THE RAG RACE: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire

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Book Review

by Adam D. Mendelsohn. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 297 pp. Illustrations, Notes, Index. Hardbound, $35.00.

Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman

The phrase “rags to riches” describes someone who climbs out of poverty and through ambition and hard work becomes financially successful. Adam Mendelsohn’s book title offers a subtle expansion of that phrase. The “rag race” may mean the competition in the clothing industry, but it might also be narrowed to mean the Jews as dominating a field where for political and economic reasons they were restricted to such businesses as selling old clothes in European shtetls. Mendelsohn traces the history of Jews in the clothing industry mainly from the early 19th century to 1880 when the massive immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States would be stereotypically involved in the clothing industry. Additionally, this book provides a comparative study of Jews in the United States and England, noting the similarities and differences in a fine example of transnational history.
In London’s Goblin Market and New York City’s Lower East Side, Jews were initially involved in selling old clothes, collecting rags, and repairing used clothing for resale. Our modern society takes ready-made clothing for granted, with many people taken in by advertising to purchase “brand name” apparel without too much regard for where that clothing was made. It’s not Mendelsohn’s job to deal with such recent issues as the dramatic decline of American-made clothing in the last thirty years—that’s the basis for a different book—but he focuses on many fascinating topics. Tailor-made clothing was the purview of a small elite; poor people wore clothing until it wore out or was passed down to children who either outgrew or grew into it. Men collected rags that could be processed into re-made cloth.
Technology played a major role in manufacturing cloth into clothing. Factories churned out bolts of cloth, and sewing machines provided employment in making cloth into shirts, trousers, coats, and other apparel. Jewish entrepreneurs in England such as Henry Moses and (no relation) Elias Moses made fortunes, Henry in the making of clothing and Elias operating the precursor of department stores in England. Clothing was exported to the far reaches of the British Empire, while in the United States peddlers brought their wares to isolated rural areas.
American Jews made their fortunes in the Civil War and the Union’s demand for uniforms and all the items soldiers would wear. Lucrative government contracts enabled the expansion of the clothing industry. The Confederate government lacked the financial resources to clothe the Southern troops; by war’s end many Rebels wore rags. It was during this conflict that the word “shoddy,” originally a noun describing a type of material, became an adjective that meant poor quality.
Many contractors used shoddy in making uniforms that quickly became worn out. Mendelsohn also discusses “slops,” the term used for a low quality of cloth used in making clothing for sailors and poor people. The word’s definition has expanded to mean, well, the garbage fed to pigs or, as an adjective, “sloppy.” No one today would want to wear anything that looked sloppy (but wait: jeans and shirts that are torn or patched? Fashion is another story to be told).
By 1880 the American clothing industry had made it possible for Jewish entrepreneurs to become wealthy through manufacturing and/or selling ready-made clothes. English Jews didn’t share in that success; mainly they became part of the larger working class. Mendelsohn tells a compelling tale of success (Levi Strauss) and failure (Joshua Norton, aka Emperor Norton) among a large cast of characters who played major roles in the growth and development of an important industry.

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

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