Book Review: A good fit

Many Jews worked their way up in the rag trade from peddling to storekeeping to wholesaling, but more successfully in the US than Britain.

The Levi's retail store in San Francisco (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Levi's retail store in San Francisco
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1853, after a sojourn in California and a visit to Melbourne, Australia, William Kelly concluded that clothing marts resembled Jewish synagogues.
“When running the scent of wearing apparel,” Kelly wrote, the Hebrews “congregated in a dense mass about the pulpit, hawking a valueless lot of damaged baragon jackets.” In sales of merchandise, especially garments “in the lower grades of fashion, they fairly outstrip and distance all competition.”
For Jews in the British empire and the US, the clothing business was, indeed, a good fit. From humble beginnings, points out author Adam Mendelsohn, an associate professor at the College of Charleston, Jewish immigrants used the garment industry to rise to prosperity. In The Rag Race, Mendelsohn focuses on the trade in the 19th century, a subject rarely addressed by historians, and explains why American Jews were more successful in developing an ethnic economy based on cast-off, cut-rate and ready-made clothing than their counterparts in England.
Mendelsohn acknowledges that cultural capital – literacy and numeracy; familiarity with trading, storekeeping and commerce – played a role in this ethnic ecosystem. He maintains, however, that the unique nature and rapid growth of the US economy made it possible for American Jews to take greater advantage of the shift in the business from skilled tailoring to mass production, marketing and consumption.
According to Mendelsohn, ready-made clothing rewarded American businessmen with the skills to supervise the female workers who stitched and sewed in their homes or in small workshops, far more than those “possessing fingers made dexterous by a long apprenticeship as a tailor.”
And male tailors, he notes, were loath to switch to a mode of production which cut their wages. Equally important, Jews who graduated from peddling to storekeeping to wholesaling were quite familiar with selling in rural markets in the Midwest and the South, moving goods over distances and extending credit to their customers.
By contrast, the secondhand business in England proved to be “an imperfect platform for entry into the ready-made trade.” A few businessmen monopolized the sale of clothing to Australia. Those who sold to the domestic market did not create the “dispersed distribution chains” used by Jewish peddlers in the US.
English Jews, moreover, had fewer incentives to leave tailoring (where wages were a bit higher than in the US), with “fewer role models to emulate, a shallower presence in other fields; thus [they] were slower to exit the sweatshop.”
Jewish-American traders also benefited immensely from the emergence of large and lucrative clothing markets. The California Gold Rush of the 1840s and ’50s attracted tens of thousands of prospectors and lots of Jewish peddlers, clerks and storekeepers, eager to sell their wares to miners who wanted to parade around San Francisco in fashionable clothing, and ecstatic when they were paid in gold.
Jews, Mendelsohn points out, were overrepresented among the city’s clothing manufacturers. Arriving in San Francisco in 1853, Levi Strauss soon made a fortune by making denim waist overalls with metal rivets added to the seams.
The advent of the US Civil War, Mendelsohn demonstrates, was a godsend to rag traders – who were still suffering from the financial panic of 1857. By 1861, he writes, the need to outfit volunteers “set federal money coursing through a parched garment industry. Drought was replaced by deluge, shortage by surfeit.”
By the end of the war, governments in the North had purchased 4 million caps, 6 million trousers, 11 million shirts and 20 million pairs of stockings.”
Brooks Brothers, for example, became the second-largest private contractor to New York State. Most importantly, the guaranteed market enabled Jews – some of whom had limited financial means – to compete with established non-Jewish companies in the production of ready-made clothing.
In the decades following the end of the Civil War, Mendelsohn reminds us, the garment industry was transformed by the Singer sewing machine. Aided by measurements taken during the wartime draft, department stores began to offer customers standardized sizes. And more than their counterparts in England, Jewish- American retailers and manufacturers were “carried higher” by a postwar economic boom in which workers had more money to spend and more leisure time, and were more inclined to buy fashionable as well as utilitarian clothes.
Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe flocked to the industry. Their numbers, Mendelsohn emphasizes, included individuals who were not “nimble with the thimble.” They too had good timing, because women’s wear was giving the industry, a new – albeit temporary – lease on life.
Like those who came before them, the “new immigrants” manifested a proclivity for entrepreneurship. Many of them used the sweatshop as a gateway to the future: they left the field or “made their way into its more secure upper reaches,” and made sure their children attended college, well before the collapse of the garment industry in the US. 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.