Mercantilism and the Jews

When tolerance became profitable

Print this page Print this page

Small Groups of Jews Moved from Pawning to Peddling to Retail

The policy of Frederick the Great was paralleled by many mon­archs and princes in the early modem era. Despite a cruel grillwork of prohibitions and tax burdens, selected Jews of one German state after another were granted privileged status, rights of domicile outside the ghetto, rights of exemption from Jew‑taxes--if in return they created valuable industries and trade connections for their rulers.

Of course, only small groups of Jews were equipped to meet these standards; but their numbers were growing. In the group of Westphalian countries known as Paderbom, for example, Jews had long been limited to trade in pawned articles and gold and jewels. These restrictions had resulted from the pressure of Chris­tian guild merchants and artisans.

But by the early eighteenth cen­tury the guilds had largely atrophied, for they had been unable to meet the economic demands of a growing population. The Jews ventured tenuously into this vacuum. They moved from pawn-broking to peddling, from peddling to retailing. Some Jews eventually became fairly prosperous exporters and importers.

Viewing with pleased surprise the wealth that these Jewish merchants pro­vided for Westphalia, the dukes began to rescind many of the remaining restrictions upon Jewish activity. As a result, some Jews entered the fur trade, the trade in agricultural products, the traffic in linen and yarns. Groups of especially favored Jewish merchants were allowed to remain outside the ghetto for longer intervals to trade in Westphalian fairs without the usual disabilities, and could raise their children in comparatively decent surroundings.

Gluckel of Hameln, Model Merchant

The improvement in Jewish economic status is most graphically described in the diary entries of an eighteenth‑century German Jewess, Gluckel of Hameln. During the early years of Gluckel's life in Hanover, her husband and brothers earn their livelihood as petty traders, trudging form door to door in Hamburg, buying old gold and selling it to jewelers or merchants. The wife of one of Gluckel's neighbors sells feminine knickknacks, Galanteriewaren, at the Kiel fair, while other Jewish neighbors deal in ribbons, hardware, and cutlery, in small loans and secondhand jewelry.

Gradually Gluckel's relatives and friends enter the retail trade in cattle and old clothes. Near the end of her life some of them even begin to buy goods from Amsterdam, Danzig, and Poland, and sell them in the leading German fairs. They undertake contracts for delivering silver to gov­ernment mints; they sell cash and bills of exchange on a scale that approaches banking.

Of course, the majority of Jewish disabilities remained. As a rule, Jews still were confined to ghettoized areas, subjected to op­pressive and degrading taxes. Most of them were quite poor. But increasing numbers of Jews were beginning to edge into the world beyond the ghetto. Taking advantage of the growing indifference to theological and religious matters that characterized 18th century life, they began, at least in small measure, to share the profits of the new commercial order. The economic security won by a minority of Jewish entrepreneurs provided a material basis for the political, social, and cultural emancipation that was to follow.

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.