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Etta Wedell Mastbaum

1886 – 1953

by David Alan Rego

Etta Wedell Mastbaum was the scion of a prominent nineteenth- and twentieth-century Philadelphia family. A philanthropist, department store executive, art collector, and director of a national chain of motion picture theaters, Mastbaum donated a collection of Rodin sculptures and ephemera to the city of Philadelphia.

She was born Etta Lit Wedell on September 6, 1866, in Philadelphia, the daughter of Rachel Lit and Philip M. Wedell. Mastbaum’s mother established a modest dress and millinery shop in Philadelphia in 1891. With her brothers, Samuel and Jacob Lit, the store expanded and became Lit Brothers Department Store, occupying an entire city block in a new building constructed in 1906. The store was sold in 1928, with the Lit family continuing in an executive role. By the 1960s, Lit Brothers was the largest department store chain in the region.

After graduating from high school, Etta attended the Philadelphia Seminary for Women. On January 19, 1904, she married Jules E. Mastbaum, a proprietor of a chain of motion picture theaters stretching from New York to West Virginia. The marriage was a union of two prominent Philadelphians.

Traveling in Europe in 1924, the Mastbaums discovered the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin. After convincing the curator of the Musée Rodin to sell them a small bronze piece, the Mastbaums’ interest in Rodin led to many acquisitions of sculptures in bronze and plaster, bas-reliefs, drawings, ephemera, books, and letters written by Rodin. Acquiring items representing each phase of Rodin’s career, Etta and Jules Mastbaum sought to create a collection that would provide a comprehensive view of Rodin’s life and work. Their collection became second only to Rodin’s own donation to France at his death in 1917.

The Mastbaums were given permission by the government of France to amass this collection with the provision that the objects be exhibited in a permanent structure open to the public. Thus, Jules Mastbaum wrote to the commissioners of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, offering to build a museum and provide funds to maintain the collection as long as it could be housed there. Permission was granted, and Jules Mastbaum commissioned French architect Jacques Gréber, designer of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, to work with the Philadelphia firm of Paul Cret in designing a beaux-arts structure to house the collection.

While the French Art Commission sought assurance that the collection would be publicly displayed, there was no requirement that the collection itself be owned by the public. But Jules Mastbaum’s unexpected death in 1926 led Etta Mastbaum to donate the collection in its entirety to the people of Philadelphia. Dedicated in 1929, the gift by Etta Mastbaum and her daughters Louisette, Margery, and Elizabeth to the city of Philadelphia in honor of Jules E. Mastbaum helped establish that city as the most important center for the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French sculpture in the Americas. Prior to the death of Jules Mastbaum, the Mastbaum family funded repairs to Rodin’s house and studio at Meudon, and donated a bronze cast of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Never cast in the sculptor’s lifetime, Gates of Hell was considered one of Rodin’s most important works. For these efforts, Etta Mastbaum was decorated by the government of France.

After her husband’s death, Etta Mastbaum assumed control of his business and financial interests. A director of the Stanley Company of America, she also served her family’s interest as an executive of Lit Brothers. As second vice president of the Mastbaum Loan System, a society providing financial assistance to the needy, Etta Mastbaum furthered her husband’s memory. She was also active in the Red Cross and in Emergency Aid of Philadelphia and was a member of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mickve Israel.

Etta Mastbaum died in New York City at her residence in the Waldorf Towers on November 1, 1953, at age sixty-seven.

Bibliography

EJ, s.v. “Lit family”;

Obituary. NYTimes, October 3, 1953, 17:6;

Riopelle, Christopher [associate curator of European painting before 1900, Philadelphia Museum of Art]. Interview with author, June 1996;

Tancock, John L. The Sculpture of ... Rodin (1976);

Tschirch, John [architectural historian, Preservation Society of Newport County]. Interview with author, June 1996;

Watkins, Fridolyn G., comp. Catalog of the Rodin Museum of Philadelphia. Rodin Museum of Philadelphia (1929);

WWIAJ (1928).

More on Etta Wedell Mastbaum
6 Comments

My grandmother, I remember her pretty well. I have photos of us together and I am at least 5 or 6. She lived in the Waldorf Towers and she had a hospital bed in her apartment. She may have had a stroke at some point. We called her Ooma. My sister and my cousin would remember more, they were older and spent more time at the Waldorf. I believe Etta was the first person to move into the Waldorf Towers and that her apartment became the presidential suite!

Here is something she told me when I was a child and I have never forgotten it... "Eat Dessert First!!! it is the best part of the meal and you never know what is coming up next."

I was reading articles about the Mastbaums after reading their contribution of the newly renovated Rodin Museum. Your grandparents, great grand parents truly made a wonderful contribution to the City and People of Philadelphia. My parents first took me to the museum when I was about 10 - 12 years old. I am in my 60's now and still fondly remember that experience.

Thank -you to your kind, generous family.

Ray

What a wonderful article about my Great Great Grandmother! I am about to celebrate my Mom's (Joan Ash), granddaughter of Etta and Jules Mastbaum's 80th Birthday this December. My wish is to honor her (and her sister, my Aunt Norma Brunswick, whose birthday is exactly 2 years after my Mom's (my Nana, Peggy Solomon, planned it that way!), with a private party at the Rodin with a celebration amidst the sculptures that my relatives bought and donated to the city of Philadelphia to be shared in the beautiful museum which they had built. I am working on it and the museum is helping me plan it and I can just envision the look on my Mom and my Aunt's faces as they walk into the setting. Having us there to reminisce about their youth and share stories, photos, in the very place which my Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather founded. I have Rodin drawings hanging in my home and adore them. I lived in my Nana's apartment on Rittenhouse Square after college, surrounded by her Rodin Sculptures (my favorite was Eternal Springtime!).

I love driving by Lit Brothers, and knowing that that is part of my family history as well. I recall the countless times my Nana told me the story how Rachel Lit and her brothers began the store, standing on the corner of Market street with a cart selling hats, telling customers "Hats trimmed for free!"

I miss my grandmother all the time. And I know that she and my great grandparents will be looking down on us if I indeed can make this once in a life time celebration happen for my Mom who is herself one of a kind. It must be in the genes!

Thank you kindly, Wendi Brandeis

My apologies...I am the great granddaughter of Etta Wedell Mastbaum, not great great.

In all events, your great grandmother sounds like a great person. Many thanks for posting your memories.

My great aunt Katherine Lundy worked for Lits in the millinery dept. for years, as a matter of fact, she retired from there. She belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a proud member. Her dedication to Lit Brothers was remarkable. I still have 2 hats that I am donating to the Phila. Historical Soc. - Atwater Kent Museum from her collection. Long live "Lit Brothers" - "A great store in a great city".

Roseanne Hunt-Harkin Atlantic Beach, Florida

How to cite this page

Rego, David Alan. "Etta Wedell Mastbaum." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mastbaum-etta-wedell>.

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