 he helped to found the city's Associated Charities and subsequently served a term as its president. In 1905 he was selected to give a welcoming speech to President Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders during their reunion in San Antonio. In 1906 he was elected president of the San Antonio Businessman's Club.
Over the next thirty years Nat Washer played prominent roles in the civic and cultural development of San Antonio. As president of the Businessmen's Club and in other capacities he pushed to attract new capital to the city and to promote the creation of new businesses. But the city also needed better schools and libraries, new cultural institutions, and public venues for the arts; Washer, serving again in various capacities, worked to promote these, too. During the 1910s and 1920s he was a member of the San Antonio school board and chairman of the city's public Carnegie Library. He served as president of the San Antonio Music Association and president of the Witte Museum and helped to form the city's Symphony Orchestra Society and the San Antonio Artist Series. He also chaired a committee that led to the building of San Antonio's first Municipal Auditorium. A devoted Reform Jew, Washer served as the president of the board of trustees of San Antonio's Temple Beth El from 1902 to 1907 and remained active in the city's Jewish community for many years. From about 1900 to the early 1930s, Washer played the role of San Antonio's official and unofficial ambassador. He served on welcoming committees for presidents Taft and Wilson and introduced a wide variety of actors, foreign dignitaries, artists, military officers, and well-known celebrities. Washer was a popular public speaker; his remarks at conventions, public assemblies, and formal dinners were often reprinted or quoted in the local press.
Washer also became well-known in San Antonio and around the state for his philanthropic activities. One of his favorite causes was the Masonic Home for Widows and Orphans (later known simply as the Masonic Home) in Fort Worth which he had helped to create in 1899. He became a member of its board of trustees in 1901 and served as president of the board from 1924 until his death. He worked to raise money for the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the YMCA, as well as many other organizations. He was probably best-known for his annual Newsboys' Christmas Dinners. The first dinner, held in 1906, was a simple buffet meal for 25 boys in the Washer Brothers store. In subsequent years Washer arranged banquets for the "newsies" where hundreds of newsboys attended the Christmas feasts, which came to include entertainment—music, singers, and vaudeville acts—punctuated by brief remarks by Washer and various celebrities. The dinners were widely reported in newspapers across the state.
Though Washer never graduated from high school, he read extensively and wrote essays and poems that were published in the San Antonio Light, the Jewish Record, the Dallas Morning News, and Texas Grand Lodge Magazine. In the mid-1920s he published Selected Verse and Addresses, a collection of some of his writings. Not long afterward he began to write an autobiography, The Life and Times of Nat M. Washer, but it was never completed or published. Washer's writings included scores of pieces written on topics ranging from local history to musical criticism to Judaism to the lessons of World War I.
Politically, Washer is best classified as a Progressive Republican. He admired Lincoln's nationalistic outlook and Theodore Roosevelt's "militant decency." In the 1910s he spoke out for woman suffrage, and chaired the Progressive Party's state convention in 1914. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Washer actively supported the war effort. He chaired San Antonio's War Recreation Committee which organized citizens to entertain the thousands of soldiers then at Fort Sam Houston. He also became a "Four-Minute Man" and traveled across Texas giving speeches to sell Liberty Bonds. After the war he promoted patriotic organizations and military preparedness; in the late 1920s and early 1930s he gave radio addresses dealing with patriotic and educational topics. In 1927 Washer was appointed by Governor Dan Moody to the Texas Textbook Commission; in 1929 he became the first president of the Texas State Board of Education, a position he continued to hold until his death in 1935. On the day of his funeral every child in the San Antonio public school system observed a moment of silence in his honor. He is buried next to his wife Belle in the Temple Beth El Cemetery in San Antonio.