publisher colophon




Was the economic life of the Jew different in any particular region of the country? In the West for instance? Commerce in any area was of course subject to the density of the population, the commodities available, the climate, the people, and their characteristics. Thus business life was different in the West by virtue of the goods handled and the peoples served, but the part played by the Jew never varied in any section of the country. In essence he was the universal middle man. This was true even in the South, the New South. Like most businessmen the Jew below the Mason-Dixon line had been harried during the Civil War by inflation. The people of Richmond used to say that it took a basket to carry the Confederate money to market but what it purchased could be tucked away in a vest pocket. The Southerners, Jews among them, lost their savings, their stocks, their property. The postbellum commercial life was apparently different for they had to deal with a host of Negro freedmen and, as credit-giving retailers, adjust to the crop lien and share-tenant system. As the Jewish merchants took the notes of the impoverished free-holders they found themselves, after a time, owners of farms. Most Jews, however, stayed away from farming with its problems of labor, drought, floods, and the fluctuating price for cotton.

As storekeepers selling apparel or groceries or tools Jews had many customers who were the New Negroes, free and indigent. Because anti-Negro racial prejudices were almost universal in the South, the apprehensive Jewish minority dared not—even if inclined—show courtesies to the freedmen. In general, however, the Jews, especially the immigrants, were not racialists. Few Jews had ever been antebellum plantation owners inheriting a tradition that demanded black subservience. They got along well with the Negroes; this was good business. The antebellum Southern Jew had been traumatized, shattered: some assimilated completely, some languished in genteel poverty, and a few ambitious families moved North to make new and even great careers. The Mordecais of Charleston went to Baltimore, other Jews went to Philadelphia; New York Jewry was soon sheltering the Baruchs and Dittenhoefers of South Carolina, the Lehmans of Alabama, and the New Orleans Levys.

Having no choice, however, most of the old-timers remained. Some were irreconcilable racialists, 125 percent Southron; others continued to believe the Southern myths but as middle-class traders were ready to start life over again. Actually, and this is important, quite a number of them were Northern or European-born immigrants used to hard work, thrifty souls eager to forget the past and to make a new start. All they needed was credit and this the Jewish wholesalers from New Orleans to New York provided generously. Though these new arrivals, Germans and East Europeans, kept their mouths shut, they were often not impressed by the gospel of perpetual Negro helotry and the righteousness of secession. These new Jews were not devotees of the mythic fantasies which translated the defeats of the Old South into comforting, glorious victories.1


The slave-serviced plantation of prewar days was dead, though these latifundia were soon to be restored through machinery and nonslave labor. The small farmer of the old days continued in the postwar world to struggle and to worship at the new altar of populism. Those who gave up their scrubby acres made a painful transition to the urban factories, exchanging one poverty for another. There was of course a New South. In a formal, a superficial sense, lip service was paid to Negro equality; actually he was still disabled economically and politically. However the South as a region was now being integrated industrially into the country as a whole. This was a reality. New industries were created or older ones given new life: oil, lumber, steel, iron, tobacco, cotton, and cotton cloth, textiles. By 1890 the values in industry had overtaken those in agriculture and new factory towns were rising all through the South from Virginia to the Gulf. A new industrial middle class now made its appearance, destined to rule as its fellow entrepreneurs had long ruled in the North. Prestige now lay in the city and factory, not on the soil.

If the South was becoming less different—more like the North—Jews of the South were already little different from those of the North; they were shopkeepers, merchants, clerks, counter jumpers. They sold consumers’ wares, clothing, to the lower and middle classes, supplied credit to blacks and whites, city folk, townsmen, and farmers. One must not draw false conclusions from stories of the bankers, the real-estate promoters, the insurance and public utility entrepreneurs, the cotton brokers, and the ubiquitous wholesalers. Their successes are true and real and they were the communal leaders, but in absolute numbers they were few. It must again be stated: the typical postbellum Jew in the South was a storekeeper or clerk who sold men’s or women’s apparel. This was true of New Orleans in the 1880’s and was very probably true in every Southern commercial center. And as in the North, individual Jews were found in every vocational field. In postbellum New Orleans Jews engaged in at least 100 different occupations.

The Jews fitted beautifully into the New South, commercially at least; they did not resent industrialization; their activities complemented it; they were eager to become part of the rising industrial and commercial complex. On the whole their adjustments and their successes were relatively rapid. Almost immediately after the Civil War Jews began moving into the boomtowns and villages of the South all the way westward to Texas and Arkansas. Pensacola had no community during the War; by 1868 there were at least ten families there, harbingers of the new commerce. That same year the Vicksburg which had been mercilessly raked by Grant’s cannon in 1863 now witnessed the dedication of a new synagog. Savannah Jewry was only too happy to accept shipments of free matzo from the North after Sherman’s conquest; just about ten years later the local congregation built a beautiful new house of worship. Jacob Barrett of Charleston had made enough money by 1871 to leave the Hebrew Orphan Asylum $5,000 in his will. The founding dates of Southern synagogs document the fact that a number were erected in the 1860’s shortly after the War. A generation later with the coming of the Russians, Poles, and Hungarians, the numbers of congregations were substantially increased. The new German or East European synagogs were eloquent testimony to the economic rise of the Jew in the New South.2


In the effort to make the New South the manufacturing rival of the North, the cotton textile industry was very important. The Jews had been in the cotton business for decades as buyers, sellers, and brokers. Morris Ranger of Galveston, who had been a cotton broker ever since 1866, made the bold attempt in the 1880’s to comer the world market; when this venture was over he was faced with $5,000,000 in liabilities. That same decade as the Southern cotton factories grew in numbers and in capitalization, Jews, too, began to evince an interest in the ownership of mills; the Lehmans, then in New York, already controlled large cotton mills on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama. Like others the Jews were convinced that the cotton cloth industry had a great future in the South because of cheap labor, lower transportation costs, the easy availability and abundance of raw materials, equable climate, and friendly legislation. Although clothmaking in that generation was never to become a Jewish business, Jewish textile entrepreneurs were not rare. As far back as the 1850’s-1860’s Ralph and Isaac Jacobs of Oregon had operated one of the first woolen mills in that part of the country; the Scheuermans had factories in Iowa in the 1860’s and ‘70’s, and Samuel Fox was a textile industrialist in LaPorte, Indiana. In the 1870’s Lazard Frères owned woolen mills in California and Max Morgenthau of San Francisco employed 5,000 hands in his several cloth factories. Half of the men he hired were Chinese. At the same time back east in Lynchburg the Guggenheimers and their associates were trying to erect a cotton mill; Lewis Einstein was the owner of the Raritan Woolen Mills in Somerset County, N. J.

The Einsteins were a fine family. Lewis was a millowner and a banker with offices in New York and London. The mills were to remain in the family for many years under the management of a son David. This Einstein scion who was recognized as a connoisseur of the arts, collected paintings, tapestries, rare books, and manuscripts. One of David’s daughters married Theodore Seligman of the banking family. Her second husband was Charles Walston who taught fine arts at Cambridge University. Another daughter married Joel E. Spingarn, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. David’s son, Lewis, named of course after his grandfather, was a career diplomat.3


The most important Jewish textile firm in the South was owned by the Cones of Greensboro, North Carolina. The founder of the clan was a Herman Kahn, a Bavarian who came here about the year 1846, age seventeen. Part of his baggage on his arrival in this country was an ethical “will” written by his brother-in-law who assured him that here on the free soil of America he would find a new homeland that would accord him human rights and respect human dignity. After landing Kahn went on to Richmond where he had a sister. It was there that he changed his name to Cone and then settled down in Jonesboro, Tennessee, with a brother-in-law; here they peddled and ran a general store till the outbreak of the War when they turned to farming. After Lee surrendered the men reopened their store but in 1870, having accumulated some capital, the two traders moved on to Baltimore where they started a wholesale grocery business. Cone raised a large family: twelve of his thirteen children survived; two of them were physicians; one of them, a woman, became a professor of pathology. After the father retired his two sons Moses Henry and Caesar carried on the business. This was in 1884. About six years later they established the Cone Export and Commission Company in New York to serve as a sales and finance instrument for Southern mills. Many of the Southern cotton factories of that time had no systematic plan for distributing their goods; their primary concern was production. In order to further sales the Cones encouraged the mills to improve the quality of their wares and to diversify their types of cloth. They stopped the manufacturers from competing with one another, provided financing for them, and to a large degree controlled their output.

Late in the 1880’s the Cones themselves became mill owners and after a false start succeeded in the next decade in establishing some of the great textile factories of the South. They made Greensboro headquarters for the Export and Commission Company and for their own textile empire. It was in part through their efforts that the South was ultimately to become more important than the North in the production of cotton goods. The Cones made denims and canton flannels, gingham and towels, corduroys, print fabrics, spreads, and blankets. By 1970 they had twenty-three plants in different states and employed about 14,000 people. Theirs was a great textile enterprise, yet the cloth they shipped was only about 1 percent of the total production in the South. As enlightened employers—and this they were—eager to further the welfare of the men and women who worked for them they founded and supported baby clinics and a nursing service; they provided care for expectant mothers, and opened medical and dental clinics. They built model homes, churches, parsonages, hospitals, and schools which succeeded in reducing illiteracy.4


The Cones were exceptional; typical were the retailers—in the South as in all other sections of the country. One form of retailing was peddling, an area of opportunity for many German immigrants from the 1840’s to the 1880’s. All told thousands of Central European Jews started their careers as petty itinerant merchants. During the last two decades of the century the German peddlers were outnumbered by the East Europeans who then penetrated every nook and cranny of the hinterland. In the East these multilingual Jews could converse with the Slav laborers in their own tongue in the mills, mines, and coke ovens. As a matter of fact some of these Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish peddlers, subjects of the czar, had already begun to penetrate the West as early as the late 1860’s. It was Henry Ford who unwittingly destroyed the world of the peddler in the early twentieth century with his “Model T” auto: “You have a car, I see, but no bathroom,” said a Department of Agriculture investigator to a farm wife. “You can’t go to town in a bathtub,” the woman replied.

Peddling was the first resort of hundreds and thousands of future American citizens in their effort to get started after they landed; they had no money and no knowledge of the language. Peddling was an acculturational forcing house. It was a transitional job where a man could find work immediately and gradually save enough to go into business or even prepare himself to become a doctor or a lawyer. The city peddler had it somewhat easier than his country cousin; he carried only a tray or a basket as he made his rounds on the streets or trudged up and down innumerable stairs hawking his wares but he laid his head in the same place every night. The packs, saddle bags, and wagons of the country peddlers were heavy with notions, yard goods, trimmings, men’s clothing, cheap jewelry, mostly soft goods. Some were traders or itinerant buyers, trading goods or paying cash for hides, fleeces, and furs. It was unusual but some of these itinerants remained buyers and vendors all of their lives. Typical of this group was Felix Moses who was widely known and respected through large parts of Kentucky. He was a Confederate veteran who bought up hides, woolens, rags, ginseng. Moses’ body was fished out of the Ohio in 1886; he had probably been murdered for his money after he had sold his horse.

Peddling in the countryside was a rough life. There was no kashrut; the peddler had to work on the Sabbath and he had a huge pack to shoulder till he made enough to buy a horse and wagon. After a rain the roads were almost impassable, and often he had to fight off vicious dogs, or placate inhospitable farmers and cruel village officials. Murder was not uncommon. In East Baton Rouge Parish, three Negroes killed a peddler by clubbing him to death. He was a recent immigrant from Germany where he had left a wife and four children. The killers were soon caught and lynched; the Baton Rouge Jews who buried the unfortunate immigrant were careful to point out that they had nothing to do with the lynching. There were peddlers, too, who frequented and worked the fairs. Some of these men were sharp operators though they stayed well within the law. Typical of these supersalesmen was Abe Tichner of Portland, Oregon, who flourished about 1873. He would be driven to the fair in a six-horse stagecoach driven by “Little Sam” Bernheim. Abe’s forte was the sale of five “pure Havanna” cigars for one dollar and to sweeten the bargain he would throw in a “gold” watch and a pair of “diamond” shirtstuds. In spite of his largess to the customers Abe made a generous profit and could clear $2,000 at a fair, all of which he proceeded to lose by playing cards with crooked gamblers. Most peddlers were honest; they expected to come back to their steady customers many of whom generously gave them a hearty welcome, a hot dinner, fodder for their horse, and a night’s lodging.

It would be an exaggeration to maintain as is often done that these peddlers made a significant cultural contribution. There are instances, however, where individuals were very helpful. A Coloradoan recalled that in his childhood a peddler Henry Shamberg came to the ranch and traded his father a Victor talking machine and records for a heifer calf. These isolated sensitive ranch children were introduced to a whole new world of music for which they were eternally grateful. Abraham Harley Cassel of Pennsylvania was raised in pious ignorance by fanatical sectarian parents. They did not wish him to read and forbade him to secure a light from the family lamp. A Jewish peddler gave him some matches thus permitting him to study secretly. This Jewish Prometheus gave him a chance to read and thus helped make it possible for him to begin building one of the great American private collections of books on Pennsylvania and the early German Americans. What some peddlers did was to carry news or gossip from farm to farm. This, too, was not without its value. But it should never be forgotten that most of these Jewish traveling merchants knew little English. An exception was the peddler, Louis Mayer of Chicago, a man of some culture, an inveterate reader, and for a time the beadle of Sinai congregation. A son of his, Leopold, became one of the city’s first Jewish bankers. When Louis Mayer went out peddling he left books with his customers, picked them up on the next visit, and lent them to another client. All this was quite unusual. What then was the contribution of the typical country peddlers? They supplied the necessities and the occasional luxuries which helped farmers and villagers maintain and even raise their standard of living.5


After the peddler became a storekeeper, one of the first things he did when business began to flourish, was to buy a house. Many Jews owned their homes; they believed in property. As the nineteenth century advanced Jews with capital and of speculative bent began to deal in real estate. This business of land ventures is an old American Jewish tradition going back to the eighteenth century. There were a number of Jews in the various colonizing companies that secured title from the Indians to millions of acres of land in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. Even Jews with tiny holdings in the eighteenth-century West nursed dreams of big towns and huge profits. Rabbi Jacob R. Cohen of Philadelphia called his modest acreage in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, Cohensburg. The Gratzes dubbed their parcel in the same neighborhood, Gratztown. Nevertheless the land and town speculations of Jewish capitalists during the nineteenth century were on the whole petty compared with the gigantic all-embracing programs of the railroads and others in the transmississippi West. Individual Jews and their firms were involved in large land enterprises in Florida, Texas, and California but most Jewish real-estate ventures were comparatively modest. Land grants were tied in with politics and this was an area where Jews exercised very little influence.

Here and there—from Baltimore to Los Angeles and San Diego—speculators built town subdivisions. When Sheffield, Alabama, was laid out in the 1880’s the two Moses brothers were among the city’s founders. After the turn of the century Maurice Meyer of Baltimore developed over 300 acres on the Severn River as a residential district. By that time Jews in different towns were active as real-estate brokers and agents. Benjamin F. Teller & Brother of Philadelphia owned the largest real-estate agency in the city, offering 6,000 houses for rental or sale. It has been estimated that as early as 1888 the Jews of New York City owned about $150,000,000 worth of real estate and that about five-eighths of the transfers in the city were for their account. And after the East Europeans of New York began to find themselves they built tenements on the East Side and flats in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. This rush to buy homes and apartments frightened Burton J. Hendrick as he wrote The Jewish Invasion of America, implying that the Jews were engrossing too much property. In answer to Hendrick’s attacks a Jewish writer said that the Astors alone owned more real estate than all New York’s Jews combined. Both Hendrick and the Jewish apologist were exaggerating.

One of these Polish Jewish “invaders” who was to achieve distinction as an American builder was Louis Jay Horowitz (1875-1956). Horowitz who had come to the United States in 1892, was given a job in 1903 working for the Thompson Starrett Construction Company, a builder of skyscrapers. Seven years later, only thirty-five years of age. Horowitz became president of the concern. It has been suggested that he, more than any other New York builder of his generation, was responsible for the change in the city’s skyline. He it was who erected the Woolworth and Equitable buildings and the Hotel Waldorf Astoria. His company was engaged in putting up thousands of buildings from New York to San Francisco. During World War II Horowitz was appointed director of tank construction. Much of his estate was left to New York University.6


When young Horowitz was brought into the Thompson Starrett Company, he had already been head of a small Brooklyn construction company. His job with Thompson Starrett was to reorganize it financially. Jews in this country had been engaged in formal banking since the 1790’s when Moses Seixas had been appointed cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island at Newport. What is the nature of formal banking? Though no two banks are identical in their functions banks in general receive money on deposit, lend and transmit funds, discount notes, and engage in exchange operations. Specialized banks, investment houses, reorganize and finance business and industries, primarily through the sale of bonds and the issue of stocks. European Jews had been in the money business for centuries. The Shylock tradition and Karl Marx’s equating Judaism with capitalism testified to the identification of the Jew with finance in the minds of many. Jews in turn had a healthy respect for gold and bankers. In some form or another banking was an integral part of mercantile life. Here in America, before the modified central banking system of 1913 was established by the Federal Reserve Act, bankers were almost all-powerful. Jewish businessmen who enjoyed shining in reflected glory were fascinated by the Rothschild myth of world power. Founding a Rothschild-like banking or business dynasty was the fond hope of many a proud Jewish papa as he counted his sons. This hope seems to be reflected in the careers of the Seligmans, the Lilienthals, the Guggenheims, the Lehmans, and the Schiff-Warburg clan.

Moses Seixas was a cashier, a hireling, in a primitive Newport bank. But in 1837 banking was already big business when August Belmont and Philip Speyer arrived in New York, the very year that the Josephs, bankers and stockbrokers, crashed in the panic. Belmont, who also served as a Rothschild representative in this country, became one of America’s outstanding bankers, highly respected even in European financial and political circles. This man, however, was one Jewish banker whom the Jews of this country disliked. They rejected him because he had rejected them, refusing to identify with them; some suspected that he was an apostate and this suspicion served only to feed their resentment. Gentiles constantly attacked him as a traitorous Jew.

The Speyers, who established offices in New York and London, were no newcomers in the field. Theirs was an old German banking house that had been doing business in Frankfort on the Main ever since the late seventeenth century. Philip Speyer was succeeded in New York by his nephew James J. Speyer (1861-1941) who served as senior partner of the firm in this country from 1919 to 1939 when the American branch was liquidated. Like the Seligmans and the Hallgartens, the Speyer connections helped finance the North during the Civil War by selling United States bonds in Germany. Later the firm became an important investment house placing loans abroad, reorganizing railroads and industries in this country, and serving as directors on the boards of several banks and corporations. Though James was born in the United States he was reared and educated in Germany and did not return here till he was twenty-four years of age. This explains his close ties to the Germans and his endowment of a chair in American history at the university of Berlin. Here in this country he was among those who took the lead in establishing the Provident Loan Society patterned after the European municipal loan shops which lent money to the needy at a modest rate of interest.

During the 1880’s the Speyers admitted one of their former office boys as a partner. He was William Salomon, a native of Mobile, and if financial intelligence can be inherited then Salomon had his by right of birth; he was a great grandson of the Revolutionary War bill broker Haym Salomon. Young Salomon was trained in the company’s Frankfort and London offices, acquiring an expertise which he used to advantage in building the financial course of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In later years he established his own firm, William Salomon & Company. The outstanding Jewish banking firm of the third quarter of the century was that of the Seligmans. It had a number of branches both here and abroad and was respected as an influential fiscal agent of the United States government. In 1910 the house financed—albeit reluctantly—the new automobile company, General Motors, but then it had long been outdistanced by Kuhn, Loeb & Company.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century Jews entered the banking industry from several directions. Some men, Germans, had been trained in that field in Europe and came here to make their way. They were professionals; most however, in this country started out as nonprofessionals. In order to accommodate their customers, merchants in the backcountry functioned as bankers and finally entered the business formally. Some, wealthy merchants in the larger towns, used their surplus capital to open banks; others, men of substance, were invited to sit on bank boards and finally assumed the presidency. In the period from 1887 to 1910, there were five Jews in Atlanta who were bank presidents and nine others who served as directors.7


The merchant banker or investment house flourished in New York City, the country’s chief financial mart. These private bankers were not interested in receiving deposits from the general public. In essence they were investment and financing agents not commercial bankers. These houses were founded as family businesses, partners recruiting relatives or able young men who were invited to marry into the clan. The truly large houses, concerned with the prospect and problems of investing many millions, were nearly all in the New York metropolis. There they financed and reorganized railroads, supplied capital for large industries, sold bonds of all types, and at times served and advised the government as fiscal aides. The trans-Hudson firms, limited by the means at their disposal, were involved in much more modest enterprises.8


Investment firms were frequently members of the Stock Exchange. Brokerage was not a new Jewish business. Jewish brokers had been buying and selling bank stocks, bills of exchange, loan-office certificates, continental and state money on primitive exchanges in Philadelphia and New York ever since the late eighteenth century. Since that time there have always been Jews on the stock and commodity exchanges of this country in all its major cities. Yet Jews never sat on the New York Exchange in large numbers. In 1885 they constituted about 10 percent of the membership. This relatively small representation on the Exchange is even more true of the New York banking system. The large metropolitan banks of deposit rarely coopted Jews for their boards or their executive suites. Jews have never been a force in New York commercial banking though here and there individuals have emerged in the field. M. Thalmessinger, book dealer, stationer, and publisher of Jewish liturgies, was president of the Mechanics’ and Traders’ Bank in the 1880’s; another banker—and broker too—was Albert Ulmann, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of City College, novelist, and history enthusiast. Individual brokers were often colorful personalities. Alfred De Cordova, a noted horseman, was a member of exclusive driving clubs. As a pigeon fancier he employed his carrier pigeons to keep in touch with his office when he was summering in New Jersey. Samuel Hessberg of Albany, banker and broker, is remembered because in the 1901 fight for control of the Union Pacific he dispatched some stock certificates to New York City in a special train. None of these men or the Jewish commercial bankers who surfaced in the metropolis during this period exercised great influence. Where real power resides in the economic area, there was—and still is—a tendency to restrict the Jews. The elite would not share power with them.9


Whatever forms their banks assumed, it would seem that the trans-Hudson River Jewish bankers exercised more weight in their communities than the Jews of New York and other large tidewater cities. Small Jewish banks were found almost everywhere: Milwaukee, Savannah, Madison, Richmond, Charleston, Philadelphia. Arthur J. Morris of Tarboro, North Carolina, organized the Morris Plan System which made small loans to individuals who could muster two cosigners on a note. About 1905 Morris Newburger of Philadelphia was one of the few bankers in town. He had begun his career as a shopkeeper in the South, moved on to Rock Island, and during the Civil War had entered the wholesale clothing business in Philadelphia with his in-laws. Newburger was a civic reformer who also devoted much of his time to the local and national Jewish community, for he served as head of a congregation, accepted the presidency of the newly organized Jewish Publication Society, and found time to help further the Hebrew Union College as one of its board members.10

Natchez appealed to Isaac Lowenberg, a Union soldier who was stationed there during the War. He married one of the erstwhile rebels, became an alderman and mayor, and crowned his achievements with the presidency of a local national bank. Moritz Kopperl of Galveston was president of a bank 1868 and served also as a financial and fiscal adviser for the city and the state. A. Levy of Victoria, Texas, wholesaler and retailer of general merchandise, clothing, and groceries, lent his customers money and discounted their notes. He stuck a safe in the comer of his store—probably a barrel of whiskey and a tin cup too—and hung out his shingle as a banker. Over the years this modest beginning flowered into an important, financial institution. A distinguished American family, distinguished by virtue of achievement, was the Taussigs of St. Louis. Like many other mid-nineteenth century German Jewish immigrant sophisticates, its members drifted away and finally assimilated. William Taussig (1826-1913) was a follower of the Ethical Culture Movement. In the world of affairs this son of a Prague cotton goods industrialist was an apothecary, physician, civic leader, and reformer; by 1866 he was the head of the Traders’ Bank. It was he who created a single terminal for all the railroads entering the city and served also as president of the company that employed J. B. Eads to build the bridge across the Mississippi. One of Dr. Taussig’s sons was Frank William (1859-1940), an athlete and a member of the Harvard Class of 1879. This Taussig was later to become one of the great figures in formal economics here in the United States.11

Banks, it has been pointed out, are of different types. The Strauses of Ligonier were famous in their day for their method of financing large buildings. Frederick William Straus began his career in Ligonier and then moved on to Chicago. There the family, under various company names, established a mortgage and loan business. Simon William, a son, founded S. W. Straus & Company pioneers in issuing bonds to finance the erection of large buildings, apartment houses, and skyscrapers. At one time these bankers had fifty branches in different cities and their issues ran into many hundreds of millions of dollars. Simon William died in 1930 just as the world depression began to shatter his great mortgage empire. Chicago, a huge city, sheltered a number of other Jewish banking families, among them the Foremans and the Greenebaums. Gerhard Foreman established a private bank which grew into a national bank and a trust company. His in-laws, the Greenebaums, organized a number of banks. After the disastrous October fire of 1871, the Greenebaums, precursors in this of the Strauses, sold real-estate bonds in Europe and thus helped rebuild the charred city. In 1877 during the long harsh depression of that decade the Greenebaum-controlled German Savings Bank and the German National Bank collapsed. Henry Greenebaum personally assumed all liabilities, paid off all depositors, and then proceeded to repair his shattered fortunes.12

In the 1860’s and 1870’s Jews were very active as mining brokers in San Francisco; this period of unrestrained speculation on the exchange of that day was succeeded in the 1880’s by the more reputable Stock and Bond Exchange which soon made a place for itself financing banks, insurance companies, public utilities, and the sugar industry. Almost half of the organizers of the new exchange were Jewish. The Lazard brothers, Alex, Simon, and Eli, were dry goods merchants in San Francisco of the 1850’s, importers, jobbers, and even manufacturers of cloth. In 1860 they had a Paris buying office; in the 1870’s they became merchant bankers and toward the end of the decade emerged as Lazard Frères with branch offices in New York and Paris. The Nevada Bank and the Anglo-Califomia Bank Ltd. of the 1870’s were under Jewish management. The latter institution had taken over the Seligman branch established in the late 1860’s. It is probable that Jewish commercial bankers in California exercised more influence than in other states and regions. This circumstance may be due in part to the prestige of Isaias Wolf Hellman (1842-1920) reputed by some to have been the state’s outstanding banker. Like many of his contemporaries, this Los Angeles pioneer started out in the garment trade. In 1868 he was already a banker of sorts and over the years was interested in a large number of banks though he concentrated primarily on The Farmers’ and Merchants’ National Bank. His skill in the area of finance was such that he was summoned to head the large Nevada Bank of San Francisco.13

Daniel and Anton Oppenheimer of San Antonio, general merchants in antebellum days, opened a private bank and investment house after the Civil War. The family was still running the business a century later. Another merchant who moved into banking was Burghard Steiner of Birmingham. In the late 1880’s he founded the private banking house of Steiner Brothers which financed the building of the city’s first skyscraper complete with elevator. The house brought industrial capital to this boomtown and financed and directed a local railroad. Like the Oppenheimers of San Antonio the Steiners were still carrying on the family business in the late twentieth century.

Because of its strategic geographical location it was inevitable that Cincinnati, one of the largest Jewish communities in the country in the 1860’s, would have its share of Jewish bankers, both commercial and investment. Interesting and not untypical are the careers of two Jewish peddlers whose lives were linked: Jacob Seasongood and Philip Heidelbach. Back in Germany Seasongood was a weaver’s apprentice; Heidelbach was learning the butcher’s trade. Meeting by chance in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1837, they formed a partnership, saved some money, and by 1840 had already opened a clothing store in Cincinnati. Nineteen years later—it took time to accumulate capital—they had a large clothing factory. In 1860 with a Gentile partner they opened the private banking house of Espy, Heidelbach & Company. It was not long before Heidelbach became a director of the Southern Railroad; the two erstwhile peddlers, now capitalists of substance, dissolved their partnership toward the end of the decade. Seasongood, remaining in town, established his own bank and wholesale clothing house; several years later Heidelbach moved to New York, the mecca of the ambitious, and there set up a private bank among the great of the land, Heidelbach, Ickelheimer & Company.14


The Heidelbach firm, Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co., Hallgarten & Co., Wormser Brothers, and others were good New York investment houses, widely known, but not destined to make American financial history. If individually they were not institutions of national import, cumulatively the accomplishments of these several houses were by no means insignificant. On the other hand the individual houses, Goldman-Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and Kuhn-Loeb, were destined to leave their impress upon American industry. Marcus Goldman, the founder of Goldman-Sachs, started out as a modest dealer in commercial paper. It was not until the early part of the next century that Marcus’s son Henry, and Samuel Sachs, Henry’s brother-in-law, created a full-fledged investment house. Among the important firms whose issues it floated were the May Department Stores, Sears & Roebuck, and the United Cigar Manufacturers. Very early in its career Goldman-Sachs worked closely with Lehman Brothers, an alliance which lasted till 1924.15

Lehman Brothers

The article on “Finance” in the Jewish Encyclopedia contains no mention of the Lehmans, kinfolk of the Hellmans of Los Angeles and San Francisco. They had not yet become worthy of note. The Lehmans had come up after the War from Alabama where they handled all types of merchandise and dealt in cotton. By 1868 they were settled in New York as commodity brokers, trading in cotton, coffee, and petroleum. As they acquired wealth they served as bank directors, invested in bonds, and manufactured textiles. They were not underwriters till the next century when they effected a working alliance with Goldman-Sachs. It was then that the younger generation of Lehmans led by Mayer’s son, Philip, took over. By the early twentieth century the firm had become important, making a name for itself as it helped finance a mail-order house, a food chain, an automobile manufacturer, an aviation company, and a motion picture producer.16

Kuhn, Loeb & Company

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on “Finance” does mention Kuhn, Loeb & Company. Without question this was the most important Jewish merchant banking house of that generation and one of the outstanding American investment houses of the day. As is to be expected this firm, too, had its beginnings in the apparel trade. The two men who lent their names to the business Abraham Kuhn and Solomon Loeb came out of the Midwest. Kuhn who had been doing business in Lafayette, Indiana, since the late 1840’s, joined forces with a wholesale dry goods firm in Cincinnati in 1851. There were a number of partners including a Jacob Netter. In 1856 Solomon Loeb joined this consortium of Kuhn, Netter & Company. All or most of the partners were related. The firm, selling notions, clothing, and furnishings, made money during the War. Kuhn dropped out in 1866; Loeb stayed on for another year. That same year, 1867, Kuhn and Loeb moved on to New York, establishing a general investment, banking, and discount house. Their total capital was a half a million dollars, a very substantial sum.

In 1875 Jacob Henry Schiff married the daughter of Loeb and entered the business. From 1885 on he dominated Kuhn-Loeb. Schiff had come to the United States in 1865 from Frankfort where he was born in 1847. When this teenager landed he had worked at the dry goods trade and in banking. He was then resolutely Orthodox in his sympathies and practices. He stayed in New York for a few years before returning home only to come back again in the 1870’s. Schiff was tough, ambitious, capable in every sense of the term; under him the firm sold billions of dollars of bonds and securities, as it reorganized railroads, floated issues for governments, and financed industries both here and abroad. Very early in the 1900’s Schiff, representing F. H. Harriman waged a war with the J. P. Morgan-James J. Hill financial interests for control of important transmississippi railroads. The battle ended in a compromise whereby in effect the two opponents jointly dominated some of the western transcontinental railroad systems.

Morgan and his house was much more powerful than Kuhn-Loeb. The latter had but 17 directorships; Morgan and his allies, 341. Yet Schiff’s company was highly respected. This came out in the 1913 “money trust” investigations, an enquiry that induced the authorities in Washington to create the Federal Reserve Board in an attempt to break the money monopoly exercised by large metropolitan banks. Seeking to create some form of government control of the money supply Congress established a modified central financial system. One of its architects was Paul M. Warburg, a member of Schiff’s firm. Paul’s brother Felix, who had married Schiff’s daughter, was also a partner in Kuhn-Loeb as was Otto Kahn who had marriage ties with another member of the house. For the two decades before his death in 1920 Schiff was one of the most influential Jews in the American Jewish community. He would have nothing to do with a czarist Russia that murdered its Jews; he refused to lend money to the Allies in World War I if Russia was to be supported, and he helped finance Japan in 1904 in its conflict with the Romanov colossus. Schiff, not unsympathetic to labor, urged the New York Jews to accept arbitration as they fought each other in the apparel industry. Though normally a Republican he voted for Wilson; he could probably not forgive Taft for his refusal to proceed with vigor against the Russians as they discriminated against Americans of Jewish descent. Schiff was an assiduous Jewish communal worker, utterly devoted to his people and their welfare, generous in his philanthropies to Jews and non-Jews alike.17


In the Gilded Age world of finance banking and the growth of powerful trusts and monopolies, Jews played a very modest role. They had relatively little access to large capital sums. Almost all Jewish founders of banks were immigrants; they were bold, venturesome, capable men; many had come from humble homes but they were not boors. They were interested in education and culture, especially German culture to which they evinced a most ardent attachment. The banking and investment houses they created were not “Jewish” in the sense that they limited themselves to a Jewish clientele: they were not oriented to helping Jews as such though it is true that in the early days they were very probably dependent on Jewish patronage. As individuals among them grew wealthy and powerful they exerted some political influence. This feeling of authority is reflected in Schiff’s correspondence with Taft when the latter, for reasons of commerce, refused to take a hard line with the tyrannical Muscovites.

Both the size and relative importance of the Jewish banking houses varied widely. The great corporations of the United States could well have survived without Kuhn, Loeb & Company but Manning, South Carolina, a tiny town, would have sorely missed its Jewish bankers. One wonders whether the local influence of the Manning bankers might have been greater than that of Schiff.18


The first generation of the Lehmans was in trade; by the second generation some members of the family had begun to enter the professions. Herbert H. Lehman was in business with the family but finally turned to politics. He was to become governor of New York state and a member of the nation’s Senate. Irving, his older brother, a lawyer, became chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. There is no question that in the two generations following the Civil War most Jews preferred the countinghouse to the study; there was however a rapidly growing number who had begun moving into the professions. In 1867 Cincinnati could count 4 physicians, 6 lawyers, and 14 teachers. Seven years later, in a community where the Jewish population seems to have been stabilized, there were 8 doctors, 14 lawyers, and 14 teachers. From 1848 to 1881 about 30 Jews were admitted to the bar in Philadelphia; in 1875 New York with its approximately 60,000 Jews had 66 doctors and 104 lawyers.19

As the East Europeans and their children began turning to the professions in the early twentieth century the number of Jews in specialized callings grew rapidly. The Jewish population of New York City increased at least 500 percent between 1880 and 1900 and the numbers in the professions kept pace though the vast majority of the Jewish community was foreign born. It has been estimated that in 1900 New York City had about 500 Jewish teachers, 300 physicians and surgeons, and 400 musicians. In those pre-World War I and pre-Abraham Flexner days it was not difficult to enter the professions; little academic preparation was required and licensing for lawyers and doctors was easy. Many of these men became leaders in their fields. There is a good sampling of Jews in the arts and sciences in the more than 500 biographies assembled in the American Jewish Year Book for 1904-1905. These describe the careers of the many who by the early 1900’s had turned away from the parental shops. This drive to the professions was still but a faint reflection of the academic and intellectual interests of the more cultured Jews of Central Europe; they anticipated the vocational shift of their American Jewish confreres by at least a generation. It has been estimated that in the large cities of Central Europe in the 1880’s, about 40 percent of the lawyers, physicians, engineers, and architects were Jews. In the Budapest of 1910-1913, 35 to 50 percent of the Jews were preparing for journalism, the sciences, law, and medicine.

As the new century dawned Jewish women as well as men were turning to the professions. With the women the change was much less rapid. Quite a number of gifted women turned to the writing of essays and poetry: the two Lazaruses, Emma and her sister Josephine, Nina Morais Cohen, a daughter of Rabbi Sabato Morais, Miriam Del Banco, Leah (Lee) Cohen Harby, and Caroline Cohen Joachimsen. Caroline was a granddaughter of Isaac Harby, the antebellum litterateur. The Harbys were dedicated to belles lettres. Sallie Strasburg of Cincinnati was an outstanding dentist; Josephine Waller of New York City was a resident physician at Mt. Sinai in charge of the children’s department, and Claribel Cone of the Greensboro Cones was a pathologist.20

Even as there was hardly a business or a craft which did not shelter at least a few Jews so there was almost no profession which did not have its Jewish practitioners. The almost endless variety is startling. There were professional Jewish communal workers, an expert in handwriting, notable magicians, and numerous engineers, civil, electrical, and chemical. Abraham Gottlieb was chief engineer of the construction department of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Jews were inventors, lithographers, artists, cartoonists, sculptors, and engravers. After graduating from Harvard, the Lithuanian Jewish immigrant Bernard Berenson became one of the world’s best known art critics and historians. Jewry here could point to its architects, musicians, theatrical managers, writers, and college professors like Franz Boas, the anthropologist. In general, however, there were not many Jews teaching in the high schools and in the colleges, certainly not before the twentieth century. There were folklorists, historians of note, and political scientists like Edwin R. A. Seligman who is reputed to have been one of the first academicians to urge the adoption of a living wage for all workers. Less well known but important in his day as a political scientist was J. S. Moore (Muhr?), a native German. After running a store in Mississippi and in San Francisco he entered the China trade and opened offices in the Cape of Good Hope and in Sidney, Australia. In the post-Civil War years Moore was widely recognized as an apostle of free trade and as an authority on tariffs; the Department of the Treasury consulted with him frequently. Jews began to appear as journalists, editors, publishers, statisticians, encyclopedists, librarians, and foresters.21

Some of the Jewish medical men in this country had been trained abroad or had gone back to Germany and Austria to do postgraduate work. This was to continue till the 1920’s when American medicine in most fields was as good as the best in Europe. One writer thought that by the early 1900’s about one-fourth of all the physicians in New York City were Jews. This figure seems high though by that time Jewry probably constituted close to one-fourth of the city’s population. More and more Jews were then turning to teaching in the elementary schools, some had started as early as the 1870’s. Ambitious East European women began to enter this profession. The rush of these Russian and Polish girls and men into public school teaching frightened Burton J. Hendrick in his muckraking days just as he was unhappy about Jewish-owned property. He did not want Christian children to be taught by Jews. Golda Myerson, later to become the prime minister of Israel, taught in Milwaukee; Victor L. Berger, the socialist, began his career as a teacher in that same city and almost lost his job for “attacking” the Bible. In all probability the brash instructor attempted to introduce his young charges into the mysteries of biblical criticism.

Almost everywhere Jews were beginning to make their appearance as civil servants in elective and appointive offices. Some made their way into the army and navy where there had always been a handful though most of those who were commissioned maintained a low profile as Jews. Few of them even rose to high rank; promotions were very slow for all officers because the army and the navy were small; these mysterious infidels were not welcomed in this socially exclusive world. They did not “fit in.” Jews were found in the rank and file as professional career soldiers, even as mercenaries. The most notable example was the Russian-born Sam Dreeben (1878-1925) who came to the United States in the late 1890’s. He fought as a mercenary and filibuster in Honduras and Mexico, and served his country, and served it well, in the Philippines, in China, Nicaragua, Mexico, and in World War I. “The Fighting Jew,” as he was known, was decorated frequently. In World War I with the mobilization of a mass army there were about 200,000 Jews in the service; almost 9,000 were officers. Individuals began to make careers for themselves; there was a rear admiral in the navy and a general officer who commanded the Marine Corps. The nineteenth century conviction that only a WASP, a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, could be a real American began to change.22


Among the distinguished oft-decorated soldiers of World War I was the Russian-born Colonel Abel Davis of the 132d Illinois Infantry. Davis, one of the original founders of the American Legion in Paris, was later commissioned a general in the state militia. By profession he was a lawyer. Law was a calling that was then attracting a great many Jews. Even as early as the 1870’s Jews were moving into the profession and beginning to study for it at the better schools such as Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. Some even went to Europe to round out their education in jurisprudence. Men studied law in those days, as they often do today, not only in order to make a living, but to advance themselves in state and national politics, to be more effective in working for good government, or to further themselves in business.

A small number of these advocates achieved wealth and distinction and power as lawyers for great corporations. Their services were very much in demand in industry and in finance, or by agencies of government. On occasion they were the stalwart tribunes fighting the patrician forces of reaction and greed. It is no exaggeration to state that by the 1880’s there were superbly equipped Jewish professionals in every good-sized city. Some manifested an almost startling degree of versatility. Among them were journalists, political economists, bankers, litterateurs, musicians, publishers, and even a distinguished chessman. The three sons of Rabbi Isidor Kalisch became counselors of repute, one a supreme court justice in the state of New Jersey. New York acted as a magnet for lawyers as well as bankers; a few able and ambitious lawyers in the hinterland moved to America’s financial capital. Thus it was that Leo N. Levi of Galveston, about to become the head of the International Order of B’nai B’rith, moved his office to the metropolis in 1891. Unfortunately this fine orator and attractive personality failed to achieve greatness; he died before he reached his goal; the competition in the city overwhelmed him, it would seem.23

Able though Levi was he could hardly hope to compete with a Louis Marshall, a Syracuse lawyer, who was called to the big city because of his superb qualifications. By 1912 Marshall had become the second president of the prestigious American Jewish Committee retaining that position till his death in 1929. The first president was Judge Mayer Sulzberger (1843-1923), a native German who made his home in Philadelphia. Sulzberger had been admitted to the bar in 1865 and by the time that he had become a judge in the Court of Common Pleas he had already built up the largest Jewish practice in the city. In his religious sympathies the Judge was Orthodox. There was hardly an aspect of Jewish communal life in Philadelphia and on the national scene, too, where his presence was not felt. Alexander Marx, the historian, said that Sulzberger was “easily the foremost Jewish layman in America,” an exaggeration but understandable; the Judge was a great leader. As a disciple of Isaac Leeser he edited the Occident after his master’s death. In the course of years Sulzberger had served as president of the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association and had played an important role at Dropsie and Gratz colleges, at the Jewish Publication Society, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was scholarly, owned an unusually fine Hebrew library, and wrote monographs on biblical law and polity. His published studies on the Old Testament made little impression on professional scholars in the biblical field.

When Marshall moved down the Hudson to New York in 1894 he became the third important member of the firm of Guggenheimer, Untermyer, & Marshall. Theirs was the most distinguished Jewish law office in the city if not in the country. Randolph Guggenheimer and Samuel Untermyer were both Virginians, natives of Lynchburg, where the two families had been in business together. A Guggenheimer and an Untermyer had served in the Confederate Army. Guggenheimer was a pioneer real-estate entrepreneur and erected several large Broadway office buildings. He served his community as commissioner of the New York public schools setting up the evening high school system and after 1897 when he was elected president of the municipal council he often acted as mayor in the absence of the city’s chief executive. Untermyer was counsel in some very notable cases; on one occasion he received a fee of $1,000,000, but when he served as advocate for the House Committee on Banking and Currency in the “money trust” investigation he did not accept any compensation. During the Hitlerian regime of the 1930’s he it was who led the boycott against German goods and against the Nazi propagandists in the United States.

Marshall was the most active member of the firm in Jewish communal affairs. Together with Jacob H. Schiff he was one of the most influential Jews in the first quarter of the new century. This outstanding jurist, an 1877 graduate of Columbia, was one of the leaders of the American bar, a distinguished constitutional lawyer, Supreme Court material but because of the confluence of unfavorable circumstances he was never appointed. Rumor has it that he would have welcomed the call. Ardently devoted to the cause of civil liberties he argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court, fighting for Negroes, other minorities, and the right of the Catholics to retain their parochial schools. He was also a conservationist, interested in forestry.

As head of the American Jewish Committee for almost a generation he ruled Jewry in this land beneficently but patemalistically by “Marshall Law.” Constantly he waged war here and abroad on behalf of his fellow Jews. The plight of the East Europeans in Poland and the Balkans distressed him. Knowing some Hebrew and a little Yiddish he was sympathetic to the East European newcomers; he could sense their needs and earnestly wished to guide them, according to his lights of course. Like his predecessor, Judge Sulzberger, he was active in almost every Jewish cause. He served as president of Temple Emanu-El, as chairman of the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and as one of the leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which devoted its time and finds to bring relief to war-stricken European Jewry after 1914. He sought to conciliate the warring forces in the apparel industry, struggled hard though unsuccessfully to delay the passage of the anti-Jewish immigration bills, and devoted himself to the attainment of equal and minority rights for Jews in the European lands where they experienced disabilities. All through the 1920’s he battled with Henry Ford and it was Marshall and his associates who finally wrung a retraction in 1927 from that warped, barely literate industrialist. In 1929 perhaps sensing the coming of the catastrophe in Europe, Marshall went along with the Zionists who sought to colonize Palestine as a Jewish homeland; he brought his friends into an enlarged Jewish Agency with the hope that it would make Palestine a refuge for oppressed Jewry.24


The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the vocational coming of age of the older Jewish migration. Second and third generation Jewish Americans were leaving trade and turning to the professions; a survey in 1889 revealed that over 5 percent of America’s gainfully employed Jews were then in the professions. Nevertheless from antebellum days through 1920 most of these tradesmen were found in some segment or other of the apparel industry. They participated as owners, clerks, and accountants, as retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers. In 1860 in Washington, D. C., 88 percent of the Jews were in the mercantile field, and it is probable that this statistic is typical of most Jews at that time. Concentration in soft goods was just as true in the Far West as it was in the East. In frontier Los Angeles of 1860 practically every painfully employed Jew from the bootmaker to the tailor was in trade except the one lawyer in town, A predilection for the garment trade did not preclude participation by individuals in many other occupations. In the Philadelphia of 1860, Jews were found in at least 121 different vocations. Some were in the liquor business; at least twenty-nine were rag dealers.

An analysis of the thirty-five men who founded the Kansas City congregation in 1871 reveals that thirteen owned clothing stores, four owned tobacco shops, three were in dry goods, and one each was a liquor wholesaler, a saloonkeeper, and a butcher; the remaining twelve were clerks, bookkeepers, and cigar makers. The pattern was very similar for San Francisco in the decade 1860-1870 and for Denver in the early 1870’s. The Denver of territorial days could boast of four lawyers, a teacher, and an editor; later in the decade a number of Jews were listed as miners. Denver Jewry of the early 1880’s also counted a number of men in the liquor, tobacco, jewelry, pawnbroking, and grocery trades. Tarshish, who analyzed the vocational distribution of the Jews in several American towns of the postbellum period, maintains that the commercial pattern was constant: a large percentage of Jewry was in some form of the garment trade. In a list of twenty-five couples who were married in New York’s Temple Emanu-El in the postbellum period, eighteen called themselves merchants, a genteel term that might include anything or everything from peddling to the ownership of a large bazaar. But, saving the garment industry, the occupational distribution did vary from town to town because of purely fortuitous circumstances. Thus in Syracuse there were a number of Jews in cigars and in both Syracuse and Savannah others were well-known as grocers. Many in Cincinnati, Detroit, and Milwaukee were in tobacco; a number in Chicago and Cleveland were already shifting to waste materials. Jews in Mississippi dealt in cotton but then cotton was an obvious medium of exchange as furs had been in the eighteenth-century colonies. The small number of Jews in Arkansas and Tennessee assumed a disproportionate place in soft goods sales; in St. Louis Jews were often in groceries and liquor. The San Franciscans leaned toward the tobacco trade and some of them were beginning to buy up ranch land.25

Writing of the occupational distribution of Jews in the early 1880’s Isaac M. Wise said that Jews were merchants, bankers, brokers, importers, wholesalers, retailers, peddlers, clerks and bookkeepers, commercial travelers, journalists, book agents, buyers of raw materials, craftsmen, and even farmers. A number were in light industry. This description by Wise is rather general but it bears witness to the variegated interests of the gainfully employed Jews of that day. Tarshish supplements this enumeration with a list of his own that includes gold refiners, dispensers of insect powder and patent medicines, vendors of foreign books, cosmetics, gravestones, fruit, harness, grid mining stocks, and billiard tables. Jews were weavers, waiters, undertakers, quarry owners, and plumbers. In summarizing the economic activities of American Jewry in the early 1880’s Tarshish estimates—and this is only an estimate!—that 1½ to 2 percent were in finance, 4 percent in liquor, about 6 percent in tobacco, and about 54 percent in the apparel industry. In the cities many Jews were employees; in the smaller towns and villages many were self-employed. This pattern of occupational distribution was to continue well into the twentieth century. As late as 1908 practically every Jew in Madison, Wisconsin, was in trade if one includes the local optician and a soap manufacturer. There were two exceptions, a student and a manual laborer.

Markens in 1888 wrote that about 60 percent of all wholesale transactions by Jewish tradesmen in New York City were in soft goods and allied wares. Utilizing the credit ratings of R. G. Dun & Company, a study was made about two years later of New York City Jewish businesses. The period embraced was 1860, 1870, and 1890; the Jews studied were mainly Central Europeans in provenance; the vantage point was capital investment. As was to be expected, here, too, the apparel industry predominated; it was followed by banking, liquor, leather, glass and paints, furniture and meats. Then came a large number of miscellaneous businesses whose total capital outlay was very large. In 1860 only 374 Jewish firms were rated by R. G. Dun; in 1870 only 10 percent of the businesses studied had a capital investment of over $100,000; in 1890, 25 percent had an outlay of over $125,000. The 1889 Billings Census Bureau study of American Jewry—Germans chiefly—disclosed that among the some 10,000 families and 18,000 males surveyed over 70 percent was in commerce and trade and about 85 percent worked at white-collar jobs.26

The Billings Survey is supported by data for Detroit. In 1890 about 19 percent of that Jewry was in industry; 73.3 percent was in trade, and 2.3 percent was in the professions, a percentage which more than doubled by 1920. The Billings Survey revealed that very few women were working outside their homes: of these, fifty-seven were in music, sixty-seven were stenographers, 178 were servants, and 221 were milliners and dress makers. Although women were moving into commerce and trade very slowly, many “women of valor” were already involved, helping their husbands in family businesses. In the 1880’s Zerlina Rosenfield, after business reverses in the family, became a legal stenographer; by the end of the decade she and her sister Laura had succeeded in establishing the largest stenography, typing, and translating service in the country. Such ventures were, however, very unusual.

By the time of the Billings Survey about 14 percent of the people studied were artisans. Certainly by that time many of the people studied were East Europeans who were now arriving in substantial numbers. Even before 1890 these newcomers were moving into the garment industry as artisans, and they were to continue to manifest high visibility in that trade. The coming of these Slavic Jewish newcomers distorts the traditional Jewish white-collar pattern inasmuch as 50 to 60 percent of them entered industry in the large Eastern cities; only 25 to 35 percent were in trade and in commerce. This vocational distribution of these newcomers is only a transitional, one-generation episode. Even before 1900 many of them had begun assiduously to adopt the prevailing occupational pattern of the Jewish natives and “Germans,” an economic way of life that had been traditional in this country since the colonial days. Thus increasing numbers of these émigrés went into petty retail trade; they were peddlers, pushcart owners, shopkeepers, salesmen, clerks, agents, and in a multitude of other categories of commerce and business.

No later than 1910 the Russians, Poles, and Rumanians were already beginning to shift from the factories and sweatshops into white-collar clerical and managerial jobs. The two groups, the older established natives and Germans and the newcomers, began slowly to resemble one another, vocationally at least. In the Atlanta of 1881, then the largest Jewish community in the South, 75 percent of the men at work—natives and Germans—were in commerce and trade and 3.5 percent in the professions. In 1917, when most Jews in Atlanta were of East European stock over 68 percent was in business and over 10 percent in the professions. As late as 1920 most American Jews were still in business; many of them, however, were moving into the service industries associated with food, drink, restaurants, hotels, theatres, entertainment, bowling alleys, photography, insurance sales, and the like.27



How many Jews were successful? What is the measure, the connotation of success? Viewed commercially, financially, who is the typical mid-nineteenth century Jew? Was it Philip Sartorius of Vicksburg or Julius Weis of New Orleans? Sartorius was a Southern immigrant merchant born in Bavaria in 1830. He left home when he was thirteen, landed in New Orleans, settled down in Mississippi, and went from one business to another, never becoming rich. He endured bad cotton years, floods, the Civil War, yellow fever, fires, insolvent debtors. Before he died in 1913 six of his children had predeceased him, one of them was shot, another was run over by the hose reel of the fire engine company. Are these the simple annals of the typical Jew? Like Sartorius, Weis, too, was a native German. He had come to the United States in 1845 at the age of nineteen. With headquarters at Natchez he had begun his career in this country as a peddler, and when he had put a little aside, he opened a small store in a Mississippi village. Twelve years later he had saved $15,000, a great deal of money. During the Civil War he sent his savings to Paris, to Lazard Frères and turned it into good exchange. Back in Natchez he went into the wholesale dry goods business and when the War was over paid his Northern suppliers with interest. This was not only good morality, it was also good business. Even before the conflict had come to its bitter end he and his partners had moved on to New Orleans, a federal city, where he opened a large wholesale dry goods enterprise. Like many other New Orleans merchants he traded in cotton, shipping his bales to New York. In the course of years he became a wealthy man and was even accepted as a member in the exclusive Boston Club.28


Success was not easy to achieve. Even a decent comfortable livelihood was not at the command of every earnest suppliant. Jews kept moving about from town to town, from job to job, until they took root somewhere. Samuel Thuringer of Madison, Wisconsin, was in a variety of businesses and apparently was successful in some if not most of them. He was in clothing, groceries, flour, and feed; he ran a general store and for a time even specialized in gents’ and ladies’ furnishings. Charles, a son, went to Wisconsin State in Madison, studied engineering, and served as relief engineer when the Holland Tunnel was built beneath the Hudson River. As today, children then had the tendency to pick up stakes and move about seeking more inviting opportunities; an immigrant generation produced children fully as mobile as their parents. The Seligmans opened stores and branches in a half-dozen different towns all the way from Watertown, New York to Selma, Alabama, and San Francisco before at last they hit their stride as clothing manufacturers and bankers in New York City during the War.29


The great majority never “made it big.” That is obvious. Even the rich had frequent reverses that are not reflected in the “mug” book accounts of their careers. Bankers never brag of their bad investments and their unwise loans. In 1865 Julius Weis and his partners had cotton goods selling at forty-five cents a yard; after the War the same bolt sold for four and one-half cents a yard. Confederate soldiers burnt the 460 bales of cotton Weis had tucked away which would have brought $230,000 in the markets of the North during the War. If there had been no failures, no misfits, there would have been no need for the numerous Jewish charities and social agencies. The typical Jew in business was faced with the hazards of recurring recessions and panics some of which lasted for years. Hundreds, if not thousands, were bankrupted and had to start over again. And even if not forced into bankruptcy most merchants had to wipe off the debts of their customers; in the aggregate these losses amounted to many millions. The histories of Jewish communities never recite the stories of the businessmen who were crushed never to rise again. Rarely does a monograph describe the career of an Abe Altman who went from banker to clerk. Yet if numerically there were not many Jews of great wealth it is equally true that there were relatively few tramps and paupers.30


At times unsuccessful Jews, both natives and immigrants, fell by the wayside and resorted to crime, although the number who committed offenses—minor for the most part—was small. Of 10,000 petitions for charity in New York City in 1904-1905, only 44 asked for relief because of the imprisonment of the wage earner in the family. Charges against Jews in this period range anywhere from violations of the Sunday closing laws to forgery, arson, receiving stolen goods, and even murder. When Jews had faith in those accused they helped them.31


Descriptions of wealthy people and their accomplishments make for interesting reading. It is always a pleasure to enjoy the other fellow’s money if only vicariously. The number of Jews who actually achieved wealth was always very small, though the non-Jewish world delighted to exaggerate the riches of the Children of Abraham. The New York Sun in 1891 carried the following panegyric:

                        Broadway from Fourteenth Street down

                        is lined with the signs of Jewish firms.

                        Wall Street is full of them. They have

                        obtained an immense place in the retail

                        dry goods trade in New York. In the

                        professions of the law and medicine they

                        are numerous and powerful. Very

                        many of the most accomplished musicians are Jews,

                        many of the actors, and many of the caterers

                        for public amusement and refection. In every

                        department of activity where intellectual

                        acuteness and keenness of perception are

                        requisite they are forging ahead. . . . Of late

                        years, also, they have become conspicuous

                        for investment in land and property.

The Jews of that day who enjoyed great wealth can be counted on ten fingers; none was numbered among the tycoons, comparable to Carnegie, the Goulds, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, J. P. Morgan, and the Rockefellers. Very few Jews were in the big trusts and monopolies with governmental ties and influence. They were excluded from the great corporations which were most frequently the preserve of socially exclusive Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Jews were very much on the periphery of the power areas. Rarely did they possess inherited wealth; few had wealthy families to help them; they were immigrants bred to a foreign mother tongue. In 1899 it was said that there was not one Jew among the 100 wealthiest in the land.

Practically without exception the Jews here had to start at the bottom, but they were hardworking and eager, almost too eager, for recognition. They were ambitious and knew that for them status would have to come through wealth. The fortunate and the gifted among them did rise to the heights as merchants, bankers, manufacturers, even though the areas into which they could move were limited. At the top levels, they exercised little or no power in oil, transportation, public utilities, steel, fuel, insurance. As early as the 1860’s, just about the time that Horatio Alger set out to publish his first novel, Ragged Dick, the Jews began to scale the economic ladder to the top rung. Though few of them had ever been ragged, their beginnings were certainly humble. By 1892, so it has been estimated, over 5 percent of the millionaires in New York were Jews but this was considerably less than their percentage in the city’s population.

Another estimate suggests that in 1902, about 3 percent of American millionaires were of Jewish stock. This is more than their percentage in the general population but reflects the urban preference of the Jews; cities are where most of the rich are found. Not infrequently businessmen who had made good in the hinterland moved to the large cities, especially to New York, where they hoped to find wider scope for their talents. Typical of these argonauts was Louis Stix of Cincinnati, an immigrant who had started life here as a peddler and had succeeded in building one of the largest wholesale dry goods establishments in the Middle West. He shifted to New York to serve his company as a resident buyer and as a finance man. There seems little doubt that for their numbers in the country the Jews certainly had as many millionaires as any other group despite the handicap of starting out as immigrants.32


Signs of wealth were not limited to individual luxuries like the beautiful new Cold Spring Harbor home of Otto Kahn, staffed, so gossip relates, by 125 servants. The proof that many Jews had prospered is reflected in the beautiful new synagogs that rose in practically all states where Jews were found. The postbellum years saw the establishment of many new congregations housed in new sanctuaries. The same generation founded and supported the Union of American Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, hospitals, orphan asylums, and old-folks homes; all this required the outlay of substantial sums. In the early nineteenth century, Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia paid $100 a year rental for its synagogal quarters; in 1870 the congregation erected the most beautiful Jewish sanctuary in the city, and some of those socially ambitious Ashkenazim who had defected to join Sephardic Mikveh Israel now retraced their steps to reaffiliate with Rodeph Shalom. The United States Census Bureau reported that in 1850 Jewish religious property was valued at $415,600; in 1870, it was over $5,000,000. In 1846 the total receipts of Temple Emanu-El in New York City amounted to $1,520; in 1868 the sale of pews in the new uptown building at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Third Street brought $708,575. The synagog was “the architectural sensation of the city.” The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the flowering of German Jewry in the United States, but it must be emphasized that it was the rich and the middle-class businessmen who carried the community when large expenditures were required. This was to be true in all periods of American Jewish communal history.33


The native Americans and the immigrant Central European Jews were essentially one broad inclusive middle-class complex. The typical Jew of the period was born in Bavaria, came to the United States as an almost impoverished teenager, made his way as a merchant, moved uptown to better residential quarters as urban transportation improved, was active in his synagog and in a Jewish and non-Jewish lodge, raised a family, and summed up his philosophy of life in the sentence: “If you are honest and industrious you are bound to succeed.” Despite the constant buffets of an unpredictable economy most Jews, natives and immigrants, managed to make a living. They were never an impoverished group though many Jews were destined to remain in the lower middle class, petit bourgeois. The vast majority was never even “comfortable” financially. From the 1890’s on the influx of the East Europeans temporarily depressed the status of American Jewry. Now it was predominantly lower middle class and many Jews were even proletarians. By 1910 even the trans-Oder immigrants began to rise in the social and economic scale displaying an ability to survive here in new this land with a degree of dignity. This success was not limited to the Jewish immigrant; it was true of most of Europe’s immigrants who found the United States a land of opportunity.

The economic rise of the new arrivals, the Central Europeans, was already patent in the 1850’s within a decade after they landed. Their uninterrupted rise is marked by a brisker tempo after the Civil War. An economic study of Poughkeepsie, a small town with a very small Jewry, to be sure, disclosed that most of the first generation of Jewish newcomers was already a white-collar group when it came to town; any Jews who were blue-collar workers rose to become members of the white-collar class before they died. Over 20 percent of the first generation owned property worth $10,000 at least, considerably more than their Protestant and Catholic neighbors possessed. The Billings Survey confirms these findings for New York: 3,700 families had one servant; about 2,000 had two servants, and more than 900 families had no servants but, it would seem, many of them could also afford to keep hired help but preferred to do their own work.

Wealth is of course relative; many lived comfortably contentedly on little. When Sophia Heller married Philip Goldsmith in Milwaukee in 1875 she was not quite seventeen; “Papa,” her husband, was all of twenty-one. She received $300 from her folks; this was really a dowry which she and her husband used to buy furniture. Papa gave her $3 a week for housekeeping, and when he was out making a living she amused herself playing with a cat and its five little kittens.34


Writers have suggested that the New York banking and investment house clans rose in the world because they were a close social group who intramarried and helped one another. Intramarriage in this group was of course inevitable because the members moved in the same social circles, attended the same Temple (Emanu-El), belonged to the same club (Die Harmonie), and spent their summers at the same resorts. All this is no proof that they worked together; often they were bitter rivals. Their primary relationship was social if only because they were shut out by the rich Gentiles who snubbed them. They became “Our Crowd” because the Gentiles excluded them from “Their Crowd.” Some families, however, did work together loyally; brothers helped brothers even if this meant that they had to carry the incompetent and the irresponsible. Because of the high visibility of the Jew on the rialto and his presumptive wealth, Gentiles, and Jews, too, have never ceased speculating about the causes of his success. Many have ascribed his achievements to the opportunities open to him in this land where he enjoyed civic equality. Others said that the Jews prospered because of their ambition, thrift, intelligence, hard work, sobriety, ability, energy, enterprise, patience, courage, and pluck in renewing the struggle after initial defeats. All of this may be true but not one of these numerous qualities is typically Jewish. These traits are just as characteristic of the Gentiles who have prospered and, in many instances, they succeeded in an even greater measure than the Jews.35


The Jews, natives and German immigrants, enjoyed a modicum of comfort in the cities and towns where they lived. Anticipating the flight from agriculture and the farm the Jews had persisted in peopling the urban centers. By 1920 most of them were to be found in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Newark, and Detroit. Cincinnati, the Queen City of the West, had stumbled in the race for preeminence. The closing of the frontier—if it ever closed—did not affect the Jew. He was sufficiently apperceptive to sense the challenge of the new urban and cultural frontier. Found in all forms of trade and crafts, Jews were mostly in the apparel trade. Though a few were farmers and some were artisans, Jews were not yeomen or manual workers. Only with the coming of the Slavic Jews does the American Jewish community include a relatively large number of blue-collar wage earners. Many of these shop and factory hands were needleworkers who had no desire to remain chained to the sewing machine; they viewed their jobs as garment workers as but the first step upward in commerce and industry. It is difficult to determine how many managed to unshackle themselves. Over the years the numbers were not small. Certainly by 1920 the children of the new arrivals succeeded in rejecting the factories or the petty parental stores; the majority of these native-born children became white-collar workers and professionals.

Plutocrats? The American Jews were compelled to be satisfied with less than riches; their hopes, certainly their realizations, were more modest. American imperialism and corporate monopoly owe little to them. They were rarely numbered among the moneyed men of the Gilded Age who overshadowed the government and the economy. With but rare exceptions Jewish capitalists controlled no resources; they were not found among the great industrial leaders; they were peripheral figures. It took at least thirty years for the new East European immigration to build strong unions that brought its members decent living and working conditions in the needle industry. The Jewish unions were in the forefront of those that furthered cooperation between employer and employee. They worked to abolish sweatshop and prison labor; they furthered social welfare, engaged in reform politics, created leisure, educational, and financial agencies for the rank and file, and did much to raise the standard of living and thinking in the garment industry. In a very modest fashion enterprising Jews turned out at times to be economic pioneers. In Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the brothers Joseph and Henry Mann, who had arrived in town in 1860, introduced the first saw mill. Later Joseph was elected mayor. In Evansville, Jacob Eichel sparked the effort that brought the city its first electric light plant, its first brick street, and its first tobacco warehouse. Otto Mears was instrumental in bringing the railroad to Colorado’s Western Slope.36


The importance of distributing basic commodities and extending credit to hundreds of thousands in the towns, villages, and hamlets of America can hardly be overestimated. This was a role in which the Jew shone. The Jewish store everywhere provided a variety of goods for the masses and helped create markets for the manufacturer. In one of the Spectator essays for 1712 Joseph Addison wrote of the Jews: “They are like the pegs and nails of a great building which, though they are but little value in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.” This statement applies particularly to Jewish shopkeepers whether in the metropolitan areas or in the village general stores. As retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, as bosses and workers, they more than any other group are primarily responsible for the clothing industry in this country. Their mass production and distribution of good clothes has helped democratize United States society; the leveling effect of good clothes of similar styles and material available to all persons is an important achievement. “The Jewish needle made America the best dressed nation in the world.”37


The Jews were not innovators; often, however, they were the wheel-horses of the economy. In the postbellum South Jewish businessmen, if only in a modest fashion, helped effect a real reconstruction in the post-Reconstruction period. They built synagogs, textile mills, private banks, and, above all, retail, wholesale, and jobbing houses. They were among the elect who pumped new blood into the almost lifeless devastated South. It is no historical accident that in postbellum Arkansas alone over a dozen villages and hamlets were named after Jews. Their accomplishments in the South were not unique; there was no section of the country which did not shelter Jews notable for their place in the American economy: Ochs and Pulitzer in newspapers; Florsheim in shoes; Nelson Morris in meat; Schiff and the California Hellmans in commercial and investment banking; the Strauses in department stores, Rosenwald in the mailorder business, Louis Marshall in law, and the Cones in textiles. Levi Straus made his name “levis” a synonym for a good pair of pants and Hart, Schaffner & Marx did the same for a good suit of clothes. Jews were among the first pioneers to develop Alaska and New Mexico commercially; two Milwaukee merchants, A. W. Rich and Lewis Silber, provided a large dining room for their employees, set up a sick fund, and sweetened their labors with picnics and banquets. Even more constructive was the effort of Edward Albert Filene to make Filene’s of Boston a cooperative enterprise in which the employees would share in the fruits of their labor. This attempt which failed cost Filene control of the business.

Some Jewish businessmen had very unusual careers. After beginning his life work by studying literature and music in Paris, the German, Isaac Leopold Rice (1850-1915), who had come to America as a child, wrote a monograph on the subject, What is Music. Then he turned to law, studying and teaching at Columbia and helping John W. Burgess establish its department of political science. He became a very successful lawyer and financier, reorganizing railroads and the infant electrical industry. As president of the Electric Storage Battery Company he furthered the manufacture of batteries; his holdings in the Electric Boat Company, builder of submarines, made him a millionaire. In the 1880’s he founded and supported the Forum, a national magazine, and found time in his very busy life to write for the North American Review and the Century. This is the man who invented the Rice Gambit in chess. Rice was already a graduate of Columbia Law School and well on the way to a great career, before his homeland Bavaria completely emancipated its Jews.38

It requires no elaborate commentary to explain what the industrial revolution here meant to the Jew. America was synonymous with opportunity for the individual. The new economic changes brought to many Jews a degree of success: money, comfort, and the ability to provide adequately for their children. Because of their economic advances Jews hoped that the Gentiles would accept them as socials equals; in this expectation most of them were disappointed. Inasmuch as the new economy required people with skills, men with special training in law and the physical sciences, Jews found their way into the professions in ever-increasing numbers. There was no need for the able and the intelligent to turn to petty trade and hawking, activities that were not intellectually challenging, not emotionally rewarding. As this country became the richest industrial state in the world, great cities sprang up, large Jewish communities began to emerge in their midst, important because the Jewish masses in them, numbering hundreds of thousands, became articulate and began to exercise influence. Here in these metropolitan centers Jews now possessed the means, the technical knowledge, and the facilities to create institutions of a national character. Because this new Jewish urban society was huge in size and riven by ethnic, class, and cultural disparities, group hostilities were never absent. In New York, in particular, there was a temporary emergence of a schismatic Marxist working class, limited in number but vigorous in polemics, at odds with all other Jews, rich or poor, who cherished bourgeois ideals. Thus solidarity among Jews was broken for a time until repeated calamities abroad and the common American cultural impact induced the two groups to tolerate one another.

In a negative sense wealth often encouraged the cultivation of class distinctions, social aloofness, and the rise of exclusive clubs. In this area Jews patterned themselves slavishly on the Gentiles. Some Jewish families of wealth and distinction, like the Belmonts, the Dillons, and the Fleischmanns, drifted away from Judaism. In a positive sense wealth brought a consciousness of power that prompted a Schiff to talk boldly to a Roosevelt or a Taft on behalf of Russian Jewry and to scorn to truckle to the Russian envoy Count Sergei de Witte. With riches came a degree of munificence that was undreamt of in earlier generations. The openhandedness of the Rosenwalds, Nathan Straus, and the Guggenheims was possible only in a productive world sired by the industrial revolution. With opportunity and wealth came education, leisure, culture, and its concomitant, the rise of the Jewish intellectual. It is interesting to recall that three of New York’s important banking families also gave birth to academicians and publicists of note: the Seligmans, the Sachses, and the Warburgs. The economic freedom which the Jew here enjoyed not only made it possible for many to live well, but afforded them the opportunity, long denied them in other lands, to unfold mentally and emotionally; through the diversity of doing and thinking came free play for creative impulses.

Thus the industrial revolution opened new vistas for huge numbers of Jews, most of whom were born disadvantaged. A unique but not atypical story is that of the Kahn family. Joseph Kahn, a modest humble German, came to these shores about the year 1881 and worked hard to eke out an existence. Some of his boys—he had six all told—had to hustle as teenagers to help feed the family. At least four of them achieved national recognition as builders, contractors, engineers, and architects. Julius, a charming refined gentleman, created the Truscon Steel Company which pioneered in erecting steel reinforced concrete factories. Moritz was sent to Russia by the company when it became one of the chief designers of the Soviet Union’s industrial program. Felix built the first American underground parking facility and was one of the partners of the Six Company’s Inc. which fashioned the $49,000,000 Hoover Dam, one of the great engineering marvels of the West. Albert, the greatest of them all and the founder of the family business, has been called the world’s most famous industrial architect. His commercial buildings are found on five continents and in 134 cities in this country. For the Ford Motor Company alone he designed and built over a thousand factories.39

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.