Review of the Book:
The Life of Joseph Fels,
by Mary Fels
Joseph H. Newman
[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, July-August
Written by a devoted wife whose spiritual encouragement played no
small part in the career of her illustrious husband, this new and
revised work is a welcome addition to Georgeist literature. The author
does more than record events in the subject's life she succeeds in
admirably blending the economic and social wisdom of Joseph Fels into
a complete philosophy of living. The book is a model for simplicity
and beauty of style.
It is related that Joseph Fels was born of Jewish parents in 1854, in
the State of Virginia. Moving to North Carolina and then to Maryland,
the boy found in his childhood associations a combination of Semitic,
Gentile, and Negro influences that were largely responsible for the "cosmopolitanism
which was so marked a characteristic of the man."
Like Henry George, Joseph Fels was unorthodox in his attitude toward
pedagogical schooling. Early in youth he showed signs of being the "self-made
man." At the age of 15 he became a responsible assistant to his
father, in the latter's business of toilet soap manufffacture. After
various hard knocks in the school of experience, we find him, at 22,
the founder and head of what later became the world-famous "Fels-Naptha"
soap industry. Being an employer of great numbers of workmen, he had
every opportunity to be informed on the problems of labor.
It is in the home and social surroundings of the great soap
manufacturer that we receive our first intimation of the affection he
felt for his fellow man. There is also a delightful account of the
courtship and marriage with his biographer. Their union served to give
added impetus to his determination to be of service to the world.
While of necessity he was a shrewd bargainer when engaged in business
dealings, Joseph Fels was nevertheless in his relations with mankind
at large a very type of gentleman.
On the economic side, having observed that the unnatural lockout of
labor from land was at the bottom of the unemployment everywhere to be
seen, and embittered by the resulting degradation of his fellow human
beings, Fels turned his attention early in life to the encouragement
of garden planting. The success of the undertaking (on city lots) was
immediate, and the idea became very popular at home and abroad. While
sojourning in England and on the European continent, he became a
leader in a "back to the land" movement. A non-Malthusian,
and knowing the capacity of Britain's sources for the support of her
people, he was strongly opposed to then current proposal for reducing
the "excess" population by shipping stalwart Englishmen
abroad for colonization. He deplored the condition of the "landless
man in a manless land."
Later, the Single Tax movement provided a medium for the spread of
his ideas. The celebrated Joseph Fels Commission was a result of this
comradeship with the disciples of Henry George. Impelled by a spirit
resembling the zeal of a crusader, he continued the battle against
privilege until his death, in 1914. "He was dynamic, out in the
open, fighting with every emotion that caught him, but always with a
heart tender, true and direct."
Himself a generous giver, "faith without works" was
nauseating to this man of justice. Tinkering with poverty brought his
quick reproach. His credo can be best stated in his own words taken
from a reply he made to a suppliant for "charity."
"I am using all the money I have as best I know how to abolish
the Hell of civilization, which is want and fear of want. I am using
it to bring in the will of our Father, to establish the Brotherhood of
man by giving each of my brothers an equal opportunity to have and use
the gifts of our Father." A rather sizable following remain who
have seen Joseph Fels in action. How the world needs such men today!