THE ECONOMIC LIFE OF THE AMERICAN JEW, 1860-1920: PART I
Many of the Jews in politics were wealthy. How did they make money? The Civil War period and the decades that followed it witnessed much that was new in the American economy. This was the age of the American industrial revolution. Great changes were taking place in the economy, shifts already perceptible in the generation before the War. On the farm and in the city new inventions were initiating a revolution in the production and distribution of commodities. This was the age of rapid transportation and even more rapid communication, the age that witnessed the coming of the telegraph, the cable, the railroad, the telephone, the plane, and the first radio broadcasts. Even before 1900 Americans were to boast of their anaesthetics, refrigerated cars, the typewriter, the incandescent electric lamp, and the phonograph.
It was an age of factories and factory workers, of powerful banks and the shift from mercantile to finance capitalism. Farmers, farm laborers, and immigrants moved steadily into the towns helping to create the new metropolises; population shifted steadily from the rural to the urban areas. Immigration, the city, and industry are coeval in growth. From 1840 to 1921 the cities multiplied and grew in the very years that Jewish immigrants, Central and East Europeans, flocked to these shores. And as the big cities grew Jewish communities rose in their midst. Even before the Civil War, the industrial goods from the urban centers outweighed in value the products of the farm; by 1900 the United States was the greatest industrial state in the world. By 1920 there were more men and women in the towns than in the countryside.1
By the end of the nineteenth century the United States had already become a world power, a country of wealth with a relatively high standard of living. Huge agglomerations of capital were assembled to finance great corporations; monopolists controlled important commodities, and the new captains of industry and the masters of capital exerted tremendous political power. There were, however, few Jews, very few, who were leaders in the areas of finance and industry as were the Morgans and the Rockefellers. The notable exceptions were Jacob H. Schiff in finance, Nelson Morris in meat-packing, the Lewisohns and the Guggenheims in mining, and a motley crew of new men who were about to take a five cent industry and parlay it into a billion dollar empire, the cinema. This was the age when the American Jew was to come into his own in trade, commerce, industry, finance, and the professions. It is literally true that there was no branch of gainful endeavor which could not boast of at least one or two Jews. They were few and unimportant in most economic areas because they were small in number, immigrants, without power or capital or political influence. Only in the apparel industry were they to preponderate both in production and distribution.
The Jewish immigrants—and most Jews were immigrants—remained in the cities and stayed away from the farms. As newcomers without capital they were wise enough to realize that their future and America’s future lay in the cities, not on the land. Agriculture was not a Jewish métier. This is not to deny that there were Jewish farmers in minuscule numbers in almost every state. Merchants in the South where cotton was still king acquired land and plantations, and those with large holdings mechanized their acreage in the spirit of the new technology. The older German Jewish settlers and their native confreres pushed the incoming East Europeans to settle on the soil as farmers and colonists where their poverty and uncouth ways would not embarrass the already acculturated Jewish urbanites. And in truth some of the Russian newcomers were eager to establish communes and colonies. They were idealists, liberals, radicals, ready to embrace Mother Nature. Colonies were established in dozens of states as far west as Oregon but almost without exception they were failures. These new Jewish peasants had no training and no capital. The lands on which they settled were invariably barren; these intellectuals were deprived of cultural resources; it was inevitable therefore that they would return to the cities. By 1910 there may have been about 3,000 Jewish dirt farmers in the country; their numbers were insignificant.2
Though few Jews were farmers and the census records show few Jewish “laborers,” there were Jewish craftsmen. Many of the older immigrants had been apprenticed to a trade; this was compulsory in some German states. Thus there were Jews who were skilled workers scattered in every town as well as in practically every area of industry. Here where men were free to do what they wished, these Central Europeans invariably abandoned the craft at which they had labored at home. The Moravian Moritz Loth had worked as a capmaker in London but on his arrival in this country he became a peddler, an owner of a dry goods store, an entrepreneur who hoped to perfect a gun, a wholesale notions dealer, a builder of model homes, a real estate operator, a writer of novels, and the leading lay founder of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The East European Jews who began to pour in by the 1880’s reflected a different pattern. The majority were skilled or semi-skilled workers; many were tailors, locksmiths, cobblers, painters, barbers, carpenters, smiths, upholsterers, masons, bricklayers, ironworkers, and even cigarette makers. When James Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company, first began to manufacture cigarettes in North Carolina, he employed Russian Jewish cigarette makers in his Southern factory. Most East Europeans who came to New York gravitated toward the apparel industry. The needle workers in some Lower East Side wards exceeded all others in numbers. Nevertheless it is questionable whether the majority of gainfully employed Russian and Polish Jews in the United States were in the needle trades. There were thousands in other industries; many, very many, were in commerce and some were moving into the professions. The East European newcomers who practiced a craft were a one-generation proletariat; they were neither the sons nor the parents of workmen; their sons and daughters became white-collar employees.3
Though the Jews as a group were not in industry it is well to bear in mind that, as in the crafts, there was almost no type of productive enterprise without them. Individual Jewish businessmen were often notable in their fields. Atlanta, about 1900, is a good example of the participation of the Jew in manufacturing. In this boomtown soon to become one of the largest Jewish communities in the South, Jews made paper boxes, furniture, machinery, harness, candy, crackers, mattresses, bedsprings, iron bedsteads, stationery, leather, clothing, and cotton textiles. This variety could be duplicated in almost every big town where Jews had settled.
The Alsatian, Morris Friend of Lincoln, Nebraska, founded the Beatrice Creamery Company in the late 1890’s. Out of this modest enterprise was to come Beatrice Foods one of the country’s great corporations. In Statesville, North Carolina, the antebellum storekeeper Isaac Wallace and his brother established one of the largest centers in the world for crude drugs, roots, and herbs. Jewish businessmen entered into the coal business as far east as Pennsylvania, as far south as Alabama, and as far west and north as Alaska. They were large-scale printers and publishers in New York, Washington, and Baltimore, and by the 1870’s the Zellerbachs of California had already laid the foundations for the paper and pulp empire that was to be known as Crown Zellerbach.4
Among the Jewish industrialists who manufactured paper, one of the most successful was the Russian Jewish immigrant Isaac Gilman who landed on these shores in 1880. After a stay in Hamburg this sixteen-year-old lad emerged from he steerage in New York to become a cigar maker, peddler, and job lot dealer in paper. He finally succeeded in opening a paper store only to become a bankrupt in 1897; in later years when fortune smiled on him he, like others, paid all his creditors 100 cents on the dollar and thanked them with a kosher dinner at the Broadway Central Hotel. Thus the myth of the bankrupt who met his obligations became a reality. By 1901, after he had established the Gilman Paper Company, a wholesale house, he bought out the Fitzdale Paper Mills in Vermont. There he specialized in the production of kraft paper commonly used in the making of bags. The Fitzdale Paper Mills became a very successful corporation. An enlightened employer, Gilman built homes, stores, a hospital, a fire department, waterworks, a railroad station, and a community center. Grateful for his generosity the Vermont villagers changed the name of the town to Gilman.5
Samuel Rauh of Indianapolis, builder of one of the earliest fertilizer plants in the transappalachian country, turned to the development of street railways, established a meat-packing house, and became president of the local Union Stock Yards. There were a number of Jews in the business of manufacturing furniture. An early Oregon entrepreneur brought the first telephone line into that state, and another, Bernard Goldsmith, who was one day to become mayor of Portland, was a clerk, gold assayer, banker, ranch owner, and builder of the locks on the Willamette at Oregon City. Gustave E. Mosler was a lithographer and cigar maker who became a manufacturer of safes. There were a number of glass manufactures in the Middle West and the Aaron family developed the Homer Laughlin China Company into one of the largest dish manufacturing establishments in America. Posen-born Louis A. Aaron had began his career as a clerk and as a retail dry goods man before turning to grain and malt and finally to the manufacturer of china for restaurants and the home. Jews produced pianos in New Haven, trunks in Newark and Denver. The Shwayder Trunk Manufacturing Company which started in Denver in 1910 was ultimately to grow into the largest luggage company in the world, primarily through its Samsonite products.
The Kahns of Cincinnati succeeded in making the Estate Stove Company one of the largest coal range, gas, and electric stove companies in this country. They had taken over an older business in the 1870’s. Long before their time Colonel Samuel B. Myers had begun manufacturing illuminating gas in Richmond, Virginia. Ever alert to the opportunities in a new industry Jews had rushed into the oil business in its earliest days. Two New Yorkers, Stettheimer and Bettman, once owned more than 100 oil wells in Pennsylvania; a Philadelphian was one of the founders of Oil City; another Jew built an early oil refinery. Several of these entrepreneurs were very successful; all of them were speedily outdistanced by John D. Rockefeller.
Selective at best, these examples of Jews in industry are cited here to redress the stereotype that few of them were manufacturers. High visibility on Main Street in specialty shops has obscured the participation of Jews in a host of industries in the decades before 1920.6
Individual Jews had been in the railroad industry from the earliest days, ever since the Cohens of Baltimore represented their city in the creation and development of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Benjamin Gratz of Lexington was the president of the Lexington and Ohio Railroad, one of the first lines west of the Alleghenies. The Swiss entrepreneur Frederick Wolffe came to this country in 1955 and during the Civil War served the South as a purchasing agent. Later, in 1877, he bought the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad for the Erlanger syndicate, leased, reorganized, and built other roads, and in 1886 bought an entire issue of Georgia bonds. It was quite common for Jews, as with Samuel Rauh of Indianapolis, to build or finance street railways and interurban traction companies and to serve as trustees of railroads. Venturesome Jewish speculators built railroads in Utah, California, Colorado, and even in Venezuela. Some of these businessmen served as executive officers. Thus the Jewish banker, Morris Kopperl, was president of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe; Julius Kruttschnitt, a nephew of Judah P. Benjamin, was a practical railroad man who had worked for another road before finally heading the executive committee of the Southern Pacific. Kruttschnitt was a trained civil engineer, a graduate of Washington and Lee in Virginia; Sampson S. Solomons of South Carolina had started at the bottom as an apprentice machinist in a roundhouse, had built railroads, and served as superintendent of a line and as president of roads before his death in 1906.
The new auto industry offered opportunities to a number of Jews. The wealthy Nathan Hofheimer was at an early date involved in the financing of General Motors. By the second decade of the twentieth century the two Mendelssohn brothers had become important executives of the Fisher Body Company. Louis Mendelssohn, an architect and builder, was the chairman of the board of directors; Aaron, his brother, was secretary of the company.7
JUNK, IRON, AND STEEL
Jews came into iron and steel through the back door or was it the front door? Those in the business in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were often fabricators, rarely manufacturers. Very often they began as collectors of junk. Before the Civil War the patriarch of the Baltimore Jewish community, Jonas Friedenwald, was collecting and straightening out old nails and selling them; by the 1860’s there were already Jews in the junk industry in almost every town and city of size. Some were scrap iron and steel dealers, woolen rag graders, waste paper collectors, and on occasion even smelters and refiners. As the twentieth century dawned many and ultimately most of the large scrap brokers in the United States were Jews. Scrap had become a “Jewish” business. Joseph Block was a scrap iron dealer who became important as a maker of steel. He and his partner Emil Pollak were in the crockery business in the mid-l860’s but before the decade had run its course they turned to scrap iron, paper bags, and the salvaging of Civil War cannons. By the 1880’s they had branches in New Orleans and in Chicago; by 1893 Block had incorporated the Inland Steel Company which in the twentieth century was to become one of the country’s large steel manufacturers. Around the turn of the century the Pollaks went their own way. The Pollak Steel Company was a successful fabricator.8
If as a group Jews were never important in heavy industry, they were never unrepresented in light industry. As jewelers they were importers, jobbers, wholesalers, retailers, and pawnbrokers. In the 1880’s there were about 400 Jewish jewelry jobbers in New York City. On the other hand despite their high visibility in literature, Jewish pawnbrokers were relatively few in number. The Jewish jewelry manufacturers made cases, rings, and watches; most of them also sold diamonds. One of the largest firms was H. Muhr & Son of Philadelphia which began as a small shop in the 1850’s and by the end of the century had become one of the country’s great jewelry manufacturers. Next to wearing apparel jewelry was the largest Jewish business in New York City by 1888. Obviously dealing in diamonds accounted for the large sums involved in the trade.
The career of Harry Cutler (1875-1920), a manufacturing jeweler, is interesting if not altogether typical. Cutler, an East European, came to this country at eight and almost immediately went to work in a canning factory for ninety cents a week. He sold newspapers, worked in a mill and at the ripe age of fourteen was a boss in charge of a crew of a dozen other boys. His salary then was $4.44 a week. He settled in Providence where he made molding for rooms with a stint of 1,000 feet a day at a salary of $3 a week. His next job was with a jeweler at a dollar a day; when he had accumulated $150 he bought out a defunct jewelry factory. Thus he began his successful career as a manufacturer. Before he passed away as a relatively young man in 1920 he was to become a state assemblyman, a colonel in the militia, president of a synagog, one of the heads of the Jewish Welfare Board, and a member of the American Jewish delegation that was sent in 1919 to the Versailles Peace Conference. The French awarded him the Medal of Honor.9
Adventurous Jews from New Amsterdam were buying up tobacco in Maryland as early as the seventeenth century. Jews were always on the periphery of the tobacco trade but they never became dealers of any significance in colonial times. At cigar rollers they began to make their presence felt in antebellum days. The trade required little capital; journeymen made cigars and then went out and peddled them to the urban dealers. The thirteen-year-old Samuel Gompers began his career in America as a cigar maker.
The tobacco trade was very popular with the Jews. Like jewelry and apparel, it, too, was a “Jewish” business. Jews were in the industry as cigar and cigarette makers, as shopkeepers and leaf tobacco buyers in many major and even smaller towns. One Jew, William Demuth, even made a specialty of carving the wooden Indians who stolidly stood guard at the doors of cigar stores.
Jews were prominent in the trade in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Kansas City. As leaf-importing pioneers Detroit Jews dealt directly with Havana, Sumatra, and Amsterdam. Milwaukee had fifty cigar and cigarette manufacturers. Wheeling was the home of the Pollack Tobacco Company with August Pollack as its head. There is a monument to this man in town erected by his own workmen because of his sympathetic understanding of their problems. The big tobacco business in that city was that of Bloch Brothers, manufacturers of Mail Pouch, probably the most popular chewing tobacco in the country. Faded Mail Pouch ads can sometimes still be seen painted on barnsides in dozens of states. The Jewish principal of Wheeling High School, the professor of Greek, ever loyal to local industry, chewed tobacco. The students often wondered how the dapper professor managed to dispose of the juice.
One of America’s leading tobacco men was Joseph Fatman who worked his way up from peddling to the ownership of a cigar store in New York and then moved on to importing and exporting leaf on a large scale. He purchased some of his tobacco through his branch house in Havana and exported thousands of hogsheads to the government-controlled tobacco warehouses in Europe. Fatman was one of American Jewry’s most distinguished communal leaders and philanthropists in the mid-nineteenth century.
At one time about 2,000 Jews in New York City worked in the cigarette factory manufacturing one of the most popular of America’s brands, Sweet Caporal. Outside the tobacco trust, Solomon and Morris Schinasi of New York City were probably the largest cigarette manufacturers in the United States by 1908. As early as the 1880’s forty-five of the sixty-five members of the National Cigar Manufacturer’s Association were Jews; the leaf and cigar business in the New York City of that day was estimated to reach $30,000,000 a year.10
By the second half of the nineteenth century processed foods had become big business and individual Jewish businessmen were important in two areas—in sugar and in meat-packing. Spanish-Portuguese descendants of Jews, probably members of converso families, were pioneers in the sugar industry in late eighteenth-century Louisiana. Toward the end of the next century the Lemanns at Donaldsonville were buying and managing sugarcane plantations; earlier A. Cohen & Company of Decatur County, Georgia, were said to own the finest sugar factory in the South, and by the early twentieth century the Kempners of Galveston were developing the enterprise known as Sugarland.
Among the Jews the big name in the industry was Leon Godchaux. Leon, a native of Lorraine, began his career in this country as a teenage peddler. In the 1840’s, by the time he was twenty, he had his own store in New Orleans, a business that was one day to become one of the largest men’s clothing stores in the South. Some of the goods he sold were the products of his own manufacture. After the Civil War Godchaux expanded into sugarcane planting with a refinery of his own. One of the plantations he bought, so the family traditions run, was a farm where the owner had refused him a night’s lodging. The young peddler truculently told the owner that he would come back some day and buy the place. By the late 1890’s Godchaux owned fourteen plantations, 60,000 acres of land, and employed 2,000 people. The three refineries he then operated made him independent of the sugar trust. The achievements of this erstwhile peddler are all the more impressive when it is realized that he was reputed to be illiterate; he could sign his name.11
When Texas ranchers attempted to emancipate themselves from the Northern packers in 1890, one of their leaders was the clothing merchant Isaac Dahlmann of Dallas. With little experience and less capital, he was unsuccessful in his efforts to build a meat-packing industry in Texas, close to the source of supply. Other Jewish ventures into meat-packing were more successful. Though not comparable to the giants in the industry there were very substantial Jewish packinghouses in New York, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. Colonial Jews had been in the meat business ever since Asser Levy established an abattoir in the late seventeenth century on Wall Street, a most appropriate location. Following a trade which many had learned in Central Europe, Jews in the transallegheny country were often drovers buying cattle and driving them to market. The Bohemian-born Bernard Heller founded the Milwaukee Sausage Works in 1849; for a time his son Adolph had his own cattle ranch in Montana and packinghouses in that state and in Iowa. By the late 1880’s New York City and Brooklyn could count 2,000 Jewish retail butcher shops and 150 wholesalers. The annual transactions of the New York City wholesale butchers were estimated at $25,000,000. The big Jewish name in the packing industry was Nelson Morris of Chicago (1839-1907) who raised and fattened beef on his own ranches; his holdings in Texas were huge. Excellent rapid transportation and refrigeration made it possible for him to ship his carcasses to the largest cities of the United States and Europe.12
LEATHER, HIDES, WOOL, TANNING
Hide, wool, and fur dealers were to be found almost everywhere and some Jewish peddlers bought hides, fleeces, and wool or traded them for goods. Ever since colonial times Jewish merchants like Mordecai Sheftall had also been tanners. Newark was an important leather center even in antebellum days. One of these Newark enterprisers was a Jewish merchant who pioneered in tanning horsehides, alligator, kangaroo, and porpoise skins. His factory was one of the largest in the United States. New York Jewish leather dealers were also important; Markens maintains that toward the end of the century when they did about $12,000,000 business a year they controlled the hide and leather traffic there. These figures do not seem to be very impressive in view of the fact that at this time the total capital invested in the manufacture of leather products, outside of boots and shoes, mounted up to about $179,000,000.
The world’s supply of dyed sealskins at this time was largely in the hands of the Alaska Commercial Company, established in 1868, a year after the purchase of that territory by the Americans. The president of this company from 1885 till his death in 1902 was Lewis Gerstle. After a peripatetic early career this native-born American became affiliated with the Alaska Commercial Company which had a monopoly of seal fishing on some of the Alaska islands by 1870. Gerstle and his associates, Jews and Gentiles, built trading posts, schools, and churches in the new territory, established a steamship line between San Francisco and Alaska, and put river boats on the Yukon connecting Nome and Dawson. Gerstle developed into an aggressive and successful California entrepreneur establishing ironworks and woolen mills in that state. He helped build railroads, served as a bank director, owned large blocks of San Francisco real estate, and talked of a canal across Nicaragua.13
Jews were in many areas of food processing and distribution. A number were engaged in the sale of grain and other agricultural products. In the 1860’s Charles Louis Fleischmann became one of the best known of America’s yeast manufacturers. A Baltimore businessman advertised that he was an importer of teas as well as Chinese porcelain and teakwood. Jewish wholesale grocers abounded; this was a favorite Jewish business till well into the twentieth century. In territorial Utah, Fred J. Kiesel & Company of Corinne, Blackfoot, and Ogden was a well-known wholesale house boasting that it was the first firm dealing exclusively in groceries in the Utah of the 1870’s. During that same decade the Vincennes Gimbels, progenitors of the Gimbel clan, advertised in the local directory that they sold wine, flour, groceries, and cigars. Apparently at that time they were food wholesalers. One of the largest wholesale groceries of St. Louis was conducted by Marcus Bernheimer and his brother-in-law, Nicholas Scharff. Very much like most successful Jewish businessmen Bernheimer had a number of interests. He developed a spa, ran a bank, manufactured flour, and invested in electric light, power, and water companies.14
LIQUOR AND BEER
In general the wholesale grocers also handled wines, beers, and liquors as they did cigars. Some of the important grape growers on the Pacific Coast were Jews though grape growing was not a business which attracted many of them. An exception—and there is nearly always an exception in every area of the economy—was Isidor Bush of Bushberg, Missouri. Beer like wine was not a Jewish business; it would seem that there were no Jews among the famous Milwaukee brewers of that period. Jacob Moritz, who had once worked for the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, became a miner in Montana and then settled down in Utah where he established the Salt Lake City Brewing Company, reputed to be the largest in the intermountain area. In far-off New York, the Kuppermans who had left Wuerttemberg in the fateful year of 1848 used their brewing skill when they began to manufacture Rheingold, an important company in the industry. In Cincinnati, noted for its beer, pork, and music, the local Jewry was interested in but one of these—music. Cincinnati Jews had a triad all their own: apparel, whiskey, and Reform Judaism. Not one of the twenty-five breweries in town was Jewish owned, but one of the large whiskey concerns had been established before the war by Samuel N. Pike, the man who would later build the Pike Opera House of Cincinnati and the Grand Opera House in New York.
There was hardly a major town where Jews were not in hard liquor. Although Jewish distillers were not uncommon, Jews were primarily wholesalers and distributors, dispatching salesmen, often members of the family, to every state and territory. Typical were the Westheimers of St. Joseph, Missouri. The several sons served the family interests as whiskey salesmen. By 1888, so it has been estimated, the New York wholesalers did a $25,000,000-a-year business in wines, spirits, and beer.15
Apparel is the Jewish industry. And what is apparel: anything that clothes or adorns the body of men, women, and children. This would include clothing, dry goods and notions, suits and knee pants for children, infants wear, ladies, dresses, suits, cloaks, waists, blouses, skirts, underwear, nightwear, hose, girdles, brassieres, corsets, millinery, and by extension artificial flowers, feathers, and jewelry. No two Jewish men in the apparel trade had exactly the same career; of the hundreds, if not thousands, whose life stories are known each was unique. This is as true of the failures as of the successes. The Hungarian A. W. Rich (Reich!) who came to the United States in 1853 ultimately owned a very successful women’s store in Milwaukee. He lived and worked for a time in New York, Cleveland, and Detroit, farmed in Saginaw County, Michigan, peddled and fit spectacles in Wisconsin, and manufactured hoopskirts and corsets. Rich finally opened a store in Milwaukee where women waited on women, something of an innovation. He advertised heavily and his success is attested to by the fact that he soon had 20 employees on his payroll. The Westphalian Maurice Auerbach landed penniless in New Orleans in 1857 but managed to reach St. Paul on the Mississippi where he was later to open a dry goods store. He became a wholesaler and a manufacturer who specialized in men’s workclothes. His wholesale dry goods house was the largest in the state. He sent seventeen salesmen on the road, some of them displaying their wares as far west as the Pacific Coast. By 1890 he was a successful wealthy capitalist with interests in banking, insurance, public utilities, realty, and lumber. The panic of 1892 almost destroyed him.
From antebellum times on most Jewish apparel dealers were probably at first in dry goods before shifting to men’s clothing. Women could and did make their own dresses well into the twentieth century; men’s suits, however, were not made at home. Whatever the reason, Jewish businessmen slowly opted for men’s clothing and furnishings though eventually women’s dress manufacture and sale became a very important industry. No later than the mid-nineteenth century Jewish businessmen had begun to manufacture and sell men’s suits, coats, vests, belts, shirts, work clothes, hats, caps, collars, cuffs, and hose. The May Hosiery Mills of Nashville opened in 1896 and by the late twentieth century shipped about 46,000 pairs of socks and bodywear each week. An accessory to the clothing industry was the umbrella trade. A Jewish firm in Philadelphia, Hirsh & Brother, was for a time the world’s largest umbrella manufactory; Gans brothers of Baltimore was famous for its umbrella slogan: “Born in Baltimore, raised everywhere.” The latter company manufactured over 7,000 umbrellas a day which it sold in the United States, Canada, and the West Indies.
The shoe business was and has remained a preferred one with Jewish merchants. Jews were important as retailers, manufacturers, and wholesalers. A Jew in Montgomery, Alabama, was appointed to supervise the manufacture of shoes for the Confederate soldiers. Cincinnati and Chicago were centers favored by Jewish shoe manufacturers. Among the many well-known names in the industry that of the Florsheims stands out. Beginning in the 1890’s they followed certain fixed principles which they believed would make for success and in this hope they were not deceived. They sold no brands but their own; they were most insistent on quality, chose representative dealers, emphasized style, and advertised heavily and continuously. It took time to build a great enterprise but decades later the Florsheim Shoe Company was shipping 10,000 to 12,000 pairs a day from the Chicago factory; with 7,000 dealers its products were found in practically every American town and city.16
WHY ARE JEWS IN APPAREL
Why were Jews so heavily involved in the apparel industry? There is no completely satisfactory answer to this question. Some were interested in selling secondhand garments and in making new garments in Germany and England long before the Civil War. Did the trade grow out of pawnbroking? Did it, through some accident, quite fortuitously become a traditional Jewish business? Here in the United States Jews have been selling secondhand clothing, particularly in New York City, since the 1850’s at the latest. Later in the century the development of the sewing machine and thus the availability of cheap new garments certainly diminished the secondhand trade. At the same time this new device meant that one could become a semiskilled machine operator with very little training in a relatively short time. Under the piecework system one could quickly acquire the necessary facility to do a satisfactory job on one part of a garment. Perhaps even more important one could become a clothing manufacturer with little capital. Clothing was an urban industry, involving no heavy manual labor. With the growth of population there was a constant pressing need for the finished product. Added to all these factors was the number of incoming East European Jews to man the factories and sweatshops of the clothing entrepreneurs.17
JEWS IN THE AMERICAN CLOTHING INDUSTRY
Back in colonial times and in the early national period families made their own clothes, went to custom tailors, or wore renovated garments. Aaron Lopez of Newport produced slops, cheap ready-to-wear garments for sailors, slaves, and the poor. The total production of such wares until the 1830’s was very small. It is probable that as late as the Civil War the secondhand business, in New York at least, may have been more important than the trade in custom-made clothes. By the fourth decade of the century a few Jews began to manufacture men’s garments; in the 1840’s the immigrant Jews who were slowly beginning to make their way in the new world began to turn to the retailing and manufacturing of men’s apparel, but the industry was to remain predominantly a Gentile one till well after the Civil War. Before and even after the perfection of the sewing machine these early manufacturers employed the put-out system; the work was done by women who labored at home.
The 1850’s was the period of perceptible acceleration; more and more Jews began to make clothes for men. The decade witnessed the coming of millions of immigrants who sooner or later would all have to be clothed. Apparel was getting to be big business; it was almost a $50,000,000 industry. Retailers and wholesalers with typical American enterprise and abandon opened retail and even wholesale outlets for their goods in different parts of the country. New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Baltimore forged ahead as centers for clothing manufacturing by Jews. Jews were about 50 percent of all Cincinnati clothiers. There were over 4,000 shops, men’s clothing “factories,” in New York City although most of these places had but a few hands. Many of these minuscule manufacturing concerns were owned by Jews.18
The career of the German immigrant Henry Sonneborn exemplifies the success of that handful of clothing manufacturers who were outstanding in their achievements. Sonneborn, born in 1826, went to work at fifteen to help support a large family. He and his brother Jonas were in the skin, fur, and cattle trade. In 1849 at the age of twenty-three he and Jonas landed in Philadelphia. Jonas went on to Baltimore but Henry, without funds, remained behind till Baltimore relatives advanced him the few dollars to travel on to Maryland. After peddling among the Pennsylvania Germans and saving a little Henry established a store in the western part of Virginia and when that was successful opened branches in Wisconsin and Ohio. From a store in Baltimore which became his headquarters in the early 1850’s he began manufacturing his outlets. When times were hard he want on the road himself, remaining away for months till he disposed of his surplus stock. In 1855 he sold his store to his brothers and concentrated on manufacturing solely for the wholesale trade. Fifty years later, still at the helm, he was operating the largest men’s clothing factory in the world with a daily production of 3,000 suits. He employed 2,000 workers. Sonneborn was not the only large-scale Baltimore clothing manufacturer. There were at least seven other Jews in the business who employed a thousand or more hands. When in his later years Sonneborn went to Long Branch for the summer he rented a special railroad car to carry him, eleven servants, his coachmen, stablemen, carriages, and horses.19
JEWS IN THE CLOTHING INDUSTRY, 1860’S–1870’S
During the Civil War enterprising Jewish merchants in various states of the North began to manufacture clothing, spurred on by contracts for uniforms. By that time clothing had become a national industry; in the decade after 1850 production had increased 400 percent to $200,000,000; Jews were becoming increasingly important as manufacturers. Cincinnati as a gateway to the South and West, was reputed to be the most important clothing market in the country next to New York City. The manufacture of men’s garments was Cincinnati’s largest industry. Away from the coast, in addition to Cincinnati, the cities of Chicago, Rochester, and Detroit began to make their presence felt as manufacturing centers. The percentage of clothiers in Rochester was very high.
The growth of manufacturing continued. By the 1870’s Jews in many towns and cities were not only retailing and wholesaling men’s and women’s clothing and accessories but were turning in increasing numbers to manufacturing. In the late 1860’s most Jews in Charleston, South Carolina, were in soft goods; some Petersburg, Virginia, Jews had become manufacturers; every Jew in Pawtucket was in some form of the apparel business in 1878. At the same time most of the Jews in Los Angeles, retailers, wholesalers, and clerks were engaged in the sale of apparel and by the end of the century Jewish Californians were beginning to manufacture sportswear and casual clothes. During the 1880’s American Jews were well on their way to dominating the nation’s apparel industry. The swarm of East Europeans who debarked at Castle Garden and other eastern ports provided an adequate and cheap labor force. During this decade certain clothing centers began to stand out; New York was followed by Baltimore; then came Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Cincinnati had been bypassed. Apparel was now the leading industry in Baltimore; the Jews in town made men’s suits, boots, shoes, hats, and caps; wholesalers sold large quantities of dry goods. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Cleveland, and Milwaukee had become important nationally in the production of men’s garments. One Buffalo house employed 1,500 workers; by the 1890’s Milwaukee Jewry controlled the city’s clothing manufacturing.20
JEWS IN THE NEW YORK CITY AND CHICAGO CLOTHING INDUSTRY IN THE 1880’S
There seems to be little question that by the 1880’s the New York City apparel industry was largely in the hands of Jews. They were equally active in retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing, producing, selling, and mailing men’s and women’s and children’s apparel and accessories. About the year 1888 the annual transactions of the Jewish wholesalers alone in clothing and its allied branches amounted to about $100,000,000. These New Yorkers shipped their well-styled goods to all parts of the country offering reliable merchants easy credit.
It was during those years, in 1887 to be exact, that Max and Harry Hart together with Joseph Schaffner and Marcus Marx established the men’s clothing firm of Hart, Schaffner & Marx in Chicago. The Harts, sons of a butcher, had come to the Illinois city in the late 1850’s. In the early 1870’s the two sons Harry and Max became clothiers and in 1872 they opened a wholesale house together with some in-laws who had capital to invest. Marx was one of these investors. In the late 1880’s Joseph Schaffner joined the firm as a creditman and bookkeeper. Hart, Schaffner & Marx was a competent, far-visioned, aggressive company. Instead of loading its drummers down with huge trunks it sent them out with swatches. It was the intrinsic merit of the garment that was to sell the goods, not the persuasive powers of a glib drummer. The company offered the retailers high quality, excellent style, a nationally advertised brand; its garments, made in factories not sweatshops, were all wool, with guaranteed color fastness. The label was its bond. Thus in a sense Hart, Schaffner & Marx revolutionized the men’s clothing industry. When the soldiers of World War I were about to embark for home after the Armistice they were greeted in France by banners assuring them that Hart, Schaffner & Marx would provide them with a good garment for their return to civilian garb.21
THE EAST EUROPEAN JEWS AND THE SWEATSHOP
When in the late 1880’s Hart, Schaffner & Marx was established, many, possibly the majority of the workers in its Chicago factory, were East European Jews. This was certainly true of the New York City garment industry in the 1880’s and probably equally true in many other garment centers. This was probably the one industry in the United States in which many of the employers and the employees were both of Jewish origin; thus the apparel trade was doubly Jewish. The East Europeans, Russians, Poles, fleeing from oppression and buoyed up by the hope of bettering themselves thronged to the clothing factories and sweatshops. Quite a number of the newcomers who came later, around the turn of the century, had already served their apprenticeship in the needle trades in the lands of their nativity. For many making clothes was a stopgap job; they were biding their time till something better offered itself.
The workers in the industry in the late nineteenth century had a hard time. Most garments were made not in factories, inside shops, but in tenement houses, outside shops. Conditions in the inside shops were anything but ideal; the outside shops were much worse. These tenement house workrooms were sweatshops. In simple terms this meant that men and women and some children, too, worked for long hours at low wages in unsanitary quarters. It was not unusual to eat, sleep, and work in the same room. The problems were exacerbated by the fact that the work they did was associated with the contract system. The laborers worked for subcontractors or contractors who in turn had received the garments to be made up from the owners of the factories. The contract system was a bitterly competitive one. Immigrants pitted against immigrants were driven to complete a task in a limited time. Men and women worked in teams often performing but one operation on a garment; speed was imperative. The laborers submitted to this exploitation because often they had no choice; impoverished they needed the job immediately; the pious among them knew they would not have to work on the Sabbath and for them this was very important.
These needleworkers labored for long hours at little pay. Beyond this generalization it is difficult to be more precise. Much of the work was seasonal; the garments had to be turned out in a hurry to satisfy the demands of the factory owners and the impatient wholesalers and retailers. Twelve to sixteen hours labor in home shops was not an unusual stint. In season, in extreme cases, a man or woman even worked as much as twenty hours a day. Wages varied radically. The skilled cutter was well paid; the unskilled might receive as little as $3 a week. By 1900 a needleworker, a man, could make as much as $600 a year; women often made less than half. The Jewish contractors, subcontractors, and workers did not create the sweatshop. They inherited it from England and earlier American industries. Tenement house production probably goes back to mid-century. Working conditions were bad in the 1880’s, somewhat better in the 1890’s as tenement house inspection was more thorough. More and more of the manufacturing was gradually moved from the home to the factory where unions and strikes helped the craftsmen. Yet the sweatshops were to continue for decades depending upon the state of the economy, the enforcement of socially oriented legislation, and the power of public opinion. As late as 1900 more garments were still being made in the outside than in the inside shops. The sorry conditions under which the operators lived continued to wreak havoc with their marital and social life and also with their relations with their more Americanized children. Yet it would be totally wrong to depict these Jewish artisans of the 1880’s and 1890’s as helots. They probably made more and ate better than the typical American proletarian and in some respects they probably also had a better life than the average American farmer. The tenement house clothing worker had his Yiddish newspaper, his theatre, his confraternity; he enjoyed and relished the opportunities and the challenges of a large city.22
JEWISH SUCCESS IN APPAREL AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
Among the Yiddish-speaking émigrés who came to these shores in the 1880’s was the Galician Louis Borgenicht. As with his contemporaries it was a while before he found himself: he peddled, presided over a pushcart, sold socks, pots, and pans, made and peddled children’s aprons and dresses, and finally mass produced stylish wash, silk, and woolen garments for women. As early as 1889 he had developed the children’s clothing industry and was hailed as the King of the Children’s Dress Trade. His sales ran into the millions. The Borgenicht story is ample evidence that even before 1890 the East Europeans were beginning to compete with the Germans in the garment trade. Another East European who was to make a notable success was the Russian-born Henry A. Dickstein, over forty on his arrival here. Later he changed his name to Dix. After arriving in the United States in 1892 he farmed near the Jewish agricultural colony of Woodbine, New Jersey. He probed in several areas before he found what he wanted. He opened a dry goods store in Millville and began peddling women’s wrappers and dresses. It was not long before he decided to manufacture his own wares, producing better, more stylish garments, made of good materials and carrying his own label. In the three factories which he later established he specialized in uniforms for maids, waitresses, and nurses, and ultimately he designed the World War I uniform worn by the nurses in the army and navy. By 1914, after he had acquired substantial wealth, he turned his business over to his employees.
Borgenicht and Dix both manufactured women’s clothes signaling the growing market of the late nineteenth century for women’s garments to be sold in the specialty and department stores. By 1900 over 2,700 shops were making women’s garments; 800 were producing women’s hats and bonnets and there were more than 1,000 factories manufacturing women’s hosiery and knit goods. A substantial percentage of the owners and workers was Jewish. During this first decade of the new century the Jews of New York City, natives, Germans, and East European immigrants, reaffirmed unquestionably their leadership in the apparel trade. Jewish manufacturers made the finest ready-to-wear garments in the country; they produced more goods than all the other cities put together. At the same time Jewish needleworkers still predominated in New York shops and factories. They constituted about 75 percent of the work force although the Italians were beginning to make their presence felt. Eager to better themselves the Jews were slowly leaving the industry for white-collar service jobs. Many of them began to move out of the Lower East Side and to inch their way up town or move to the Island. If they remained in the apparel trade, “Jewish hardware,” they became clerks, accountants, contractors, retailers, and manufacturers rather than laborers. In 1980 production in the industry amounted to about $241,000,000; by 1914 the transactions were well over a billion.23
The apparel industry, the labor unions, and the larger “labor movement” are an integral part of the history of American economic life, of the immigrants, of labor, and of the Jews in this land. Because Jewish workingmen were exploited by their employers they were moved in the 1880’s to unite in unions of their own in order to improve their lot. They wanted a shorter work week, steady work, more hygienic surroundings, better wages, fewer layoffs in the slack season, and the elimination of the sweatshops with their various speedup systems. Constantly before their eyes was the example of many other American wage earners who, facing economic oppression, were united and uniting in organizations in order to secure better conditions for themselves. It was not easy for the immigrant Jews to join together to defend themselves. Most of them had no union or proletarian traditions. As yet few had worked or suffered under the new industry for long. During the 1880’s the East European newcomers, particularly the Russians, began to organize various types of labor societies in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; some of the cloth hat and cap workers established a union of their own. The Socialist Labor Party created a Yiddish-speaking section and some brilliant able socialist and anarchist radicals gave the disorganized toiling masses a degree of leadership. Labor was organized from the top down by such socialists as Abe Cahan and Morris Hillquit.24
United Hebrew Trades
The creation in 1888 of a Yiddish federation of local unions marked the beginning of the Yiddish-speaking labor movement in earnest. Why Yiddish? It was the language the workers knew and with which they felt comfortable. They were frightened aliens struggling to survive and they needed familiar friendly surroundings. It took almost a full generation, until about 1910, before the United Hebrew Trades (UHT) came of age through the magic of successful strikes. By 1920 it could proudly point to about 100 affiliated unions. Close to 250,000 workers—not all Jews incidentally—used the UHT as their labor clearing house. More than two dozen categories of apparel workers alone belonged to this central agency; in addition it included a host of locals from chandelier workers to live poultry handlers. As early as 1900 the ladies’ garment workers had a national organization of sorts; two years later the cloth hat and cap workers had succeeded in uniting their various locals. These overall organizations, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers were anything but effective at that stage.
During the period from 1880 to 1910 the unions and strikers—and they struck often—were on the whole unsuccessful. Why was this? It should not be forgotten that the general union movement among the American non-Jewish masses was weak. Not many of the country’s breadwinners were organized. The non-Jewish unions had little sympathy for the Yiddish-speaking newcomers; the Gentiles did not want them in their unions. The manufacturers in the apparel industry were well organized; the public eyed all radicals with distrust and the Jewish jobholders themselves were capitalistically motivated. They hoped one day to go into business for themselves. Recessions and depressions recurred with monotonous regularity, undercutting the unions. It took the Jews thirty years to establish successful unions; viewed from the vantage of American labor history this is a relatively rapid and creditable achievement. Jews were individualists; even after a successful strike they dropped out of the union, paid no dues, and built up no strike funds. The socialist leaders were not primarily interested in building strong unions; they were humanitarians, internationalists, who wanted a separate Marxist party, one powerful enough to change the whole American political system. The typical Jew in the union was not an anarchist or socialist; he was a religionist, a Jewish ethnicist, a breadwinner who wanted better conditions immediately not Marxist promises.
The three decades from 1880 to 1910 were years of wandering in the wilderness. The Jews won a few strikes; they lost more, but they were learning how to fight for themselves. After 1910 the times were more propitious; this was the Theodore Roosevelt Age of Progressivism and the sympathetic muckrakers. The non-Jewish unionists, improving themselves constantly, were an example to the foreigners eager to help themselves, to better the working conditions of their unskilled and their many women laborers who had no place in the general craft unions. Young educated radical revolutionists coming to these shores from Russia after the 1905 uprising provided new leadership. Some of these newcomers, militant socialists, were also Yiddish-oriented, for they had been influenced by the General Federation of Jewish Workers, the Bund. Their cosmopolitanism was modified by Jewish Diaspora nationalism. Here in the United States the year 1909 marked the great divide between struggle and victory. That year the waist and dressmakers, led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, won their first important strike. An army of women, mostly Jewish, rose in revolt. This is the famous Uprising of the 20,000 that was sparked at a crucial movement of indecision by the impassioned appeal of the young Clara Lemlich. Many non-Jews and Jews in the New York community supported the women on the picket lines. The strike lasted from November 1909 to February 1910, and won the union a fifty-two hour week. This was a step forward.25
The Cloakmakers’ Strike, July, 1910
The Uprising of the 20,000 was followed by the Great Revolt. A few months after the waist and dressmakers ended their struggle the wage earners in the New York City cloak industry crossed swords with the employers. Because the contestants on both sides were Jews the Jewish elite was concerned lest the image of the Jew be besmirched. The strikers, possibly as many as 60,000, had the support of the Yiddish press, the United Hebrew Trades, and the powerful socialist Jewish Workmen’s Circle, a fraternal order. Public opinion was with the workers; the American Federation of Labor was helpful and men of consequence like A. Lincoln Filene, Louis B. Brandeis, Jacob H. Schiff, and Louis Marshall were concerned. They were troubled by this conflict between Jew and Jew, disturbed by the employers’ resort to injunctions and shamed by the brutality of the police. The workers were partially victorious. Brandeis and his confreres set up a Protocol of Peace that brought the revolters a preferential shop that favored union members; they won a fifty-hour week, a joint board of sanitary control to cope with unhygienic shops, and a prohibition against subcontracting, an effort to eliminate the sweatshop. Instruments were established to deal with grievances, to provide conciliation and arbitration. All this by September, 1910. Unionism among Jews in the women’s garment industry was on its way; by the end of the decade the manufacturers in Chicago and Cleveland made their peace with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers.26
The Chicago Men’s Clothing Strike
Following on the heels of the cloakmaker strike in New York, 40,000 workers in the Chicago men’s clothing industry joined battle with the manufacturers. Here, too, many of the employers were Jews. This general strike was called albeit reluctantly by the United Garment Workers. The UGW, most of whose members were American-born men engaged in the production of work clothes, was a skilled craft union with little understanding of the hopes and needs of the immigrant men and women, skilled and unskilled, who labored in the men’s clothing industry. The leaders and the rank and file in this struggle were Jews. When the strike was settled in January, 1911, the workmen, as in New York, emerged with only a few gains. Yet the effort was not in vain; one company, but a very large one, made its peace with the strikers. This was Hart, Schaffner & Marx which accepted mediation, the establishment of arbitration machinery, and improved hygienic conditions in its factory. The importance of the HS&M agreement was that it became exemplary for the industry. If this Chicago manufacturer came to terms with the employees it was largely through the influence of Joseph Schaffner, an enlightened man; he saw the need for workmen and work givers, employees and employers, to come to an understanding. Schaffner was not the only manufacturer who viewed his problems with some vision and detachment. Marcus M. Marks, a New York clothing manufacturer and president of the National Association of Clothiers, was interested in stabilizing the relations between the two disparate forces.27
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1914
The success—limited, to be sure—of the Chicago clothing workers certainly stimulated their New York counterparts to try their luck. Embittered by long hours, low wages, and the speedup system the craftsmen went out on strike in 1912 under the aegis of the United Garment Workers. Here, too, a partial victory was gained. The workers secured a fifty-three hour week, an increase in wages, and better working conditions in the shops and factories. In 1914 at the national convention of the UGW in Nashville most of the Jewish delegates seceded. They had never trusted the leadership despite the inclusion of some Jewish executives. The seceders immediately created a central of their own, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Within a decade or so this Jewish-controlled union was destined to become the dominant workmen’s organization in the dress clothing industry. Because of a commitment to the United Garment Workers and the objection to dual unionism, the American Federation of Labor refused to acknowledge the new union. Nevertheless with the coming of World War I and the tremendous demand for uniforms, the new union, now an international, prospered.
In 1915 the men in the Amalgamated elected Sidney Hillman (1887-1946) as their president. Hillman was a Lithuanian rabbinical student who turned revolutionary in 1904 and 1905 at the time of the Russian uprisings. After languishing in jail for a time he came to the United States by way of England and in 1909 was in Chicago working for Hart, Schaffner & Marx. When the strike erupted he was one of the leaders. In 1914 he moved to New York where he soon accepted the challenge to serve as the head of the new men’s clothing international. Hillman expressed his willingness to work closely with the owners of the factories; he believed in management-worker cooperation and as early as 1911 approved heartily of the impartial arbitration plan set up in the settlement with Hart, Schaffner & Marx. Slowly, but steadily, he carved out a great career for himself at the helm of the Amalgamated: in 1915 he organized the men’s clothing industry in New York City; by 1920 he had won a forty-four hour week and had unionized Rochester and Chicago; Cincinnati and Philadelphia were brought into line in the 1920’s. Unaffiliated with the AFL and leading an industrial rather than a craft union, he helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930’s. At the same time he also made a determined effort to organize the textile workers in silk, rayon, and cotton factories. In 1937, he won the first national bargaining agreement in the men’s clothing industry.
Hillman was one of the big labor men in Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. From 1933 to 1942 he was to occupy very prestigious posts on the Labor Advisory Board, the National Industrial Recovery Board, in the National Youth Administration, on the National Defense Advisory Commission, and in the Office of Production Management during World War II. In the much more parochial world of the Amalgamated Hillman continued to work for labor banking, housing, and food cooperatives, unemployment insurance, and good management-labor relations. In an effort to salvage a factory he lent a clothing manufacturer $100,000. In a very untraditional fashion, Hillman, too, was a Horatio Alger success.28
THE LABOR MOVEMENT
The Jewish labor movement is not to be identified solely with the unions. The two are not coextensive. The unions are but a part of the workingman’s lower middle-class world which included the United Hebrew Trades, the four national (international) needleworkers’ unions, Jewish locals in general unions, Marxist Yiddish literature, mutual-aid fraternities, Marxist Yiddish secular schools, and socialist political parties. Politically the men and women in the labor movement variously identified with the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel De Leon, with the Socialist Party, and with the Zionist group, the Workers for Zion, Poale Zion.
A group of Jewish workers starting out as a mutual-aid society in the 1890’s had by 1900 created a large vigorous order called the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) which soon had hundreds of branches and myriads of members. The Workmen’s Circle devotees were socialist, anti-Zionist, culturally Yiddishist. They later opened a series of secular schools where they could freely cultivate their mother tongue and make the effort to harmonize the clashing culture of the children and their foreign-born parents. The Arbeter Ring encouraged the development of a Jewish Socialist Federation to tie the socialist societies together. In the early twentieth-century world of an expanding American liberalism, socialism grew, too, especially among the Jewish immigrants. The degrees of adherence to Marxist internationalism varied; ambivalences were almost the rule; a parochial devotion to Yiddish and its culture, to Jewry and to Jewish folkways was often in conflict with classical Marxism. Jewish Diaspora ethnicism and Palestinian Zionism were often at variance with socialist universalist ideals. Even as the Diaspora cultural nationalists had created their own labor order, the Workmen’s Circle, the much smaller Poale Zion had created a mutual-aid organization, the Jewish National Workers Alliance of America (Farband) which was socialist and Yiddish culturally but strongly Zionist, commingling, to its own satisfaction, universalism and Jewish nationalism. The Farband, too, had its own schools, the National Radical Schools, where it hoped to indoctrinate the children with its way of life.29
The labor movement was nothing if not a literary movement. When the Jewish intellectuals and labor radicals started to work with the masses in New York City they created a Yiddish labor press; this was in the 1880’s. From the 1890’s on there were a number of Socialist Party organs and papers. The Socialist Laborites issued the Abendblatt, the Arbeiter Zeitung, and the more literary Zukunft; the anarchists published the Freie Arbeter Stimme, a weekly of considerable quality. Most of these early Yiddish periodicals were under the influence of De Leon and the Socialist Laborites who attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish a National Labor Federation to rival Gompers’ American Federation. Eventually most Jewish socialists joined the new Socialist Party of America that was founded in 1901. The most important paper of all was the Forward (Forverts) which became a powerful influence on the Lower East Side under the brilliant editorial guidance of Abraham Cahan. About the year 1916 it had a circulation of close to 200,000. Despite its occasionally negative attitude towards specific Jewish communal concerns, the extensive labor press was instrumental in furthering Yiddish culture, although, of course, the Yiddish literary upsurge of the early twentieth century was by no means coterminous with the radical press. The flowering of Yiddish literature before 1920 produced five Yiddish dailies in New York City, a host of weeklies and monthlies, family journals, party, professional, and trade organs, neighborhood papers, juvenile periodicals, and even a humorous weekly. In every major Jewish American population center there was a deep and lively interest in Yiddish belles lettres, poetry, drama, and fiction. In a way it is tragic that this literature, tremendous in size and scope, was transitional, ephemeral—most of the newspapers have long since died—yet it is fortunate that in this age of the printed word much of this material has been preserved for the enlightenment and delight of future historians and connoisseurs of American Jewish culture.
The union leaders, the readers of the various socialist and anarchist papers, and many if not all members of the Marxist parties lived in a narrow Jewish world of their own despite their universalist dreams. Theirs was a cultural enclave. They were non-religious if not anti-religious; most of them were anti-Zionist; they had little in common with the older native-born Jewish settlers and the middle-class German Jewish businessmen who were often their bosses in the factories. They clashed often and bitterly with the majority of their own East European fellow immigrants. In short they were schismatic and they were to remain such for years; the tie that held all East Side Jews together was their common geographical provenance, their common idiom, Yiddish, Jewish ethnicism that even most socialists never deserted, and the constant recurrent killings in Russia and in Rumania. Blood can become a stronger cement than Marxist dialectics. Whether they knew it or not the Jewish unionist leaders, despite the fences they had built about themselves, were moving into the general American if not the Jewish ambit. They were being drawn into a bourgeois world from which they could not escape. It would take time, almost a decade, but for better or for worse they would inevitably assimilate the Gompers strategy; they would cease to build the Socialist Party and concentrate on building stronger unions. There was a slow subtle shift; the unions began to take the place of the party, for it was the unions that now determined political affiliation and supported Yiddish culture, the labor fraternities, and the press itself. Even the very leaders, at one time irreconcilable doctrinaire socialists, began to reach out toward the middle classes and their way of life. All this is a form of Americanization; above all the workers were concerned with immediate economic gains. Some of them, probably many, retained their proletarian sympathies but left the unions for careers in commerce and in the professions.
As the career of the socialist Sidney Hillman demonstrates, the greatest success of the needle unions came with the beneficent New Deal government of the 1930’s. By then the Americanizing, Gompersizing tendencies in the Marxist-led unions were in the ascendant. The men and their leaders did not wish to break with the capitalist employers; the unions were ready to bargain and to compromise not to wage war. It is true that many New York Jews still voted the Socialist ticket. This is because these Jews were liberals aud were disillusioned with Tammany; they were idealistic humanitarian children of a Progressive Age. Although Socialist Party membership was not to exceed 120,000, in 1912 about 900,000 Jews and Gentiles, liberals, voted for Socialist candidates. Nothing indicates better the integration of the Jewish apparel unions into the American labor union system than their conduct during the steel strike of 1919. This strike, led by the A.F. of L. was supported by twenty-four of its international unions. Three Jewish needle unions—one of which was not even in the A.F. of L.—contributed almost $200,000 to the strikers’ war chest. This was more than the amount that all of the twenty-some other unions had managed to collect and contribute. By this act Jewish unions manifested their solidarity with their American fellow workers and documented their identification with the labor movement.30
During World War I Jewish labor was slow to support the Allies who included brutal Russia which was murdering their kin; and when the czarist government was replaced by a new Marxist one in 1917 and withdrew from the war, Jewish socialist union leaders here, anti-war in principle, saw no reason to aid in a conflict where wage earners killed one another. Yet by 1918 the men in the unions had already begun to divorce themselves politically if not emotionally from the anti-war socialists. These immigrant Jews began to think of themselves more and more as American nationals. And as the next decade came to a close, by 1930 at the latest, they would cease to be schismatic Jews. They would still be religious neutralists, indifferentists, but they would move more and more to the right evincing sympathy for Zionism and for the whole body of Jewry, both here and abroad. All this, however, was thanks to American anti-Semitism and the rise of Hitler in Germany.
The prime beneficiaries of the Jewish labor unions were the members themselves. “Greenhorns,” untutored foreigners who were sadly exploited by the prevailing economic system, were helped by the new unions to become well-organized, highly paid craftsmen, producing their wares under excellent working conditions. They became part of the mainstream of American labor and life. The unions also gradually provided their members with excellent recreational facilities and medical and dental advice. As far back as the second decade of the century, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union had pioneered in establishing an exemplary Union Health Center. Credit unions, educational and cultural programs, and unemployment insurance to reduce the hazards of joblessness in the days before there was any social security legislation were also offered by the unions. Not all these programs were successful but they do manifest the concern of the leaders for the welfare of the members.
The Jewish labor movement as a whole was intent on improving sanitary conditions in the shops and in furthering industrial peace through arbitration and other devices. If in the years after 1920 the garment unions were exemplary it was primarily in their methods of collective bargaining, for they were committed to a policy of employee-employer cooperation that could only redound to the benefit of both and ultimately to the consumer who hoped for order and peace in the economy. The unions were partners in industry, not enemies of the owners. The workers’ leaders encouraged technological change, scientific management, industrial efficiency, the maintenance and the heightening of production standards after they had been carefully researched. This was truly industrial responsibility, an attitude and a quality that was almost unique. This sense of responsibility to capitalist enterprise was complemented by a feeling of responsibility to the community at large; the needleworkers were committed to social security legislation, the elimination of slums, and an ardent desire to improve the social, political, and cultural conditions of the communities in which they had taken root.31
DISTRIBUTION AND SERVICE IN THE ECONOMY
All in all considering the paucity of their number even in urban centers, Jews in industry were not insignificant. As late as 1920 the Jews did not constitute more than about 3.5 percent of the country’s inhabitants. If in general, however, viewing manufacturers as a whole, the Jews did not loom large, they were nevertheless of importance in the distribution of goods and in the areas of service. There were, for example, many Jewish wholesalers; it was reported in 1888 that of the 1,200 wholesale houses on Broadway, 1,000 were owned by Jews. These wholesale businessmen, whose only customers were retailers, were in all branches of the apparel industry. They were found in every city of size in the country, often in the smaller towns where they served retailers in the still smaller villages of the region. Some of the larger wholesalers had retail outlets either completely controlled or partially subsidized while many of the smaller wholesalers ran very modest businesses established by coopting partners—relatives and intimates—and the pooling of funds. If the business prospered the partners tended to separate and to bring their children into their respective enterprises.
Some of these businesses assumed very substantial proportions, employing hundreds, for the most part fellow Jews. Their founders were men of outstanding ability. Typical of the great wholesalers was the career of Nathan Bloom (1826-1887). After learning the ways of the land as a peddler this Central European immigrant opened a store in a Kentucky village, and after acquiring some capital moved on to Louisville where he established a small dry goods shop. This ultimately grew into a wholesale house that in the 1880’s was reputed to be one of the largest in the South. His surplus funds went into banking, insurance, and a gas company. The largest wholesale dry goods concern in Galveston, if not in Texas, was that of Leon and Hyman Blum; their profits were invested in livestock and land enterprises and at one time they owned large parcels in dozens of Texas counties. The Menkens of Memphis were among the leaders in their field. Originally Cincinnatians the family had settled in the Tennessee metropolis, but were bankrupted by the Civil War. Eventually they paid all their creditors who were so grateful that they gave the Menkens a dinner at Delmonicos in New York and presented each member of the firm with a silver service. One of the brothers was Nathan, an attorney and a war veteran, who married Sallie Andrews, a descendant of Haym Salomon, the Revolutionary War broker. Nathan, an active civic reformer, remained in Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, nursing stricken fellow citizens till he himself fell a victim. He was only forty-two years of age at the time of his death.
Wholesalers and the Jews among them were mass distributors, important for the goods they provided and the credit they extended. One cannot overemphasize their importance in the American economy because of the variety of goods they provided, for their patience in carrying the petty retailers, and for the encouragement they offered young beginners. They took the long-term notes of the small country shopkeepers and turned them over to the manufacturers and suppliers who discounted them. The wholesalers employed bookkeepers, stock boys, floor salesmen, and drummers who scoured the countryside managing somehow or other to transport their sample cases and their trunks. Not infrequently a stock boy or a clerk or an accountant made his way to the top. Joseph Schaffner of Hart, Schaffner & Marx was brought into the business because he was a competent bookkeeper.
Another bookkeeper who became a successful businessman, Samuel Ach (b. 1860) of Dayton, got his first start at the age of twelve after graduating from a commercial college. He then went to work for a newspaper which paid him $3 a week; later a sewing machine company gave him $10 a week, and allowed him to sign checks although he was still a teenager. After his family moved to Augusta, Georgia, he earned $50 a month in a dry goods business. It was then that Ach and his brothers made their father quit business for he lost whatever money the boys made. Returning to the North, Ach kept books for a millinery house in Indianapolis which took him in as a partner. By that time he was twenty-three. Soon after he went into the wholesale millinery business for himself in Cincinnati and remained there for the rest of his life. He was still short of capital, so poor that he had to borrow money to buy a wedding ring. He was his own drummer. On one occasion when he was leaving to go down the Ohio to Ripley his wife accompanied him to the wharf. He refused to kiss her in public, he was too embarrassed; and when his sample trunk fell into the river his wife said God had punished him because he refused to kiss her goodby. Ach was a successful wholesaler, highly respected in the general community of Cincinnati which elected him as county treasurer.32
JEWS AND THE MAIL-ORDER BUSINESS
In this business of distributing merchandise the retailer was of course as important as the wholesaler. The retailer was closer to the ultimate buyer, the consumer. In order to increase sales some retailers resorted to advertising, by no means unusual in American commerce. Numbers of American Jewish businessmen had been constant advertisers as early as the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century aggressive Jewish businessmen in the apparel industry, both wholesalers and retailers, were writing striking, clever, exotic ads to catch the eye. Some of these advertisers were widely known for the slogans they invented. Arthur Guggenheim, general manager for Spear & Company, a large furniture business with interests in Pittsburgh, was to become president of the National Retail Furniture Association. It was he who titillated his generation with the following phrases: “You furnish the girl; we’ll furnish the home.” “Let us feather your nest.” Albert Davis Lasker (d. 1952) was one of the best-known advertising men of the early twentieth century. Lasker was a Galvestonian, a son of Morris who had settled in Texas before the Civil War, fought Indians, and served in the Confederate Army. After the War he became a very successful merchant and banker. Young Albert was already working as a drama critic for a local newspaper when still in high school. At the age of eighteen he went to work for Lord & Thomas, a Chicago advertising firm, and before he was thirty he was chairman of the board. He succeeded in making it the largest advertising company in the world. After World War I he was in charge of the publicity department of the Republican National Committee; later he was appointed chairman of the United States Shipping Board and soon made rapid progress in rehabilitating the American merchant marine. Lasker, who was very much interested in baseball, was one of the owners of the Chicago Cubs and suggested the appointment of a “czar” to help solve baseball’s problems.
It was inevitable that wholesalers who appreciated the importance of advertising would think of bypassing the retailers by appealing directly to the consumers saving the middleman’s profit and increasing sales by selling cheaper. Catalogues were accordingly printed, often huge in size, and sent out by the millions to farmers, villagers, and townspeople. Jews were in no sense the originators of this technique of selling goods. Montgomery Ward & Company was already pioneering in this field in 1872. In itself mail-order solicitation was not new; it was not uncommon in colonial times when Hayman Levy, an able ingenious merchant, advertised that he would pay the postage on goods shipped to mail-order customers. In the early 1880’s David Lubin in nineteenth-century California encouraged customers to buy through the mails, and Adolphus W. Rich of Milwaukee issued a catalogue of eighty pages. Most of these soliciting merchants, Levy, Lubin, Rich, were retailers rather than wholesalers but the Charlestonian, M. Hornik of Hornik’s Bargain House, was a wholesaler who sent out 40,000 catalogues to retailers in the early years of the twentieth century. Modie Spiegel sold mail-order customers on the installment credit plan. To compensate for the hazards of losses, the wares he offered were not of high quality; no credit was extended to blacks. One of the most important companies in mail-order solicitation of retailers was the Baltimore Bargain House, the creation of Jacob Epstein (b. 1864), a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant. Epstein, who was later to attain recognition as an art collector and philanthropist, employed about 1,000 persons in his business in 1910 when his sales ran around $1,000,000 a month.
The Baltimore Bargain House appealed only to retailers; the largest of all mail-order companies, Sears, Roebuck & Company, sought the patronage of consumers only. It was developed primarily by one man, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932). This native of Springfield, Illinois, joined the company in 1895. Prior to this, Richard W. Sears, a brilliant salesman, was head of a small mail-order business which he founded in the late 1880’s. Rosenwald, son of a successful retailer, had worked as a stock boy in a New York City wholesale clothing house, had spent time as a retailer, a drummer, and even operated a retail store of his own in the great metropolis. Then in 1885 he moved to Chicago where he became a clothing manufacturer. Years later after he joined forces with Sears, he distinguished himself as a financier and organizer. His catalogues became one of America’s most widespread and influential books. Rosenwald bought directly from the manufacturer, building a great business on integrity: honest advertising, quality goods, and a moneyback guarantee that brooked no compromise. Through the innumerable articles that he sold to the farmers and villagers of the hinterland, he helped to raise the standard of living for a host of Americans. The company under his guidance provided farm advisory service for the farmer and his wife and supported the county agent in furthering agriculture. It encouraged corn and cotton growth and showed its concern for its own employees by establishing a pension and profit-sharing fund for them. By 1920 Sears, Roebuck with its millions of customers did a business of well over $150,000,000 a year.33
The mail-order house is a department store which sells almost anything, but only through the mails, by catalogue. The department stores, especially in the late twentieth century, have also resorted to the device of selling by catalogue, but such sales have not been characteristic of the industry. In essence the modern day department store is a large general store where one makes purchases in person. It is an updated version of the urban colonial general store, like the Newport shop of Aaron Lopez where one could buy or order anything from a needle to a ship’s mast. By the 1830’s, if not earlier, the merchants and the Jews among them, had begun specializing. They were clothiers and sellers of dry goods, notions, and trimmings. Lyon J. Levy of Philadelphia operated a beautiful dry goods store. Large enterprises of this type were often described as bazaars or mammoth dry goods and fancy goods establishments. Many if not all of them sold on credit. By the 1860’s and 1870’s America witnessed the beginnings of the department store. It sold a wide variety of wares in a large open building that was centrally heated. Ultimately elevators were introduced. Advertising was continuous in the daily press; there was no haggling and the money-back guarantee made its appearance. Jewish stores of the middle and late nineteenth century constantly bragged that they had introduced the one-price system. There is no decisive evidence to sustain this contention.
The American department store was probably influenced by European prototypes, especially the French. These mammoth new American enterprises were introduced by non-Jews; the German Jewish newcomers were as yet too poor to build big businesses. They were still struggling to stay alive commercially. By the 1880’s, however, the second or third generation of the “Germans” had the capital, the training, and the urge to build department stores out of the older family owned shops. There was nearly always one—or even two—member of the family who had the ability to think and build big: in a few instances the enterprise established by forebears is today still controlled by descendants. In absolute numbers very few Jews succeeded in building such huge bazaars towering over the hundreds of retail specialist stores. By the early twentieth century there was, however, at least one Jewish-owned department store in almost every city of size in the United States.34
It is not necessary to list and discuss all the Jewish department stores in this country. Begun as Jewish enterprises many of them are now publicly owned; very many of them are still managed by Jews. Filenes of Boston was one of the first to have a bargain basement where merchandise was automatically reduced if not sold speedily. The Foxes were in Hartford, the Bambergers in Newark. It was Louis Bamberger and his sister Mrs. Fuld who endowed the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton where Einstein taught and worked. The Snellenburg clan numbered several brothers, one of whom died on the battlefield in defence of the Union. Samuel, a former cigar maker, and brother Joseph ran a store in a small western Pennsylvania town. These two with another brother Nathan and a fourth partner, established N. Snellenburg & Company in Philadelphia. The company manufactured clothes, opened its own wholesale and retail house, and by the early 1890’s had built the retail division into one of the city’s large bazaars. All told the firm employed about 2,000 persons. Rachel P. Lit, also of Philadelphia, laid the foundations for Lit Brothers through her dress and millinery shop. The Hesses were in Allentown; the Hutzlers in Baltimore. Abraham G. Hutzler opened a small store in the 1850’s. Because he was not yet of age he was compelled to do business under the title of M. Hutzler & Son. Years later after the firm had prospered it set up a restaurant for its employees. Obviously the prices were not exorbitant: a ham sandwich sold for three cents; a sirloin steak for seven cents.35
Though William Thalhimer had already opened his place of business in Richmond in 1842 he still found time to serve as a voluntary leader of the service at Congregation Beth Ahabah. Slowly the business began to grow; by the late twentieth century Thalhimers had over twenty branches in a department store empire which extended south into North Carorlina and employed a work force of over 3,500. Loveman, Joseph, & Loeb of Birmingham, founded by a Hungarian-born peddler, was once reputed to be the largest department store in the South. The Riches were in Atlanta, the Sangers and Nieman-Marcus clans in Texas. Around the turn of the century the widely ramified collection of Sanger department stores matched the size of the state; in later years the Nieman-Marcus stores maintained a brilliant public relations policy and made Dallas one of the fashion centers of the country. The Kaufmans reigned in western Pennsylvania; the Halles in Cleveland, and the Lazaruses in Columbus and in Cincinnati. It was the merchandising genius of a Fred Lazarus II that brought to birth the Federated Department Stores whose branches and affiliates stretch from New York to California, from Abraham & Straus to Magnins and Bullocks.
The Gimbels started out in Vincennes, Indiana, under Adam Gimbel in 1842. There is very little evidence that Adam was a merchant outstanding in his generation, but his sons and grandsons built on the foundations he had laid. Their first department store was opened in Milwaukee in the 1880’s and in the course of the twentieth century they forged a chain of over sixty stores. When Adam’s sons opened their Milwaukee emporium they attached masses of roses to invisible wires and released a flock of 100 doves. Nearby Chicago sheltered a number of Jewish-owned department stores some of which have long since disappeared. One of the earliest was the Schlesinger & Mayer Company. Others were the Fair, the Hub, and Mandel Brothers. As early as the 1880’s the Mandels already had a department for art. By 1906 Henry Siegel of Siegel, Cooper & Company controlled five large bazaars. Stix, Baer, & Fuller was in St. Louis; Des Moines’s Yonker’s was the largest store in Iowa, and J. L. Brandeis & Sons built a bazaar in Omaha. Jonas L. Brandeis, the founder, was a young Bohemian tanner who came to the United States in 1855. He traded with Indians and bought furs in Wisconsin, established a peddler supply house, moved up to jobbing, and then shifted to the retail industry.
One of the largest department store chains in the country is that of the May Department Stores Company. It began with David May, a young immigrant who went to Colorado territory for his health. He started out in Leadville in the 1870’s and then moved north to Denver where he opened his new store with a whirlwind advertising campaign heralded by a brass band. His competitors, he solemnly announced, sold “camphorated clothing exhumed from the catacombs.” Aided by “in-laws” the Shoenbergs (Beaumont!) he succeeded after a few decades in establishing the Famous-Barr Company in St. Louis. Within a generation the May combine of over eighty stores was doing over $100,000,000 a year business. It included the Hecht stores in Baltimore and Washington and had branches as far west as the Pacific Coast. The Auerbachs had begun to trade in a tent in Rapid Creek, California, before moving east to Nevada; in the 1860’s they flourished in Ogden and Corinne before establishing themselves in Salt Lake, first as wholesalers and retailers and then settling down to build their department store, the Auerbach Company. Raphael Weill in San Francisco founded the White House quite obviously patterning itself in name at least on Paris’s Maison Blanche. Aaron Meier and Sigmund Frank peddled through Oregon before opening a small retail shop in Portland in the 1850’s. A century later the Meier & Frank Company was one of the West’s great retail showplaces. Aaron’s son Julius was elected governor of Oregon in 1931 inaugurating a reform administration that brought to Oregon good government for the first time in many years.36
Obviously metropolitan New York with its huge population and its many Jews was destined to become the home of several Jewish-owned department stores. Such establishments began to make their appearance in that city in the 1880’s, about about a generation after A. T. Stewart had welcomed the public into the largest retail store in the world at Ninth and Broadway. Ehrich Brothers, now no longer in existence, was very prominent in the 1880’s offering a free stage service for customers from the ferries to the store. Benjamin Altman and his brother built B. Altman from a small dry goods shop in 1867 to one of New York’s great bazaars. As early as 1888 the Altmans were already employing 1,600 persons. Benjamin Altman, an outstanding collector of American paintings and Chinese porcelains, left large legacies to his employees. Most of these merchant princes were German born; Lyman G. and Joseph R. Bloomingdale were natives who began their career in a modest dry goods shop with about $6,000 in wares. By the late 1880’s they employed 1,000 men and women and did an annual business of $3,000,000. Most of the people who worked for the Bloomingdales were “Hebrews” who no doubt appreciated the fact that the store closed on the Jewish Holy Days. It was however open on the Sabbath and a young German employee who had to labor on that day wept bitter tears as he wielded a hammer demolishing wooden boxes. By the 1920’s the business was grossing $24,000,000 a year.37
R. H. Macy & Company
During the 1880’s Isidor and Nathan Straus of Germany and Georgia began to buy into R. H. Macy & Company, then “the largest retail and fancy goods bazaar” in America. They made it even greater. Their father Lazarus (1808-1898) had come North from Talbotton and Columbus, Georgia, in 1865. One of the very first things Lazarus did was to visit George Bliss, a creditor, and offer to pay his pre-Civil War debts. Impressed by the man’s honesty Bliss told him to reserve some of his capital for his own needs and to pay off his obligations gradually. The following year Lazarus and his boys established L. Straus & Sons, a crockery, china, and glassware business. The father was almost sixty as he started a new life for himself in New York. The business prospered. By the 1870’s the Strauses had a concession selling crockery, china, glass, and silverware in Macy’s emporium. By the 1880’s they were partners in the Macy business, and about a decade later they controlled the enterprise. During the 1893 panic Isidor and Nathan, the two older sons, wished to buy out Joseph Wechsler of Wechsler & Abraham of Brooklyn. Needing a loan they went to the United States Trust Company whose president presented the petition to the board. George Bliss, a member of the board began asking questions, inquiring whether the firm was in the crockery business. Having identified the petitioners he finally said: “Well, if the old man is still in the firm he is good for anything to which he will put his name.” The Strauses got the money, bought Wechsler’s interest, and changed the name of the store from Wechsler & Abraham to Abraham & Straus.
The third Straus son, Oscar, the youngest, was the only one to receive a higher education. He became a lawyer, and went into politics and writing. Throughout his career he was always eager to further good government, good labor relations, and international peace. Later in life he became an ardent supporter of the League of Nations. The family helped him secure the appointment as minister to the Sublime Porte and no doubt made provision for him. In 1889 when he prepared to return from his first tour of duty at Constantinople and to reenter the family’s china business, Lazarus wrote him facetiously: “You must be prepared to take up your portfolio as minister to China, and I am sure if you display half as much energy in ‘China’ as you have in Turkey, it will make you a wiser, certainly a richer man.” As Secretary of Commerce and Labor under Theodore Roosevelt, Straus was responsible for the implementation of the immigration laws; Straus, the immigrant—and the Jew, too!—had come a long way. During the Bull Moose Progressive campaign of 1912, after he was nominated as the candidate for governor of New York, the convention crowds stood up and sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The Progressives had nominated him because they hoped he would capture the Jewish vote on the East Side and administer a drubbing to the Tammany machine.
Straus was a notable Jew, a founder of the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1874 and of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1892. The fate of his people—in Russia, Rumania, Palestine, as well as in the United States—always concerned him. Only Brandeis had a public career to equal his. Brandeis, however, would not affiliate with any synagog; he was not a religionist. Straus may well have been fortified in his Jewish loyalties by his father. In a German-English-Hebrew letter which Lazarus wrote to Oscar when he went to Constantinople in 1887 the parent admonished the son never to forget the proud affirmation of Jonah: “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, the God of Heaven” (Jonah, 1:9). Although Straus demonstrated no spark of genius, he was important in the history of the American Jew. He proved that a man could remain Jewish, patently so, and yet make a national political career. In a way he was typical of the second generation Americans of German Jewish descent who after achieving a degree of economic independence sought to serve the larger America. Straus’s successes proved that the Jews were coming into their own; his achievements and recognition were exemplary for the young Americans of East European provenance.38
Isidor was probably the ablest businessman of the three Straus sons. At the age of eighteen he ran the Union blockade to buy a ship and supplies for the South in Europe where he also made money by selling Confederate bonds and trading in cotton acceptances. Years later because of his interest in reform politics he sat in Congress for a term (1894-95), but refused twice to run for mayor of New York City. Unlike Oscar he was not interested in holding office. He served Jewish welfare institutions locally and nationally, and was for years the president of the Educational Alliance, probably the East Side’s most active and pervasive Americanizing agency. Isidor perished when the “Titanic” went down in 1912; his devoted wife Ida refused to leave the ship without him.
Nathan, the middle brother, was the most attractive of the triad. During the hard times of the early 1890’s and again in 1914-1915 this generous, kindly man distributed millions of tickets for food and coal at very modest prices. In Lakewood, New Jersey, where he occasionally spent the summer he built a church for Roman Catholics. During the 1890’s he and his family devoted themselves to fighting the ravages of tuberculosis. They were particularly concerned with saving the lives of children and infants by making sure that the milk they drank was pasteurized. Against bitter opposition they carried on a successful campaign to help reduce the infant mortality rates. More so even than Oscar and Isidor, Nathan was a devoted Jew and a fervent lover of Zion. One of the largest cities in Israel, Natanya, was named for him. In order to help the newcomers who were returning to the ancient homeland Nathan and his wife Lina established soup kitchens and health centers in Palestine spending large sums to further the infant settlements. In 1923 Nathan was acclaimed by the people of New York City for his work in the field of social welfare. It was then that ex-President William Howard Taft said of him: “Nathan Straus is a great Jew and the greatest Christian of us all.”39
Gigantic all-embracing department stores with their beautiful displays and mail-order houses with their endless variety of wares are fascinating. But in the second quarter of the twentieth century the independent retail store still accounted for about 70 percent of the country’s business. It was the small retailers who brought the goods to the people of America. If there is a typical Jewish homo economicus it is the person behind the counter: owner, manager, clerk. This conclusion is substantiated by almost any analysis of the city directories in every sizeable town in the United States.
Ever since the late seventeenth century, American Jews had been retailers with shops dealing in almost every commodity. In the country towns the tendency to handle varieties of wares continued down into the twentieth century; the storekeeper carried everything from a pistol to a saddle and ladies’ garters. In the larger towns and cities the retailer became a specialist; he sold dry goods and notions, or men’s garments and furnishings, millinery or shoes, tobacco or liquor or groceries. But as the nineteenth century merged into the twentieth there was no commodity sold in the cities in which some Jewish businessman did not specialize: furniture, paint, books, musical instruments (on the installment plan!), hair goods, and tombstones.
Though it was not easy for the capital-poor ambitious clerk or peddler to open a little shop, many of them made the effort, starting often in a village with a relative or a good friend as a partner. Even after the country store was already opened one of the partners would on occasion shoulder a pack or hire a wagon and go out on a peddling foray. And once they achieved even a modicum of success they began to branch out. The clothier Julius Houseman of Grand Rapids had outlets, strangely enough, in New York, Baltimore, and Savannah. Many were avid advertisers. Travelers on the distant Western Slope of Colorado could rehearse their English by reading on the huge boulders of the Rockies: “Go to Nathan Brothers for Clothing, Del Norte.” In a highly competitive world the Jews fought all comers with their bargain baits and their special sales. Sometimes they were lucky enough to win an almost built-in clientele. One Denver Jew saved a Chinese in a race riot and from that time on enjoyed a large Chinese patronage.
In the small towns and villages a place of business owned by a Son of Abraham was often identified as the Jew Store. Joseph Stiefel owned such a shop in Angola, Steuben County, Indiana, in 1869. It is questionable whether the town sheltered as many as 1,000 men, women, and children. The store occupied 800 square feet. Fifty years later the local Republican carried the following editorial. “The growth and enviable standing of Angola as a business center is attributable in no small degree to the enterprise of the firm.” In that year, 1919, the Stiefel establishment embraced about 38,000 square feet of space in a town of less than 3,000. By that time, however, the small-town individually-owned Jewish store had begun to disappear because of the automobile, the asphalt roads, and the interurban traction lines.40