Sunday, January 02, 2011

both careful and caring

{source: Empire State Notables (New York, H. Stafford, 1914)}

Horatio-Alger-like, my great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, applied good judgment, hard work, and an abundance of pluck to free himself from poverty. By the end of the third quarter of the nineteenth century his business enterprises had thrived sufficiently to make him comfortably well off, and he was able to devote increasing amounts of time to public affairs, charitable work, and cultural pursuits. As you'd expect, it was this last phase of his long life which attracted most attention from the editors of the era's many biographic dictionaries.[1]

Most of the biographic dictionaries focus on his financial success, public spirit, generosity to those in need, and cultural acumen. A few also credit his piety, community leadership, and passion for walking. It's in their nature that they reveal nothing derogatory, unpleasant, or embarrassing about him, but there was, anyway, apparently very little of this nature to be found out.[2] The dictionaries have entries for many who, like him, achieved success and community respect. Many others struggled up from poverty, many worked to advance the public interest, many showed philanthropic leanings, and many saw themselves as connoisseurs, but few seem to have combined these traits to the degree that he did.

He had an abundance of one more attribute which helped to distinguish him from others with whom he associated: He was a cheerful extrovert, a jolly fellow, a man who enjoyed life fully.[3] He suffered misfortunes himself and was deeply concerned about the misfortunes of others, but he was by nature an optimist and was apt to see poverty as a temporary aberration rather than the product of a fundamental flaw in the socio-economic arrangements of his time.

In business, he was careful with money, preferring gold to paper currency in the years when banks printed their own.[4] He was careful in his handling in promissory notes and bills of exchange.[5] This caution in financial transactions led him to visit, when he could, the offices of men with whom he did business.[6] Similarly, he took a personal interest in the recipients of his charity. This anecdote comes from an article that he wrote in 1908 on the panics, slumps, recessions, and other financial problems of his time: "To relieve the poor, many of whom were out of employment during the winter of 1893 to 1894, the writer joined a citizens' committee, formed under auspices of the 'Christian Alliance.' Members were expected to purchase tickets at the rate of $5 a hundred and distribute them gratis to applicants for charity. Each ticket entitled the bearer to a square meal in the basement of No. 170 Bleecker Street, New York City. As member of this committee the writer frequently convinced himself of the quality and quantity of the food furnished by Mr. Milbury, the agent. After a visit to kitchen and cellar he sat down on stools in line with other hungry men and women, and he enjoyed with them a large bowl of fragrant steaming stew, a chunk of sweet bread and a cup of good coffee. Some of those supplies were furnished gratis, others at extremely low prices; everybody was glad to help, by timely charity, the starving poor to good food."[7]


Some sources:

"The Commercial Progress of Gotham," by Louis Windmuller, in The Progress of the Empire State: New York State and City by Charles Arthur Conant (The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1913)

"Reminiscences Of Financial Problems," by Louis Windmuller, in The Forum, Vol. 40, (Forum Pub. Co., 1908)

The book of New York; forty years' recollections of the American metropolis (New York City, The Book of New York company, 1912)

Instruments Of Commercial Credit from the book Money And Banking, by John Thom Holdsworth (Appleton and Company, 1917)

Types of Financial Documents, American Society of Check Collectors



[1] Here are some biographic dictionaries I've found that have entries for Windmuller: [2] This is from a relatively succinct account of his life and works:
Among the representative German-Americans of this city, Louis Windmuller has been one of the most active. He is a thorough American in every respect, although he was born in the old city of Munster and educated at the Gymnasium of that place. He came here when eighteen years of age, since which time his career has been one of continued success. To enumerate the financial institutions which he has assisted in founding would crowd out more desirable mention of his unflagging work for political reform and social uplift. He was one of the organizers of the Reform Club. An Independent in politics, he has voted according to his convictions, heading strong German movements in the metropolis first for Cleveland and then for Mckinley. He has been a constant writer for magazines and newspapers, producing copy with equal facility in German and English. On occasions of financial crisis, especially when American credit was assailed in Europe, Mr. Windmuller has been prompt to send letters to the principal newspapers of Germany, explaining our financial situation. His diversions have been confined to the collection of rare books and pictures; his library contains several early books of Gutenberg, Caxton and other famous presses. He has been an ardent supporter of the various museums and historical associations and was especially proud of his membership in the Chamber of Commerce. He is devoted to country life and his home at Woodside, Queens Borough, is one of the most attractive in that charming community. -- The book of New York; forty years' recollections of the American metropolis (New York City, The Book of New York company, 1912)
[3] In a short reminiscence dated 1991, my father wrote, "Grandpa Windmuller was a jolly, verbal person, full of energy and a great walker." There's more on this aspect of his personality here.

[4] I wrote about this in my last blog post.

[5] Merchants of the time, particularly ones like Louis Windmuller, who were in trans-Atlantic trade, used promissory notes and bills of exchange to cover their financial obligations during the period between the time they contracted to supply some merchandise and the time they were paid for delivering it to a customer. These financial documents were "negotiable instruments," that is they could be bought and sold -- always at discount -- and merchants like Windmuller would often end up trading in the notes and bills as well as in the merchandise. Here are some examples of these documents. See the list of my sources, above, for more information on this topic.

Promissory notes:

{Promissory note; source:}

{Promissory note; source:}

{Promissory note; source:}

Bill of exchange:

{Bill of exchange; source:}

Commercial draft:

{Commercial draft; source:}

Sight draft:

{Sight draft; source:}

[6] He would, for example, call upon the officers of the insurance companies with which he dealt to renew his policies each year. -- "The Commercial Progress of Gotham"
in The Progress of the Empire State: New York State and City by Charles Arthur Conant (The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1913)

[7] This comes from an article called "Reminiscences Of Financial Problems" appearing in The Forum, Vol. 40, (Forum Pub. Co., 1908)

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