The Arty Semite

Tales From The Schmatta Trade

By Benjamin Ivry

Fashion mavens treasure the memory of a 2006 Yeshiva University Museum exhibit, “A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960,” which inspired a slim catalogue. Earlier this year, Texas Tech University Press published an augmented new book featuring high drama, as in a chapter by economist Bernard Smith about the growth of the turn-of-the-century ready-made menswear industry.

When German Jewish émigré families excelled in making and marketing clothes, goyish competitors were not always thrilled. In 1890, Ed Huntley, a Chicago menswear vendor, printed a catalogue hawking “Honest Gentile Clothing,” also featuring caricatures of Jews as “plundering, parasitic, vulgar, fraudulent, and loathsome.” Huntley claimed he was providing a public service by offering an alternative to the “exorbitant prices charged by the Jews.” Jewish publications across the country reacted, with one terming Huntley a “drunkard, debauchee, thief, and swindler.” A traveling salesman named Rosenbaum was quoted as saying about the brouhaha: “I forgot for an instant that I was living in the closing quarter of the nineteenth century, and was carried back… to the blackest midnight of the middle ages, when ignorance, superstition, and crime hung, like a pall, over all Europe.”

Another chapter in “A Perfect Fit” by historian Rob Schorman underlines how Jewish merchants opted for trendy, up-to-the-minute advertising pitches. In 1898, just after the sinking of the U. S. S. Maine, which led to the Spanish-American War, “Yiddishe Tageblatt,” the New York daily, ran an ad by one retailer appealing to patriotic sentiments:

“Remember and don’t forget what the Spaniards have done to you with the ship Maine. And take revenge on them! While the entire public, however, is so busy remembering the Maine, we would like to point out that in all your boundless remembrance you should not forget that there are many other important things that one mustn’t forget, namely that the famous businessman M. Yachnin, 55 Canal St…has just received a brand-new stack of the finest gents furnishing goods for spring.”

Years later, the precedent of wheedling schmatta salesmen may have led Hollywood’s acclaimed Jewish costume designers, such as Adrian (born Adrian Adolph Greenberg; 1903-1959) and Edith Head (born Edith Posener; 1897-1981) to be discreet about their family origins. Before such discretion became the rule, Samuel Goldwyn, who like several other Hollywood pioneers started out in the clothes trade, produced a silent comedy, “Potash and Perlmutter” (1923) about mishaps in the garment industry, based on stories by the UK Jewish humorist Montague Glass..

Watch the trailer for the 2009 HBO documentary, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” here.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Edith Head, Garment Industry, fashion, Adrian




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.