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

  • Review
By – December 5, 2014

In this fas­ci­nat­ing book, Adam D. Mendel­sohn paints a vivid pic­ture of how rag pick­ing” in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land and the Unit­ed States served as the spring­board for Jews to enter the mid­dle and upper class­es. Deal­ing in sec­ond­hand clothes offered a per­fect Jew­ish eth­nic niche.” It was an aspect of the gar­ment indus­try that pro­vid­ed few occu­pa­tion­al bar­ri­ers. Lit­tle cash was need­ed to open a stall or store, and none for scour­ing the street. The stig­ma of the work made it unap­peal­ing and reduced the num­ber of com­peti­tors. Itin­er­ant col­lec­tors bought, begged, and bartered to get cloth­ing, which in turn was cleaned, repaired, and sold or repur­posed into total­ly new items such as bon­nets, cloaks, and aprons. In Lon­don there was far more sec­ond­hand cloth­ing avail­able and a greater demand for inex­pen­sive clothes, lead­ing to the devel­op­ment of an elab­o­rate sys­tem of trade of castoff cloth­ing. In 1843, The Cloth­ing Exchange” was estab­lished and drew over ten thou­sand peo­ple on Sun­day, the busiest day. There were one to two thou­sand Jew­ish col­lec­tors walk­ing the streets of Lon­don col­lect­ing old clothes to resell or repur­pose. This exten­sive sec­ond­hand cloth­ing busi­ness schooled Jew­ish gar­ment entre­pre­neurs in the pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing skills they would lat­er need as man­u­fac­tur­ers and retail­ers of new clothes.

In New York, the devel­op­ment of the gar­ment indus­try took a slight­ly dif­fer­ent route. There was less used cloth­ing avail­able. Jew­ish ped­dlers went into the used cloth­ing trade but in much small­er num­bers than their core­li­gion­ists in Lon­don. Instead, a size­able num­ber of Jew­ish men became dry goods ped­dlers who spread out over the coun­try, drawn by the boom­ing con­sumer econ­o­my in new­ly devel­op­ing towns across the nation. The demand for inex­pen­sive clothes remained strong in New York and across the nation. The gar­ment indus­try respond­ed by devel­op­ing an inex­pen­sive ready-made” indus­try, replac­ing arti­san tai­lors who cre­at­ed the gar­ment from start to fin­ish with a sys­tem of poor­ly paid out­work­ers” to do piece­work.” A man­u­fac­tur­er would begin the process by pur­chas­ing and cut­ting the cloth which was then sent to out­work­ers” to fin­ish the process. In 1855, out­work­ers” made up an aston­ish­ing 91 per­cent of the work­ers in the gar­ment industry. 

Jews worked on all lev­els of the Amer­i­can gar­ment indus­try. They drew upon their Jew­ish eth­nic inter­con­nect­ed net­work to hire them­selves out as work­ers and to start their own busi­ness­es. In 1910, more than 50 per­cent of Russ­ian-born Jew­ish men and 44 per­cent of Amer­i­can-born Jew­ish men were employed in the pro­duc­tion, retail, or whole­sale of cloth­ing. Jew­ish female gar­ment work­ers typ­i­cal­ly worked from ado­les­cence until mar­riage or the birth of their first child, after which they with­drew from full-time work. The gar­ment indus­try pro­vid­ed many Jew­ish liveli­hoods. These expe­ri­ences in turn led Jews to carve out oth­er new busi­ness nich­es in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness in Hol­ly­wood and Broad­way the­atre. These entre­pre­neur­ial ven­tures, cou­pled with their deter­mined efforts to make sure their chil­dren received a high edu­ca­tion, cat­a­pult­ed Amer­i­can Jews into high­ly suc­cess­ful lives.

Mendel­sohn brings a spe­cial exper­tise to his analy­sis. He was born in South Africa and draws fas­ci­nat­ing com­par­isons between the Jew­ish role in the gar­ment indus­try in the Unit­ed States and across the British Empire, includ­ing in South Africa, Cana­da, and of course Lon­don. The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Suc­cess in Amer­i­ca and The British Empire is an enthralling sto­ry that helps explain why the gar­ment indus­try has some­times been affec­tion­ate­ly referred to as the shmat­te (rag) busi­ness.”

Relat­ed content:

Read Adam D. Mendel­sohn’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Stum­bling on Jew­ish Sup­pli­ers to the Confederacy

How Can We Explain Jew­ish Suc­cess in America?

Meet Sami Rohr Final­ist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to intro­duce read­ers to the five emerg­ing non­fic­tion authors named as final­ists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendel­sohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Suc­cess in Amer­i­ca and the British Empire, a vivid pic­ture of how rag pick­ing” in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land and the Unit­ed States served as the spring­board for Jews to enter the mid­dle and upper classes.

A warm con­grat­u­la­tions to Adam and the oth­er four final­ists: Yehu­dah Mirsky, Aviya Kush­n­er, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be tak­ing home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing nonfiction?

Two things. First­ly, decid­ing on the right moment to switch my ener­gies from research to writ­ing. The temp­ta­tion is so strong to keep on dig­ging, to fol­low one more lead, to fer­ret out addi­tion­al detail (pick your pre­ferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excite­ment of any research project comes from this ini­tial explorato­ry phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take sec­ond place to the busi­ness of writ­ing. And sec­ond­ly, I am unset­tled by an aware­ness that any his­tor­i­cal project is so much the prod­uct of hap­pen­stance — the sur­vival of par­tic­u­lar archival col­lec­tions; an accu­mu­la­tion of autho­r­i­al deci­sions, some made know­ing­ly, oth­ers unwit­ting; the neces­si­ty of selec­tion; the whims and inter­ests of the writer. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing nonfiction?

Many inspi­ra­tions, but one is the sheer plea­sure I get from read­ing books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to pro­duce work that gives sim­i­lar plea­sure to oth­ers, I’d be delight­ed. Mis­sion accomplished.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

This book was writ­ten with an aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence in mind, but with the aim of mak­ing it acces­si­ble to as wide a read­er­ship as pos­si­ble. I like to believe that the ques­tion I grap­ple with at the heart of my book — why have Jews pros­pered so dra­mat­i­cal­ly in Amer­i­ca— is one that Jews and oth­ers should be think­ing about. If Jew­ish suc­cess is not sole­ly the prod­uct of the par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al bag­gage car­ried by Jews to these shores, then the expe­ri­ence of Jews has enor­mous poten­tial rel­e­vance to more recent immi­grant groups. 

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m over­see­ing a study — the first of its kind — attempt­ing to track the atti­tudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m anno­tat­ing the can­did trav­el diaries of a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the ear­ly stages of a project about a curi­ous episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868

What are you read­ing now?

My read­ing is schiz­o­phrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read some­thing more seri­ous in-between recita­tions of Win­nie the Witch and The Gruffa­lo to my kids. I have a guilt-induc­ing stack of New York­ers sit­ting on my bed­side table. I am a vora­cious read­er of nov­els (most recent­ly Julian Barne’s The Sense of an End­ing and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a bril­liant new book about the con­cen­tra­tion camp sys­tem called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influ­enced me:

Homage to Cat­alo­nia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich by Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn
Replen­ish­ing the Earth by James Belich
Cul­ture of the Jews by David Biale (and oth­ers)
The Drowned and the Saved by Pri­mo Levi

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always enjoyed words — as a teenag­er I’d peruse the dic­tio­nary for plea­sure. But I only tru­ly dis­cov­ered the thrill of writ­ing non­fic­tion as a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent. For me the plea­sure comes both from the research and the puz­zle-game of get­ting a sen­tence right. 

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

Find­ing a fresh idea or nov­el per­spec­tive, and pre­sent­ing it clear­ly and per­sua­sive­ly. Occa­sion­al­ly I’ll chance across some­thing that is star­tling­ly orig­i­nal, but is so obvi­ous (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out. 

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

Paja­mas help. But oth­er­wise all I need is a prob­lem to solve, typ­i­cal­ly a sen­tence that needs puz­zling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over. 

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I do not for one moment imag­ine that I’ve writ­ten the defin­i­tive book about the eco­nom­ic suc­cess of Jews in Amer­i­ca. Instead I hope to trou­ble the waters a lit­tle, per­suad­ing read­ers to think again about what role cul­ture has played in this process, and per­haps to reassess the con­ven­tion­al wisdom. 

Adam Mendel­sohn is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Direc­tor of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Cen­tre for Jew­ish Stud­ies and Research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town, the only such cen­ter in Africa.

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions