The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire by Adam D. Mendelsohn - 2015
PART OF THE GOLDSTEIN-GOREN SERIES IN
AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORY General editor: Hasia R. Diner
2015 - Best Book Prize from The Southern Jewish Historical Society
2014 - National Book Award from The Jewish Book Council
Earlier this month I read another work in The Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis - 2012. If possible I suggest you read that book first if you are interested in American Jewish History.
Adam D.Mendelsohn’s book focuses on the history of Jewish involvement in what is called “The Rag Trade”. The rag trade is the merchandising
and manufacturing of cheap clothes, often made from recycled used clothes, rags. In both London and New York City Jewish immigrants, often arriving speaking no English upon arrival, came to be very important, nearly dominant in this field, both as workers, peddlers and business owners.
The book propses a question. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe arrived, about 2 million up to 1914, in total poverty, speaking no English often wearing their only clothes. How did it come sbout that in 2021 their descendents are over all richest ethnic group in the country?
Mendelshon sees the answer in the complex circumstances that lead immigrants in New York City to become part of the rag trade, starting out working for very low wages in the clothing industry.
Immigrant Jews were often from families of peddlers. Mendelshon explains the circumstances that produced this. Peddlers developed sales and supply networks in remote parts of pre-Civil war America. These networks would lead the way to vast fortunes with immigrants and their children dominating the clothing industry World wide.
The rag trade came to encompass everything from clothes made for enslaved Americans (made from cheapest material) to outfits in which a clerk could pass as rich. The rag trade World wide changed over to cotton from wool with the rise of big southern plantations, impacting international Politics. To many this partially lead to negative attitude toward Jews by post Civil War ex enslaved people.
Much space is devoted to The Conversion of old no longer wanted garmets into new items. Collecting and reselling used clothing required few skills and only a little capital.
There is a lot of information and fascinating details including a lot on the rag trade in London not mentioned in my post.
I am very glad I read The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire by Adam D. Mendelsohn
From The Website of The University of Capetown
Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn’s research and teaching focuses on how ethnic minorities have grappled with modernity, with a particular emphasis on the experience of Jews.
Adam is co-editor of the journal American Jewish History. He curated the exhibitions The First Jewish Americans at the New-York Historical Society and By Dawn’s Early Light at the Princeton University Museum of Art. He directs the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies.
Current research projects:
Adam is working on a two-volume history that explores the experience of Jewish soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies in the