When Beatrice Fox Auerbach took over the leadership and day-to-day operations of Connecticut’s leading department store in 1927, she fully expected her tenure to be temporary but, in her words, found herself “fascinated and stayed” at the helm until 1965. As president of G. Fox, Auerbach expanded the business ten-fold, instituted innovative sales practices and established pioneering labor reforms, including a five-day, 40-hour work week, retirement plans and other significant improvements for the company’s 3,000 employees.
Beatrice Fox was born in Hartford in 1887 to Theresa and Moses Fox. Both her grandfathers had established dry goods stores in the mid-19th century—one in Hartford that became G. Fox and Company. In 1911, Beatrice Fox married George Auerbach, whose family owned a department store in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Auerbachs lived in Salt Lake City until 1917, when Moses Fox persuaded them to return to Connecticut after a devastating fire destroyed the G. Fox in Hartford. A new, greatly expanded store, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was built downtown and opened in 1918. When George Auerbach died in 1927, Beatrice became increasingly involved in the business, taking over as president when her father died in 1938.
As the president of G. Fox, Auerbach emphasized standards of excellence and quality customer service. Some of her forward-looking innovations included free delivery service, a toll-free telephone order department and fully automated billing. These advancements helped G. Fox to become one of New England’s largest and most successful department stores and the largest privately-held store in the country.
Beatrice Auerbach was also committed to her employees, and her tenure as president of G. Fox produced fair labor standards that resulted in workplace reforms for her staff. In addition to the five-day, 40-hour work week, Auerbach introduced medical and non-profit lunch facilities and interest-free loans for employees in the event of a crisis. G. Fox was one of the first major retail stores in the country to hire black men and women for positions that gave them opportunities for advancement. In 1947, she was honored with the Tobé award for “distinguished service” by retail leaders for her contributions to the industry.
In addition to her work in the business world, Auerbach was a renowned philanthropist contributing significantly to many of Hartford's cultural, educational and civic organizations. Through the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation, she continued to provide aid and support for educational and civic activities. In addition, she founded the Service Bureau for Women’s Organizations, a clearinghouse for charitable and civic causes.
She remained president of G. Fox until 1965, when she sold her privately-owned stock for $40 million to the May department stores. Upon selling the stock and realizing an enormous windfall, Auerbach stated, “One thing you can be certain of is that I won’t be spending it on yachts and horses, but for the benefit of the people.”
For her many contributions, Beatrice Fox Auerbach was recognized by numerous institutions including Trinity College, Connecticut College, Wesleyan University and the Connecticut Bar Association. She traveled extensively and remained active in various causes until her death in Hartford in 1968.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.