Humble Roots of American Retailing

The lives of Jewish peddlers wandering the country were difficult, rough, and filled with religious challenges.

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We associate the settling of the American frontier with pioneers in covered wagons and cowboys fighting Indians. We less frequently identify it with the peddlers and merchants who sustained the early settlers, shared their hardships and improved the quality of their lives. Starting in the 1840s, Jews from German-speaking lands seeking opportunity in America chose the difficult life of a peddler. They trudged America from rural New England to Gold Rush California.

In his “Reminiscences,” Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, unsympathetically recalled that, by 1846, there were different classes of German-Jewish peddlers already established in America:

(1) The basket peddler—he is altogether dumb and homeless; (2) the trunk-carrier who stammers some little English, and hopes for better times; (3) the pack-carrier, who carries from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds upon his back, and indulges the thought that he will become a businessman some day. In addition to these, there is the aristocracy, which may be divided into three classes: (1) the wagon-baron, who peddles through the country with a one or two horse team; (2) the jewelry-count, who carries a stock of watches and jewelry in a small trunk, and is considered a rich man even now; (3) the store-prince, who has a shop and sells goods in it.

Wise observed of these peddlers, “At first one is the slave to the basket or the pack; then the lackey of the horse, in order to become, finally, the servant of the shop.” Despite its constraints, for most peddlers owning a store seemed far better than trudging the roads.

Abraham Kohn’s experiences in rural New England were typical of the travails facing back packing Jewish peddlers. Beyond the risk of theft, loss, accident or illness, peddlers fought against the weather. In winter 1842, trudging near Lunenburg, Massachusetts, the recently arrived Kohn noted in his diary, “We were forced to stop on Wednesday because of the heavy snow.” He continues:

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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