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Sydney Lewis

Sydney Lewis
BornOctober 24, 1919
DiedMarch 12, 1999 (age 79)
EducationB.S. Washington & Lee University
J.D. George Washington University
Known forFounder of Best Products Co.
Spouse(s)Frances Aronson

Sydney Lewis (October 24, 1919 – March 12, 1999) was a Virginia businessman, philanthropist, and art collector who founded the Best Products Company.[1]


Lewis was born to a Jewish family in Richmond, Virginia, the son of an emigrant from Russia.[2][3] His father sold mail-order encyclopedias to school teachers in the South.[2] In 1940, Lee graduated with a B.S. in Business from Washington & Lee University.[2] Though he began the study of law, he never received a law degree from Washington and Lee University as his legal education was interrupted by his service in the U.S. Army during World War II where he was sent to Harvard University for coursework in business administration.[3] Subsequently, he finished his J.D. degree at George Washington University in Washington DC.[2] He practiced law for a brief period prior to taking over his father's encyclopedia business where he developed a catalog to promote sales.[2] Lewis expanded the business into appliances and using his encyclopedia warehouse as a showroom, was able to circumvent Fair Trade laws that allowed manufacturers to set minimum retail prices.[2] In 1958, Lewis incorporated the company as Best Products Co, Inc.[3] In 1982, Best Products acquired Modern Merchandising, then the 3rd largest catalog retailer, in a stock transaction worth $109 million.[4] After the merger, the now publicly-traded company had over $1 billion in sales, 10,000 employees, and 100 showrooms in 11 states;[2] and at its peak, had $2 billion in sales, and 100 showrooms in 27 states.[3] Lewis was known for his anti-union stance and successfully fought efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers to unionize Best Products' showrooms.[2]

Philanthropy and political activism

Lewis is the namesake of Lewis Hall at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, whose construction he and his wife, Frances, funded in 1976.[2] Lewis developed a barter system with young artists in New York where they could trade art for items in the Best Products catalog.[2] According to the New York Times "in 1985, the couple donated more than 1,500 artworks to the museum, making it the home of the most important collection of Art Nouveau outside Paris and of an especially beautiful selection of Tiffany lamps. "[3] Lewis and his wife Frances were benefactors of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.[2][3]

Lewis and his wife were supporters of progressive candidate Henry Howell.[2]

Personal life

In 1948, he married the former Frances Aronson whom he had met in college; they had three children, antiwar activist Sydney Lewis Jr., Andrew Marc Lewis, and Susan Lewis Butler.[2] His son Marc served as President and Chief Operating Officer of Best Products and his daughter served as director of the corporate foundation.[2] Sydney and Frances Lewis were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1987.


  1. ^ "Sydney and Frances Lewis - A Guide to the Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003". Virginia Historical Society.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Boodman, Sandra G. (February 27, 1982). "Best Man Is a Winner In Virginia". The Washington Post.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Smith, Roberta (March 16, 1999). "Sydney Lewis, 79, Art Collector and Patron". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Vise, David A. (June 12, 1982). "Best Products to Acquire No. 3 Catalogue Chain". The Washington Post.