The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Chicago*
by Abraham Bisno, Former State Deputy Inspector of Workshops and Factories for Illinois

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

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 reckoned with.

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 labor.

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 employees.

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 condition.

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 trade.

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 similar agencies.

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 " organization.

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 $100,000.
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 $400.

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 fair living.

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 clothing.

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 good living.

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 like.

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.







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