In the late 19th century, the anti-Semitic Constitution of Rumania deprived Jews of citizenship, restricted them in the ownership of land, and limited their opportunities for education and trade. They were considered equal in only one respect: compulsory military service.
To restless, energetic, and ambitious young Joseph Schloss, such conditions held out no future for himself, his wife Freda, and their infant daughter. The New World across the Atlantic held promise of a better life. So, with his meager savings as a bricklayer, he migrated to Montreal, leaving his family behind with relatives. In Canada he worked at his trade for $2 a day, and saved enough money to bring his wife and child over. But after the birth of another daughter he moved to Cleveland, where the immigration authorities listed him as Joseph Soss, which remained his name from then on.
Cleveland was a rapidly growing city in the 1890’s, and bricklayers were in demand. Rapidly learning the language and customs of his new country, Soss became a contractor, and built homes, stores, and even schools. Two sons and another daughter were added to his family, and his roots in the community seemed deeply established.
But out west, in Montana, state officials were planning to construct a capitol building. Montana had become a state in 1889, local pride was great, and nothing less than a replica of the capitol at Washington would do. Copper and other metals had been discovered, the economy was booming, and the capitol city, Helena, anticipated a huge growth. (Today the city has a population of 20,000; its early hopes did not materialize.)
Bids were invited in national advertisements, and in Cleveland, Joseph Soss’s dreams were stirred.
Although a number of big construction firms were interested, his bid was the lowest, and in 1898 he was awarded the contract. Once more Freda Soss packed up, and the family moved nearly 2,000 miles west. Mrs. Soss greatly missed synagogue services, for her father in the old country had been a rabbi, and in Helena the Sosses were the only Jewish family. But she imbued her children with the Jewish spirit. The family lived in Helena for six years.
Mr. Soss enjoyed the frequent horse-and-buggy races, as a participant, and the whole family explored the county-side. He mixed easily with strangers, and was soon accepted in the community. He lost no time starting construction on the capitol building, and men, horses, and mules moved stone and steel into place, over muddy roads in summer and frozen ground in winter, when temperatures of 30 degrees below zero were not uncommon.
But the work went ahead well until suddenly the deliveries of structural steel slowed down to a trickle. Andrew Carnegie was the name of the cloud on the horizon, and the U.S. Steel Corporation was born. Anti-trust laws were far in the future, and the price of steel skyrocketed. Joseph Soss’s bid had been based on steel prices at the time he had signed the contract, and he saw his profits melting away. But building the great structure was something he had his heart set on, profits or not. Steel began to arrive again, at high prices, and construction continued. The children were enrolled in school, challah was baked at home by Freda, and life went on.
When the cornerstone was laid, the town’s citizens, and many from other communities, joined in a celebration. Four years from the time work had started, the Soss family stood proudly in front of the completed Montana State capitol. It was 1902, and the labor of love had left Joseph Soss in an unenviable financial position. His family was not in need, but his four years of hard work had been largely for the benefit of the steel barons in the East. But Soss looked at the soaring dome of the capitol against the blue sky, and was satisfied. Nevertheless, he had to think about his family’s welfare.
In Butte, a hundred miles to the south, the discovery of copper was creating many job opportunities and attracting an influx of new settlers. Among other things, they needed a number of public schools. What was more logical than for Joseph Soss to determine to build them? From 1890 to 1900 Butte’s population had tripled from 10,000 to 30,000. The Sosses moved there.
Constructing a high school created no special problems for Mr. Soss, and his financial situation rapidly improved. One day, while on the job, he was approached by a roughly-dressed man, still bearing the dirt and weeks’-old beard of a mining prospector. He told Soss he wanted to talk about a mining claim he had made, in an area that contained copper ore of high quality. He needed capitol, and offered to give Soss a half interest for $5,000. The latter was interested, but when he inspected the site he saw nothing but a rough lean-to and a hole in the ground. He asked the prospector if he could have a young mining engineer friend of his look it over. The man agreed, and Soss looked up his friend, a recent graduate of Stanford University.
The engineer investigated the claim and told Soss it looked like “a good risk.” But at that point Soss became apprehensive at the idea of risking his family’s security, and gave the young engineer permission to make the investment himself. Three years later the mine was sold to Anaconda for two million dollars. The young engineer was Herbert Hoover.
Mr. Soss’s construction projects in Butte were nearing completion when he became interested in a new one. The end of the Spanish-American War had opened up the Philippines to trade with the US. Manila, the main port, lacked a deepwater harbor, and freighters had to anchor far out and have their cargoes rowed to the docks in small boats. Leaving his family comfortably cared for in Butte, Joseph Soss and a partner went to Manila and built flat-bottomed wooden boats capable of bigger and quicker transfer of freight from the ships to the docks.
The enterprise was flourishing, and Soss was ready to send for his family, when fate stepped in. One day when he and his partner were walking down a Manila street, the partner dropped dead-from cholera. Alarmed, Soss liquidated the business, paid off his partner’s widow, and returned to Butte. The long voyage home took 30 days. Once, on a walk around the deck, he tripped over a projecting hinge. His active mind immediately asked: Why should hinges have to project? Before he landed at San Francisco, he had designed and built a model of a concealed hinge. Back in Butte he patented it, formed a company to manufacture it, and sold stock to finance it.
Since the growing automobile industry was his best customer (for concealed door hinges), Mr. Soss moved his family again, this time to New York, where he established a highly successful business, which later moved to Detroit and was operated by his heirs. Joseph Soss died in the mid-1940s.
Passengers on the liner United States may today view murals of state capitol buildings in the main salon. On the painting of Montana’s edifice are the words: “Joseph Soss, Contractor.”
Through the years the Soss hinge has gained popularity and is in use in many of the world’s most prestigious buildings. The White House and Buckingham Palace are just two examples.
Soss Mfg. Company ceased being a family business when it went public in 1939. Soss Manufacturing grew into a mini-conglomerate, getting into a wide variety of products from farm equipment to electronics, and renamed itself “Core Industries”, which was now traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1997 Core Industries was acquired by a larger conglomerate, United Dominion Industries.
Later in 1997 the Soss Hinge product line was purchased by Neil Marko, who distributes it from his company Universal Industrial Products in Pioneer, Ohio. Mr. Marko is the great- grandson of Joseph Soss.
By ALAN SMITH