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The Rag Race

The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire

Adam D. Mendelsohn
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Rag Race
    Book Description:

    The majority of Jewish immigrants who made their way to the United States between 1820 and 1924 arrived nearly penniless; yet today their descendants stand out as exceptionally successful. How can we explain their dramatic economic ascent? Have Jews been successful because of cultural factors distinct to them as a group, or because of the particular circumstances that they encountered in America?

    The Rag Raceargues that the Jews who flocked to the United States during the age of mass migration were aided appreciably by their association with a particular corner of the American economy: the rag trade. From humble beginnings, Jews rode the coattails of the clothing trade from the margins of economic life to a position of unusual promise and prominence, shaping both their societal status and the clothing industry as a whole.

    Comparing the history of Jewish participation within the clothing trade in the United States with that of Jews in the same business in England,The Rag Racedemonstrates that differences within the garment industry on either side of the Atlantic contributed to a very real divergence in social and economic outcomes for Jews in each setting.

    In few other areas of the modern economy did Jews play such a central role. AsThe Rag Raceshows, their involvement in the clothing trade left a significant legacy for both American economic and modern Jewish history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-6025-8
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: The Rag Race
    (pp. 1-17)

    Why have Jews prospered so dramatically in the United States? Their ascent has been exceptional. Other ethnic groups have succeeded in America, but none quite like the Jews.¹ So what was the alchemy that transmuted them from economically abased immigrants to among America’s most successful citizens? Were they successful because they were Jews or because of the particular circumstances they encountered in the United States? And can their recipe for success be distilled and reproduced by the nation’s newest immigrants?

    Most of those who address these questions today tread gingerly on turf first turned by an earlier generation more comfortable...

  4. 1 Goblin Market London, 1843
    (pp. 18-36)

    Visitors to London in 1843 in search of urban adventure would have done at the new Fenchurch Street terminus of the London and They would be far from alone, joining a jostling human disgorged into the streets and alleys close to the Thames. themselves amid the clamor of the crowds and steeling against the puckering reek of the streets, they would begin lanes choked with pedestrians and horse-drawn omnibuses, carts, stepping around debris and dung scattered underfoot, swiftly past shopkeepers and the quick-fingered who the unwary of their wallets. The fortunate visitors found who, hoping for a small coin as...

  5. 2 New York City: A Rag-Fair Sort of Place
    (pp. 37-57)

    “New York,” wrote James Fenimore Cooper in 1846, was a “Rag-Fair sort of Place.” By the time he penned these words, the city had secured its position mercantile and financial capital of the United States. For all glories its commercial glories the city, Cooper marveled, had a “hobble-dehoy look” that reminded him of the tatterdemalion clothing mart of London. ballooning of its population by almost 750 percent since the the century—New York grew twice as fast as Liverpool and the rate of Manchester—sections of the metropolis retained the “country air” of a much-smaller town—and a neglected town...

  6. 3 Rumpled Foot Soldiers of the Market Revolution
    (pp. 58-90)

    Beneath the drab uniform of shop coat and apron, young John Beauchamp Jones harbored literary ambitions. On days spent shepherding frugal farmers through his store and struggling to extract “hard dollars” from the “well-filled stocking” that served as their purses—“they look at everything, and ask the price of every-thing, at every store in town, before they make up their minds”—he might have dreamed of a life of a writer. If his short career as a storekeeper did not bring him riches, it later repaid him multiple times over. Like many others, his family had moved west, leaving Baltimore...

  7. 4 Clothing Moses
    (pp. 91-111)

    Ask Londoners in 1843 to name the best known Jew living in their city, and they would probably not answer Moses Montefiore, the much-heralded savior of the Jews of Damascus, but Elias Moses, a clothier whose gas-lit emporiums, parsimonious prices, and aggressive advertising scandalized and delighted the public in equal measure. Elias’s renown was not entirely of his own making. In October of that year theTimesof London recounted the sorry case of the widow Biddell, who, desperate to feed her starving children, pawned a consignment of trousers she had agreed to sew in order to buy “dry bread.”...

  8. 5 The Empire’s New Clothes
    (pp. 112-133)

    Joseph Lyons must have cursed his bad luck. Called to testify as a witness in an assault case in Sydney, Australia, in 1841, he appeared at the Supreme Court “in very handsome dress, sporting a couple of gold rings on his fingers,” which, theSydney Monitor and Commercial Advertisernoted scornfully, “he appeared very anxious should attract the notice of the audience.” To observers Lyons looked the part of a colonial dandy. Alas, under questioning this cloak of respectability was exposed as threadbare. Not only did he admit to masquerading as a “medical man”—he had performed surgery and treated...

  9. 6 A New Dawn in the West
    (pp. 134-158)

    Jewish New Yorkers who surveyed the scene in their city in 1850 might have looked wistfully at London. There were sixteen thousand Jews in New York City, more than double the number of a decade earlier but still significantly fewer than in the British capital. The gap was more telling in the industry most closely associated with Jews in both places: clothing. Demand from home and abroad had pushed the likes of Hyam Hyam and Elias Moses to prominence as clothiers in England a decade earlier, and it would be easy to assume that Jews in America would forever trail...

  10. 7 Clothing the Blue and Gray
    (pp. 159-182)

    At dawn on Friday, May 10, 1861, sailing ships and steamers from across the world waited to dock in Liverpool’s harbor. The bustling English port had once been a center of the slave trade, its merchants made rich by dispatching their vessels to rendezvous with slave traders at forts that dotted the West African coastline. Now it prospered by importing cotton—picked by slaves on plantations in the American South—to be transformed into cloth in the factories of Lancashire. More than 85 percent of the US cotton crop made its way to Liverpool, where it was sold by the...

  11. 8 A Ready-Made Paradise
    (pp. 183-206)

    Joseph, the oldest of eleven Seligman siblings and the first to make his way to America, was in a glum mood in the spring of 1863. He had returned to Europe after close to twenty-five years in the United States, no longer the callow seventeen-year-old who had left Baiersdorf, in Bavaria, but now an earnest man of business. He read grimly of the war in America, distrusting what he took to be the patriotic “bluster of American newspapers.” When his brothers requested that he purchase stock to supply their sprawling family enterprise, which manufactured clothing, sold dry goods, and out-fitted...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 207-228)

    We have established that the early experience of Jews in the ready-made trade in England and the United States—their pathways into the business and their trajectories within it over time—diverged in material ways before 1881 in large measure because of the dynamics of the industry in each setting and the weight of wider events. But did it matter over the long term that Jews in America had stepped to the front of the menswear business, and Jews in England lagged behind, when the great age of eastern European Jewish mass migration dawned in 1881? And how might this...

    (pp. 229-232)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 233-286)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 287-296)
    (pp. 297-297)