- The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire by Adam D. Mendelsohn
In 1854, Samuel Rosenwald came to the United States. For about two years, he earned his living peddling. As an independent entrepreneur selling new or secondhand clothing, he likely scraped by through a combination of wit, the ability to take advantage of a far-flung network of Jewish manufacturers and distributors, lessons hard-learned by setbacks and privations on the road, and not a little luck. Along the way, he would have learned to navigate a complex world of commerce that included geographic markets expanding throughout the South and West, accessed credit within the Jewish diaspora, and developed an instinct for recognizing opportunities when they emerged. Rosenwald then found work as a clerk in a clothing store owned by Augusta Hammerslough. As a clerk, he advanced his network along the garment industry supply chain and learned accounting and other skills necessary to run a complex firm. There he met and married the boss’s sister, then moved to Peoria to run one of his brother-in-law’s stores just in time to take full advantage of the demands for outfitting Illinois regiments of the Union Army. After the Civil War, Rosenwald bought one of his brother-in-law’s stores in New York City, where his son Julius also learned the trade as a clerk in the Hammerslough’s manufacturing plants. Before the end of the nineteenth century, building on a foundation of Jewish immigrant acumen with commercial capitalism acquired through their experiences in the United States, Julius and his brother-in-law jumped on the opportunity to buy Sears, Roebuck, and Company (77).
Jewish economic successes, like those illustrated by Rosenwald and his children, are the subject of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire by Adam D. Mendelsohn. In this beautifully crafted book, Mendelsohn argues that the careers of well-known entrepreneurs in the garment trade tell us about a broader phenomenon of American Jewish relationship to capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Why,” Mendelsohn opens the introduction, “have Jews prospered so dramatically in the United States” (1)? Was it because they were Jews or because of the particular circumstances of the American economic context? This echoes a familiar historiographical debate among labor historians trying to understand what spurs workers to act consciously as a class with common interests in opposition to employers, bankers, and other capitalists: economic or cultural factors? In this case Mendelsohn is asking, why were American Jews comparatively more prosperous than other immigrant groups in the United States, and why are immigrant Jews more prosperous in the United States than in other countries?
In answering those questions, Mendelsohn set out to compare the experiences of immigrant Jews engaged in the garment trades, particularly within the secondhand market in England and the United states, largely prior to the mass immigration of the 1880s. [End Page 119] In a side-by-side comparison of the two garment sectors, Mendelsohn concludes that Jewish garment workers in London had it better as the nineteenth century progressed, protected by stronger unions and legislation that limited work hours and established safe and healthy working conditions. At the same time, British Jews had smaller numbers in the secondhand rag trade and limited access to more lucrative opportunities in garment manufacturing and distribution throughout the empire. Their counterparts in the United States, on the other hand, had both greater incentives and opportunities to move out of wage employment and into peddling.
Over the course of eight chapters, Mendelsohn synthesizes an impressive array of secondary sources to paint vivid portraits of the Jewish entrepreneurial experience in the two countries. He begins by describing the development of the secondhand clothing exchanges in the East End of London during the industrial revolution of the first half of the nineteenth century. His writing is one of the great strengths of...