Between 1780 and 1920, around half the world’s Jews left their homes in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa in search of new opportunities abroad. Of the millions who crossed oceans and borders, many aimed to try their luck as traveling salesmen in places like Scotland, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, or the United States—from South Dakota to Mississippi. Outfitted with little more than a heavy pack and a few key phrases (“Would you like to look in my bag?”) in the local language, these peddlers knocked on doors and sold sundries to whoever answered. 

NYU historian Hasia Diner chronicles their bold journeys in her new book Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, a comprehensive study of a profession that, though exhausting and unglamorous, had the potential to catapult immigrant families into the middle class in just a generation or two. Many peddlers saved enough to become shopkeepers; a few—like Levi Strauss (of denim fame) or Henry Lehman (co-founder of the now defunct Lehman Brothers financial services firm)— became titans of industry.

book cover: "Roads Taken" (shows peddler with one bag in each hand)

But it was not without sacrifice: Peddling was physically demanding and often cripplingly lonely work. It meant walking long distances in all weather, lugging a sack that could weigh more than a hundred pounds. (Diner quotes one peddler who quipped of his route in north Florida and southern Georgia: “In the summer, the trips were hot, monotonous, dusty, and slow; in the winter, they were cold, monotonous, dusty, and slow.”) Because they carried cash, peddlers were easy marks for robbers; some were even murdered. Others, Diner reports, committed suicide—overburdened and undone, perhaps, by solitary life on the road.

Those who (by luck or perseverance) escaped such disasters found success by filling an economic niche at a time when, in the wake of the industrial revolution, even families of modest means were developing a taste for cosmopolitan consumption. And as settlement expanded during the same period, people moving to the frontier came to depend on peddlers for creature comforts. Diner writes: “Probably no one would have moved to Oregon or Nebraska, British Columbia or Manitoba, in their frontier days had they not believed that they would shortly have pots and pans, dishes and silverware, tablecloths and eyeglasses, and the other accoutrements of the settled lives they had left.”

Catering to an almost entirely female customer base—wives presented with the novel opportunity to make purchasing decisions without their husbands present—peddlers spent the Sabbath at their new home in a central town or city and the rest of the week on the road. They often depended on rural customers—many of whom had never met a Jewish person before—for overnight hospitality, a surprisingly intimate arrangement that quietly fostered a kind of impromptu cultural exchange: “The history of new-world Jewish peddling reveals that despite differences in class, race, ethnicity, religion, and language,” Diner writes, “Jews and their customers changed each other’s lives.”

NYU Stories recently sat down to talk with Diner about peddling and its cultural and economic legacies—both here in the United States and around the world. 

—Eileen Reynolds

photo: Hasia Diner

What drove so many 19th-century Jews to try their luck in unknown lands? Anti-Semitism? Economic opportunity? Something else?
The idea that Jewish migration was completely a response to anti-Semitism and horrors of one kind or another is very deeply rooted in communal memory, and has also been replicated to a certain degree in much historical scholarship. I’m not dismissing the fact that Jews were limited in the non-Jewish societies where they lived, but I want to make clear that there were certainly other factors: Like many of their non-Jewish neighbors, they were responding to vast changes in the economy where they lived—changes that made the occupations of their parents obsolete. They kind of had no choice but to go, so the question was where?

The positive draw of the United States, mostly, and other places as well, was that there were consumers there who had cash, who were living above the subsistence level and wanted to use that money to get better things in life. Peddlers heard by word of mouth from relatives who’d already gone to South Africa or Australia or Mississippi or Ireland saying, “It’s not great, it’s really hard work, but if you’re willing to come and take on this pretty unpleasant occupation, it’ll pay off.” It was very common for immigrants who went first to send back money to pay for steamship tickets for brothers, sisters, cousins. And although Jews made up just a tiny fraction of the population in these new places, they chose places where there were no laws to bar them. They could come to Mississippi or upstate New York and while they were clearly marked as being odd and different, there were no laws that in any way impeded [them].

As outsiders, how did peddlers cultivate a customer base that trusted them?
Wholesalers dictated that peddlers didn’t compete with each other, so each had his own territory. And they sold on the installment plan, so once they made a sale they had reason to go back to the same house and, after getting payment for what was owed, open their bags and say, “Oh, by the way, this week I have...” Those nights of the week when they were not near a hub of Jewish life they’d ask, “May I lodge here for the evening?”—that’d be the question for the last person they visited at the end of the day. And then when they’re sleeping in customers’ homes, that opens up all this non-work time for communication, small talk, and even religious exchange. In Protestant societies like South Africa and the American South, where people typically read the Bible together before going to sleep, a customer might even say to the peddler, “Well, you’re one of the Hebrews—would you like to read the Bible for us?”

On one level that seems odd, but on another you can think of it as one of the earliest forms of ecumenical interfaith exchange—and it just took place home by home in a very organic and unplanned kind of way. That intimacy, and the peculiarities of peddling as an occupation, became really important in shaping Jewish integration into the new world. Jews became something other than “Christ killers” or mythical creatures from the bible. To many families, the Jewish peddler was just an ordinary guy who came once a week and talked about his kids or the weather or the news.

You suggest that that kind of religious exchange helped spark the development of Reform Judaism in America. How so?
Let’s say that on Monday night a peddler stays in the home of someone who’s Presbyterian, the next night someone who’s Methodist, and the next night someone who belongs in some kind of nondenominational evangelical church. They saw this in America because this is the one place they went to that didn't have a state religion, and which was the most religiously diverse, and where people of different Christian denominations lived in close proximity to each other and didn't kill each other over it. So I think it really opened up for them the idea that Judaism, too, needn’t be a closed, hermetically sealed world. They too started to think about creating new practices and institutions that fit their needs and their place in a new American reality.  

Why were peddlers’ wares so coveted?
In places like Cuba and the Caribbean, where they sold primarily to planation workers—so really poor people who have so few rights in society—they sold neckties and cloth handkerchiefs! There were real marks of important social status, and you can picture the wife buying it and thinking, “Okay, when my husband goes to town, I want him to look not like a degraded peasant but just as good as the boss.” These are small forms of consumption but within each one of them is a universe of customers saying, like in that old L’Oreal ad, “I’m worth it.”

I was moved by the memoir I read by a man who’d go on to become the president of Colombia: He said that in his village no peasant had ever had a pair of shoes until a Jewish peddler brought them. Others sold things like eyeglasses, or carried photographic equipment to take pictures of families. This was a kind of revelation, the idea of having a picture of yourself to put up on the wall, where there used to be only a picture of, say, Jesus. Each one these is a tiny detail, but put together they point to the emergence of a whole new modern world for the consumers.

Was it transgressing those class lines that sometimes got peddlers into trouble with anti-Semitic locals?
Well, that and selling goods for less than the local shops. It was usually shopkeepers who spearheaded anti-peddler action, so I’m hesitant to even call it anti-Semitism. In some of these anti-peddler campaigns, like in Ireland or Quebec, interestingly both Catholic countries where there was a disdain for consumerism and modernity, I think the economic fear of peddler undercutting the local agents came first, and then anti-Jewish arguments were marshaled as part of it. But economic concerns were very much the opening wedge in these anti-peddler activities. In a lot of places there were non-Jewish peddlers who were no more loved by local authorities and local businesses than the Jews were—it’s just that there wasn’t the same readymade argument to use against them.

How did peddlers navigate racial divisions in a place like the American South?
It’s important to note that in America (and in places like South Africa and the Caribbean) Jews were always defined by law as white. They always had the same legal rights as white people and were recognized as such, even if there were people who didn’t like them and engaged in ethnic stereotypes. And as white people they had a range of privileges—they could walk on the road and nobody wanted to see their papers or ask where they were going.

At the same time, they were forced, by the dictates of the market, to treat their African American customers just like they treated their white customers. So at a time when, in a place like Helena, Arkansas, a black person wasn’t allowed to try on clothes in a store, and had to get off the sidewalk to let a white person pass, the peddler comes into the house, takes of his hat, and bows to the African-American woman. He calls her “ma’am,” not “girl.” And she can slam the door in his face if she wants to! That really grabbed me. Any other white person who comes into her house—her husband’s boss, the landowner, law enforcement—she has to be deferential to. But the Jew comes in and has no power over her, so the tables are turned. He has to be deferential to her. That must have been an amazing revelation to African Americans, or Africans in South Africa, or Native Americans on reservations—to know that they didn’t have to always be treated the way they were in the larger sphere. Now the Jewish peddlers didn't do this because they believed in equal rights, of course. They weren’t closet civil rights activists—they did it to make a sale.

Why did Jewish peddlers enjoy greater class mobility than other immigrant groups coming to the America at the same time?
Jews (and Arabs, the other group that encountered the new world through peddling) were able to do this because they had internal networks of credit, and because they’d known peddling in the world. Everyone had an uncle, a father, or a neighbor who’d done it. And peddling, on the other hand, was one of the few positions that had within it the mechanism for saving. Say a peddler sold a tablecloth for a dollar. He pays the creditor (who bought it for 40 cents) 50 cents. That leaves 50 cents he can stash away to bring his family over, or invest in a horse and cart, or eventually open a store.

Most other immigrants who came to the United States came to work in factories, on railroads, in textile mills, in logging camps, as hired hands on farms. If you were going to work at Carnegie Steel shoveling coal into the furnace at 18, you were probably going to be doing that until you died. What you earned was never going to give you the chance to save. There was much less mobility than American rhetoric tells us there was: It was much slower, it was torturous, it took many generations. Of course there were failures among peddlers too, but in the main most did pretty well—and none of their children became peddlers.