Making Their Way in the New South: Jewish Peddlers and Merchants in the South Carolina Up Country

By Vecchio, Diane C. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Making Their Way in the New South: Jewish Peddlers and Merchants in the South Carolina Up Country


Vecchio, Diane C., South Carolina Historical Magazine


IN 1896 RUSSIAN-BORN NATHAN SHAPIRO BEGAN PEDDLING goods in and around the small courthouse town of Union in northwestern South Carolina. After three years of peddling on foot, Shapiro bought a horse and wagon, and by 1907, he had established his own dry-goods store in Union. Another Russian Jewish immigrant, Joseph Miller, followed a similar path to becoming a merchant. Miller began peddling goods in Charleston in 1900; a decade later, he was the proprietor of the Standard Cloak Company in the rising textile-mill town of Spartanburg, located about twenty-five miles northwest of Union.1

The experiences of peddlers and merchants such as Shapiro and Miller reflect a larger history of the Jewish experience in the South following the Civil War. The restructuring of the national supply system that took place during Reconstruction left the war-torn southern states desperate for goods and services. Enterprising Jews from the North as well as recent immigrants from eastern Europe recognized this need and were attracted to the South for its economic potential.

This essay examines one specific region of the South, the South Carolina up country, and demonstrates how migrant Jews provided consumer goods and contributed to commercial growth at a time when the economic and political power of rural planters was giving way to town-based businessmen.2 Jewish influence on consumer culture and commercial activity was not unique to the up country of South Carolina, however. Jewish peddlers and merchants were ubiquitous throughout the postbellum South as well as the expanding West.3

While northern investors and southern progressives transformed the economic base of the Carolina up country from cotton production to textile manufacturing after the Civil War, peddlers and merchants - both Jew and gentile - provided a wide array of goods to the burgeoning population.4 As they moved up the economic ladder, Jewish migrants entered the southern middle class and became vigorous players in civic and community life. Comparable to patterns in other parts of the South, Jews in the up country steadily reformulated their ethnic identity to blend into southern culture.

JEWS IN SOUTH CAROLINA

Jewish settlement dates to the seventeenth century in the British colony of Carolina, where it was largely concentrated in the port city of Charleston, a thriving trading center that was home to the largest American Jewish community in 1820. While the Sephardim, Jews of Iberian descent, immigrated to Charleston during the colonial period, later arrivals tended to be Ashkenazi Jews, almost all of them from the German-speaking lands of central Europe.5

The number of Jews engaged in peddling increased during the late nineteenth century with the coming of eastern Europeans. Deteriorating economic conditions coupled with violent anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire resulted in the emigration of some 2.25 million Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Galicia to the United States between 1890 and 1924. While the majority of late-nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants settled in the urbanized Northeast and Upper Midwest where garment manufacturing dominated the economic landscape, smaller numbers followed kinship and social networks to rural areas and small towns scattered from coast to coast and took up peddling. The appearance of eastern European Jewish peddlers below the Mason-Dixon line places the South in an expansive trajectory of Jewish migration that helped to shape domestic commerce during the post-Civil War era.

Whereas the commercial spheres of their Jewish predecessors in the South had been confined to the port cities, eastern European Jews filled a different economic niche. Peddlers and shopkeepers as well as cloth and scrap-metal dealers, they ranged far into the southern interior selling clothing, needles, tobacco products, dry goods, hardware, and jewelry. Their extensive territory included the hinterlands of the up country, where large numbers of Scots-Irish had lived since before the Revolutionary War. …

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