Book Review: Peddling to success

For many Jewish immigrants, selling their wares was the road to economic security.

Samsonite luggage (photo credit: REUTERS)
Samsonite luggage
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1874, in his Guide For Going to America, Leon Horowitz of Minsk proclaimed that peddlers “who go about the countryside with their wares on their shoulders can earn their bread in America,” a nation that was inclined to be benevolent to Jews.
Between the late 18th century and World War I, according to Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, peddlers in the US and, for that matter, throughout Europe, Africa, Australia and South America, did that and more. In Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, Diner tells their story.
For individuals with little or no capital, Diner points out, peddling offered “a way to put their dreams of starting over in a new place into action.” Focusing primarily on the US, Diner argues – at times a bit hyperbolically – that peddling served as an engine of mobility and respectability, enabling Jews to “become comfortable merchants and businessmen, some achieving spectacular leaps into the highest rungs of financial success.”
Diner claims as well that Jewish peddlers left a mark on the families and communities they visited. Peddling, she suggests, upset traditional gender roles.
Women customers decided what to buy, how much to pay and whether to invite the peddler to lodge for the night; what their husbands thought “mattered little.”
On occasion, peddlers acted as “cultural innovators,” bringing movie projectors, makeshift screens and films to the countryside.
Peddling also facilitated the cultural and civic integration of the young Jewish men who took to the road. No other job, Diner points out, offered so many opportunities for intimacy and mutual understanding. As they dined with their customers, peddlers picked up bits and pieces of the English language and local culture. In turn, Jews shared their beliefs and practices with Christians.
A Jewish peddler in Ironton, Ohio, distributed matza to his customers; a vendor in Northfield, Minnesota, was so well-known for observing Shabbat that a child of one of his customers checked the skies on Saturday evenings to determine the sun had gone down, ran home and announced, “You can smoke now, Moses.”
Diner acknowledges that peddlers were not always welcomed into America’s villages, towns and cities; merchants viewed them as competitors, of course. In Key West, Florida, in the 1880s, for example, the Merchants’ Protective Association succeeded in amending the city charter to mandate an annual license fee of $1,000, an immense sum in those days, for all peddlers. The immigrant status of peddlers fueled anxiety as well. With no local ties, Diner observes, Jewish peddlers were often accused of crimes.
And anti-Semitism was clearly behind Order 11, issued by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in December 1862, during the Civil War, expelling “all Jews as a class” from Tennessee.
Henry Halleck, Grant’s commanding officer, supported the effort to rid the area of “traitors and Jew peddlers.”
That said, Diner emphasizes that peddlers encountered little or no hatred against Jews. Accounts by peddlers themselves and those of their customers do not betray perceptions of an impenetrable wall of difference. Nor do they give credence to the fears of Jewish elites that peddling stirred up local animosities or harmed Jewish families (by leaving wives and children to fend for themselves five days a week).
Indeed, Diner insists, again running ahead of the evidence, that “wherever peddlers went, women and men willingly let them into their homes and in a larger sense into their communities, seeing them as heroes by virtue of their having brought previously unknown or unattainable wares.” Moreover, despite some anti-Jewish rhetoric – especially during heated political moments – she asserts that the American masses did not view Jewishness as a barrier to civic participation or holding political office.
Young and ambitious, Jewish peddlers did not stay on the road for long. They settled down, often leading spectacularly prosperous lives. After hawking his wares in Colorado, Diner notes, Isaac Schwayder opened a store, then began to manufacture luggage. In search of a catchy name, Isaac and his brother, inspired by the biblical account of physical strength, settled on Samsonite.
Marcus Goldman peddled for two years before establishing Goldman Sachs and Company.
For Isaac and Jesse Schwayder, Marcus Goldman and many, many Jewish immigrants, peddling was a fast route to economic security. For them, the US was the land of opportunity, where anyone who worked hard, endured hardships and provided good value to his customers could transform himself and win the acceptance and affection of his fellow citizens.
And America was the place in which the next generation could – and often did – do even better.
Grounded in substantial research documenting the experiences and perceptions of peddlers on six continents, Roads Taken tells an inspirational story. But is should not allow us to forget that in the Goldene Medina, there were some Jews without money.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.