- “The Rag Race”: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire by Adam D. Mendelsohn
This comparative history of the clothing business in America and in London is a detailed and a stimulating one. Adam D. Mendelsohn, who has also coedited Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History (2014) with Ava Kahn, lucidly presents an encompassing and absorbing study about American and British groups and institutions intimately associated with the clothing world. Chronologically and topically arranged into eight chapters, this suggestive monograph revolves around two theses: Jews occupied a dominant status in the manufacturing and marketing of garments in the Atlantic world and other places during the nineteenth century. His second thesis is that Jews filled an economic niche, greatly fostered merchant capitalism, and in many instances achieved social mobility.
The participation of Jews in the clothing trade is extensively investigated in London and then in New York in the first two chapters. Mendelsohn shows that immigrants from central and eastern Europe did much to promote the garment business in both cities between 1840 and 1880. In London, they were purveyors of old clothes, working at clothes exchanges and street markets in Houndsditch and Rosemary Lane and selling, especially as peddlers and as a few wholesalers, such goods as used pants, shirts, sweaters, and jackets. They were involved also with the transatlantic secondhand clothing business; New York City evolved into a used clothing hub. Many peddlers, some wholesalers, and a few retailers sold castoffs or used clothes in Chatham Street, thus transforming this city into a mecca of used clothing distribution and a locus of a specific kind of merchant capitalism. These groups in New York, like those in London, succeeded in establishing firm relations with both suppliers and creditors.
Chapter 3 astutely demonstrates the growth of the American rag trade as a result of the marketing revolution and Western expansionism. Mendelsohn incisively explains that American peddlers especially benefited from developing cordial credit relationships with retailers, wholesalers, and a few manufacturers. [End Page 98] As an essential group, American peddlers also profited in purveying old and used clothes and other needed products to customers both in remote places and in booming regions. There is a fine section on Cincinnati as a major clothing distribution and marketing hub: Mendelsohn maintains that many itinerant salesmen flocked to the Queen City between 1830 and 1860, traveled throughout the midwestern and southern states, and accrued sizable profits in their dealings. As a result of their lucrative activities, peddlers transformed Cincinnati, which had 222 clothing factories and workshops, into a major garment center that was exemplified by the manufacturing firm operated by Jacob Seasongood and Phillip Heidelbach. Moreover, Mendelsohn believes that the success of these Jewish peddlers, as well as wholesalers and manufacturers, enabled the marketing revolution in Cincinnati, New York, and other American cities to flourish by 1860.
Chapters 4 and 5 explain significant developments in the rag trade in Great Britain and in the British Empire. Mendelsohn describes how peddlers continued to accrue profits in east London. As well, he persuasively shows how Elias and Henry Moses, who were two wealthy Jewish peddlers, envisioned enormous potential in manufacturing and retailing clothing; they consequently became successful in manufacturing shirts, pants, and jackets and in selling these garments in their retail stores in London, other cities in Britain, and throughout the empire. Mendelson also explains that as fewer immigrants came to London during the 1870s, the British clothing business began to decline by the 1880s.
The book’s last three chapters and conclusion reveal that expansion arose in the American garment business between 1860 and 1880. Mendelsohn explains that the Civil War produced an immense demand for military clothing and enabled numerous American Jews in the clothing world to become wealthy. He also believes that during the industrial era of the 1870s, American Jewish retailers and wholesalers prospered and that during the 1880s, Jewish manufacturers involved with...