Probably among no nationality does the
economic condition change more rapidly than among the Russian Jewish
people in the United States. The transition period from the junk
peddler to the iron yard owner, from the dry goods peddler to the
retail or wholesale dry goods merchant, from the cloak maker to the
cloak manufacturer, is comparatively short. True, the same causes
which influence trade and industry in the economic world about them
also influence this population, yet they seem able to develop
business methods of their own, which, in many instances,
successfully defy or modify well-established economic laws. They can
do business with little money, or practically no money, right next
door to a large house, ignoring the economic rule that the latter,
through competition, drives the smaller house out of business. They
continue to hold their own in the trades in which they engage,
growing in strength as the years go on.
"A Jew would rather earn five dollars a week doing business for
himself than ten dollars a week working for some one else," was the
observation of an Irishman who worked in the same factory with me.
This idea is held quite extensively among the Russian Jewish people,
as my own experience among them will confirm. Quite a large
proportion of the men who worked with me in the same trade ten or
fifteen years ago are now in business for themselves or have entered
professional life. Others have become salesmen, traveling men,
commission agents, insurance agents, and the like. I have met very
few wage-workers among Russian Jewish people who regard it as their
permanent lot in life to remain in the condition of laborers for
wage. Almost all are bending their energies to get into business or
to acquire an education so that they may fit themselves for some
other calling than that of the wageworker of the ordinary kind. More
of our boys and girls who have attended the public schools enter
stores and offices than shops and factories. This is especially true
of the more intelligent of the population. Among those who stay in
the shops as workmen there is a tendency to leave employments which
require hard labor.
Scattered through the industries in this large city, Russian Jewish
people are to be found in a large variety of occupations, from the
common laborers to the highly skilled mechanics. I find them
employed as iron molders, machinists, locomotive engineers, sailors,
farm helpers, boiler makers, butchers at the stock yards, street
sweepers, section hands on railroads, motormen and conductors on the
street cars; a number as building laborers-brick layers, carpenters,
steam fitters, plumbers; in bicycle plating shops; in manufactories
of electrical appliances, of iron beds and springs, of shoes, of
wood work, and of upholstery; in tin, mattress and picture frame
factories; and in bakeries. But the industries in which they are
employed in the greatest numbers are the sewing and cigar trades.
I gather from my connection with the trade union movement and from
my observation while inspecting factories for the state of Illinois
for four years, that the Russian Jewish people in Chicago have not
nearly so great an influence on the sewing and cigar trades as in
the east, particularly in New York. There are eight non-Jews to one
Jew employed in the needle industries in Chicago. The proportion of
non-Jews to Jews among the cigar makers is not quite so large. It
can only be said, therefore, that the Russian Jews are an important
factor in these trades. Among the mattress makers, too, concerning
trade regulations, they must be regarded as an element to be
The sanitary condition of the streets, homes, and shops in the
Jewish settlement proper is rather bad. It does not compare
favorably with that of the other nationalities, except the Italian
and the Polish, which in some respects are worse. The streets and
homes of the Italians are somewhat dirtier, and the Polish crowd
their people in the shops and homes more than the Jews. Compared
with the Germans, the Scandinavians, and the Bohemians, the Russian
Jews make a poor showing, their places of abode and of work being
dirtier and more crowded. However, a change for the better is taking
place, at least in respect to the sanitary condition of the shops.
Separate buildings are being erected, so that before many years we
shall have outgrown many abuses as to sanitation. I have known many
men to be willing to work for smaller wages in better quarters. A
busy season with good wages tends to improve the sanitary condition,
whereas dull times and small wages have a contrary effect.
Probably nowhere is the peculiar character of the Russian Jewish
people better to be seen than in the trade union movement, or
rather, in the absence of this movement. One cannot ascribe the
condition of the trade unions among them solely to their racial
character, as many other factors help to form their economic status
and its relations to labor organizations. The nature of the trades
in which they are engaged and the helplessness of the majority of
the people are among the factors affecting the situation.
One of the main reasons why they do not support trade unions and
labor organizations to the same extent as other nationalities seems
to be that moat of them do not believe themselves to be working men
for life, nor do they think that they will leave as a heritage to
their children the lot of a wage-worker. A very large number
speculate on the notion of opening, in course of time, a shop for
themselves, or going into business of some kind, or educating
themselves out of the condition of the working classes. A large part
of the tolerance of low wages, long hours of work, and insanitary
condition of the shops, that is, of the tragedy of economic
servitude, of poverty, and of suffering, is to be ascribed to this
state of mind.
Of other elements that interfere with the chances of effective
organization, the fact that in the sewing trade women can and do
replace men must be considered. Especially during strikes have they
taken the place of men in a large number of cases, and have thrown
Jewish men and women out of employment. The trades in which the
Russian Jews are largely engaged are easily learned, especially by
women and children, so that there is a constant recruiting of
newcomers of all nationalities, thus overstocking the trades with
Generally speaking, the sewing trades in this city are in a
deplorable state. There is little organization among the workmen.
The reason for this among the Jewish people is not the same as among
other nationalities. With the Poles and some of the Germans and
Bohemians, the church and the priests are factors in keeping them in
an ignorant, helpless, and " scabbing " state of mind, but the
Jewish people are clever and quite well informed, so that the cause
has been not ignorance but unwillingness to make the sacrifice
necessary to bring about successful organization. There is, however,
some change for the better in progress. They are beginning to
realize, slowly, but surely, that their hope economically, lies in
alliance with the labor unions and the socialist movement, and they
will become a factor, I believe, in establishing the state of
affairs in which labor will be free and receive what it produces.
It should be noted, too, in modification of the general statement as
to unwillingness to organize: First, that during actual strikes Jews
have been much more loyal and self-sacrificing than other
nationalities. I know of many men, who, during strikes, with no
bread for themselves or their families, attended meetings and
insisted on holding out until the strike was won. Second, a large
number are in unions of their trades, and many are active in
leadership. Third, in the socialist movement, a few have been very
active and have carried on propaganda at a great sacrifice.
In all there are probably 4,000 Russian Jews engaged in the sewing
trades in Chicago, less than one-eighth of the total. The majority
of men employees have an income of from $400 to $600 per year.
Several hundred Russian Jews are either contractors or
manufacturers. The Jewish contractor who employs Jewish help is not
so prosperous, as a rule, as his neighbor, the Jewish contractor who
employs Gentile help, or the Gentile contractor. The reason seems to
be that among the Poles and Bohemians, of whom there are many in
these trades, women and children are employed to a much greater
extent than among the Jews, and one cannot get adult males to work
as cheaply as women and children. A number of Jewish contractors
have moved into neighborhoods where they are enabled to employ
Polish, German, and Bohemian women and children, and they are
prospering. But those who are in the First Ward, or in the Jewish
district, are simply making a living a little better than their
About 1,500 of those in the sewing trades are engaged in "country
order" coat making, a cheaper grade of custom coat making. The work
is done according to the factory system of division of labor, as
distinguished from custom work, in which the tailor makes the whole
garment. During the past three years, the employees have had work
from six to nine months in the year. They have earned about the
following wages. Operators from $11 to $25 per week; helpers (to
operators), from $5 to $12 per week; basters, from $10 to $18 per
week; helpers (to basters), from $5 to $10 per week; pressers, from
$10 to $18 per week; helpers (to pressers), from $4 to $8 per week.
The high priced men are about as one to four in a shop. The cutters
in this trade receive about $15 to $18 per week, and the designers
and foremen from $30 to $40 per week. There is no union in the
trade, excepting a small mutual benefit society. This trade competes
successfully, I think, with the country merchant tailoring and with
ready-made manufacture of clothing. During busy season the hours are
long, as high as twelve and thirteen hours a day. The work is mostly
piecework. This and cloak making are considered the beat of the
sewing trades. Polish and Bohemian women and children compete as
workers, but the Jewish men are holding their own as yet, because
they can adjust themselves better to the seasons of the trade.
It should be borne in mind that the rates of payment here given are
for a full week's work. Therefore an operator who earns $11 in a
full week will not earn more than between $300 and $350 in a year or
an average of between $6 and $7 per week. The same applies to the
other classes of workmen, so that the average weekly wages are much
lower than would appear on the face of things.
The next division is the ready-made coat making trade. In the past
few years the Jews have been replaced by Poles and Bohemians, so
that there are not more than about 300 of the former. There were
formerly about 1,000. Their wages are considerably less than those
of the "country order " division, operators being paid from $10 to
$15 per week, basters from $9 to $13 per week, pressers the same as
basters, helpers ranging from $4 to $9 per week, hand sewers from $2
to $8 per week. There are about nine or ten months' work in a year.
An operator earns, therefore, about $400 per year on the average,
which is equal to $8 per week. The average weekly earnings for the
other workmen are subject to a corresponding reduction.
Both in the ready-made and in the country order, the machines are
run by foot power. The shops, as a rule, are not in very good
About 200 Russian Jews are employed as custom coat makers proper,
working for merchant tailors. They make
the whole garment. Their earnings are from $12 to $18 per week and
they work about nine months a year.
These and workers in the country order division often become small
merchant tailors, both in Chicago and in the country towns. Some
have become well-to-do. Among them are merchant tailors in prominent
sections of the city worth from $10,000 to $15,000.
There are about 250 Russian Jews among the ladies' tailors, making
both suits and outer garments to measure. The operators earn from
$15 to $20 per week and have from six to nine months' work in the
year. The yearly earnings are, therefore, from $400 to $700, or an
average of from $8 to $14 per week. A large number keep shops for
themselves and are doing a good business. One has acquired about
$20,000 worth of property during the past eight years. The foremen,
designers, and cutters in this trade receive about $30 per week.
Ladies' cloaks and suit making is quite a large industry among the
population we are describing. About 800 are employed in it. This is
a season trade, with good wages in the busy season and very low
wages in the dull season. In the cheaper and partly in the medium
grades of this business, the Jews have lost their hold during the
last few years. This is due to the establishment of shops employing
girls, among the Polish and Bohemian people. In the better grades
they still hold on. In these, during the busy season, they earn from
$12 to $25 a week, in slack season from $9 to $14 a week, working
mostly ten hours per day. There is about eight months' work.
Steam is being introduced in place of foot power, so that if the
Jewish people are not replaced by women this trade seems likely to
offer them a decent livelihood. Women earn from $4 to $9 per week.
It should be noted, too, that competition with New York affects this
No trade requires the influence of a labor organization more than
this. The cloak makers lost a severely contested strike several
years ago and they do not seem to have been able to organize
themselves since that time. There are about 50 Russian Jewish cloak
cutters who are paid about $18 per week. A number of the designers
are from this population. Their wages are $50 a week and upwards.
Some of the Russian Jewish people have gone into the manufacture of
cloaks on a small scale. The wealthiest is worth probably $10,000.
The cap makers are doing fairly well. They earn from $9 to $18 per
week. They seem to have withstood the competition of women. When
they have saved from $200 to $300 they open shops of their own.
There are about 200 employers. The wealthiest is worth in the
neighborhood of $10,000.
The children's coats, the men's trousers, the knee pants, the
overalls, and the shirt trades seem to be the poorest the population
are engaged in. Operators in these trades earn from $5 to $11 per
week, with about nine months' work throughout the year; girls
(helpers) from $2 to $5 per week; pressers from $5 to $9 per week,
working about the same time.
Most of the contractors who employ Jewish help are poor men
themselves. Two or three who employ Polish girls have made enough
money to earn their homes and shops. Those who have gone into the
business of manufacturing knee pants, pants, overalls, and
children's clothing have, in a number of cases, done better. The
wealthiest is probably worth about $10,000. Altogether, there are
about 400 Russian Jews in these trades.
Furriers are earning from $12 to $18 per week and work about nine
months in the year. There are about 50 Russian Jews among them.
To summarize the history of the trade union movement in the
foregoing trades: The cloak makers had an organization ten years,
disbanded, and reorganized. They had a number of strikes. The
influence of the union on the trade was beneficial. From 1881 to
1889, the workers were employed from twelve to sixteen hours per
day. The union and the strikes brought down the working day to nine
or ten hours. Wages are better than they were in those years.
The cloak makers' union was the first to have a public meeting to
protest against sweatshops and the employment of children, and
together with the central labor organization, Mrs. Florence Kelley
and residents of Hull House, succeeded in having a law passed
prohibiting the employment of children under fourteen years of age,
and the employment at trade in one's own home of persons other than
members of the family.
The coat makers had an organization which was helpful in the
improvement of their economic condition, but a lost strike broke
them up. Bohemians, Germans, and Jews were organized in the trade.
Through a lock-out of
the clothing cutters, in 1897, the unions were forced out on strike,
and after six weeks were defeated by the manufacturers, who were
able to replace the men by women's labor, half-Americanized, and
newly-arrived foreign labor.
Knee pants makers, pants makers and children's coat makers were also
organized, and their organizations were rendered useless through
In the cigar and tobacco trades, there are in this city about 2,400
Russian Jews. A fair proportion are in business for themselves, as
store keepers or manufacturers or both. About 1,500 men and 500
women cigar makers earn from $300 to $600 per year. A large number
who work in the heart of the Jewish district earn only about $300 to
$400. Persons learning the trade earn $3, $4 and $5 a week. There is
employment about nine months in the year. During the crisis from
1893 to 1897 there was work for not more than four or five months in
the year, and the wages were lower per week.
There are a comparatively small number of Russian Jewish workers in
the cigarmakers' union, about 200 out of a total membership of
1,800. One reason is that the cigars made in the Jewish district are
of a cheaper grade than is provided for in the union scale. Then,
too, in the large cigar factories, which do not employ union help,
they work with other nationalities. The difference between the union
price and the factory price is large, from $3 to $7 per thousand.
The union has had several strikes in these factories and has lost
each time. Most of the cigars in Chicago are made in the large
factories. Employment in the factories is steadier than in the small
union shops. The union keeps its wages for labor so high because
there is a large demand for the union label. One of the reasons why
the price of labor in the non-union shops is so low is because the
trade is comparatively easy to learn, and women and children can
take the place of men.
Probably the wealthiest Russian Jewish cigar manufacturer is worth
about $20,000, and from this one they run down to the man who keeps
shop at night and works in a factory during the day, or for whom the
wife keeps a little store while he works out.
The business of manufacturing cigarettes and smoking tobacco employs
about 200 Russian Jews. The workers barely make a living. Men earn
from $7 to $12 a week; girls from $4 to $8. The employers are only
moderately thriving, as the revenue and municipal taxes heavily
affect their incomes.
There are about 80 Russian Jewish mattress makers. They earn: men
from $9 to $14; women, from $4 to $8 per week. Jews have displaced
other nationalities in this trade, mainly the Irish. They were
organized with other nationalities in a union. A union label was
introduced, wages were raised, and the union was maintained for
three years. Then, through the machinations of some of the
employers, the union was split and two organizations were formed,
one composed of Jews and one of non-Jews. The Jewish union joined
hands with the employers and formed what was really a" scab "
The Russian Jewish bakers number about 50 in all. They work
unreasonably long hours for very small wages - about $5 to $13 a
week - in very bad bake-shops. They established a union several
times, but were disorganized for a reason similar to the one just
described: Jewish employers introduced non-Jews and kept the good
union men out of work for a long time.
From 400 to 600 are in the picture frame, tin can, and bicycle
factories. They earn from $7 to $15 a week and assimilate quite
rapidly with other nationalities in the trades. Some of the large
picture frame factories and quite a number of picture frame stores
are owned by Russian Jews. It is said some of the owners are worth
In the professions, there are a number of physicians, dentists,
lawyers and teachers.
There are also mail carriers, post-office clerks, and holders of
office under the state and city governments.
Perhaps from 2,500 to 3,000 are clerks in stores and offices,
book-keepers, stock keepers and in kindred occupations, ranging from
the lowest paid shipping clerk to the high-salaried department store
manager. One is supposed to attain business training in the stores
and offices, and there is a tendency to overstock this class of
help, so the good salesman or good book-keeper is likely to receive
a smaller salary than an experienced mechanic or worker at a trade.
Among the peddlers and small store-keepers, the rag peddlers form
the largest group. Most of them are very poor and hard working; they
earn a precarious livelihood. I am told there are about 2,000. Very
few of their children follow in their footsteps; most work in stores
and some in factories. From the rag peddling business about 200 have
become rag store-keepers. A large proportion of these own their own
homes. The wealthiest is said to be worth about $20,000. The rag
store cannot well be established with a capital of less than about
Some 95 per cent of the peddlers own their own horse and wagon; some
of them, however, are so poor that they live partially on charity.
The majority work in the city, but a portion ply their trade in the
neighboring country towns.
Closely related to the above are the old iron dealers and peddlers.
In fact, a rag dealer will often also deal in old iron, furniture,
clothing, etc. But the old iron dealer is a sort of merchant, buying
and selling iron and metal only. There are several hundred of these.
Their earnings are higher than those of the rag peddlers. A number
own their own homes and are quite prosperous. In their case the
children are generally absorbed into other occupations.
The iron yard owners are a prosperous clan. Some are reputed to be
worth over $200,000. They do an extensive business. They are
generally former iron or junk dealers.
Dealers in old bottles buy their goods from the rag peddlers. Their
business has been developed only in the past few years. There are
but 15 or 20 in the city and they are doing well, several being
worth as much at $20,000, I am told.
Second-hand furniture store-keepers buy their goods, too, mostly at
the rag peddlers. There are about 20 or 30 and they are making a
Of the fruit and market peddlers there are about 1,000. As they have
not much to do in the winter, many go into the delivery business. In
season they can earn from $20 to $35 per week. But as they are idle
a great part of the year their average earnings are very low, and
they are really poor people. Only a few are comparatively
well-to-do, and own their homes. Some develop into grocery store
keepers. Very few of the children of these peddlers follow the
occupation of their fathers.
The dry goods peddlers seem to have lost ground during the last few
years, but there are still several hundred. I presume the department
stores and mail order houses affect their business. Their business
is done mostly among the foreign population of the city. Some,
however, do peddling in the country, but keep their families in the
city. With few exceptions, these are quite poor, barely making a
living. Yet from this class are developed the dry goods merchants,
wholesale and retail, who establish themselves in the city and
through the country towns. Some of the wholesale merchants have
grown to be wealthy. In a few instances they are worth several
hundred thousand dollars. One house, I am informed, did a business
of $8,000,000 last year, employing over a thousand persons. Most of
those who have established places in small towns are doing well, and
some have broadened their business into department stores.
From a thousand to fifteen hundred families are supported from dry
goods, notions, and gentlemen's furnishing goods stores. The
children receive a good education, and often enter offices as
clerks, book-keepers, and the like.
Only about 20 are in the furniture business. Some two or three have
grown well-to-do, the wealthiest being worth about $25,000.
Some of the clothing store-keepers in the First Ward in the centre
of the business district are doing an extensive business. One is
worth, perhaps, $50,000. Not more than about 30 keep clothing stores
proper, as distinct from second-hand stores or pawn shops, selling
There are some 20 or 30 shoe store-keepers. None are wealthy. A few
are worth from $2,000 to $3,000 and the rest are doing fairly well.
There are a large number of store-keepers of various kinds
throughout the city, selling crockery, ten cent goods, hats, etc.
About 100 Russian Jews are in the saloon business and are making a
To me several points have established themselves quite clearly in
this inquiry. In factories labor is divided so minutely that the
work is very monotonous. As a consequence the Russian Jewish people,
who as a rule are intelligent, will not continue to labor in
factories and workshops, but will go into business, distributive
occupations, or professions. If, therefore, a condition arose under
which there would be no further immigration I believe that within
the next twenty-five or thirty years but a small number of the
Russian Jewish people would be found as wage workers in factories.
But since immigration every year brings a large number into this
country, the very poor are by force of circumstances compelled to
begin as wage workers. The transition from this position to that of
the merchant and the professional man will, therefore, be
continuous, at least for some time to come.
It should be added that at the present time Russian Jews are
covering the country as small merchants and are developing into
business men for the sale of clothing, dry goods, furniture, and the
In my judgment, the establishment of industrial schools to which
Jewish people could readily go would be very helpful in diversifying
their occupations. With their wit and ability the Russian Jews ought
to be able to develop in scientific and mechanical pursuits. In the
process of civilization they would become much more important
factors if they proceeded to qualify themselves along such lines. I
find, however, that among graduates of our scientific and mechanical
schools, through lack of the proper influence, it is often difficult
to get a good footing, and this tends to abate the desire to prepare
for such pursuits.