Each year, families gather on Thanksgiving to reflect on their relative good fortune, offering expressions of gratitude over bounteous meals.
Then, in an ironic about-face, people spill out into shopping centers, elbowing their neighbors as they battle for the best deals on Black Friday. This day of unbridled consumerism kicks off the holiday season, which also suffers from a contradictory image that juxtaposes material accumulation with the act of giving.
In 2012, the United Nations Foundation and the 92nd Street Y appealed to the sentiments that these holidays are ostensibly all about, creating a day of charity embedded in the beginning of the holiday shopping season. #GivingTuesday was thus born. This 21st-century brand of philanthropy has paid off. Last year, nonprofits raked in $168 million, a 44 percent jump from the preceding year.
In light of the upcoming #GivingTuesday, now is a fitting moment to look back on perhaps Philadelphia’s greatest and most far-reaching philanthropist: the famous industrialist and soap magnate Samuel S. Fels.
Philadelphians may recognize Samuel’s name from any number of institutions that benefited from his largesse. The Fels Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Biology at Temple, the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government, and the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium all bear his name.
Samuel emerged from humble beginnings, a fact that may have influenced his generosity later in life. He was born in 1860 in Yanceyville, N.C., to Lazarus and Susannah Fels, who had emigrated from Bavaria in 1848.
As legend has it, the Fels family began producing soap under rather morbid circumstances. Acknowledging the timeless popularity of spirits, prominent citizens in Yanceyville founded a distillery in order to boost the small town’s ailing economy. Following the first distilling cycle, a group of pigs purportedly gained access to the leftover uncooked mash, ate it, and died.
Viewing the incident as a business opportunity, Lazurus purchased the dead swine and used the fat as the raw material for soap, which hit the shelves of the town’s general store shortly thereafter.
As the South’s economy lay in ruins in the wake of the Civil War, the Fels family left North Carolina, moving to Baltimore briefly in 1866 before settling permanently in Philadelphia in 1873. Within three years, Samuel’s brother Joseph had acquired Thomas Worsley and Co. — an old soap business in Philly — and rechristened it Fels and Co. of Philadelphia. By 1881, Samuel had become a junior partner of the firm, and quickly began accumulating immense wealth as the company flourished as a result of its Fels-Naptha soap, the iconic laundry-cleaning product.
Near the turn of the century, Samuel had earned more than a $1 million, which translates into tens of millions in today’s currency. As his wealth grew in the first decades of the 20th century, so, too, did his passion for social reform. Banding together with city leaders in 1904, Samuel helped form the Committee of Seventy, the Philly-based government watchdog and civics organization that exists to this day. He became president of the family business in 1914, all while continuing to support a wide range of charitable causes. In 1935, he founded the Samuel S. Fels Fund, which has supported economic justice projects in the Philadelphia area for 82 years.
In addition to contributing to the betterment of Philadelphia’s communities, he also used his resources to promote American arts, notably commissioning Samuel Barber’s celebrated Violin Concerto, Op. 14, to be performed by Iso Briselli, who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music alongside Barber in 1934.
Samuel kept up his philanthropic pursuits throughout his life as he successfully led Fels and Co. until he passed away in 1950.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org