IEHS Online

Adam Mendelsohn, “No business like the clothing business: how I came to write The Rag Race”

Editor’s Note: Periodically, the blog features contributions by this year’s IEHS award winners to give our readers a sense of ongoing scholarship debates in Immigration and Ethnic History and related fields. In April 2016 IEHS awarded Adam Mendelsohn the First Book Award for The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire.

I did not set out to write about Jewish economic success. I, like many others who work on Jewish immigrants, am more inclined to find nobility in the travails of poor Jews than among the struggles of the well-to-do. Unsurprisingly, scholarship on Jews and labor organizing in the early twentieth-century is much richer than that on Jews as managers and owners of the enterprises in the second half of the same century. If your only familiarity with Jews was from this literature, you would be astounded to discover that they have, in short order, become one of the most prosperous minorities in America today.

This imbalance in the scholarly enterprise has left several important questions inadequately answered: how did Jewish immigrants move so quickly and consistently from relative poverty to relative riches? And were they successful because they were Jews – were there particularistic factors at work – or because of the precise circumstances they encountered in the United States?

If historians have been somewhat slow to offer answers, others have been less retiring. Much of the substantial popular literature on the subject of Jewish success ascribes a ragtag assortment of cultural predispositions to Jews, suggesting that that these attributes primed them for prosperity.  But these claims are untested, never-mind problematic for a host of other reasons.

Initially I had no intention of taking on this topic. Instead I had the more modest ambition of understanding how and why generations of Jewish immigrants became entangled in the rag trade – the shmatte business. This was by far the most common occupation for Jewish immigrants in England and America in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth; Jews have often been credited with remaking the clothing industry in both societies. But when comparing the trajectory of Jews in America and the British Empire who clustered in the identical industry on each side of the Atlantic I began to see curious patterns that could not be explained by the cultural baggage of the Jews in each setting. For the immigrants who made their way to the Lower East Side were not much different from those who landed up in the East End of London, but their economic mobility was decidedly so. Could there be, I wondered, something about the rag trade itself in each place that explained the rapid economic ascent of Jews in the United States, and the slower progress of Jews in England?

I came to see that the rag trade in America wasn’t any occupation: it proved to be a particularly good fit. By dint of good timing, Jews entered this trade en masse at a fortuitous moment. And crucially for Jews in America, they exited the trade before it became a mobility trap. Timing mattered, as did decisions made by Jews unaware of the long-term consequences of their choices. But for the confluence of forces in the American market, the fortunate positioning of Jewish immigrants on the edges and then at the center of the unfolding industry, and considerable individual effort aided by ethnic cooperation, the outcome would have been subtly or substantially different. The proof was supplied from abroad. If the clothing trade became a supple springboard for Jews in the United States, in England it had much less propulsive effect. There, Jews, less fortunate in their timing and choices, fared much less well.

So cultural factors may have mattered, but all sorts of other impersonal and unpredictable forces left a deep imprint on the economic trajectory of Jewish immigrants. Yes, Jews may have been responsible for making parts of the modern clothing industry. But the clothing industry made the Jews too.

Adam Mendelsohn is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, and associate professor of history, at the University of Cape Town. He is co-editor of the journal American Jewish History, author of The Rag Race (NYU Press, 2015), editor of Transnational Traditions: New Perspective on American Jewish History, with Ava Kahn (Wayne State University Press, 2014) and of Jews and the Civil War: a Reader, with Jonathan D. Sarna (NYU, 2010), and curator and chief historian of The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World, on display at the New-York Historical Society from October 2016 – February 2017.