The Immigrant Jew in America

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


The Russian Jew in Philadelphia*
by Charles S. Bernheimer, Ph.D.

* - 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."

To analyze the economic and industrial condition of a people is intensely interesting, but it is painful to watch the tense struggle for existence which is going on among the population about to be described. There are, it is true, influences at work which make the struggle hopeful, and which lighten the burden at times, but the strife and the stress are severe. Hardened to suifering, the people push on tenaciously, grimly facing the bystander, often scoffing at the feeling of pity which may well up in him.

It is my purpose to present a picture of the economic life of the Russian Jews of the city of Philadelphia. A forced immigration covering a period of twenty years is not likely to produce a very settled population, and the picture will therefore show features due to the rapid changes which are going on. All stages of prosperity and lack of prosperity are to be found among the population. On the one side are those who still need the helping hand of the relief and the employment agencies, on the other are those who, arriving here poverty-stricken, have amassed wealth and employ large numbers of persons in their businesses. Between are the struggling masses.

The industries in which the Russian Jewish population are most largely employed may be summed up under the head of needle industries. These include the clothing trade, and the manufacture of cloaks, waists, wrappers, skirts, shirts, overalls, and underwear. In the manufacture of clothing in this city the majority of the employees are Russian Jews.

Some idea of their occupations can be obtained from an examination of the assessor's list of voters in some of the lower wards of the city. Some time ago I counted roughly about 2,000 Jewish voters, and of these fully one-third, about 700, were marked as tailors or as connected with the tailoring trade. Over 300 were entered as merchants and dealers.  
Under the euphemistic title of "dealer" are doubtless a large number of peddlers. There were over 100 recorded as clerks and salesmen, 85 as cigar makers, 35 as butchers, 25 as grocers, and the remainder in a variety of occupations. It would serve no purpose to give the details, for, aside from the lack of a system of classification of occupations, one of the last places to go for an accurate statistical record is a Philadelphia assessor's list of voters in a downtown ward--or in many an uptown ward--so that the figures given are not to be regarded as careful statistical estimates, but merely as illustrations of the leading occupations.


Philadephia newsboys, 1910


An examination of the occupations of the Russian Jewish pupils of three public night schools down town (Fifth and Fitzwater Streets, Third and Catharine Streets, and Sixth and Spruce Streets), one season, revealed the fact that of about 900 young men and 600 young women, fully a third were in the needle industries. It is of interest to note, also, that there were about 50 peddlers and keepers of stands, over 75 newsboys, and some 120 cash, errand, and messenger boys.

In the absence of special skill for particular trades the immigrants have gone into the easily acquired needle industries, in which, with their minute subdivision, a particular occupation can, in many instances, be leamed in a few weeks. The immigrant becomes a sweatshop laborer, with all that that implies.

Willie Cohen, 1210 So. 6th St., 8 years of age, newsboy, attends John Hay School. Was selling papers at Phila. & Reading Terminal 10:30 A.M. Monday June 13th, Said it was Jewish Holiday. Max Rafalovizht, 1300 So. 6th St, 8 years old, attends John Hay School, was selling papers at Phila. & Reading Terminal, June 13th, 1910. Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

There has been some endeavor to divert the steady stream which leads from the immigrant ship to the sweatshop. Families are at times sent into country towns to labor, and individuals are forwarded into factory towns where they can work under better conditions than are afforded by the over-crowded needle industries in the city. The movement from this city, though small and slow, is nevertheless encouraging.

The schools of the Hebrew Education Society are another example of an endeavor to remove the economic clog, and to turn the immigrants into the direction of skilled industries. Hundreds of graduates from this school can testify to the effort in the direction of industrial education. Cigar making and clothing cutting for young men, millinery and dress making for young women, are taught in this school.

The results are comparatively small, however. The problem of the congested needle industries is but little affected by such efforts, when the condition of the thousands in these trades is considered.

I have no means of determining with any degree of accuracy the number of Russian Jews in this city in the various trades. There is enough evidence from different sides to show beyond a doubt that the needle workers are by far predominant in numbers, and from examination of the factory inspectors' reports and personal inquiry of leading workers, I think an estimate of 10,000 as aggregating the total number would not be an exaggeration. In the various branches of the cigar trade there are about 1,000 employed. There are between 500 and 1,000 peddlers and keepers of stands, the number varying according to the season of the year. Factory workmen, shop keepers of various kinds, clerks and salesmen, girls in cigar, cigarette, and other factories, in shops and in stores, make up the bulk of the remainder of the population. Then there are the workmen in the ordinary vocations which every population affords, and finally, the professional class. There are a number of young men studying for the professions, so that within the near future the list of the latter will be largely increased.

A survey of the section in which the Russian Jewish people reside reveals, on the outside, far less evidence of the presence of the sweatshops and their workers than one would imagine from reading lurid newspaper descriptions. But this will not seem so strange when it is understood that much of the work of the needle industries is done in the homes,-- and some of the worst results, both from the economic and the sanitary standpoints, are in consequence of home work,-- and that there is no attempt to display large signs advertising the business, as would be the case with factories and mills of other industries and in other districts. One must often sedulously seek the shops in order to find them.

It is significant that in the reports of the factory inspectors all the shops with which we are dealing are designated as sweatshops; garment and cigar factories are all under this head, and it is only in the details of the reports that a distinction is made as to the sanitary condition being good, fair, or bad.

We entered a sweatshop on Lombard, Bainbridge, Monroe or South Fourth Street. It may be on one of several floors in which similar work is going on. The shop is that of the so-called contractor--one who contracts with the manufacturer to put his garments together after they have been cut by the cutter. The pieces are taken in bundles from the manufacturer's to the contractor's. Each contractor usually undertakes the completion of one sort--pants, coats, vests, knee pants, or children's jackets. There is probably one whole floor devoted to the making of this one kind of garment. It may be that two contractors divide the space of a floor, the one, perhaps, being a pants contractor, and the other a vest contractor, with an entirely distinct set of employees. To his employees the contractor is the "boss," as you find out when you inquire at the shop. Before you have reached the shop, you have probably climbed one, two, or three flights of stairs, littered with debris. You readily recognize the entrance to one of these shops once inside the building. The room is likely to be ill-smelling and badly ventilated; the workers are afraid of draughts. Consequently, an abnormally bad air is breathed which it is difficult for the ordinary person to stand long. Thus result the tubercular and other diseases which the immigrant acquires in his endeavor to work out his economic existence.

There are the operator at the machine, the presser at the ironing table, the baster and the finisher WIth their needles--the latter young women--all bending their backs and straining their eyes over the garments the people wear, many working long hours in busy season for a compensation that hardly enables them to live, and in dull season, not knowing how they will get along at all.

If we apply our ordinary standards of sanitation to these shops they certainly come below such standards. By frequent visits we may grow accustomed to the sights and smells, and perhaps unconsciously assume that such shops must in the nature of things be in bad condition. But a little reflection will readily show the error of such an assumption.

It is all the more harrowing that the workers have a tenacity of life due to a rich inheritance of vitality, and that through sickness and disease, through squalor and filth, they proceed onward, often managing to pull themselves out of the economic slough, though retaining, perhaps, the defects of bad physical development and surroundings.

But there is a larger social question involved. The community at large incurs a danger through the germs of disease which a dirty shop may spread in the garments it turns out. And so the government steps in to inspect the shops, supposedly requiring them to conform to certain sanitary regulations, both because of the health of the employees and of the community generally. But, as a matter of fact, most of the contractors' shops that I visited are really not good places to work in. The best result of inspecting them by the government inspector would be to "inspect" them out of existence. But the law and the human instruments of the law are not strong enough for that. The inspection force is ludicrously inadequate for the large number of places to be looked after, so that, with the best intentions, the inspectors must feel themselves helpless. The law, as it reads, would seem to be stringent enough. It requires that before work of the kind under consideration can go on in a place, the employer must have a permit from the inspector, "stating the maximum number of persons allowed to be employed therein and that the building, or part of building, intended to be used for such work or business is thoroughly clean, sanitary and fit for occupancy for such work or business." Not less than 250 cubic feet of air space are to be allowed for each person, and "there shall be sufficient means of ventilation provided in each workroom." Manufacturers are required to have the permit produced before giving work to a contractor. There is a penalty attached to working without such permit. The manufacturer shields himself behind the permit issued to the contractor. The contractor likewise. As ever, form without spirit is deadening, and so the conscience of the community must be more thoroughly aroused before there is a real remedy of the conditions. We have here another illustration of how politics, which is satisfied with putting laws on the statute books and executing them through inadequate agencies appointed through the usual influences, menaces the health and economic condition ot a community, failing to realize the larger purpose which would compel an intelligent carrying out of the law, or a clear demonstration of its failure if it is inadequate.

It should be added, by way of information, that besides the Russian Jews the largest other element in the needle industries referred to is the Italian; and certain lines of goods made by Jews are sometimes handed over to Italians for finishing.

The shops are chiefly conducted by the contractors, entirely independent of the manufacturers, and the various manufacturers for whom they work assume no liability with reference to them or their employees. They merely agree to pay so much per piece for the garments they give out, and expect the garments to be returned to their establishments as agreed upon by the contractors. Few in this city have "inside" shops, that is, shops in which the entire garment is completed inside the establishment, or in a separate building, under their own supervision. Wherever these inside shops have been established the conditions are very much better; the shop is much cleaner, the light good, the air bearable, and the compensation usually more steady.

The last statement requires elucidation. In one clothing manufacturing establisbment, there is in the rear a so-called inside shop with a regular contractor in charge. The firm furnishes its first work to this contractor and thus enables him to give, in turn, steady employment, but claims it could not extend such a shop without adding considerably to the expense, as the rental and the assurance of regularity involve a larger outlay than arranging with contractors who compete on the basis of low rentals and the smallest possible expense.

Another firm has some of its high-grade work completed by inside hands, and here, too, the conditions are good, being more akin to the inside shops of the cloak trade.

One establishment for the manufacture of uniforms has a large building as an inside shop, devoted to the completion of the garments as they come from the hands of the cutters. Here were "sets" of workers (a "set" is uaually an operator, a presser, and a finisher) who agreed to complete a garment for a certain gross sum, dividing the receipts according to a pro rata agreement, one of them being responsible for the work. The light and air were good, and the workers had the use of electric motor power.

In this connection, it should be noted with congratulation that one of the largest clothing firms has a factory in the southern section of the city that utilizes the services of about a thousand employees, who come more immediately under the snpervision of the manufacturer. This will do away with a small body of contractors and their shops, and with many evil features consequent upon their maintenance.

An analysis of the wages of the employees in the various divisions of the garment industry collected chiefly in 1901 follows:

Through the kindness of one of the large trouser contractors, I am enabled to state exactly the amount which each class of worker in his shop received in a year's time ending in the spring of 1901. But the amounts thus paid out, it should be borne in mind, are of the highest range, inasmuch as this contractor had work during the entire year, whereas the usual employment in the contractors' shops during the same period did not equal more than about 28 full weeks' work. It has been calculated that for the year in question the amount of work which was available for the average worker did not amount to more than about what would be equal to 28 weeks' full time. That is to say, there might be employment for some period for every working day of the week, and for other periods for a smaller number of days per week and but for a partial number of hours per day, and sometimes practically no work.

We have here, too, an estimate as to what one of the fastest operators in the city can earn. He was employed at his trade 39 weeks, having been in some other employment during 13 weeks of the year given. He worked on 4171 pairs of trousers in that time, or an average of 108 per week, and received during the period $543.25, or an average of $13.93 per week, being equal to 13 cents per pair. In the same shop a second operator, working 52 weeks in the year on 4,680 pairs of trousers, or 90 pairs per week, received $590.55, which is an average of $11.36 per week, not quite 13 cents per pair. A third, working 42 weeks on 3,504 pairs, received $509.59, or an average of 83 pairs, at $12.13 per week Though his average per week is higher than the one before, he is not as well off for the year.

Records from trouser operators in other shops show that the average earnings per year were considerably below this owing to but partial employment. Payment is by the piece, from 10 to 12½ cents being a fair average price. A full week's work will see the completion of perhaps 80 pairs. The average workman will receive at the end of the week, in full time, therefore, about $10. As the year's work (up to the spring of 1901) did not amount to more than 28 weeks, the yearly earnings were not more than about $250, or an average of about $5.40 in the week.

A vest operator is paid about 9 cents per garment. He can complete about 120 per week, which at $10.80 for 28 weeks would make about $300 per year. Statements from operators in various shops show that with a full week's work they earn about this sum, some of the best earning a little more. But, as the year's work amounted to only 28 weeks, the earnings per year would be about $300 a year, or an average of about $6 per week.

The results as to coat operators were about the same. They earned from $15 to $18 per week, but had not more than about 20 weeks' work, so that their earnings were from $300 to $360 per year, or an average of not much more than $6 per week.

In children's jackets, the earnings were from $4 to $12 a week; a year's work was equal to 30 weeks, making from $120 to $360 per year, or an average of from $2.30 to $6.90 per week. The average payment would equal about $5 per week.

In knee pants, the earnings for operators were from $9 to $10 in a full week. The number of weeks' employment was about 25, and the earnings per year were from $200 to $250, an average of from $4 to $5 per week.

Proceeding in the same way with reference to pressers, we have our trouser contractor's record of $1,265.77 paid out to three pressers in 43 weeks, or an average of $9.81 for each man, and $330.44 paid out to four pressers in the remaining 9 weeks of the year, or an average of $9.18 per man. This, be it remembered, is for the exceptional shop with full employment the year round. Returns from interviewing men in other shops showed earnings of from $5 to $10, or $12 in a full week. With 28 weeks' work in the year the earnings for the year would be from $140 to $336. The average was about midway between these figures, or $4.50 per week.

Vest pressers averaged about cents per garment and complete about 300 in a week, which is equal to $10.50, and for a year of 28 weeks averaged a little over $300. Actual records from vest shops showed earnings for pressers of from $9 to $14, which, with 28 weeks' actual work, would make the average about $300 per year, or $6 per week.

The earnings of coat pressers were about on a par with those of the vest pressers, averaging not more than $300 per year, or $6 per week.

Those on the children's jackets trade earned between $200 and $300 per year, or an average of from $4 to $6 per week.

Knee pants pressers earned from $150 to $200 per year or from $3 to $4 per week, on the average.

The trouser baster of the same contractor from who data as to other employees were obtained received in a year $287.91, or an average of $5.54 per week. He had practically full work the year round. Assuming the work for the usual baster in a shop to have been equal to 28 weeks, the pay on the average, for the year, would not have been more than about $170, or a little over $3 per week.

For vest basters, the average from a number of shops showed about the same result as for the trouser baster--from $150 to $200 per year, or a weekly average of between $3 and $4.

Among the coat basters, earnings were higher. The men who do the basting are the chief mechanics on the garment. Some earned as much at $350, but the average for the majority was about $300, which is approximately equal to weekly average of $6.

On children's jackets, basters and fitters earned he $250 to $300 per year, or an average of from $5 to $6 per week.

Coming now to finishers--who are young women--our trouser contractor's returns on whioh we have drawn before showed the following payments respectively to three finishers whom he employed the whole year: $220.99, or an average of $4.25 per week; $215.95, or an average of $4 per week; $205.25, or an average of $3.97 per week. The ordinary finisher, however, having but 28 weeks' work, would earn not more than $100, $125 or $150 per year, or between $2 and $3 per week, on the average.

Average returns from vest shops showed earnings about $150 per year, equaling $3 per week. There were few who earned higher wages.

An average calculation based on returns from coat shops showed practically the same result--not more than $150 per year, or $3 per week.

The same is the case among the children's jacket workers. In all these instances, it should be noted, that in a full week individual earnings may be higher, but when computed for the year the average worker's earnings will not be above the sums indicated.

We have presented the earning eapaeity of the chief classes of piece workers in the clothing trade. There are, however, other employees, paid usually by the week, and there are, of course, other outlays on the part of the contractor.

Viewing the subject now from the standpoint of the contractor, let us estimate the cost of the garments to him, and his net gain. Taking the figures of our standard trouser contractor, we find that he made 21,157 pairs in the year, or an average of 407 pairs per week, and that his payments per pair averaged as follows: Operating, 12.9 cents; pressing, 7.5 cents; finishing, 6.6 cents; tacking and button holing, 2.2 cents; basting, 1.3 cents. Adding to these items his estimate of 2 cents for shop expenses, including rent, coal and gas, and 1 cent for errand and delivery service, we have a total of 33½ cents. He received from the manufacturer between 35 and 40 cents per pair, according to the nature of the garment. .Assuming an average of 37½ cents, his profit was 4 cents per pair, making more than $800 per year, or some $16 per week.

Another trouser contractor paid out 20 cents per garment for operating, basting, flnishing and tacking. He received from 32 to 35 cents. He could turn out about 250 per week. Taking an average, the $33.75 per week is subject to a deduction of $3.50 for rent and other expenses, leaving slightly over $30 per week, which, on the basis of 28 weeks' work would be $840 per year, or an average earning of about $16 per week.

Similarily, let us accept the following calculation by a vest contractor of the cost to him of a garment: Foreman, 4 cents; operator, 15 cents; baster, 10 cents; hand button hole maker, 15 cents; finisher, 3 cents; presser, 4 cents; errand boy, 4 cents; total 56 cents. He received 60 cents from the manufacturer. He could turn out about 800 vests in a week. To his expenditures are to be added rent, fuel and light. His net earnings in a full week were, perhaps, $25. But if he has but 28 weeks' work in a year the total would be not more than about $700, or an average of $14 per week. This corresponds fairly well with the statement of another vest contractor that net eamings would be from $13 to $18 per week. A third vest contractor who paid an average of 23 cents per garment to his operator, baster, finisher, and presser, and who could turn out about 600 garments in a week, received 27½ cents for them. From the average of $25 per week there must be deducted rental ($13 per month) and other expenses, leaving, possibly, $20 earnings for a full week; $560 for a year, on a basis of 28 weeks, or an average of $11 per week.

The contractor is usually an operator or other worker who becomes imbued with the desire to set up for himself. Excessive competition among the small contractors has contributed to the bad economic state of aifairs in the garment trades. The contractor is between the upper mill-stone and the manufacturer and the nether mill-stone of the workman, forced to take the prices of the one and trying to make the utmost possible out of the other. Some few have saved enough to become manufacturers themselves. Some of the old established manufacturing firms have retired from business as the result of the competition of this new element.

In actual money gains, the contractors whose earnings have been estimated are better off than their workmen. Many said that if they could get their little capital back they would probably return to their former occupation-­at least for a time, for the desire to be a "boss" is strong and would doubtless lead to other attempts.

In the cloak trades we find a somewhat better state of affairs than in the clothing. The shop is part of the plant of the manufacturer himself and under his direct surveillance. Besides being well lighted and ventilated the shops have machine power. There is in this trade comparatively little work given out to contractors, though there is some, especially in busy seasons.

An operator on first class ladies' cloaks and suits earns about $30 in a full week's time, and as there is about half year's work in a year, his earnings are about $750 per year, or an average of $20 per week.

A presser on first class work averages about $18 per week a full week, but as the work in a year is not more than about two-thirds time, the earnings are about $700 per year, a weekly average of $14.

Finishers (girls) average about $8, in a full week, have about 30 weeks' work and, therefore, earn about $240 per year.

In the clothing trade the yearly earnings ranged from $125 for finishers (who are young women), to $360 for operators, with $300 as the average for the majority, between these being the basters at $175, and the pressers at $250.

In the cloak trade, the conditions, as bas been noted, are better not only with respect to the physical but the economic status as well.

The condition of the cigar makers is much better, on the whole, than that of the workers in the needle industries. Earnings of between $500 and $600 per year, or an average of from $10 to $12 per week, would be a fair estimate.

The people are branching out into various trades, but there are none which employ such large numbers or in which the conditions are peculiar, so as to call for specific mention.

Peddling is an occupation into which new immigrants easily enter. Many earn a very precarious livelihood. Some develop into retail tradesmen.

A noticeable tendency to go into the profession of medicine is to be observed. Many a Russian Jew with intellectual ability will be laying plans to go from the shop into medical practice. Law, dentistry and pharmacy are the other favorite professions.

Some of the Russian Jewish people are rising to comfortable positions in the professions and commerce. Among the employers of labor there are several doing thousands of dollars' worth of business yearly. There are merchants md manufacturers, some who still live in the southern section of the city, others who have moved up town, among the prosperous elements of the community. Economieally, they can, of course, now take care of themselves, but their rise upwards has often been severe and hazardous.

Real estate purchases are a growing element in the economic progress of the population; many a comfortable sum is made through their means.

Some of the bank accounts would astonish the unknowing. So, too, the growing number of those who become insured is indicative of foresightedness and prosperity. One Russian Jewish insurance agent in the down-town district has a number of insured which would surprise those who know merely the outward aspects of the district.

From our examination of the conditions of the needle industries, the keen and difficult struggle that is going on among the masses is readily seen. Many an one used to a well-to-do existence can hardly conceive how some of the men get along on their slender incomes, for they often must support a large family. Instances are familiar in which a worker has a whole bevy of children, all too young to aasist in meeting the wanta of a family, and the wife with her hands full looking after the needs of the little ones.

In busy season the employees are required to work long hours, sometimes as high as fifteen, perhaps eighteen, a day. In slack season they must wait for the work that is doled out to them. Where time enters at all into the measurement of the pay, the employers endeavor to stretch it without giving corresponding pay. There seem to be numerow devices by which the workers can be taken advantage of. The character of the work varies so much in any one trade that it seems difficult to regulate the prices unless by the most iron-clad arrangement, backed by the force of strong organization. But the weakness of the organizations has been apparent in the past. Sometimes they have been affiliated with one general labor organization, sometime with another. They are now welded together under the United Garment Workers of America, into which they have gone during the past few years. With the exception of the Cutters' Union the membership of these organizations is almost entirely composed of Russian Jews.

The competition of unorganized labor, especially of women and of people in the country towns, makes the regulation of the trade exceedingly difficult, and tends, of course, to the aggravation of the conditions regarding hours an wages.

Surveying the entire field, emphasis has been laid on the conditions in the needle industries, because of their importance as to the numbers dependent upon them and the peculiar economic arrangements. The displacement of the outside shops alleviates the sanitary and economic conditions. Many of the contractors, as foremen or superintendents, are enabled to earn as much in wages as they formerly did in a mad endeavor to obtain profits; and the competition for prices being removed, there is a steadier regulation as between the workers and the manufacturers. Factories as part of the plant of the manufacturers, with control by them, assisted by government inspection, and the abrogation of the contractors' shops, enable a better regulation of hours and wages.

We have, then, a population of much intellectual and moral strength capable of large economic advance, requiring better physical influences and checks on individualistic tendencies.

1 The writer is indebted to Miss Helen Marot and Miss Caroline L. Pratt for some of the data furnished in reference to the clothing trade.







Copyright © 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.