Chapter Three of Stephen G. Mostov’s monograph
“Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Jews in the Shoe Trades in Lynn, 1885–1945”
The skewed occupational structure of the Jews of Eastern Europe dated back centuries to the time of Polish rule. In a society in which most of the population worked in the fields as agricultural peasants, the Jews had instead been concentrated in certain commercial, artisan, and laboring trades. Jewish merchants tended to be in petty trades requiring little capital, but a great deal of resourcefulness. Nearly half were dealers in cattle, grains, fur pelts, and agricultural products. Their particular skill — a knowledge of the Russian agricultural market — wasn’t of much immediate use in America, and perhaps for that reason relatively few of the established Jewish merchants of the Pale decided to emigrate. Thirty percent of the employed Jews in Russia were merchants, but they were only five percent of the Jewish emigrants to America.1
More numerous among the emigrants than merchants were Jews who had worked in certain unskilled trades. They accounted for about twenty percent of the total. These were men who had worked as peddlers or laborers of some sort and young women who had worked as domestic servants. Their lack of skilled jobs had been a by-product of the non-existent opportunities in their home towns. and in America they hoped to be able to use whatever skills they had more productively.2
A much larger number of the previously employed Jewish emigrants — close to two-thirds according to the best calculations — had training and experience in the few artisan trades open to Jews. This was nearly twice their proportion in the Russian Jewish population. and was indicative of the fact that young. ambitious artisans were precisely the men and women for whom emigration was most urgent and most practical.3 When industrialization began in Russia in the late nineteenth century. artisans in the provincial towns of the Pale were hard hit. With their primitive methods and tools they were unable to compete with the factory production of the large interior cities. This condition was made worse by the large natural increase in Jewish population, and the severe overcrowding of the “Jewish” trades. There was no easy solution, since Jews were not generally allowed to move to the cities, and in any case jobs were scarce there and working conditions harsh. So with a desire born of economic desperation. and with high hopes for a better future in a country without a Czar, the young unemployed and struggling artisans of the Pale left en masse for the cities of America.
The Jewish artisans of the Pale had been concentrated in particular in light hand trades. They worked especially as tailors, but also as shoemakers, carpenters, painters, and in a variety of other trades. What all of these trades had in common was that the salient skill was manual dexterity rather than physical strength. All of them could be done by someone with very little money to invest, since all that was needed was a few simple tools and pieces of equipment and a small room to work in. They were trades easily combined with small-scale commercial activity, since the final product could be sold by the artisan himself in a small market stall. Among the Jewish emigrants. the largest single occupational group was tailors and seamstresses, who accounted for over forty percent of the total in the decades prior to 1914. Jews employed in the other clothing trades, including shoemaking, accounted for another ten percent of the total. Thus more than half of the Jewish immigrants had formerly been employed in trades in which the basic skills were cutting and sewing — which were precisely the skills most in demand in the shoe factories in Lynn.4
Given a normal distribution, the Jewish community of Lynn would have had a large number of former tailors, but only a few former shoemakers. But with the industry’s geographic concentration, it was only natural that Massachusetts in general and Lynn in particular would attract more than its share of former shoemakers. Evidence of this general tendency is provided in a listing of the occupations of 176 Jewish immigrants who had just recently arrived in Boston in 1914.5 Of the 141 men, fully 39 (28 percent) were shoemakers — which was nearly five times the normal proportion among Jewish immigrants.6 Reinforcing this tendency was the policy of the Jewish immigrant aid societies to encourage former shoeworkers to head directly for the Boston area.
Once in Boston, unemployed shoeworkers were likely to head for Lynn, where jobs were usually plentiful. A typical case was Harry Weinstein, who emigrated from England in 1914, and ended up settling in Lynn specifically because of its many shoe factories. Weinstein had worked for seven years as a skilled cutter in a London shoe factory. Within a few days of the time he landed in New York he was in Lynn “in search of work,” and within another two days had found employment.7
What was unusual about Weinstein was that he was from industrialized England, and therefore his previous shoemaking experience had been in a factory. Most of the Jewish shoemakers coming from Russia came from towns and villages where shoes were still handmade, with the only shoe machinery used being an occasional sewing machine. They were artisan shoemakers of the type common in Lynn in the pre-factory era. This is conveyed in a description by Benjamin Bronstein, recalling how shoemaking was done at the turn of the century in the Lithuanian village where he grew up:
The shoemaker made the whole shoe. He used to take a measure by a piece of paper. He’d measure your vamp, he’d measure your quarter line, etc. Then he would go to a leather store, where they had machines already — the Singer machines that could stitch shoes as well as they could stitch cloth. There they would take that paper measure and they would cut out a piece of leather, and the linings and everything that has to be in a shoe. And they would stitch it together and give it back to the shoemaker, who would finish the whole shoe. He would last it, he would put the sole on, he used to do it all by hand. Those were the shoemakers.8
The Jewish shoemakers entering the Lynn factories thus had a solid technical knowledge of how to make a shoe, and also knew how to go about selling them. Since they had formerly been custom shoemakers, however, the shoe factory was a radically new environment for them, which would take getting used to. And the adjustment was even more difficult for the Jewish immigrants who had formerly been tailors or seamstresses.
Once in Lynn, Jewish immigrants of all occupational backgrounds sought to adapt to the shoe trades. Those who didn’t go to work in the factories often came to be connected with the local shoe industry through forms of petty trading and brokering reminiscent of Jewish commercial activities in the Pale. In Russia the major local industry had been agriculture, and therefore the petty trade of Jews had centered around agricultural products and by-products. Since the major industry in Lynn was shoe manufacturing, unskilled but enterprising Jewish immigrants soon became involved in petty trades connected with it. They discovered, for instance, that shoe factories produced large quantities of scrap leather, defective shoes, and other seemingly worthless by-products. Some of the Jewish men began collecting these junk items, cutting them up into salvageable pieces of leather, and reselling them. It was in this rather inglorious manner that Jewish involvement in the shoe industry’s allied trades began.
From the time that Jewish immigrants began settling in Lynn in large numbers, the shoe industry became the central focus of their economic activity. In 1915 one-third of Lynn’s employed Jews were shoeworkers in the factories, and one-half were in trades dependent on the industry.9 Virtually all of these Jews were at the bottom rung of the industry — working long hours and earning survival wages as workers, or struggling to make a living in marginal scrap trades. But they were learning the industry from the inside, and saving what little money they could. Within a few years some of them would gain the confidence and know-how to begin small-scale manufacturing on their own, and others would move on into other livelihoods. In the meantime, however, they were learning what it meant to be “working class” in America.
The immigrant Jews began entering the workforce precisely at the time that the local shoe industry was reaching its zenith in terms of employment and physical capacity. By every measure, Lynn was the nation’s leading shoe city. In 1911 there were 103 shoe manufacturing firms in Lynn, employing more than 12,000 workers. The Lynn factories were producing 15 million pairs of shoes a year, with a market value of $33 million. In addition, there were more than one hundred local firms in allied leather and service trades. Geographically, Lynn was located near the heart of the world’s greatest shoe and leather market. The shoe factories of eastern Massachusetts, including the major centers of Haverhill and Brockton as well as Lynn, had an annual output of more than 100 million pairs of shoes — which was more than forty percent of the nation’s total output.10
The vast shoemaking capacity of Lynn had come to be concentrated in a densely built up factory area of less than twenty square blocks, radiating off Central Square. It was an area which had had to be rebuilt following a major conflagration in November 1889, which had totally destroyed 338 buildings in the heart of the city. By 1910 this small and compact downtown area was a mass of large brick shoe factories — more than seventy-five in all. The buildings were four to eight stories tall, with walls consisting of large, closely spaced windows. They were solid structures, thought to be thoroughly fireproof. The center piece was the Vamp Building, so named because its shape resembled that of a triangular shoe vamp pattern. Local boosters proudly touted that it was the largest shoe factory building in the world. Constructed in 1903 and expanded four years later, the Vamp Building was an eight story structure which filled three city blocks, and provided more than 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space.11
The immigrant Jews who went to work for the large shoe manufacturing firms became part of a workforce which had a long tradition of labor activism. Workers’ organizations in the Lynn shoe industry dated back to the beginnings of industrialization, when lasters, cutters, and stitchers began to form separate craft groups. The first organization to coordinate the activities of all shoe workers was the Knights of Saint Crispin, established in the 1860s. Twenty years later the Knights of Saint Crispin was succeeded by the Knights of Labor as the major organizing force behind the shoeworkers in Lynn. Both of these organizations served primarily a social function. The Knights of Labor was organized into lodges and functioned very much like a fraternal organization — sponsoring picnics, dances, theatrical events, and other such activities. But in dealings with manufacturers each craft group remained autonomous and negotiated on its own — meaning that the lasters, cutters, and stitchers each arrived at separate agreements with the manufacturers. In response to the unions, the city’s major manufacturers organized the Lynn Shoe Manufacturers’ Association to establish city-wide uniformity of wage scales and working conditions.12
In most industrial cities the Knights of Labor were succeeded directly by the American Federation of Labor. But in 1903 the shoe craft unions in Lynn dropped out of the A.F. of L. in favor of smaller, more militant unions. The subsequent history of union organization in the Lynn shoe trades was one of constantly changing affiliations. The Lynn shoeworkers remained strongly unionized, but organizationally disunited. Different crafts affiliated with small regional unions. Internal jurisdictional disputes between unions sapped much of the local organizers’ energy, and contributed to a chaotic negotiating situation in which manufacturers could play one union off against another.
The unions continued to wield strong control over the workers in the large factories. but with that control came an ever increasing level of labor strife between workers and owners. Strikes and wage disputes escalated — culminating in a six month long lockout in the summer and fall of 1917. The labor “truce” which followed was short lived, and by 1920 strikes were occurring at a rate of one a month. Between 1920 and 1923 fifty-seven strikes were called in the Lynn shoe factories. nine of which were general strikes.13
The labor strife endemic to the Lynn shoe industry in the twentieth century resulted from the seemingly irreconcilable interests of workers and owners. The workers insisted on higher wages to raise their inadequate standard of living, while the owners viewed the keeping down of labor costs as a dire economic necessity. That both sides could marshal statistics to support their view made the problem all the more intractable, and the conflict all the more impassioned.
For the manufacturers the fact was that even with modern industrial techniques, shoe manufacturing remained a labor intensive industry. In a large mechanized factory each shoe still had to pass through the hands of a hundred or more workers in the course of production. Furthermore. labor costs were the only major cost that the manufacturer could directly and easily control. His machinery was leased at a set royalty. The price of leather. his major raw material, was determined in a world market by factors having little to do with the demand for shoes. Other than labor, the only major cost he could control was rent — and a significantly lower rent could only be achieved by moving to a different city or town. As the shoe industry became ever more price competitive, manufacturers were constantly seeking ways to lower their labor costs — which brought them into continual confrontation with the shoe unions’ demands for higher wages.14
The manufacturers’ efforts to keep wages low made for difficult labor negotiations. But the process was made even more complex and contentious by the industry policy of piece work pay. Back in the days when shoeworkers were artisans. and there were only a small number of operations involved in making a shoe. piece work rates could be easily established and monitored. But in the factories of twentieth century Lynn there were over one hundred different operations, so that setting piece rates and computing wages became a complex task. Even so, the system seemed to work fairly smoothly so long as work was standardized. When the same type of shoe was produced day after day, the worker had a set piece rate for his particular operation, and a fairly steady weekly wage. But after 1915, when factories began to produce many different styles of shoes, disagreements over piece rates became much more common. Frequent style changes meant that each different type of shoe required its own piece rate based on the complexity of the particular style being produced. Since every change in piece rate meant a potential change in salary for the worker, setting piece rates became a constant source of dispute, as workers suspected owners of trying to lower their wages through setting unfair rates. Among the workers the piece rate system under mined labor solidarity, since virtually no two workers earned the same annual wage, and each readjustment of rates seemed to benefit certain groups of workers more than others.15
Most of the work stoppages in Lynn were in fact “wildcat” strikes resulting from disputes over piece rates for new work. The frequency of the disputes reflected the lack of a reliable system for setting the rates, as each of the dozens of factories in Lynn adopted its own “system.” As late as 1927 new rates were still being set in a haphazard way bound to provoke disputes and walkouts, as was attested to in a contemporary report:
While this industry is one of the oldest in the use of incentives, and piece work is nearly universal, we venture to say that of all the shoe factories in this country, the concerns that set piece rates by any other means than guess and comparison — those who really consider the correct time for each element of an operation — number a very small fraction of one per cent.16
The day to day fragility of the system by which rates were established in the Lynn factories is recalled by a woman who worked at the time as a stitcher:
I worked for the union...with the agent of the manufacturer on piecework . . . you had to really struggle. We’d go over the shoe. Then I’d arrive at a price with the agent and report back to the girls in the stitchers’ room. I’d come back and tell them what I’d gotten and they’d say. ‘Oh, you’ve forgotten this; No, you didn’t get this. Go back in.’ If I didn’t get it from [the agent], we’d have to call the manager or the superintendent; if not from them, we’d call somebody else; and then if we didn’t get it, we’d just stop work.17
While the manufacturers struggled to keep labor costs to a minimum, the reality confronting Lynn shoeworkers on a daily basis was low pay, long hours, unhealthful working conditions, and irregular employment. The shoeworkers in Lynn worked a 5½ day, 50 hour week.18 The work was strenuous, tedious, and in many cases unhealthful due to poor ventilation and lighting, and dangerous chemicals and machinery. The largest factories actually had the best working conditions due to tight union control, while small shops with just a few employees (called “buckeyes”) were notorious for sweatshop conditions.
The wages that a shoeworker earned varied according to how fast he could work, and the degree of skill required to perform his specific operation. Some of the most skilled cutters and stitchers earned a good weekly wage, but for the majority of workers the wage received was rarely sufficient to support a family. In 1919 shoeworkers in Massachusetts factories were earning $1 per hour on the average. or about $50 per week of full employment. But because employment was seasonal, the average annual wage for men was only $1609, or an average of $30 a week — and 1919 was the most prosperous year of the decade. This average annual wage was below the $1,700 poverty level for a family of four in Massachusetts in that year. Women and children working in the factories, meanwhile, earned less than half of what the men made. Their labor activism notwithstanding. shoeworkers in Massachusetts failed to win wage increases large enough to raise their standard of living. Between 1913 and 1921 the shoeworkers’ wages increased 150 percent. but the cost of living in the Commonwealth increased by 163 percent. And between 1920 and 1929 the workers’ relative economic condition continued to decline.19
The shoe unions in Lynn blamed the low wages on the unreasonableness of the manufacturers. The manufacturers in turn blamed the problem on the unions’ success in driving up piece rates to unprofitable levels. Manufacturers claimed that the union rates in Lynn were “the highest in the world,” and that local unemployment and underemployment was the direct result of the constant labor agitation. The union leaders countered that Lynn was an expensive place for workers to live, and that the wage increases workers demanded were needed to maintain a minimal standard of living. Furthermore, they felt that the relatively high wage scales in Lynn were a natural result of the local workers’ higher level of skill. The manufacturers’ response was that, with increasing mechanization, they could train enough workers elsewhere. They warned that the unions’ policies would only serve to drive the shoe business out of Lynn to more tranquil labor markets.20
Low wages, difficult working conditions, and constant labor strife were thus the prevailing conditions as Jewish immigrants began entering the workforce of Lynn’s shoe factories in sizable numbers. They were conditions which Jewish workers were powerless to affect, given their late entry into the workforce and their proportionately small numbers. Nonetheless, they were conditions to which they had to adjust and respond.
Prior to the 1920s most of the Jews employed in the shoe trades were workers. By 1910 there were approximately 400 Jewish shoeworkers, and by the time the local workforce peaked in number in 1919 the number had grown to about 800.21 Jews could be found in all of the large factories, and in a wide variety of jobs. Because of their previous experience in the needle trades the largest number were cutters and stitchers. Those who had previously worked as shoemakers were in the best position to earn an above average wage. Harry Weinstein, for instance, was earning $35 to $40 a week as a cutter within a few months of the time he arrived from London.22 But most of the Jews started out working 50 hour weeks for $10 to $20 — and women and boys made as little as $4 or $5 a week.23
In 1915 slightly more than a third of the employed Jews in Lynn were shoeworkers. But even so, they remained a small minority of the total workforce in the factories. Jews accounted for less than ten percent of the workers, even at the peak of Jewish immigration. This fact was significant, because for most of these Jews it was their first experience working in an essentially non-Jewish environment.24 Even in a typical cutting room, one shoeworker recalls, “out of 15 cutters, only 3 or 4 were Jewish.”25 The workforce as a whole was a hodgepodge of the city’s various ethnic and religious groups. Prior to 1900 most of the workers were native-born, but by 1920 foreign-born workers were in the majority.26
Jewish workers had no exceptional problems with their “Yankee” bosses, who in the large factories were remote figures whom the workers rarely saw or talked to. The people directly overseeing their work were foremen or supervisors. Initially there had been problems of a religious nature for Jews, as Saturday work was insisted upon, and Jewish workers were not allowed the Jewish holidays off. Within a decade or so these policies changed, however, as owners began to prefer religious to non-religious workers. As labor strife increased owners began to appreciate the relative conservatism of religious Jewish workers. According to one former worker, attitudes changed so much that, “Jews who did work on the holidays were suspected of being left wing radicals.”27 A similar tolerance arose for Jews who insisted on being excused from Saturday work — and in any case, all Saturday work was done away with between 1915 and 1921.
Jewish workers also got along well enough with their non-Jewish co-workers, but there was little close social fraternization outside the factory. By-and-large the Jews became only marginally attached to the workers’ major fraternal and labor organizations. Some of the Jewish workers started joining fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows, the Eagles. and the Knights of Pythias. But as their numbers within these organizations increased, special “Jewish” lodges were created, reinforcing the Jewish workers’ social distance from non-Jewish workers.28
The tentativeness of the Jews’ ties to the city’s working class extended to union activity as well. Few Jews actively participated in leadership roles in the local shoe unions. All workers in the large factories had to be union members. and there were a considerable number of Jews in the stitchers’ and cutters’ locals .in particular. But with the exception of one or two individuals, the Jews’ union activism was limited to the locals they were members of. Jews were a small proportion of the union membership, and for that reason never became a vocal or active force in city-wide union affairs. This was in contrast to simultaneous developments in the garment trades in New York. There Jewish workers constituted a majority of the workforce, and the unions representing them had solidly Jewish leadership.
Most of the social, fraternal, and political activities of Jewish workers took place with fellow Jewish immigrants, within exclusively Jewish organizations. By 1913 there were at least five Jewish fraternal organizations, with several lodges each. The two largest were the International Order B’rith Abraham. which had 3 lodges and 665 members, and the Jewish Workingman’s Circle (the Arbeiter Ring) which had 4 lodges and 700 members.29 The Arbeiter Ring was dedicated to promoting Jewish socialism, and as such had the most explicitly working class orientation of any of the Jewish fraternal groups.30 All of the fraternal organizations provided health benefits and burial services for their members, as well as organizing social, religious, or political activities. In addition to the fraternal societies, there were a variety of other Jewish organizations oriented towards the needs of working class Jews. Among them were a credit union, and several small socialist political groups.
“Jewish socialism” in Lynn was largely an import from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia. The young men of the Arbeiter Ring and similar groups had experienced the social and economic oppression of Czarist Russia. In reaction they had become advocates of a humane, classless society, in which Jews would be free to maintain their separate cultural and religious identity. The relative openness of American society diluted the fervor of these socialistic feelings, but many of the immigrants remained partisan advocates of radical change in Russia. When news of the uprisings of 1917 and the overthrow of the Czar was received there was great joy among these Jews and considerable support for the Russian revolutionaries, whom it was hoped would end the official discrimination against Jews. But with the outbreak of civil war, which ravaged Jewish communities and led to a new wave of Jewish emigration, these hopes were largely dashed. In the meantime, however, Jewish socialists in America came under suspicion as Communist sympathizers during the “Red Scare” which swept the country in 1920.
In the early morning hours of January 3. 1920 a nationwide raid was carried out on more than 2,000 “alien radicals.” The stated purpose was to round up immigrants who were alleged Communist sympathizers, and to send them “floating across the Atlantic to Bolsheviki Russia where the radicals will be permitted to rejoin their kith and kin.” In Lynn fifty-eight men and women were arrested, virtually all of whom were Russian Jewish immigrants. The raids were carried out in dragnet fashion. Thirty-four Jewish men were arrested on the spot while in the midst of a meeting at 120 Market Street — which happened to be the building which housed the headquarters of the Jewish and Russian Socialists Society. The others were arrested at their homes during the middle of the night. All of those arrested were immediately locked up in the local jail, where they were held incommunicado — prohibited even from talking to attorneys. The jail soon became so crowded with the “revolutionists” that they could only stand up in the cells. The headlines the next day in the Item captured the hysteria of the moment in prejudging the arrested as “Members of Communist Party Caught In Meetings Where Plots to Overthrow the Government Are Laid; To Be Deported.”31
At first the Jewish men arrested “took the affair much in the line of a joke.” But within a few hours they had “tired of standing on the hard floors of the lockup and were beginning to worry. At daylight . . . they were a very changed body of men.” The men arrested at the meeting on Market Street were finally released around noontime, but only after individual interrogations, in which “interpreters (presumably of Yiddish) had to be used.” They had finally succeeded in convincing the federal agents holding them that their meeting had been a perfectly innocent one, “for the legitimate purpose of forming a Jewish cooperative bakery to reduce the cost of living.” They filed out of the court room and greeted “anxious wives, mothers, and other relatives in the corridors.” Some of the others arrested were not so fortunate. They were sent to a regional prison on Deer Island in Boston Harbor for deportation proceedings. The incident served to underscore the social isolation of working class Jews. It was also a sad reminder that even in America unfounded suspicions against Jews could find official sanction, and popular support.32
Jewish socialists notwithstanding, most Jewish immigrants viewed factory work as a necessary evil, to be tolerated only until a more promising opportunity came along. Of 376 Jews working in the Lynn shoe factories in 1910, only 76 were still working in a shoe factory a decade later, and only 45 still worked in one after two decades. Similarly, the proportion of the city’s employed Jews working in the shoe factories fell from 34 percent in 1915 to 26 percent in 1925, to 14 percent by the 1940s. Thus Jews who remained in the factories their entire working lives were a small minority of all Jewish shoe workers. Virtually no Jewish shoeworkers allowed their American born children to follow them into the factories for a career. so that the experience as factory workers became basically a one generation phenomenon.
In the 1920s the most significant aspect of the Jews’ connection with the shoe trades had changed from that of workers “on the bench” to that of fledgling entrepreneurs struggling to establish small-scale manufacturing firms. It was a transformation made possible by the styling revolution in the women’s shoe industry. which was turning small-scale manufacturing into an increasingly profitable enterprise.
Chapter 2: Origins of Lynn’s Jewish Community
Copyright 1982 by the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore. All Rights Reserved.
A.S. American Shoemaking, a weekly journal for Manufacturers, Buyers, and Practical Men in the Industry (Boston)
Item Lynn Daily Evening Item (Lynn)
O.H.I Oral history interview of the North Shore Jewish History Project, deposited at the Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore, Peabody
JHSNS Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore, Marblehead