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Mary Sachs: A tailored legacy of fashion and philanthropy

August 11, 2015

Filed under Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Mary Sachs' Harrisburg/Lancaster dress

Mary Sachs was born as saleswoman. In 1918, Sachs opened her first retail store in Harrisburg. She sold this peau-de-soie sleeveless evening dress in either her Harrisburg or Lancaster store, according to the tag inside the garment.

On any given day, hundreds of people walk past 208 N. Third St. in Harrisburg. With its large red canopy extending from the door, this three-story, gray stone building with the name “Mary Sachs” carved into the façade was once home to one of the city’s premiere shopping experiences. This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, selected by CAP curator Carol Buck, is a black, peau-de-soie sleeveless evening dress and matching coat with rhinestone accents. Sachs sold the dress in either her Harrisburg or Lancaster store, according to the tag inside the garment. This dress will be on display this fall at The State Museum as part of the upcoming Pennsylvania Icons exhibit.

At 4-years-old, Sachs emigrated from Lithuania to the United States with her family.   One of her first jobs was in retail. Sachs was a born saleswoman.

On Sept. 6, 1918, Sachs opened her first retail store in Harrisburg. The business sold upscale women’s clothing and proved successful enough to justify Sachs opening a second location in Lancaster in 1922 and another store in Reading five years later. In 1931, her Harrisburg store was destroyed in a fire, forcing Sachs to relocate temporarily so that she could continue to serve her customers. Eventually, local architects Lawrie & Green rebuilt her store at 208 N. Third St. in Harrisburg. Later, that same architectural firm would go on to design the Pennsylvania State Farm Show Building in 1939 and The State Museum of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State Archives complex in 1964.

Sachs purchased her own inventory, a task that required frequent trips to New York City. Despite her packed travel schedule and already heavy workload, Sachs found time to expand her existing store in Harrisburg to include women’s shoes, lingerie, cosmetics, a beauty shop, costume jewelry, a paper shop and Blum’s Candy. Her stores eventually sold merchandise for men and children. Expert tailors were on site for alterations and valet parking was provided so that shoppers were not be inconvenienced by having to drop another nickel in the parking meter. People would often ask Sachs to consider opening a chain of stores. Her response was always the same: “I am too individual in my approach to fashion to be a link in a chain.” Sachs felt her customers wanted the intimate, personal attention she provided them in her handful of stores.

With more than $2 million in retail sales, Mary Sachs did well for herself financially throughout her career. She had a great affinity for the city she called home.

“I have a fierce attachment to Harrisburg…It is my town and I love it,” she said.

Sachs rooted herself in Harrisburg and bought an expansive home at 2917 N. Front St. Her success and generosity earned her the reputation of being a great philanthropist. She gave money to many charitable organizations, many of which encouraged those who shared her Jewish faith. She was vice president of the Jewish Community Center in Harrisburg. Sachs served as the co-founder of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York and generously donated to Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of America and many other organizations.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a personal friend of Sachs, said of the Harrisburg entrepreneur : “She was hospitable, warm and has a philosophy that filled me with admiration….I surmise she has been inspiring others through her own generosity to be as generous as possible. However I imagine few can ever match her.”


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.