Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South

How Jewish entrepreneuers changed the nature of the South.

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Advancing the South

What did such retailers do to modernize the South? In Jacksonville, Jacob Cohen may have been the first merchant in the South to put price tags on merchandise. Even if the claim was inflated or apocryphal, Cohen Brothers helped to scuttle the barter system that had been customary before the twentieth century. The company and its imitators thus activated transactions of trust between the customers and the sales force, and helped to reduce the power of the unscrupulous, there's-one-born-every-minute hucksters.

Eventually, instead of haggling and bargaining, came the assurance and the probity of "satisfaction guaranteed," based on fixed prices and the right of customers to return what they had purchased and to get their money back. Competitors were compelled to raise the level of their own game, to become more sophisticated in their marketing and more stylish in their wares. Merchants even in hamlets had to become more attuned to fashion, and thus served as conduits of cosmopolitanism.

Sensitivity to the fluctuations of taste that reverberated from outside was what partly constituted the novelty of the New South--the phrase that Henry W. Grady, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, made famous in 1886 in evangelizing for a region that would achieve postbellum prosperity through capitalist enterprise. The stores that Jews established helped weaken the parochialism of the South (even if its xenophobia hardly vanished).

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Stephen Whitfield

Stephen Whitfield is the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University. He is the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (Blackwell).