Title: The Joseph Fels Fund Commission, 1909-1916
Predominant Dates: 1909-1916
The Joseph Fels Fund of Commission formed in early 1909 when the wealthy soap manufacturer Joseph Fels pledged to donate $25,000 a year for five years to support the promotion of the single tax in the United States. He pledged a similar amount to the single tax cause in Great Britain. Additionally, Fels agreed to match every dollar the Commission raised in support of single tax efforts. Upon his death in 1914, Mary Fels continued to fund the Commission for an additional two years.
About Joseph and Mary Fels
Joseph Fels was born in 1854 in Halifax County, Virginia to Jewish immigrants, Lazarus and Susannah Freiberg Fels, who had fled Germany during the 1848 revolution. Lazarus traveled throughout the American South as a peddler of housewares before moving the family to Yanceyville, North Carolina where he operated a general store and served as the village postmaster.
Shortly after the Civil War, the Fels moved to Baltimore where Lazarus opened a kitchen soap retail and manufacturing store. At age 15, Joseph Fels began working for his father before securing a job as a coffee salesman at age 17. In 1872, Fels and his father became traveling salesmen for the Philadelphia-based soap house of William Marks. Both left a year later to work for the larger soap firm of Charles Elias & Company.
In 1875 Joseph Fels entered into a partnership with the Philadelphia-based manufacturer of toilet soaps, Thomas Worsley & Company. A year later, Fels purchased Worsley’s shares and took over the company. In 1893, Fels bought an interest in the firm of Charles Walter Stanton. Stanton had created a better laundry product by adding a naphtha or benzine to soap. A year later, Stanton’s firm folded and was absorbed by Fels and Company, which specialized in this new naphtha-based laundry soap. Over the next decade the Company grew and Fels became a wealthy man.
Mary Fels was born in 1863 in Sembach, Bavaria to Elias and Fannie Fels. (Fels was a common surname in the region of Bavaria where the families of Joseph and Mary originated). Mary’s family migrated to the United States in 1869, living first in Missouri before settling in Iowa. Mary met her future husband in 1872 while Joseph was on a business trip. The two married 1881 and welcomed their first child, a son named Irvin, in 1883.
When Irvin died before his first birthday, Mary vowed never again to have children. Instead, she dedicated her time towards turning the Fels’ home into a salon, where she hosted dinners and events for a wide array of musicians, writers, and other intellectuals. Sometime in the mid-1880s, the Fels—like thousands of other reform-minded individuals—became enamored with the ideas of Henry George (1839-1897).
Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, the Fels supported land reform movements in the U.S. and the Middle East. In 1897, the Fels became founding members of the Philadelphia Vacant Lots Cultivation Association. Aided by the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, the Association parceled out small farms out of vacant land to needy families along with tools and seeds. Between 1906 and 1912, Joseph Fels also became actively involved in the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO) and its efforts to secure a permanent homeland for the Jewish people.
The Mission and Strategy of the Commission
The immediate goal of the Joseph Fels Fund Commission was “to put the single tax into effect somewhere in the United States within the next five years” concentrating in “a few States where constitutions are most favorable, where sentiment is for Land Value Taxation, and where men are on the job with records for success.” As a result of this mission, the Commission became heavily involved in the efforts to secure home rule taxation in Oregon, Missouri, and Rhode Island.
Home rule taxation transferred the authority to set the tax rates on property from State legislatures to local governments. Single taxers supported home rule taxation as a first step toward their goal of removing all taxes save one tax on the full value of land. Single taxers also supported efforts to empower state voters with the ability to pass initiatives and referendums. As many state constitutions required uniformity in taxation—that all types of property bear the same rate of taxation—single taxers pressed for the direct legislation to allow voters a direct say in such important matters as taxation.
Some within the single tax movement objected to the Commission’s strategy. Rather than spend money on direct legislation campaigns, some wanted to see more money invested in educational propaganda. Toward that end, the Commission formed the American Economic League to act as a sort of press bureau for the single tax movement. It also offered significant resources to keep Louis F. Post’s The Public and Joseph Dana Miller’s The Single Tax Review—two important single tax periodicals—afloat. In January 1913, the Commission began printing a monthly newsletter called the Joseph Fels Fund Bulletin.
Commission Officers and Outcomes
The official headquarters of the Commission were located in Cincinnati where its chairman, Daniel Kiefer, lived and worked. In addition to Kiefer, Dr. W.G. Eggleston served as the head of publicity, assisted by Samuel Danziger of Philadelphia. The Commission employed John Z. White to assist on the ground in the direct legislation campaigns, and for a short time before his death in 1910, the former mayor of Cleveland, Tom L. Johnson served as treasurer. Lincoln Steffens, Frederic C. Howe, Bolton Hall, Charles H. Ingersoll, George Briggs, and Jackson H. Ralston all served as Commissioners.
While the Commission’s efforts to enact the initiative and referendum in some states succeeded, no state adopted a pure single tax measure. Oregon came the closest, when in the election of 1910, state voters passed a Constitutional amendment granting home rule in matters of taxation by the close margin of 44,171 for and 42,127 against. The measure was repealed by voters in 1912.
Despite the limited success of the political campaigns, the Commission’s commitment to distributing educational propaganda flourished as demonstrated by the numerous pamphlets, newsletters, and periodicals published during the period of its operation. True to his word, Fels matched every dollar (and then some) raised by single taxers between 1909 and 1916. Over this five year period, the Commission raised $119,788.15 and the Fels donated $173,000. In 1916, Mary Fels dissolved the Commission and in its place, began supporting a new international single tax body. She continued, however, to support The Public for a while longer, even moving to New York City to serve as editor.
Arthur Nicholas Young, The Single Tax Movement in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1916).