Adam Mendelsohn talks to Sew Jewish about Jews and the garment industry, his problem with the Tiger Mom, and history’s lessons for people who want to turn sewing skills into paying careers.
The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire
By Adam D. Mendelsohn
In The Rag Race, Adam Mendelsohn traces the intertwined fates of the Jewish community and the garment industries in America and Britain. He focuses on the 1820s to the 1880s, a time of explosive growth and maturity for the industry as America fought the Civil War and conquered the west, the British Empire expanded, and technological breakthroughs like sewing machines, trains, and Mississippi River steamboats opened new fields of competition.
Mendelsohn is the Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture and an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. Like any good historical writer, he turns documents and data into relatable human stories. We start in overcrowded and barely legal street markets in London, where Jews relegated to the perimeter of the economy trade in second-hand clothing. In America, Jewish peddlers become clerks. Clerks become store keepers. Store keepers become manufacturers, wholesalers and household names like Levi Strauss and Brooks Brothers. As the garment industries and Jewish communities grow together, they create an expanding web of specialized niches and entry-level jobs for continuing waves of new Jewish immigrants. At every level, Jewish workers and business owners face changing market forces, anti-Semitism, and competition that threatens their economic survival, yet the garment industry became a cornerstone of outsized success for the Jewish community.
This week, Sew Jewish interviewed Mendelsohn by email:
I found myself comparing The Rag Race to another book that’s getting some play in the Jewish community these days: The Triple Package by the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua. Chua attributes the success of America’s Jewish community and some other cultural groups in America to characteristics of the community, such as a sense of cultural superiority. But in The Rag Race, success often comes down to forces outside of the Jewish community, even a big dose of luck, although you do acknowledge the role of skill, hard work, and social networks. In your introduction you acknowledge this debate between the role of inside and outside forces. I’m not going to ask you to go into the whole history, because that’s the book, but I have to ask, when it comes down to it, what percentage of the success of the American Jewish community through the sewing-related trades would you say was due to characteristics of Jewish culture and what percentage was due to outside forces – even luck?
I’m so pleased you connected my book with the discussion raised by the Tiger Mom: I had that book, and others that make similar claims, in mind when I wrote my own. I see my book as a corrective to The Triple Package and other books like it. For the most part, those books privilege culture above everything else, something I find troubling. They are often completely ahistorical (or read history in a very partial way). They present culture as something fixed and unchanging. They often make all sorts of implicit assumptions about the superiority of one culture over another. They don’t account for the very uneven rate of success within any ethnic group (we don’t talk much about Jewish failure, but there is plenty of it). And their positive arguments can easily be reversed to make hostile ones (philo-Semites and anti-Semites often make similar cases, but interpret what they see entirely differently). But to get to your specific question, I see Jewish success within the garment industry as a marriage of both cultural tendencies and very specific conditions. My objective in comparing the Jewish experience in the garment industry in America and the British Empire was to show how people with the same cultural baggage had very different experiences because of environmental and historical factors specific to each place. Jews certainly had reason to be entrepreneurial in both places, but the opportunities open to them differed in important ways, and the outcomes were therefore very different too.
It seems that a critical reason Jews rose to prominence in the garment industries has to do with entrepreneurship. You write that in the early twentieth century Jews were more likely than other immigrants to try trading up from wage-paying jobs like piece work to starting their own businesses, even setting up shop in their tenement apartments. Today, something similar is going on with home sewing enthusiasts. They might not be giving up paying jobs, but they’re working to parlay home sewing skills into home businesses, selling hand-crafted items and original sewing patterns, largely though online sites like Etsy and Craftsy. Does history have any lessons for modern entrepreneurs who want to turn sewing experience or craft industry knowledge into a business?
Jews did well in and outside the garment industry because they (figuratively) didn’t stand still. The clothing industry was changing around them. Sweatshops were soon out-competed by factories in the menswear trade, so many moved to womenswear. Womenswear also became less profitable, so they left the industry or sought a new niche. If there is any lesson to be learned, it is the need to find a new niche, develop it, but don’t become so wedded to it that you ignore all the signs that it is time to move on. Even as you prosper in a field that looks likely to last forever, always be willing to innovate and experiment in case your niche disappears (or new competition appears).
I was surprised the issue of shatnez didn’t come up as a factor in Jewish participation in America’s garment industries. (As you probably know, along with a lot of Sew Jewish readers, shatnez is the Torah’s term for a combination of wool and linen. Many strictly observant Jews follow the Torah prohibition against wearing clothing with shatnez.) Was this just because the garment industry became so large and diverse that this concern of a small group of Jews just wasn’t a notable factor in the big picture?
Several previous historians have argued that Jews got into the clothing business because of shatnez (i.e., there was always a need to understand what went into the fabric that Jews wore and there was always a need to provide very specific types of clothes). I saw little evidence of this in the modern period. Many of those who got into the garment industry in the mid-19th century did not come from particularly observant backgrounds, and they started not as tailors but as peddlers and shopkeepers. They, I argue, laid the foundation for the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who became sweatshop and factory workers in the U.S. after 1881.
You seem to have fun with sewing metaphors, and not just threadbare metaphors like “woven” and “fabric,” but also some impressively specialized sewing terms like “slip stitch” and “backstitched,” and you seem to know how these stitches are actually used in sewing. For example, you write that an entrenched idea is “backstitched” into our thinking. Do you sew, or does your knowledge of sewing stitches come down to detailed research?
Alas my sewing skills are pretty basic! One of the great thrills about studying any topic is that you get to immerse yourself in something about which you know relatively little. There is a thrill in discovery, learning the ins- and outs- of a new field. Six years ago I knew little about how clothing is made; today I understand many of the technical details. And I’m so pleased I used the technical terminology corrected (whew!). But my knowledge is more theoretical than practical, which is probably a good thing: I’ve always joked that there is a lot of irony in someone like myself — who has such a limited sense of style — writing about a business where taste is king!
The Rag Race is published by New York University Press.