ROADS TAKEN: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way

Book Review

by Hasia Diner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 247 pp. Illustrations, Notes, Index. Hardbound, $35.00.

Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman

Some forty years ago I had the opportunity to interview a 101-year-old Jewish woman in Oklahoma City. She related how her father had brought her to America in the early 1890s and promptly married her off to a young Jewish man, a peddler to operate a dry goods store in Holdenville, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
The young bride spoke only Yiddish and, as she related to me some eighty years later, was terrified as her husband drove a wagon full of goods from Galveston, Texas, across a strange land to a remote village. With the store up and running, she was expected to wait on customers who turned out to mainly be Choctaw Indians. They would stand impassively at the counter while she pointed to the stock on the shelves, shaking their heads “no” until she pointed to the items they wanted, when they would nod “yes.” After some time she learned enough of the Choctaw language to communicate with them—and the Choctaw learned some Yiddish.
I recalled this episode while reading Hasia Diner’s new book on Jewish peddlers, a topic, she argues, merits greater attention from scholars in American Jewish history than has been given to it. Diner traces this history back to Europe and the migration to the thirteen colonies, and from there through the 19th and even into the 20th century.
Peddling required a strong back that could carry a load up to a hundred pounds in a pack. That pack might contain a wide range of goods, from needles, thread, and pins to pots and pans, clothing, table cloths, and jewelry. Peddlers carried this load out to rural areas, to isolated farms, along roads often barely earning the right to be called roads, enduring all kinds of weather and the risk of being robbed or murdered (as did happen).
Despite the hardships, Diner finds that many peddlers were successful. They brought their good to families for whom a trip into a town would be an occasional trek. Women were usually the customers as their husbands worked in the fields.
Peddlers opened their packs and laid out their wares. The prices were usually cheaper than in the town stores, and women appreciated the opportunity peddlers gave them to enhance their homes with a picture frame, a nice table cloth, or plates and bowls.
Peddlers did just go out on the road. They obtained their goods from merchants who assigned them a given territory to cover. This system made it possible for the peddler to get to know his customers and for them to know him. Peddlers could sell on credit and return a week later to collect a payment that was due.
Diner doesn’t confine her book to the United States. She discusses peddling in England, Australia, Ireland, and Latin America, noting similarities and differences in the trade. A successful peddler could use his profit to buy a horse and wagon, thereby bringing a larger quantity of goods and earning more income.
Some very famous people began their careers as peddlers, among them Marcus Spiegel (of catalog fame), Mike Goldwater (Barry Goldwater’s grandfather), Meyer Guggenheim, Joseph Seligman, Isador Straus, Levi Strauss, and Isaac Shwayder (founder of Samsonite luggage). Eventually the peddler would marry, settle down, open a store and prosper as the town became a city.
Diner admits it wasn’t all roses. Although anti-Semitism was rare, there were incidents. Store owners and plantation owners did not want peddlers undercutting business and giving slaves wrong ideas.  However, peddlers were often invited to share meals and hospitality from people eager to learn of the world beyond their farms.
Although most peddlers were Jewish, there were also non-Jews who took to the road. Diner does not mention the arguably best known fictional peddler, Ali Hakim in the Broadway musical and film Oklahoma!
The author concedes there is no exact number as to how many young men came to America and began their careers working as peddlers. She says “hundreds or thousands,” millions,” “untold numbers,” and “substantial numbers.” Nevertheless, Diner has done a remarkable job of ferreting out the stories of peddlers from a wide range of sources, and she weaves a fascinating narrative of pioneer Jews who found a pathway to success along dusty rural roads.

Abraham Hoffman teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College. He is book editor of Western States Jewish History.

*  *  *