Frontier Judaism

How the market revolution helped bring Judaism to the American frontier.

Print this page Print this page

Coming to Amer­ica in their late teens or early 20s, these young men spent one to five years selling notions, dry goods, secondhand clothing, cheap jewelry, and similar products as they learned English and accumulated capital. Then they moved on to something better. Some succeeded handsomely: Most of the great Jewish department store magnates began their lives as peddlers. and so did a large number of other Jewish businessmen. 

One Success Story

A typical rags-to-riches story went as follows:

"Philip Heidelbach... arrived in New York in 1837. A fellow Bavarian helped him invest all of his eight dollars in the small merchandise that bulged in a peddler's pack. At the end of three months the eight dollars had grown to an unencumbered capital of $150. Heartened by this splendid return Heidelbach headed for the western country, peddling overland and stopping at farm houses by night, where for the standard charge of 25 cents he could obtain supper, lodging, and breakfast.

"In the spring of that year Heidelbach arrived in Cincinnati. He peddled the country within a radius of 100 miles from the source of his supply of goods, frequently traveling through Union and Liberty counties in Indiana. Before the year was out Heidelbach accumulated a capital of 2,000 dollars. Stopping in Chillicothe to replenish his stock, Heidelbach met [Jacob] Seasongood and the two men, each 25 years old, formed a partnership They pooled their resources, and for the next two years labored at peddling.

"In the spring of 1840, they opened a dry goods store at Front and Sycamore Streets in the heart of commercial Cincinnati under the firm name of Heidelbach and Seasongood. The new firm became a center for peddlers' supplies at once, business expanded they branched into the retail clothing trade."

The majority of Jewish immigrants, of course, did not climb quite so high on the ladder to success. In Philip Heidelbach's own city of Cincinnati, for example, just over a third of a sample group of Jewish peddlers in the early 1840s moved up into more sedentary professions within three years; the other two-thirds took longer. A great many peddlers never rose above the level of small-town shopkeeper. An undetermined number failed completely: Some committed suicide, others lived out lives of penury, a few re­turned disappointed to Europe.

Frontier Judaism

Yet however they ultimately fared, this army of Central European Jewish immigrant peddlers transformed American Jewish life. As they fanned out across the country, spreading the fruits of American commerce to the hinterland, building up new markets for producers, and chasing after opportunities to get rich, they also carried Judaism to frontier settings where Jews had never been seen before.

By the Civil War, the number of organized Jewish communities with at least one established Jewish institution had reached 160, spread over 31 states and the District of Columbia (the 1860 U.S. Census listed synagogues in 19 of these states, plus the District of Columbia). Jews spread through every region of the country, including the rapidly developing West. In the wake of the 1848-49 gold rush, there were some 19 Jewish communities and five permanent congregations in California alone.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.