Friday, September 30, 2016


I have become acquainted with some very nice people during the fourteen years I have been involved with the Find a Grave website. I have even been contacted through the site by distant cousins who I didn't know existed.  Every Find a Grave photo request I accept is a chance to "meet" someone who shares my interests in history and genealogy.  Such was the case recently when I filled a Find a Grave photo request for Alix H. who had posted a photo request for her relative Adolph Karpen, who died in 1935 and was interred in the Rosehill mausoleum. 

I had already created a Find a Grave memorial page for Adolph - I had run across his listing and photo in the wonderful book History of the Jews of Chicago edited by Hyman L. Meites and published in 1924 by the Jewish Historical Society of Illinois.  [Note: Copies of this rare book can go for as much as $1,200.00 but you can access a scanned copy for free at:]

Over time, I transferred the memorial page to Alix and she added Adolph Karpen's obituary from the Chicago Tribune.  After reading that I decided that he would be an interesting subject for this blog, so let's see what we can "dig up" about Adolph Karpen.

Adolph Karpen was born October 5, 1860 in Wongrowitz, Posen which was then part of Prussia and is now part of Poland.  His parents were Moritz Karpen (1823-1886) and Johanna, nee Cohn (1835-1902). Moritz and Johanna had nine sons:

Solomon (Sam) Karpen  (1858-1936)
Oscar Karpen  (1859-1953)
Adolph Karpen  (1860-1935)
Benjamin (Ben) Karpen  (1862-1895)
Isaac (Ike) Karpen  (1865-1918)
Michael (Mike) Karpen  (1866-1950)
Wilhelm (Will) Karpen  (1867-1915)
Leopold (Leo) Karpen  (1870-1950)
Julius Karpen  (1873-1907)

Jews in Prussia, unlike Jews in the other German areas in the early nineteenth century, were allowed to learn crafts. The Karpens had been cabinet makers there for several generations.

On April 10, 1872, emigration papers were signed by the Prussian District Court, Wongrowitz for Moritz Karpen (an established cabinet maker), Johanna (Cohn) and eight sons under the age of 12. In early June the family took a train from Wongrowitz to Poznan, Prussia to Germany.  From there they boarded a ship, crossing the North Sea to Glasgow, Scotland.  Their transatlantic travel to America began on 15 Jun 1872 on the maiden voyage of the SS 'California' (Anchor Line). For safety, each of the younger boys was tied to an older sibling.  The ship stopped at Moville, Londonderry to pick up more passengers and arrived in New York (Castle Garden) on June 29, 1872. From there the family traveled to East Lyme CT having been promised work in a woolen mill.   In 1873, the Karpens moved to Chicago to take advantage of the great opportunities offered in rebuilding the manufacturing district after its destruction in the 'Great Chicago Fire' of October, 1871.  The 1873 Chicago City Directory finds "Morris" Karpen, carpenter, living with his family at 481 N. Franklin.  

During their first year in Chicago the last of the Karpen children – their ninth son, Julius – was born. At about the same time, the Karpens severed their remaining financial ties to Wongrowitz by selling both their home and Moritz Karpen’s workshop. Moritz initially worked in a Chicago furniture factory but then started a small upholstered furniture business. Solomon (usually called “Sam” or “S.K.”) attended night school, apprenticed as an upholsterer to acquire expertise, and worked for several upholstered furniture manufacturers in Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri. He rose to the level of foreman.

When Solomon was twenty (1878), his parents started allowing him to keep his earnings. He quickly accumulated $580 (approximately $15,000 in today's funds) and decided to go into business for himself. He wanted to fulfill his elderly father’s dream of building a factory that would “combine progressive American ideas with the craftsmanship of the Old World, where building fine furniture was an art, not just an industry.”  At the time, Chicago had not yet become a center for furniture manufacturing, and the city had fewer than forty firms that produced upholstered pieces.  

Solomon Karpen's younger brother Adolph had received his early education in the grammar schools of Germany, but once in Chicago he attended the Chicago Atheneum and night schools while he worked in the daytime to help maintain himself.  In 1879 he entered the Chicago College of Pharmacy and after three years graduated with a Graduate in Pharmacy degree (PH.G.) no longer offered in the United States.   

Adolph Karpen participated in the 1880 US Census on June 5, 1880. He was nineteen years old and living as a "Boarder" with the family of druggist John G. Schar at 671 (now 2020) South Blue Island Avenue in Chicago.  Adolph listed his occupation as "Clerk in a Drug Store." 

2020 S. Blue Island Avenue, Chicago

In August 1880, after only eight years in America, Solomon Karpen founded S. Karpen & Bros., which he named after himself and his brothers – in anticipation of bringing them into the business.  Solomon opened a workshop in the basement of a building a few blocks from the family home.  Using hand tools, he and his brothers produced upholstered parlor suites and chairs, which Solomon then sold to retail furniture stores and department stores in Chicago. Oscar was the first of the Karpen brothers to join Solomon.  Oscar had already worked as a furniture gilder (a skilled craftsman who applies gold leaf to ornate furniture). Brothers Isaac and Michael were still teenagers when they joined the business.  In its first year, S. Karpen & Bros. realized profits of more than $7,000 (approximately $155,000 in today's funds), kept moving to larger workshops, and added a showroom.

After he graduated from pharmacy school in 1883, Adolph Karpen continued working as a clerk in a drug store.  

By the mid 1880s, Adolph gave up his career in pharmacy and joined his brothers in the thriving furniture business.  

On October 26, 1886, twenty six-year-old Adolph Karpen married twenty-year-old Scandinavian beauty Eugenia Wilhelmina Svensson (1866-1943) in Wheaton, Du Page County, Illinois.

Eugenia was the daughter of Zacharias Svensson and Anna Johansdotter who emigrated from Sweden.  Zacharias Svensson listed his occupation as "arbetskarl" which translates to "workman."  The Svensson family came to the US and ultimately to Chicago in 1880.

Here is a photo of Adolph Karpen from about that time:

In the 1890s, Chicago continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and S. Karpen and Bros. grew right along with it.  The Karpen brothers built a magnificent building at 187-188 (now 900-910 S.) Michigan Avenue (a mixed-use high rise building currently occupies that space).  The building contained all the offices of the Karpen firm, as well as lavish furniture showrooms.  The building itself was called "one of the most beautiful in the City of Chicago."  The Karpens were so proud of their building they used it in their advertisements.  Here is an ad from American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, a trade journal, in 1899:


Even though Ben Karpen had died in 1896, the family continued to include his photo right alongside the living brothers.

The 1900 US Census finds Adolph and Eugenia Karpen living in the Leland Hotel on Michigan at Jackson in Chicago:

Adolph Karpen listed his occupation as "Merchant."  Both Adolph and Eugenia were naturalized US citizens.  They had no children.

In 1902 S. Karpen & Bros., was incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois.  Adolph Karpen was named Secretary and Treasurer of the new corporation.

The Karpen factory shown in the  advertisement above, was located at Twenty-second and Union streets in Chicago.  The factory employed seven hundred and fifty men producing quality furniture that proudly wore the name of S. Karpen & Bros.  In addition, there was a smaller factory in Brooklyn, New York. 

The 900-910 S. Michigan building was the principal showroom for the Karpens, but they also had showrooms in New York and Boston. For those who could not make it to one of their showrooms, they also produced catalogues of the furniture they offered.  Here is the cover from one of their catalogues:

The 1910 US Census finds Adolph and Eugenia Karpen living at 706-708 Sheridan Road in Chicago (now part of the campus of Loyola University.)  Adolph gave his occupation as "Secretary/Treasurer - Furniture Manufacturing."  

No story of the life of Adolph Karpen would be complete without mentioning his involvement with Bakelite and its creator Dr. Leo Baekeland.  Bakelite was one of the first plastics made from synthetic components.  After Baekeland had made his invention known and received the patents for it in 1910, many manufacturers rushed to take advantage of the new material's properties. Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children's toys, and firearms. 

About the same time that Baekeland was conducting his experiments, Adolph and Sam Karpen began working with chemist L. V. Redman to find ways to improve the varnish they used on the furniture they manufactured.  In 1911, Dr. Lawrence Redman and a subsidiary of S. Karpen & Bros. had applied for the patent for Redmanol, a plastic (phenolic resin) similar to Bakelite. Having secured the patent, the Karpens founded the Redmanol Chemical Products Co., which produced Redmanol smoking pipes, cigarette holders, and products for industrial uses. The Redmanol factory was located on the campus of the Karpens’ Chicago furniture factory. In the ensuing years, Dr. Baekeland charged the Karpens with patent infringement, eventually winning. Nevertheless, through Adolph’s financial maneuvering, Redmanol Chemical Products Co. (and Condensite Company) merged with the General Bakelite Company in 1921. The Redmanol name was used into the mid-1920s, after which all products were produced under the Bakelite name.  Adolph Karpen and later Leopold Karpen were officers of the Bakelite Corporation until the company was bought by Union Carbide in 1939.

The business world was learning to never underestimate Adolph Karpen.

Although the Karpens branched out into different businesses, their primary product was still upholstered furniture.  Originally the Karpens produced and sold furniture on a wholesale basis only, but eventually they expanded the business to include direct sales of furniture to the consumer.  One way they did this was through their elaborate catalogues that showcased the furniture they produced. If you go to the link below you will be able to browse through S. Karpen & Bros. 1914 catalogue:

Here's a Karpen ad from the Ladies' Home Journal Magazine:

Although he never actively engaged in politics, Adolph Karpen had always been interested in movements for the political and civic betterment of Chicago and the State of Illinois.  In 1914 he was appointed by Governor Edward F. Dunne as a member of the Illinois Commission to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and was made chairman of that body.  Despite the many demands on his time, both business and personal, Karpen found time to take a personal interest in the Illinois Building and exhibit at San Francisco.  He devoted much time to arranging the details of the proposed building and the exhibits placed in it.   When the fair opened, he personally made the trip to San Francisco and assisted in getting the Illinois Building into final shape for opening.  Much of the credit for Illinois' excellent showing at the Exposition went to the tireless efforts of Adolph Karpen.

On the business front, everything was going well for Adolph Karpen. On the home front, however, he was not so successful.  On July 1, 1916 Eugenia Karpen separated from her husband.  In response to questions, Mrs. Karpen said, "He tormented me until there was nothing left for me to do except leave.  We had been quarreling about a friend of his whom I refused to accept."

Eugenia Karpen

After the separation, Adolph Karpen divided his time between Chicago and New York.  I was unable to find any 1920 US Census entry for him, so the census taker must not have been able to catch him in either place.

On January 12, 1923, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran an item about Adolph Karpen:


Adolph Karpen, a member of the firm of S. Karpen & Brothers, was elected president of the Chicago Furniture Market Association yesterday.  Other officers are J. W. Caswell of Huntington, Ind., vice president; A. C. Hehn, Sheboygan, Wis., treasurer; Irving L. Brown, Chicago, secretary.   

Although Adolph and Eugenia Karpen had separated in 1916, they did not actually get divorced until 1927.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from July 17, 1927 carried the following item:


An alimony settlement of $500,000 has been arranged out of court, it was reported yesterday, to be paid by Adolph Karpen, 67 years old, secretary and treasurer of S. Karpen & Bros. Furniture company, who was divorced yesterday by Mrs. Eugenia W. Karpen of 3520 Sheridan Road.  They were married on Oct. 8, 1886, at Wheaton, Ill.

Judge George Fred Rush indicated he would grant Mrs. Karpen a decree on the grounds of desertion.  Mr. Karpen did not contest the case nor did he appear in court.  He was represented by Attorney John E. Kehoe.

Eugenia Wilhelmina Svensson Karpen died December 5, 1943 from cancer in Progresso, Texas.  She was 77 years old.

Apparently her body was shipped back to Chicago for burial, but I have been unable to find out where her grave is.

The 1930 US Census shows Adolph Karpen living at the Shoreland Hotel, 5454 South Shore Drive in Chicago.  

He was living as a "Lodger/Friend" to Otto and Mayme Kaspar and Mayme's father.  Adolph listed his occupation as "Treasurer-Furniture Manufacturer."  The rent for the apartment was $1,125.00 per month - quite a sum for 1930. 

Even at the age of 74, Adolph Karpen was actively involved with the running of the firm, as evidenced by this article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of May 20, 1934:


One of the largest furniture leases of the year was closed yesterday when S. Karpen & Brothers, furniture manufacturers since 1880, rented 18,000 square feet of space on the eighteenth floor of the Merchandise Mart.  The lessees will move at once from the Karpen building at Wabash and 8th, which they have under long term lease.

Adolph Karpen, secretary, treasurer and general manager of the company, said a thorough survey of all American furniture markets was made before signing the lease.  The firm has factories in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.  It started in 1880 with a small wood working shop and has grown to be one of the largest producers of fine upholstered furniture in the world, according to Mr. Karpen.

T. J. Reed, general manager of the Merchandise Mart, stated that this was the sixth furniture lease closed in the last two weeks.

Adolph Karpen died on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1935 from heart disease.  Here is his Death Certificate:

He was 75 years old.  Here is his Obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune, January 1, 1936:


In Business 55 Years; Passes at 75.

Adolph Karpen, secretary-treasurer and general manager of S. Karpen & Brothers, furniture manufacturers, died yesterday at Michael Reese hospital after a brief illness.  Mr. Karpen, who resided at the Sherry hotel, 1725 East 53rd street, was 75 years old.

He was born in Posen, Poland, and came to the United States when he was 12 years old.  He attended the public schools of Chicago, and graduated from the Chicago College of Pharmacy.

With Company Since 1880.

In 1880 he joined two of his brothers, Oscar and Salomon, in the furniture concern with which he remained for 55 years.  He branched out into other business fields, and at the time of his death was a director of Drying Systems, Inc.  He was one of the early presidents of the Chicago Furniture Manufacturers' association.  In 1923 he helped organize the Bakelite corporation of New York, in which he remained active as vice president and a director until recently.  The company maintains offices in Chicago.  He assisted in the reorganization of the Autopoint company, pencil manufacturers, with which he was connected for about a decade, part of the time as president.

Mr. Karpen was chairman of the commission which erected the Illinois building a the Panama-Pacific exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Funeral To Be Tomorrow.

A bronze plaque was presented to the Illinois group for its energy in completing the building in time for the exposition after a late start.

Mr. Karpen is survived by his four brothers, Solomon, Oscar, Michael, and Leo.  He was married in 1886 and divorced in 1927. He had no children.  Funeral services will be held tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. from the chapel at 936 East 47th street.

As mentioned in his obituary, at the time of his death Adolph Karpen was living in the Sherry Hotel, 1725 East 53rd Street in Chicago:

Postcard courtesy John Chuckman's Places:

Now the family had to decide where to bury Adolph.  The Karpens did not have a family plot.  The parents, Moritz and Johanna were buried in Jewish Graceland Cemetery.  Benjamin, who died in 1895 was buried at Rosehill; Julius, who died in 1907 was buried at Forest Home; William who died in Hollywood in 1915 is buried in Los Angeles; and Isaac, who died from the Spanish Influenza in 1918 is buried in the Sons and Daughters of Jacob section of Jewish Waldheim.  So for reasons lost to history, they decided to inter Adolph Karpen in the mausoleum of Rosehill Cemetery:

Here is his Death Notice from the January 1, 1936 Tribune:

Adolph Karpen - business was his life - and he was good at it - may he rest in peace. 

PS - when I wrote this story I mentioned that when Eugenia Karpen, Adolph's ex-wife, died in 1943 her body was shipped back to Chicago but I didn't know where she was buried.  Today I was in the Rosehill mausoleum looking for the crypts of the grandparents of someone who lives out of state.  I found his grandparents and photographed their crypts.  As long as I was there, I decided to photograph all the crypts in that section to add to Find a Grave at a later date.  I was going along looking through the viewfinder as I snapped the photos when all of a sudden I saw this:

There she was - interred in the Rosehill mausoleum right around the corner from the crypt of her ex-husband. She said during the divorce that he gave her no choice but to leave.  Well, she didn't end up going very far away from him after all.


  1. I love your postscript - thank you for sharing that you found his wife.

  2. Terrific story/stories! Will post them on and of course give you full credit.