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Eckstein, Nathan (1873-1945)

HistoryLink.org Essay 1644 : Printer-Friendly Format

Nathan Eckstein was a prominent Seattle citizen who came to the region after being in the grocery business for 10 years in New York. He married Mina Schwabacher in 1902 and served as vice president and then chief executive officer of Schwabachers and Co., one of the oldest business houses in Seattle. He was a member of the Seattle School Board (1913-1920), chairman of the Washington State Tax Commission (1921-1922), Campaign Chairman for the Seattle Community Fund which was the forerunner of United Way (1924, 1925), and a member of the commission to revise the City Charter (1925).

"To be a useful citizen is more than a duty, it is a high privilege," Nathan Eckstein stated on acceptance of the 1926 "Seattle's Most Useful Citizen" award (The Jewish Transcript, October 29, 1945). Service clubs and community organizations chose Eckstein in light of his civic contributions including:

  • Seattle School Board member (1913-1920) 
  • Chairman of the Washington State Tax Commission (1921-1922) 
  • Campaign Chairman for the Seattle Community Fund -- forerunner of United Way (1924 and 1925) 
  • Member of the Charter Commission to revise the City Charter (1925)

Seattle's Jewish Transcript described Eckstein as "the man who has brought the greatest amount of respect and prestige to the Jewish people of Seattle" (The Jewish Transcript, June 25, 1926).

Leader of Schwabachers

Nathan Eckstein was born in Bavaria, Germany, on January 10, 1873. He spent 10 years in New York in the wholesale grocery business before coming to Seattle. He married Mina Schwabacher in 1902 and served as vice president and then chief executive officer of Schwabachers and Co., one of the oldest business houses in Seattle. He was associated with the company for 47 years, seeing it through the Great Depression and both world wars.

Nathan Eckstein served on the Seattle School Board from 1913-1920. In 1913 the school board election was divided along labor/business lines. Schwabachers supported the open shop movement in opposition to the Teamsters. On the labor side, the Union Record pronounced: "There is just one thing organized labor should certainly do in the election going on today -- that is DEFEAT NATHAN ECKSTEIN." The labor candidate lost to Eckstein three to two.

Eckstein served on the school board from 1913-1920. In the later years of his term, outside pressure groups intruded on the business of the board. The school board became divided, reflecting the tensions between labor interests and the business establishment.

World War I Years

During World War I, litmus tests for patriotism were applied to teachers and to textbooks. A citizen's group lobbied for the removal of German as a subject in the curriculum.

As a loyal naturalized citizen, Eckstein supported the United States entry into the war and represented the business establishment position. On the issue of German in the curriculum, Bryce Nelson writes in Good Schools: "German immigrant board member Nathan Eckstein was in a tough spot. While he probably disliked letting outside pressure groups force a change in school policy, Eckstein also had to keep anti-German pressure groups from hurting his family business." Eckstein voted to drop German from the curriculum.

In 1925 and 1926, two issues -- a revised city charter and a city manager plan -- dominated city politics. In a heated atmosphere, Eckstein appeared on radio and elsewhere speaking regularly in opposition to the city manager plan. In January 1926, Eckstein filed for election to the Board of Freeholders with a bloc of 15 nominees whose task would be to revise the city charter, should voters pass the charter revision measure.

On March 9, 1926, election day, the charter measure passed by 4,000 votes, and the city manager proposition was defeated by 111 votes. As prescribed in the Charter measure, within 60 days the Board of Freeholders fleshed out a charter. Although both The Seattle Times and the Argus supported the document, voters felt otherwise. In November 1926, it was rejected by more than 10,000 votes. Voter turnout was 44 percent less than in the March election.

During his school board term, Eckstein often voted in line with patriotic pressure groups over the independent recommendations of Superintendent Cooper. Later, as a more seasoned public leader, Eckstein was less influenced by outside pressures, tackling opposition head on. The Jewish Transcipt affectionately noted his "hard-headed sincerity" (November 27, 1925).

Speaking Out on Politics and Religion

A prolific speaker -- "Who is the chap who gladly subs when scheduled speakers fail? Who talks to the luncheon clubs on any subject at all?" (Seattle Star) -- Eckstein had gone up against many of his business associates in opposition to the city manager plan.

In the Jewish community, Eckstein spoke out strongly on religion. Speaking to a group of students at the University of Washington Menorah Society, he expressed his "disappointment to learn the Jewish University student is not religious." He continued, "The prejudice under which the Jew is suffering is not due to his religion. The greatest criticism of the Jew is that he is irreligious. If every Jew belonged to a temple or synagogue there would not be one percent of the prejudice that exists today" (The Jewish Transcript, May 6, 1924).

"We Need Him in Seattle"

In 1931, the Argus reported, "Politics are beginning to boil. There was been a great deal of discussion of the possibility of Nathan Eckstein replacing Wesley Jones as United States senator .... The only objection to making him United States Senator is that we need him in Seattle." Despite recruitment from influential Republican leaders, Eckstein chose not to run.

Arbitrating Labor Disputes

In 1937 and 1938, Harry Bridges of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) and Dave Beck (1894-1993) of the Teamsters squared off in a battle to organize inland warehouse workers. A citizen's committee headed by Eckstein was called in to arbitrate the dispute. Amidst strikes and the shut down of four plants, the Eckstein-led committee offered a compromise which was eventually the foundation for a truce, but not before ILA business agent Hugh Bradshaw denounced it as being "more concerned with supporting Dave Beck than in reaching a permanent solution to this controversy" ( The Seattle Times, November 14, 1937).

It is one of history's ironies that 24 years earlier, when Eckstein made his first foray into politics with the school board election of 1913, labor opposition cried, "Vote to defeat Nathan Eckstein and help the Teamsters win their strike." Dave Beck and the Teamsters came out the winners in the struggle to organize inland warehousemen, partially thanks to Eckstein's arbitration efforts. National coverage of the battle included stories in Time, Life, and Saturday Evening Post.

A Lasting Legacy

Nathan Eckstein died on October 21, 1945. His obituaries are filled with accolades to his kindness and to his exceptional personal qualities -- the reverence in which he was held by Schwabacher employees, his love of reading in his well-stocked library, and his appreciation of quiet time with his family.

In addition to activities mentioned above, Eckstein was a trustee of the White Cross, Goodwill Industries, and the Symphony Orchestra. He was a member of the Airport Citizen's Advisory Committee and served as president and trustee of Temple de Hirsch, a member of B'Nai B'rith, Glendale Country Club, Seattle Ranier Club, Seattle Yacht Club, and Arctic Club. He was a Mason and member of the Scottish Rite and Shrine. The Washington State Labor News notes that Eckstein stood for "civic righteousness" (October 26, 1925).

He was survived by his daughters, Joanna Eckstein and Mrs. Edwin Joseph. His wife had passed away three years before.

In 1950, construction was completed on a new school at 35th Ave NE and NE 75th St. The junior high was named after Nathan Eckstein and dedicated to him. Today some 1,200 students attend Nathan Eckstein Middle School in Seattle's Wedgewood neighborhood.

Sources:
Argus, October 17, 1931, p. 3; Berner, Richard, Seattle 1921-1940: from Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 77-84, 88-94, 387-391; The Jewish Transcript, June 25, 1926, 1; Ibid., November 27, 1925, p. 3; Ibid., May 6, 1924, p. 1; Ibid., October 29, 1945, 1; Bryce E. Nelson, Good Schools: Seattle Public School System 1901-1930 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 124; Bryce Eugene Nelson, "Good Schools: The Development of Public Schooling in Seattle 1901-1922" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1981), 28; Seattle School Board Minutes, March 7, 1919, pp. 275-278; Seattle Star, November 23, 1925, 7; The Seattle Times, November 14, 1937, p. 1; Ibid., October 22, 1945, p. 13; Ibid., June 28, 1948, p. 26; The Union Record, December 6, 1913, p. 1; Washington State Labor News, October 26, 1925, p. 1.


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Nathan Eckstein depicted in an Argus cartoon ca. 1906



Tombstone of Nathan Eckstein (1873-1945), Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, June 2003
Photo by Priscilla Long


 
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