Caps for Sale: Peddlers and Merchants

As I wrote in my last post, by 1852 or before, five of the eight children of Amson and Voegele Nusbaum had settled in Pennsylvania.  Two of the siblings had settled in Harrisburg, one in Lewistown, one in Blythe, and one in Philadelphia.  According to the 1850 census, John Nusbaum was a merchant in Harrisburg, and his brother-in-law Isaac Dinkelspiel was a peddler there, married to John’s sister Mathilde.  Leopold Nusbaum was a butcher in Blythe, Maxwell was a merchant in Lewistown, and Ernst was a merchant in Philadelphia.

It is not surprising to me that Ernst would have settled in Philadelphia, which, as I have written about in the context of my Cohen ancestors, had a fairly large German Jewish community by the mid 1800s.  But why were John Nusbaum and Isaac Dinkelspiel and their families in Harrisburg?  Even more surprising, what were Leopold and Maxwell doing in relatively small towns like Lewistown and Blythe?  What would have taken these new German Jewish immigrants away from the big cities and to smaller towns and cities in Pennsylvania?

The choice of Harrisburg is not really that surprising.  By the time John Nusbaum arrived in the US, perhaps as early as 1840 or even before but certainly by 1850, Harrisburg had been the Pennsylvania state capital for many years already, i.e., since 1812.  It had been settled in the early 18th century and because of its location on the Susquehanna River where there was an opening between the mountains, it had developed into an important trading post for trade and expansion to the west.  By the 1830s the railroad and the Pennsylvania Canal passed through Harrisburg, further increasing its economic importance for westward expansion.  By 1840 the population of Harrisburg was almost six thousand people.  By comparison, the population of Philadelphia in 1840 was over 93,000 people.

Capitol. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.), by A. G....

Capitol. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.), by A. G. Keet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Harrisburg in the 1840s, primarily from Germany and England.  The first synagogue, Ohev Sholom, was begun in 1853, first as an Orthodox congregation, and then in 1867 it became a Reform congregation.   The Jewish population, however, was not very large.  There were sixteen members of the congregation in 1853, and even as late as 1900 there were only 35 members.

So how would my three-times great-grandfather John Nusbaum have ended up here?  I do not know for sure, but I can speculate that like many German Jewish immigrants, he arrived in Harrisburg as a peddler and, once finding a strong and stable economic base there, eventually opened his own store.  Harrisburg was obviously an important location for trade not only for its residents but also for those who stopped there as they moved westward in the United States.  It was likely an ideal location for a merchant.  Unlike his three-times great-granddaughter (and her immediate relatives), he must have been a very able entrepreneur.

This pathway to economic success—from peddler to merchant—was quite common among German Jewish immigrants.  According to Hasia Diner in “German Jews and Peddling in America,” (hereinafter “Peddling”) located here:

In Nashville, 23 percent of the adult male Jews in 1860 peddled, as did 25 percent of those in Boston between 1845 and 1861. In Easton, Pennsylvania, a town which occupied the strategic meeting point of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, 46 percent peddled in 1840, but just five years later, the number jumped to 70 percent. By 1850 the number had dropped to 55 percent, still a significant figure for any one occupation among a relatively small number of people. Of the 125 Jewish residents in Iowa in the 1850s, 100 peddled around the state, as did two-thirds of all the Jews in Syracuse, New York in that same decade before the Civil War.

See also  Rudolf Glanz, “Notes on Early Jewish Peddling in America,” Jewish Social Studies ( Indiana University Press, Vol. 7, No. 2, April,  1945)  located here.

In a different article, “German Immigrant Period in the United States,” (hereinafter “German Immigrant”) located here in the Jewish Women’s Archive, Hasia Diner explained why peddling was so widespread among German Jewish immigrants.

Americans in the hinterlands had little access to finished goods of all sorts, since few retail establishments existed outside the large cities. Jewish men overwhelmingly came to these remote areas as peddlers, an occupation that required little capital for start-up and that fit the life of the single man. In the large regional cities, Jewish immigrant men would load themselves up with a pack of goods, weighing sometimes as much as one hundred pounds, and then embark on a journey by foot, or eventually, if a peddler succeeded, by horse and wagon.

In “German Immigrant,” Diner opined that because many of these German Jewish immigrants came as single men, they were not tied down to families in a particular location when they first arrived and could thus take on the itinerant life of the peddler.  In her “Peddling” article, Diner further explained the popularity of peddling, pointing out that many of these German Jewish men came from families in Germany where their fathers had been peddlers.  That was certainly true for John Nusbaum and his brothers; their father Amson had been a peddler.  This was an occupation with which they were familiar.  Diner also stated that the Jewish German immigrants had networks of families and friends who could extend credit and help them get started on a peddling business.

19th century etching of a peddler by Granger found at

19th century etching of a peddler by Granger found at

In “Peddling,” Diner provided this vivid description of the life of the peddler:

The peddlers operated on a weekly cycle. They left their base on Sunday or Monday, depending on how far they had to go. They would, if necessary, take the railroad or canal barges to get to their territories.  They peddled all week and on Friday headed back to the town from which they had gotten their goods. Here on the Jewish Sabbath and, depending on geography, on Sundays as well, they rested, experiencing fellowship with the other immigrant Jewish peddlers who also operated out of this town. The peddlers engaged with the settled Jewish families, some of whom either operated boarding houses for peddlers or merely extended home hospitality to the men during their brief respites off the road. On the weekends the peddlers could partake of Sabbath religious services and consume some of the good food associated with Jewish holy time, food prepared in the distinctive manners of the various central European regions. Saturday night, after sundown, when the restrictions of the Sabbath lifted, the peddlers came to the shopkeepers and or other creditors to whom they owed money, paid up from the goods they had sold that week, and then filled up their bags, ready for another week on the road.

Rudolf Glanz wrote in “Notes on Early Jewish Peddling in America,” Jewish Social Studies ( Indiana University Press, Vol. 7, No. 2, April,  1945) located here, that these that peddlers played a crucial role in the economic growth and population growth in the unsettled parts of the United States in the 19th century because they provided the pioneers with access to goods that they otherwise would not have had.  This freed the pioneers from having to carry or manufacture these products themselves as they migrated west, thus enabling them to survive and adapt to the frontier conditions.  Glanz, pp. 121-122.  Diner described in “Peddling” the types of goods these peddlers generally sold:

The peddlers did not sell food or fuel. Rather they sold a jumble of goods that might be considered quasi-luxuries. In their bags they carried needles, threads, lace, ribbons, mirrors, pictures and picture frames, watches, jewelry, eye glasses, linens, bedding, and other sundry goods, sometimes called “Yankee notions.” They carried some clothing and cloth, as well as patterns for women to sew their own clothes, and other items to be worn. At times they carried samples of clothes and shoes, measured their customers, and then on return visits brought the finished products with them. When the peddlers graduated from selling from packs on their backs to selling from horse and wagon, they offered more in the way of heavy items, such as stoves and sewing machines.

As Diner points out, often these peddlers were the first Jews in a particular town or village.  Once a peddler had saved enough money to start a permanent store and become a merchant, they would often pick one of these towns where they had had success as peddlers, gotten to know the residents, and established a rapport and a reputation.  Both Diner and Glanz discuss this evolution from peddler to merchant.   According to Diner in “Peddling,” most peddlers did not peddle for long periods, but were able to become storeowners, marry, and start families within a reasonably short period of time. Most became at least moderately successful, and some became the owners of some of the biggest department stores in the US, such as Gimbel’s and Macy’s.

My hypothesis is that John Nusbaum also started out as a peddler.  He must have started from Philadelphia or perhaps New York as a single man and peddled goods through Pennsylvania until he accumulated enough capital and was able to settle in Harrisburg, a prime location for a merchant for the reasons stated above.  Perhaps it was only once he had done so that he married Jeanette and started a family in the 1840s.

When his brother-in-law Isaac Dinkelspiel arrived with his wife Mathilde Nusbaum Dinkelspiel sometime later, it would have made sense for them to settle in Harrisburg.  Since Isaac also started out as a peddler, as seen on the 1850 census, as a married peddler with children, it is not surprising that they would have moved to a place where Mathilde would have had family nearby while her husband Isaac was on the road.  In addition, it is very likely that John was supplying Isaac with the products he was peddling.  According to Diner, it was Jewish merchants who supplied the peddlers with the goods that they then carried out to the less settled regions to sell to those who lived there.  Jewish peddlers needed Jewish merchants for their inventory, and Jewish merchants benefited from the increased market they could reach through the peddlers.

Maxwell, John’s youngest brother, was also a merchant by 1850, but he was in Lewistown, sixty miles from Harrisburg and about 160 miles from Philadelphia.  What was he doing there? Unlike Harrisburg, it was not the state capital, and unlike Philadelphia, it was not a major seaport city.  But it was by 1850 itself an important trading center based on its location near the Pennsylvania Canal and the railroads.  Mifflin County, where Lewistown is located, had a population of close to 15,000 people in 1850 so it was not an insignificant location.  I assume that Maxwell, arriving after his brother John, had also started as a peddler, selling the wares he obtained from his brother, and traveling around the state, until he was able to save enough money and establish a store in his own territory, close enough to his brothers, but not so close as to compete for business.

According to the JewishGen KehillaLinks page for Lewistown, Pennsylvania, found here , the Mifflin County Historical Society had no records of Jews before 1862, but obviously Maxwell was already there. In fact, there was a street named for him:

A map of Lewistown in 1870 shows that Nathan Frank had a store at Brown and Market Streets, listed in a business directory of the time as Franks — Dry Goods, Carpets, Clothing, Furnishings, Goods, Etc.”  Spruce Street was at that time listed as Nusbaum Street and in April, 1880 M. Nusbaum — Clothing & Gents Furnishings was advertised. By 1907 however Nusbaum & Co. was no longer listed in the directory.

The biggest mystery to me is why Leopold Nusbaum ended up in Blythe as a butcher. Blythe is sixty miles from Harrisburg and a hundred miles from Philadelphia.  Like Lewistown, it was also located near railroads and the canals.  I cannot find anything about its population in 1850, but even today its population is under a thousand.  Schuykill County, where Blythe is located, however, had an overall population of over sixty thousand in 1850, which was a doubling of its 1840 population.  Something must have been happening there, but I’ve not yet been able to figure out why its population exploded in that ten year period.  Perhaps that explains why Leopold was living there with his wife Rosa and two young sons in 1850.  But why was he a butcher? Certainly he could not have been a kosher butcher; even today the Jewish population of Blythe is 0%.  At any rate, by 1860, as we will see, Leopold and his family had left Blythe and moved to Harrisburg, where Leopold also followed in his brother’s footsteps and became a merchant.

Thus, the Nusbaum story is not unlike the story of many of those German Jewish immigrants who came to the US, started off as peddlers, and then became merchants, owning stores all over the United States. It must have taken a lot of hard work and a courageous spirit to move to this new country, carrying a heavy pack hundreds of miles through undeveloped territory, dealing with strangers who spoke a strange language, on your own and alone for most of the week.  It must have taken much determination and persistence to do this week after week, maybe for a few years or more, until you had made enough money to find one town to settle in and establish a store.  And then it must have been a hard life, living as perhaps the only Jewish family in that town far away from other family members and other Jews.  In my posts to follow, I will trace the lives of my Nusbaum peddler and merchant relatives and how they progressed in America.



6 thoughts on “Caps for Sale: Peddlers and Merchants

    • The article written by Hasia Diner indicated that in fact there were problems with crime. The article is wonderful, and there was so much more in there that I could have talked about, but decided to try and not make my post TOO long!


  1. Pingback: Back to the Real World and the 1870s… « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  2. Pingback: Passover 2015: The American Jewish Story « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  3. Pingback: Some Perspective on my Nusbaum and Dreyfuss Ancestors « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  4. Pingback: Jacob Katzenstein: Before, During, and After the Flood | Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s