The story of Jacob A. Cohen, a gigantic life in a tiny place
Cohen, originally from Poland, opened a modest store on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in 1896. To him, Pittsburgh offered a market just as large as any in New York City.
Sandy Creek, Pa., is not New York City. It is a sliver of Penn Hills occupying the valley that separates Longue Vue Club from Green Oaks Country Club. It is the epitome of smallness. Jacob A. Cohen saw that as a plus. In the advertisement seen here and in others like it, he described his store as the best in the world “for the size of the town.”
Cohen was a born promoter. There is no “Fifth & Broadway Avenues, Sandy Creek, Pa.,” as he claims here. But the intersection of Sandy Creek and Verona roads roughly mimics the extreme angle in Manhattan where Fifth Avenue intersects with Broadway, and so he borrowed the name. That well-known Manhattan intersection is the location of the Flatiron Building.
Cohen also had a “Flatiron Building,” not a glorious architectural marvel but a modest triangular outbuilding that he named after the famous Manhattan skyscraper, just as he had done with the famous Manhattan intersection.
In a whimsical profile in George Thornton Fleming’s “History of Pittsburgh and Environs,” Cohen revealed the sequence of events leading him from his native Poland to the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
As a child, he stood beside a closed gate blocking the road into his village and opened it for travelers in return for a small toll. He used these coins to buy a stash of hog bristles, which he sold to shoemakers to finance a peddling operation. A year of peddling around Poland earned him enough for ship fare to America, a train ticket to Pittsburgh, a Turkish bath, a new outfit and $1.75 in supplies. He was just 13.
He started peddling throughout Lawrenceville and expanded his territory over the next eight years to include most of Allegheny County. He saved enough to start a modest store in Sandy Creek in 1896. He rebuilt the store several times, culminating in a massive 20-room, three-story brick building with the aforementioned triangular outbuilding.
Cohen put the entire building to use. The first floor was his store. His advertisements list dozens of products and prices, everything from Sunsweet Prune Juice (10¢) to Dills Nose & Throat Drops (35¢) to Lysol (25¢). He boasted about his inventory, his connections and his prices. He bought a team of horses, and later a truck, and made deliveries throughout the farmlands that now comprise the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
In back he had a storeroom, a kitchen and a dining room. An elevator led up to a second floor with 12 rooms. A few years after starting his store, Cohen married Bessie Rosenson, who had immigrated to Pittsburgh from England as a child. Together they had eight children. They called them the “8 Little Cohens,” which also became the name of the store’s in-house brand. Their eight baby faces adorn the top of this advertisement.
Continuing to the third floor, the elevator opened onto a hall with a stage and a dance floor. The town used the hall as a polling place during elections, making Cohen’s store a center of both commercial and civic life in the tiny Sandy Creek.
The Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives has two of Cohen’s posters. Both contain biography and philosophy, alongside pricelists. The photograph at the center of this poster shows Istanbul (then Constantinople). Cohen snapped it in the early 1920s, during a cruise to Europe and the Mediterranean, including pre-statehood Israel. Other photographs from the trip adorn the flipside of this poster. Cohen wrote a caption for each photograph, offering thoughts about the destination and its relevance to Jewish history.
Cohen’s communal instincts ran deep. He donated to the Jewish Home for the Aged throughout his life and went to live at the Home in 1950, after selling his building and retiring. (His wife died in 1934.) He remained at the Home until his death in 1966.
The old building stood until 2008, when it was destroyed in a fire, as Toby Tabachnick reported at the time in this newspaper. Also lost in the fire was an engraved nameplate bearing Cohen’s name. Today, the advertisements and photographs kept in the archives are the only testimony of Cohen’s knack for making a big life in a small town. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.