German Jews and Peddling in America

Peddling helped launch the Jewish migration out of Germany and its predecessor states. The knowledge that thousands of young single men could come to America and get on the road, laden with a jumble of goods on their backs, and reasonably hope to end up a married proprietor of a thriving business, propelled them. The fact that they could fulfill the aims of their migration, settle down, and succeed in business, also helped change the face of the Jewish world for decades to come.

Updated: May 28, 2014

Peddling as a Profession: A Widespread Activity

In the period from the 1820s through the 1880s nearly 250,000 Jews came from the various states and regions that in 1871 coalesced into a united Germany. This constituted the first mass migration of Jews to the United States. Prior to 1820 no more than 2,000 Jews lived there. These immigrant women and men established the basic economic and communal patterns which would continue to characterize American Jewish life even after the latter part of the nineteenth century when several million Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated and vastly outnumbered those from the German-speaking lands and their children.

Most of the men among these immigrants opted for on-the-road peddling as their start-up occupation in their new American home. Those who did not peddle owned shops, peddler warehouses, and manufactured the goods that Jewish peddlers sold. The near universality of the decision of so many German Jewish immigrants to begin their lives in America as peddlers shaped much of their subsequent lives as well as of the families and communities they built.

The numbers of German Jewish immigrant men who peddled cannot be accurately determined. For one, most only peddled for a few years and as such likely eluded the detection of the decennial United States Census. That is, an individual may have arrived in the United States in 1853 and peddled until 1856. He could not have shown up in the 1850 Census but by 1860 would have rightly listed himself as a shopkeeper or manufacturer, and his peddling years would have never been registered as such. So too since peddlers did not have a fixed place of abode, but rather came to some town for the weekends only, spending the rest of their time on the road, they would likely not have been found at home and written down by the census taker as peddlers. City directories likewise enumerated individuals and businesses with fixed addresses, precisely what the peddler lacked. R.G. Dunn, the nation’s most significant credit rating agency paid attention to settled merchants, and while its reporters sometimes made note of Jewish shopkeepers who had once peddled, they offered little evidence about those men peddling at any given moment.

Applications for peddlers’ licenses could provide some kind of estimate of the number and names of peddlers, to be derived state by state and county by county. These forms did not ask religion or birthplace, making them relatively opaque vis-à-vis trying to estimate the number of German-born Jewish peddlers in America. Additionally untold numbers of peddlers did not bother to take out licenses so even such official documents fail to tell the story—a story that extended from the 1820s all the way into the early twentieth century, although by the 1860s Jews from Lithuania began to swell the ranks of the peddlers.

Some local Jewish communities at times made note of the occupational profile of those men who belonged to the synagogue. Again this put peddlers at a disadvantage, at least from the perspective of knowing how many of them lived in a particular place at a given time. Since they spent most of the week on the road and rarely had a fixed abode, they did not necessarily join communal organizations or show up as permanent residents in communal documents. Most men joined congregations only when they settled down, not during their years of itinerant selling. While peddlers would have had full access to the services provided by the synagogues, including the right to worship, to be helped by communal charity, and if need be, to secure a proper Jewish burial, they did not pay dues and therefore did not show up on the synagogues’ rolls as members. While peddlers used particular communities as their home bases—the places where they got their goods and rested over the weekend—the peddlers did not belong to these communities, but rather came in and then went out.

Local general newspapers contained articles, randomly, about Jewish peddlers, either describing their activities or chronicling some tragedy that befell them, particularly robberies and murders. The two nationally circulating American Jewish newspapers of the mid-nineteenth century also provide occasional information about the spread of Jewish peddlers across the United States. Isaac Leeser’s newspaper, The Occident, published in Philadelphia starting in 1843, and Cincinnati-based The American Israelite, published by Isaac Mayer Wise as early as 1854, offered vignettes and news items about the Jewish communities forming around the country with references to peddlers not infrequently included. These newspapers also offered details on the adversities facing the peddlers and reported on murders of peddlers and the trials of those accused of such crimes.  

Despite the obstacles to arriving at an accurate count of the number of German Jewish immigrant peddlers, some historians of local Jewish communities have tried to do so. Using memoirs, autobiographies, family histories, and newspaper accounts they have pieced together items from the fragments of available material to demonstrate the tremendous concentration of Jewish immigrants from German-speaking lands who took their first steps in America as peddlers.

The numbers and percentages derived from these sources leave no doubt as to the importance of this occupation and its formative impact on American and American Jewish history. They demonstrate the large number of Jews, who for some amount of time peddled, and the lack of any kind of regional boundaries to the phenomenon. A few examples will have to suffice. In Nashville, 23 percent of the adult male Jews in 1860 peddled, as did 25 percent of those in Boston between 1845 and 1861. In Easton, Pennsylvania, a town which occupied the strategic meeting point of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, 46 percent peddled in 1840, but just five years later, the number jumped to 70 percent. By 1850 the number had dropped to 55 percent, still a significant figure for any one occupation among a relatively small number of people. Of the 125 Jewish residents in Iowa in the 1850s, 100 peddled around the state, as did two-thirds of all the Jews in Syracuse, New York in that same decade before the Civil War. These men fanned out and hawked goods to the upstate communities, and used the inland waterways as the means by which they got to their designated areas for selling. Similar figures garnered from hundreds of community histories, Jewish newspapers of the time, and applications for peddlers’ licenses culled from other regional and state archives all point to the same phenomenon.

The numbers and percentages would actually be larger if they took into account the not inconsiderable number of Jewish immigrant men in these years who owned stores but continued to do some peddling. While R.G. Dunn, the city director, or the U.S. Census listed them as storeowners of one kind or another, Jewish men augmented their business operations by continuing to peddle, as circumstances made it possible. If for example, a brother or nephew from Germany joined the merchant in his store as a clerk, the proprietor then could keep up his door-to-door selling. But from the perspective of any official or informal enumeration of local occupations, he qualified as a sedentary merchant and not an itinerant peddler.

Why Peddling was Popular

The thousands of Jewish immigrant men from Germany who peddled in the United States participated in this occupation not as a lifelong goal or as something they foresaw doing for decades. Rather they gravitated to this bottom-rung commercial occupation precisely because they calculated that they would not have to do it for very long, that it carried with it the seeds for mobility. In this it differed from artisanship, in which someone acquired a skill, used it, developed it and over the course of his life, continued to work in it. Maybe they did so at higher and higher levels, but still then stuck with the craft of their youth.

Peddling served as a springboard to more lucrative and decidedly more comfortable occupations, ones which did not force its practitioners to walk the road for five days a week, selling goods door to door and house to house. German Jewish youth coming to America streamed into peddling for a number of reasons. First, they knew the occupation. If they, or even if their fathers, had not themselves been peddlers, this kind of trade constituted the backbone of the Jewish economy throughout the German-speaking regions. Along with cattle dealing, itinerant peddling by foot existed as a normal, well-establish modus vivendi for the Jews in all of central Europe.[1] The men who immigrated to America took up peddling almost as a matter of course. They also opted for peddling because word of the potential of peddling as a start-up occupation had drifted back to the German home communities of the emigrants.  As young men left for America and wrote back home about the success they had found via this kind of trade, others decided to join in the emigrant stream and assumed that they would peddle. The occasional returnee, a man who came back to his home village after peddling in America, also demonstrated the power of the occupation to fulfill the migration’s aims. So too the money sent by peddlers in the form of remittances, used mostly to pay for the fare of their brothers to join them in America, also spoke volumes as to why someone should consider peddling. Additionally publications like the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums reported in glowing terms on the prospects in America for German Jewish youth and emphasized how peddling provided an excellent first step towards stable and prosperous careers.    

Secondly, peddling allowed the new immigrant to tap into personal and communal networks. They did not arrive in the United States adrift or without any clear idea as to where to go and how to get there, but rather family members already in America paved the path for them to get their goods and their routes. When a new immigrant had no family member to help, he could turn to local Jews who extended credit and provided goods for the peddler to get started. But, it required little personal capital for the neophyte peddler. Relatives already in the United States as well as friends and other townspeople from back home, mostly already shopkeepers in stores of their own, assisted the newcomer to get started. Those who helped had much to gain economically from their assistance. Additionally, the male-heavy nature of the migration made peddling the perfect launch occupation for their American lives.

The Daily Realities of Peddling  

A distinctive way of making a living, peddling required that the man–since in the United States women nearly never engaged in it—knock on doors, go up to the homes of each one of his customers, cross their thresholds, communicate with them in their own language and develop a pleasant enough manner to convince them to buy something. It necessitated that the would-be peddler learn enough of the local language or languages to be able to communicate with women and men often very different from him. In order to sell, the peddler had to acquire insider cultural knowledge and be able to tap into the aspirations and sensibilities of a range of potential buyers, whom he had to engage with directly in their homes. Over time peddlers developed a list of steady customers, people whose homes they went to week after week.

This necessary range of skills made peddling different from nearly every other occupation that immigrants entered in the nineteenth century. Immigrants from Germany or any place else who went into farming tended to live in close proximity to others from their same region, and they resembled each other in terms of language and religion. Immigrants who spoke German, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, and other languages clustered at times in particular counties, and created relatively homogeneous enclaves that persisted for several generations in the nineteenth century. Likewise immigrant industrial laborers and artisans who settled in American cities, while they experienced much mixing across ethnic and linguistic lines, still enjoyed the cultural comfort of neighborhoods like New York’s Kleindeutschland which supported a vibrant German culture, with ethnically specific churches, saloons, shops, newspapers, clubs, and benevolent associations.

The Jewish immigrant peddlers led very different lives, ones shaped by the nature of the occupation and that, in turn, had an impact upon the way they experienced America. Typically a peddler operated out of a particular city or town and specifically out of the Jewish enclave in that place. Obviously the larger the place, the larger the Jewish community, but even many very small towns had skeletal Jewish populations made up of a few shopkeepers. Those shopkeepers provided the peddlers with their goods, which they in turn carried to customers in the hinterlands, the regions beyond easy access to the towns. If the place had more than one Jewish shop, or if large enough, had a peddler warehouse, the peddlers could get goods from more than one entrepreneur.

The peddlers operated on a weekly cycle. They left their base on Sunday or Monday, depending on how far they had to go. They would, if necessary, take the railroad or canal barges to get to their territories.  They peddled all week and on Friday headed back to the town from which they had gotten their goods. Here on the Jewish Sabbath and, depending on geography, on Sundays as well, they rested, experiencing fellowship with the other immigrant Jewish peddlers who also operated out of this town. The peddlers engaged with the settled Jewish families, some of whom either operated boarding houses for peddlers or merely extended home hospitality to the men during their brief respites off the road. On the weekends the peddlers could partake of Sabbath religious services and consume some of the good food associated with Jewish holy time, food prepared in the distinctive manners of the various central European regions. Saturday night, after sundown, when the restrictions of the Sabbath lifted, the peddlers came to the shopkeepers and or other creditors to whom they owed money, paid up from the goods they had sold that week, and then filled up their bags, ready for another week on the road.

Memoirs and autobiographies of former peddlers tell about the details of these weekend periods of rest in the scattered Jewish communities around the country. Simon Wolf, for example, who would eventually be a confidant of President Ulysses S. Grant and who might rightly be considered American Jewry’s first lobbyist, grew up in Ulrichsville, Ohio, having emigrated from Bavaria as a young boy. His uncle operated a store which served as the base for numerous immigrant peddlers, and he recalled how they spent many Sabbaths there.  He wrote in his Reminiscences, how, “twenty to thirty Jewish peddlers…with their packs weighing from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds,” routinely “managed to return on a Friday, so as to be with us on Saturday.” His aunt cooked for them and his uncle turned his store into a makeshift synagogue on Saturdays as the town had no such formal institution.[2]

Peddlers other than Jews from the German-speaking regions plied their itinerant trade around the United States. Since the pre-national period, men from New England, with its poor soil and relatively stagnant agricultural economy, tried their hand at peddling in the South, the mid-Atlantic, and then with the opening up of the trans-Appalachian west, there as well. Yankee peddling persisted, but in the main the Jewish peddler supplanted him as of the 1820s and beyond. Some Irish and non-Jewish Germans also peddled, but for these groups peddling neither shaped community life nor did it constitute a formative or mass experience. But Jews from Bavaria, Posen, Baden, and other regions that became part of Germany, as well as many from Alsace, Bohemia and western Russia, migrating between 1820 and the 1880s, were different. They constituted the only immigrant group for whom peddling represented a—or the—foundational occupation.

Jews leaving those central European areas went to countries other than the United States. A sizable number went to England, to other parts of the British Isles, and to Sweden. Some even went to southern Africa starting in the 1860s and Australia that same decade. In all of these places they also turned to peddling as their initial occupation and experienced the same trajectory out of peddling into more permanent and sedentary commercial enterprises. But of all the places to which some of them went, the United States emerged as the most attractive and sought-after destination. The tens of thousands of young Jewish men who left central Europe because they could find no place in the economic order there and went to the United States, a dynamic economy with many places for young white men to get started on the bottom, got caught up in “America fever.”   

Jewish peddlers from Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe fanned out all over the United States going to all kinds of communities. They peddled on the edges of large cities. At a time when respectable white women did not feel comfortable going out in public to shop, where roads and streets had not been fully paved, or where little in the way of easily accessible retail existed, peddlers came to their homes. Jewish peddlers showed up on farms shortly after new regions opened with the spread of the American population across the continent over the course of the nineteenth century. As Americans moved increasingly to the west and as immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and various parts of central Europe went to one farming region after another, the peddlers followed closely upon their heels, offering these pioneers living under relatively primitive conditions some of the material amenities of urban settled life. Jewish peddlers also went along with railroad, road building, canal digging, and mining crews. Wherever people lived somewhat removed from markets where they could buy goods, Jewish immigrant peddlers arrived, filling the void. Jewish immigrant peddlers, for example, showed up in California almost simultaneously with the gold prospectors in the late 1840s and they could be found every time new lodes opened up, whether in Nevada, Colorado, or South Dakota. Similarly in the West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal mining regions, Jewish peddlers supplied the needs of the families of the coal miners. Jewish peddlers did not avoid the South either. They sold to, among others, slave owners and the slaves themselves. They came onto cotton plantations, catering to the needs of both classes.

To say that they catered to the “needs” of customers deserves a bit of an elaboration. They tended not to sell such goods that would be deemed a necessity at the time. The peddlers did not sell food or fuel. Rather they sold a jumble of goods that might be considered quasi-luxuries. In their bags they carried needles, threads, lace, ribbons, mirrors, pictures and picture frames, watches, jewelry, eye glasses, linens, bedding, and other sundry goods, sometimes called “Yankee notions.” They carried some clothing and cloth, as well as patterns for women to sew their own clothes, and other items to be worn. At times they carried samples of clothes and shoes, measured their customers, and then on return visits brought the finished products with them. When the peddlers graduated from selling from packs on their backs to selling from horse and wagon, they offered more in the way of heavy items, such as stoves and sewing machines. Peddlers constantly expanded the goods they offered, trying to respond to customer demand and to the newest items being offered in the cities.

Whether a peddler sold to white or African-American customers, Native Americans or native-born white farmers, one matter united them all. They sold only to non-Jews. Unlike in Europe, in places like Bavaria or the Rhineland where many, possibly most, Jews peddled, in America the Jewish peddlers never sold to Jewish customers. The Jews lived in the towns and supplied the peddlers, while the peddlers went out onto the road to find the Christian customers. The peddlers penetrated the hinterlands and sold to the farmers, miners, loggers, or laboring families on the outskirts of the cities, all Christian. In Europe where Jews lived in many scattered small towns and villages, on-the-road peddlers could take shelter for the night in Jewish homes or in inns operated by Jewish proprietors. They could have access to kosher food, could pray with other Jews, and speak in their own language, namely Judeo-German or Yiddish.

In Michigan, Minnesota, upstate New York, Mississippi, Nebraska, and all the other places around the United States, however, peddlers could not lodge with Jewish families and stay in Jewish homes, as they spent the days of the week away from their communities. Fragmentary evidence about the experiences of Jewish peddlers in the decades before and after the Civil War, most having come from the German states and surrounding regions, exists for literally every state in the Union. Jewish peddlers often showed up before territories achieved statehood, and their presence signified the arrival of material goods for the white American settlers, attracted by the availability of inexpensive land and of resources for exploitation. 

Often the first Jews to come to any given town or region, peddlers expanded the commercial options for the women and men who lived in these places. Just a few examples of the peddlers as the pioneers of commerce and of the Jewish people in America will have to suffice. The first Jews of Rochester, New York, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Sioux City, Iowa, Chico, California, Chicago, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Cincinnati, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and hundreds of other communities, came as peddlers. They sold in and around these areas and then when they had amassed enough savings, which they stored with the Jewish shopkeepers who had provisioned them, they settled down and became shopkeepers. The presence of these Jewish shopkeepers drew other Jews to these places, the newest immigrants eager to get in on the bottom rung of the commercial economy as peddlers.

For the customers, the arrival of the peddlers meant that they did not have to depend upon the few local shopkeepers for the goods they wanted. The peddlers could offer the same items at a lower cost. They could bring these items directly into the customers’ homes, showing them, for example, how the curtains or the tablecloth would look. Because they had close to no overhead, the peddler could offer the merchandise at lower rates of interest on an installment plan than the in-town merchant with the fixed costs that came with owning a store and providing a home for his family.

Peddlers could, additionally, get to the women and men who lived too far from town to be able to go shopping. That too made them indispensible to the people, both native-born Americans and immigrants, who pushed out to the new regions of the continent—one of the key developments of nineteenth century American life. In a variety of places, in coal mining regions and on slave plantations, the commercial activities of the peddlers allowed poor and subjugated men and women a chance to circumvent oppressive systems. For miners, loggers, and railroad workers, the peddlers provided an alternative to the company store, the emporium owned and operated by their employers. The employers charged exorbitant prices, extended credit at usurious rates, and often took these purchases out of the wages of the workers. The immigrant Jewish peddlers had no connection to the employers and they provided the customers with a chance to buy what they liked and at dramatically lower prices.

In the American South a particular pattern emerged. Jewish peddlers came onto the cotton plantations. They sold to the planters, offering usually higher end goods, well within the ability of the white planters to afford. They enjoyed the privilege of being defined as white and at times, despite being immigrants with limited English, they socialized with the landowners. Some plantations actually maintained a special room where the peddler could sleep for the night, so much did the planter class look forward to the visits of the peddlers. But the peddlers also sold to the slaves.

Planters often allowed slaves to earn some money. Skilled slaves could rent themselves out and while they had to turn over some of their wages to their owners, they could keep some. Other times slaves could earn money by raising crops in their gardens. And, with their earnings, the slaves would avail themselves of the goods the peddlers had to offer. While owners at time feared that the peddlers could be spreading abolitionist propaganda and aiding in slave escapes, they did not bar the peddlers from entering their farms.    

The particular tempo of peddler activities fit their business needs and the wishes of their customers. Peddlers sold on the installment plan, taking a small down payment for goods purchased, charging small amounts of interest. Each week the peddler came back to get the payment on the good already purchased and hoped in the while to interest the customers in something new. For customers the weekly visit of the peddler, not infrequently labeled the “Jew peddler” broke up the isolation of farm life. The women, children, and men visited weekly by the peddlers looked forward to his showing up, as he displayed the array of goods from inside his bag and provided gossip about neighbors, information about the doings in town and stories about what was happening in the big world beyond the immediate area.

Peddling certainly had its liabilities. Alone on the road, uncomfortable and exposed to the elements, peddlers faced many physical and emotional burdens. They carried heavy packs. They had to struggle for places to stay at night and if the customers did not invite them in, they had to sleep on the ground or in the back of the wagon. As unarmed men, the peddlers fell victim to robbers and even murderers, who were tempted by the cash and goods the peddlers lugged around.

Peddling had its own hierarchy. The newest immigrant stood at the bottom and he had to go by foot along his route. He could cover a relatively limited territory and labored under the burden of, at times, over 100 pounds. The foot peddler aspired to reach the next plateau, namely to be able to rent or buy a wagon and horse. Achieving this stage made it possible for him to both sell to a larger array of customers living further apart from each other and to carry heavier goods. It also brought another benefit in terms of expanding his business operation. Peddlers with wagons could also become essentially junk dealers or scavengers. They combed the area for discarded tin, rags, paper, bones, and other items thrown away. Some developed a side line collecting herbs, furs, hides, feathers, and other items that had resale value. At times they enlisted their female customers to help them out with the collecting and engaged in a kind of barter with them. The women provided them with these items and the peddler gave them merchandise in exchange.

This operation allowed the immigrant peddlers to serve as suppliers to manufacturers. Everything they collected had some economic value for someone and the peddlers played a crucial role in those operations. Many a former peddler, in fact, went into the scrap business, buying up whatever the peddlers had collected while on their routes, again replicating a familiar European experience for Jewish peddlers.  Other former peddlers developed manufacturing businesses in fields like leather goods, a natural outgrowth of their peddling experiences.

The peddlers relied in this collecting on their customers. This reliance points to yet another characteristic of German Jewish immigrant peddling in the United States. While peddlers in their memoirs and other kinds of autobiographical writings complained bitterly about the weather, the tedium of life on the road, and the sheer exhaustion they felt after hours carrying their burdensome packs, they nearly never complained about hostile treatment on the part of the customers. While not all former peddlers waxed eloquent about the warmth and amity which flourished between them and the customers, some did, and most acknowledged that the people into whose homes they went, greeted them with hospitality, reflecting no doubt the desire for companionship of women and men who lived some distance from neighbors and who had little contact with the outside world.   

The peddlers had ample opportunity to get to know their customers, probably more than most merchants did. Because of the weekly cycle of the peddlers’ selling operation, the peddlers faced the imminent issue of what to do at the end of the day, where to eat and where to sleep. At times they had no choice and had to fend for themselves, eating the food that they had packed up during their weekend sojourn in the town or city where they had gotten their goods. In worst case scenarios, they slept in fields and forests or in their wagons filled with the goods they carried. But in the ideal they slept and ate in their customers’ homes. They tried to plan their routes so that the last customer of the day would be the nicest, most hospitable, most likely to offer them a bed. They established these routes and established relationships with particular customers. The peddlers often knew exactly at whose home they would sleep, on which day.

The Peddling Profession and Integration into American Society  

This fact of life for peddlers revealed much about the integrative effect of the occupation. Because they spent time in the intimacy of their customers’ homes they had to chat with them to fill up the time. They provided news from the big cities and from other communities. They talked about the weather and at times, the subject of their conversations turned to religion. This topic logically flowed from the fact that many of the peddlers politely refused to eat some or all of the food that the customers offered them. Jewish dietary law, kashrut, forbade them from eating the meat or, in fact, most of what the customers ate. When asked why they could not eat the food, the peddlers openly admitted that religious law dictated that they could not. Housewives tried to prepare the kind of food the peddler could eat, such as eggs in their shells and fruit and vegetables. Some memoirs describe how the peddler would leave a pot in the customer’s home so he could fix his own food.

All of these encounters between peddlers and householders over food then led to questions about Jews and Judaism. Customers asked questions about the Jewish religion. Some peddlers in their memoirs recalled that customers, almost always the Protestant ones, invited them to participate with the family in Bible reading, something that would likely never have happened in Europe. So too customers recollected in their writings the spectacle of seeing the Jewish peddler praying in the morning, replete with his prayer shawl, his tallit, and with the tefillin, the leather boxes held in place with straps which Jewish men affix to their foreheads and forearms for morning prayers. Most of these customers had never encountered Jews before, let alone Jews in prayer, and the fact of the peddlers’ presence helped erase the distance between the two faith traditions. Notably peddlers in their memoirs, diaries, and autobiographical fragments have nearly nothing to say about hostility towards them as Jews.

At a time of intense Christian evangelical activity in the United States, when organizations like the Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jews employed missionaries to work to bring about the conversion of the Jews, few memoirs of German Jewish peddlers ever mention customers trying to win them over. The absence of such references indicates the degree to which these peddlers helped, by sheer dint of their presence in their customers’ homes, to erase some elements of the religious friction that existed between Jews and Christians. Among those men and women to whom the peddlers sold and into whose homes they went, a kind of mutual respect seems to have flourished. The customers seemed to have genuinely respected the Jews’ religion, catering to their dietary needs as best they could and seeking to hear what they had to say about the Bible and other religious matters.  

The closest relationships developed between the peddlers and their female customers. The peddlers arrived when husbands had left for work or for the fields while the women remained in the home space. The peddlers also carried goods that tended to fall into the women’s zone. For one, they carried jewelry, hair combs, ribbons, lace, and other female accoutrements. They also sold home furnishings, again something that fell under women’s jurisdiction. In the particular cultural regime of nineteenth century America, men would not have bothered with these kinds of items. Women in and around small towns also appreciated the peddlers because of the fact that buying from them released women from having to go to town, to the local store. General stores in many small communities tended to be male preserves. Men sat around the pot-bellied stove in the store. They spat, smoked, told stories that the women, thoroughly inculcated into the nineteenth century’s cult of true womanhood, found offensive. They had to endure the stares, whistles, and cat-calls of the men who gathered in the store. For African-American women after the Civil War, the peddler provided an alternative to having to enter through the back door of the store, the rude treatment, and the exorbitant interest charged to black customers. When the peddler came to their homes they could handle the goods and try on the clothes, something taboo in the shops in town.   

While humorous articles appeared in newspapers and magazines which poked fun of the peddlers and suggested that the peddlers used their charms to seduce the women to whom they sold, few incidents ever happened in which someone accused the peddlers of sexual misconduct. Rather, romance and marriage between German Jewish peddlers and the American Christian women to whom they sold did take place.

Probably the most famous of these involved Marcus Spiegel, an immigrant peddler from Bavaria who peddled in the 1850s in Ohio. Along his route he met Caroline Hamlin, a young woman from a well-off Quaker family. The two met over the course of Spiegel’s various peddling forays into her home and they fell in love. Notably the Hamlin family, a solid respectable family with deep and long roots in America, did not object to the marriage of their daughter to a German immigrant man, a Jewish peddler, while his Bavarian Jewish family who lived in Chicago did find the marriage problematic, as it crossed the religious boundary. Marcus and Caroline married in a civil ceremony in Ohio in 1853 and later the couple moved back to Chicago where Caroline converted to Judaism. Before moving to Chicago, they had settled in Ohio where he opened a store, and actively participated in local politics and civic affairs in a small community with nearly no Jews.[3]  

This story happens to have been well documented in as much as Marcus eventually served in the United States army during the Civil War and Caroline kept his letters, which their descendants eventually published. The story of their meeting, courtship, marriage, and lives together until his untimely death during the war, however, were echoed by others from other regions. All of them bore witness to the possibilities open to Jewish immigrant peddlers in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Business of Peddling: Jewish Networks in America  

Jewish peddlers went in and out of towns and cities, often traveling by waterways to get to their weekly routes. Their entrepreneurial activities took much of their shape from the presence of Jewish communities in those towns and cities. The Jews in those places primarily owned retail stores of some kind or another, or dealt in wholesale goods, providing the peddlers with the items which they would sell directly in the customers’ homes. Often the settled merchants had some family relationship to the new peddler. They might be brothers, brothers-in-law, uncles, or cousins who had come to the United States first. Sometimes the Jewish shopkeeper came from the same village in Bavaria or Baden or some other German province and the peddler had come specifically seeking out these familiar individuals.

These shopkeepers and wholesalers did more than just outfit the peddlers. Usually former peddlers themselves, they instructed the neophyte peddlers how to ply their trade, what to say, what to charge. Since the immigrant peddler knew little English, the former peddlers would write out in Hebrew characters, transliterated into English, such phrases as “Good morning, madam,” and “Would you like to look in my bag.” They helped the newcomer peddlers secure licenses, which nearly all jurisdictions required, and bonded them—again something mandated by state law. The storeowners and other suppliers of the peddlers also showed the peddlers where to go, what route to follow.

This last point had deep historic roots and also a very practical reason for its existence. Jews had peddled for centuries in Europe and in the Muslim worlds. Communal convention, buttressed by Jewish law, dictated that each peddler have his own medinah, literally his state or kingdom. In this context it meant that each peddler had his own selling territory and that no peddler should infringe on another’s. Since many peddlers got their goods from the same supplier, the suppliers did not want them to compete against each other and thereby lessen his profits. Rather, they encouraged each peddler to set out on his own path, maximizing the number of customers who would buy goods from the same single source.

The Jewish shopkeeper in small towns or in larger cities in America, regardless of region, sent his peddlers out to their own specific territories. All of them then returned at the end of the work week and paid the supplier for the goods, plus his profit. The peddlers kept a share for themselves as their earnings from the week’s drudgery on the road.

Jewish peddlers shifted from one locale to another. As they heard that new regions had opened up they left the places where they had sold and tried out new ones. Jewish immigrants who had a difficult time getting started in some sedentary business in a large city or unhappy with their lot as clerks, garment workers, or employees of someone else, decided to try their hand at peddling. They saw it as the surest route to self-employment and eventual success. It required very little capital, indeed none, other than the startup loan for goods, and Jewish tradition mandated that Jews give each other interest-free loans as a way to launch their business enterprises. Even if observed in the breach, the one who made the loan in the form of goods, the shopkeeper, had much to gain by getting the peddler started as the latter served as his feet into the hinterlands.

While Jews had peddled for centuries and in the German-speaking regions in particular, peddling in America differed. In central Europe, made up of a patch-work of small jurisdictions, peddlers had to have licenses or patents for every place they went. They labored under various restrictions as Jews and as peddlers as to what they could carry, when they could sell, and how much they could charge. In America with its relatively lax state mechanism, a simple state license sufficed and much of the time, state authorities did not enforce the license laws.

Many German Jewish immigrants decided on peddling because they saw it as a way to get started in the new land to which they had migrated. It worked well for the demographics of the migration. In the main, the Jewish immigrants, excluding those from Posen, tended to be young single men. They had left towns and villages where they saw few opportunities for making a living and while some of their siblings stayed in Germany but moved to the economically more dynamic larger cities, those who went to America saw few options for themselves if they remained at home. Many of them labored under the hardships of the matrikel, a system in some German regions that limited the number of Jews who could get married. Thus these young Jewish bachelors opted for America, and for the life of peddling, so that they could eventually settle down, get married, and start families.

The migration tended to follow the classic patterns of a chain migration. In any given family one son went first, with or without some friends—peers who found themselves in the same limited straits. They made their way to the United States, joining townspeople or relatives already settled in some specific place. Those who had preceded the new immigrants might still be involved in peddling and they introduced the newest arrival to their suppliers, Jewish merchants always eager to extend the scope of their selling operation and as such usually willing to take on additional peddlers. If the townspeople or kin already in America had moved beyond the peddling stage and had become shopkeepers—the nearly universal pattern—then the recent arrivals fresh off the boat from the ports of Hamburg, Bremen, or Rotterdam could serve as their peddlers. Either way, a symbiotic relationship flourished between the peddlers and the Jewish shopkeepers and that symbiosis gave shape to the migration.

The symbiosis between the Jewish peddlers and the settled Jewish shopkeepers transcended the world of business, although that certainly lay at the heart of their interactions. When peddlers found themselves in distress, sick with no family of their own to care for them, the local Jewish community sprang into action. Particularly active in providing this kind of assistance were the Jewish women, organized into Female Hebrew Benevolent Associations. Many Jewish enclaves, the smaller ones in particular which had no formal institutions of Jewish life, moved out of the informal stage when a peddler died on the road. Someone had to provide for him a proper Jewish burial and thus in many communities the death of a peddler spurred Jews on, for the first time, to organize into a duly constituted group so that they could buy a piece of land to use as a cemetery.

The fact that members of the settled Jewish enclave provided services to the peddlers at moments of distress points to the rigors of peddling. Exposed to the elements, carrying heavy bags on their backs, estimated by some observers to weigh over one hundred pounds, and having to walk along muddy roads, peddlers had to have tremendous physical stamina to survive in the occupation. They had to be willing to endure short term misery in order to fulfill the goals of the migration, which in large measure meant giving up their lives of peddling. Abraham Kohn came to the United States from Bavaria in the 1850s and left one of the best personal peddler accounts. He started out in New York City, hoping to avoid peddling and make it as a clerk. Having failed at that he lamented, that he found himself, “as all others; with a bundle on my back I had to go out into the country.” Kohn peddled in western Massachusetts and had little encouraging to record in his diary about the snow, the unfriendly customers, and what he saw as the shamefulness of his existence. He found the experience difficult and miserable and he filled his diary with anguished rhetoric. “This, then,” he wrote, “is the vaunted luck of the immigrant from Bavaria!” Presuming someone still back home might read this, he went on addressing, “O misguided fools, led astray by avarice and cupidity!” as he counseled them to stay home.[4]

German Jewish peddlers not only hated the physical conditions dictated by climate and topography, but some found themselves the victims of crime. As men on the road with cash and valuables they must have been particularly attractive targets for bandits. In a relatively lawless society as America was in the nineteenth century, the peddlers, who rarely carried weapons, could not expect that the state would protect them. The details of murders of Jewish immigrant peddlers in the Jewish and general press further demonstrated the difficulties of the lives they faced. Newspapers told of their violent deaths and the papers consistently labeled the victim a “Jewish peddler” or a “Jew peddler,” and detailed the fact of his having been German. These men met their unfortunate fates, though, not because of their Jewishness or their immigrant status. Rather they had fallen victim to the lack of law and order on the roads.

That may however have provided little solace to the individual German Jewish immigrant men who set out on their way, trying to earn a living by their itinerant selling. From their perspective, the possibility of physical attack, the unpleasantness of inclement weather, and loneliness of life on the road all added up to a burden made palatable by the thought that through peddling they could achieve the goal, namely, to earn enough money and bring to an end their peddling years.          

Life After Peddling

Most peddlers got their wish. Almost without exception, they peddled only short periods of time and then settled down. This made peddling in America different than it had been back home, where many peddlers faced a lifetime of selling from packs on their backs. In the United States peddling functioned as a transitional stage in the immigrant Jews’ lives, between their arrival and their achieving ultimate stability.

The peddlers lived thrifty lives, saving every bit they could. Since they had no overhead they seemed to have done well enough that in relatively short periods of time, a few months or a few years, they had put away enough money to be able to send the fare for the passage of brothers, sometimes one after the other. These bands of brothers tended again to cluster around peddling out of the same towns, getting their goods from the same suppliers. They pooled their savings as they expected eventually to open a single store.

Typically peddlers remained unmarried as long as they had to sell from the road. Later generations of Jewish peddlers, those from Eastern Europe including from Posen and from Lithuania, were likely to be married and these men either left their wives and children in Europe or reunited with them on a weekly basis as they had their two days off the road. Those peddlers had a much more sluggish rate of economic mobility. The money they saved from their peddling expeditions had to go to the upkeep of wives and children, retarding the pace of moving up and out of peddling.  

But the majority of the German Jewish immigrant peddlers migrated as single men.  They married only when they decided that they could afford to step off the road and open a store. They did this for a number of reasons. Certainly they wanted to live comfortably and marrying too hastily, starting a family too soon would make that impossible. After all, they had left their homes in Germany to achieve a level of economic comfort and did not want to do anything to jeopardize the prospect of improving their lives now that they were in America. So they waited for the right moment to take this momentous step.  

When they decided that the time had come to get married they developed various strategies which reflected the reality that few single women had made the migration on their own from the German- speaking lands. Unlike the subsequent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who would arrive later in the century, young Jewish women from the German states rarely emigrated independently in order to work. This reflected in part the nature of the American economy in the mid-nineteenth century when few jobs existed for single women, and Jewish women eschewed those that did, like domestic service. Later the vast expansion of the garment industry would provide jobs for millions of single women. But in the years of the great migration from central Europe, Jewish young women migrated only to join family, which usually meant brothers and usually their migrations tended to be in relationship to marriage prospects in America.   

These immigrating young Jewish women provided many of the brides for the Jewish peddlers, just ready to get off the road. Others of the peddlers turned to the Jews in the communities where they got their goods and where they spent their weekend time. Local Jewish shopkeepers had daughters, nieces, and other relatives who often became the brides for the peddlers ready to settle down. These matrimonial ties further solidified the connections between Jews in any place and between the business and communal realm. Memoirs and other such documents tell this story. Abraham Flexner recalled the details of his mother’s life. She and her sister had come to Louisville, Kentucky from the Rhineland to live with an uncle who operated a wholesale china concern. As she told her son, at the uncle’s house she and her sister “met many of the young Jewish merchants or peddlers, who used to spend the Jewish holidays and weekends in the large city.” Both women found their partners among them.[5]

As peddlers went in and out of particular communities, they found Jewish women of marriageable ages. One Jewish peddler from Bavaria who used Milwaukee, Wisconsin as his base of operation boarded there with a particular Jewish family. When he had saved up enough money and wanted to open his own store, he married the daughter of the household where he had stayed. Together the two went out to Monroe, Wisconsin to begin their married lives together. Yet another case provides a portrait of the ways peddlers located brides and the links between marriage and business. Samuel Rosenwald, also from Bavaria, peddled out of Baltimore. He got his goods from a supplier firm owned by the Hammerslough brothers, themselves also Bavarians. The Hammerslough brothers had one sister and when Samuel Rosenwald had finished his years peddling along Virginia’s Winchester Trail, he married her. As a wedding gift the suppliers gave them a store to manage in Peoria, Illinois. Samuel Rosenwald eventually owned a men’s clothing store in Springfield, Illinois and his son, Julius, became one of America’s wealthiest businessmen and one of its most generous philanthropists.[6]

Others of the German Jewish immigrants tried a different strategy for finding a wife. Some went back to their home communities in Bavaria or the Rhineland and found suitable young women. These journeys obviously provided an opportunity for the emigrant to see his parents again, to reconnect with his birthplace, but they also had the practical aspect of using this opportunity to search for a wife. The availability of large numbers of single Jewish women in the German small towns reflected the reality of the migration. The Jewish communities particularly in the small towns of the German states became increasingly feminized, and growing numbers of women faced the reality that they had few prospects for marriage. A returned townsman, having spent some time peddling in America, could be a particularly attractive mate, no matter the circumstances, but certainly for young women with few marriage prospects at home.

The now married former peddlers had a singular history in the United States. As a whole they tended to be quite successful in their subsequent business activities. Most settled down to comfortable lives as merchants, whether retail or wholesale, in both large cities and small towns spread across the American continent. Some of them became fabulously wealthy and emerged as the exemplars of America’s nineteenth century “rags-to-riches” narrative. The names Guggenheim, Lehman, Seligman, and Straus(s), including both the Straus family associated with Macy’s department store, and that of Levi Strauss, whose denim pants have persisted into the twenty-first century, stood at the apex of the peddler success route.

In nearly every American city, local department stores owed the origins to a Jewish peddler. Adam Gimbel, for example, left the Rhineland as an eighteen year old with no money and started out peddling in Indiana, in the area around Vincennes. He opened his first department store in Milwaukee in 1887. He and his sons then opened others around the country, in 1894 in Philadelphia and 1910 in New York. The latter store competed with Macy’s, owned by Lazarus Straus and his sons. Straus also owned the fashionable emporium of Abraham & Straus, another New York retail landmark. Department stores around the country grew out of the peddling activities of German Jewish immigrants.

While only a small number of German Jewish immigrant peddlers went on to own major department stores, an even more miniscule handful became upper echelon financiers, shapers of the economic fortune of the nation. But Mayer Lehman and Joseph Seligman both from Bavaria did just that, emerging after the Civil War as some of the wealthiest Americans whose financial operations reverberated around the world. Both of them began as peddlers.

The Gimbels and the Seligmans represent exceptions to the general pattern of the post-peddling experiences of German Jewish immigrants. Most became modestly successful. They experienced economic mobility, moving from their initial small stores to larger ones. Often their former customers patronized their shops, since the peddlers had established mutually positive relationships with the customers who sought to continue the relationship.

The peddlers who settled down became respected members of local communities, participating in civic affairs as office-holders and as participants in community undertakings. Many joined the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and other non-denominational male lodges. They projected themselves as pillars of civic virtue and expressed deep commitment to the places they lived and to the nation as a whole. After all, those communities and the United States had been very good to them and allowed them as relatively poor young immigrant men to attain a level of integration and economic well-being that they could not have imagined.  

The former peddlers, those who had emigrated from Germany to the United States, did not compromise on their Jewish commitments as they integrated themselves in America. They founded, joined, and sustained all kinds of Jewish organizations and projects which constituted the backbone of Jewish life in America. They made up the membership of B’nai B’rith lodges across the countries and they participated and led every kind of Jewish charitable project that came into being over the course of the last half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Whether the Jewish charity—hospital, orphanage, training school, or the like—took shape on the local level or on the national or international stages, the former peddlers, with their financial help and organizational involvements, played a crucial role in the shaping of modern Jewish history.   

Rightly the American Jews of German birth, those who came to the United States as peddlers, have been associated with the rise and institutional development of the Reform movement in American Judaism. While the first stirrings of the reform of Judaism surfaced first in Germany, in places like Berlin and Hamburg, little evidence exists that the German Jews in the United States, the peddlers and their families, took those efforts as their inspiration. Rather American conditions and the legacies of peddling helped nudge them towards reform.

The peddlers who had made their way around the United States, interacted with their Christian customers, and considered the kind of boundaries inherent in normative Judaism, which separated Jew from non-Jew, to not fit their new American selves. On their forays into the American countryside, whether as peddlers by foot or by wagon, they witnessed the exuberant creation of new denominations within American Protestantism. They saw how religious pluralism defined America as women and men of different iterations of Protestantism by and large co-existed with each other and churches stood side by side, not as affronts to each other but in harmony. While anti-Catholicism flourished in mid-nineteenth century America, creating, in fact, the most potent third-party in its history, the Know Nothings, Judaism inspired no mass political or cultural backlash. As most of the Jewish immigrants to America saw it, individuals within a faith community could disagree among themselves as to what the tradition demanded of them and what it allowed them to do. Those differences did not have to constitute irreconcilable points of contestation. Why, essentially they asked, could Judaism not accommodate a similar kind of diversity?

Certainly their years on the road, the fact that peddlers lodged with Christian customers, ate at their tables, and sometimes could not observe their daily prayers, loosened their sense of obligation to normative Judaism. But that did not mean that their years peddling or their positive interactions with their Christian customers loosened their obligation to Judaism and Jewish life. Everywhere the peddlers settled down, when they did so in large enough number, they helped consecrate cemeteries, found congregations, build synagogues, and make possible the development of Jewish institutional life. They served in leadership capacities in local, national, and even international Jewish affairs, and donated huge sums of money to the advancement of Judaism and the support of the Jewish people.

But in the places they settled, most of the former peddlers of the German migration era felt empowered to modify traditional practice. The idea of the reform of Judaism appealed to them. In city after city, former peddlers, now solid and comfortable businessmen, helped lead their congregations into the reform camp. When the movement coalesced around the efforts of Isaac Mayer Wise, who came to the United States from Bohemia, the erstwhile peddlers in places like Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere helped facilitate his efforts to create the institutional apparatus of the movement. Former peddlers, for example, played the key roles in the creation of Chicago’s first Reform congregation, Temple Sinai.[7] In other places and other institutional settings, former peddlers helped steer once traditional congregations towards reform.

Peddling helped launch the Jewish migration out of Germany and its predecessor states. The knowledge that thousands of young single men could come to America and get on the road, laden with a jumble of goods on their backs, and reasonably hope to end up a married proprietor of a thriving business, propelled them. It made the years of discomfort and loneliness on the road worthwhile to them. It also made it worthwhile to the customers they served, who found the services of the peddlers something which enhanced the material conditions of their lives. In that way peddlers left their mark on the United States. The fact that they could fulfill the aims of their migration, settle down, and succeed in business, also helped change the face of the Jewish world for decades to come.

Notes


[1] Herman Schwab, Jewish Rural Communities in Germany (London : Cooper Books, 1957).

[2] Quoted in Esther J. Panitz, Simon Wolf: Private Conscience and Public Image (Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987), 19.

[3] Byrne Frank and Jean Powers Soman, Your True Marcus: The Civil War Letters of a Jewish Colonel (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985).

[4] Abraham Vossen Goodman, “A Jewish Peddler’s Diary,” in Critical Studies in American Jewish History, 3 vols., ed. Jacob Rader Marcus (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1971), 1: 45-73.

[5] Abraham Flexner, I Remember: The Autobiography of Abraham Flexner (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), 12.

[6] Hasia R. Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 71.

[7] Tobias Brinkmann, Sundays at Sinai: A Jewish Congregation in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).


Cite this Entry

APA Style

"German Jews and Peddling in America." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved May 24, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=191

Chicago Style

Diner, Hasia. "German Jews and Peddling in America." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified May 28, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=191

MLA Style

"German Jews and Peddling in America," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 24 May 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=191>

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