The “Disappearance” of Arthur Cohen, My Grandfather’s First Cousin

Way back in July, 2014, I wrote about my great-grandfather Emanuel Cohen’s youngest sibling, his brother Abraham, the thirteenth child of my great-great-grandparents Jacob Cohen and Sarah Jacobs. What I reported was that Abraham, born in Philadelphia on March 29, 1866, had married Sallie McGonigal in 1886, and they had five children, but three of those children died in childhood. Only two children survived—their son Leslie, their second child, and their son Arthur, their fifth and youngest child. There were almost twenty years between the two boys: Leslie was born in 1889, Arthur in 1907.  They lost their mother Sallie to the dreadful flu epidemic on March 14, 1919.

Gravestone for Sallie and Abraham Cohen, courtesy of Michael DeVane

Abraham Cohen remarried in 1920, and I was able to trace Abraham and his son Leslie up through their deaths, as described here.

But Arthur’s story was unfinished. The last record I had for him was the 1930 census when he was living with his father Abraham and stepmother Elizabeth in Philadelphia and working in a gas station. He was 23 at the time. After that, he disappeared. I could find other Arthur Cohens who matched in some ways, but not in others. Thus, I was unable to find anything after 1930 that was definitely about my Arthur Cohen.

Abe Cohen and family, 1930 US census, Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 0505; FHL microfilm: 2341874 1930 United States Federal Censu

Until, that is, about a month ago when I received a comment on the blog from someone named Michael DeVane, who wrote, “I came across your blog while searching for information on Abraham Cohen, my grandfather. My father was Arthur Cohen. You really helped me fill in some of the missing information on my family. If you want to reach out to me, I will gladly help fill in some missing information to our family tree.” I immediately wrote back to Michael, and we arranged to chat by telephone a few days later.

To prepare for the conversation, I went back to all the research I’d done about Abraham and his family. One thing puzzled me. If Michael’s father was Arthur Cohen, why was his surname DeVane? Well, that clue led me to find more information, and then my conversation with Michael confirmed what I’d uncovered and added more insights. There was a very good reason that I’d not been able to find Arthur Cohen after 1930. By 1931, he’d changed his name to Arthur DeVane.

Once I knew that Arthur had in fact changed his name to DeVane, I located a marriage in the Philadelphia marriage index for Arthur DeVane and Ruth Bussard dated 1931. 1 Michael found in his family records the following document that confirmed that this marriage record was indeed for his father, born Arthur Cohen. It is his father’s baptismal certificate under the name Arthur Cohen with his parents identified.

On the reverse, it notes that Arthur changed his name to DeVane and that he married Ruth Bussard on September 30, 1931, at St. Agnes Church in Philadelphia. Michael thought he might contact the church authorities to see if the record for the name change can be located.

Michael had understood that his father changed his name from Cohen to avoid anti-Semitism, but now we both wonder whether it also had to do with the marriage to Ruth Bussard. Perhaps she didn’t want to take on such an obviously Jewish name. As you can see from the headstone above, both of Arthur’s parents identified as Catholic and are buried in a Catholic cemetery, so Arthur was neither raised Jewish nor identified himself as Jewish.

In any event, the marriage to Ruth did not last. In September 1939, Ruth filed for divorce, and in February 1940, divorce was granted.2 Ruth remarried later that year.3

On the 1940 census, Arthur was living as a lodger with a family, listing his marital status as single and his occupation as a signal man for the railroad.4

On January 8, 1942, Arthur DeVane enlisted in the US armed services and served during World War II until September 5, 1945, including almost two and a half years serving overseas.5 During that time, while stationed in England , he met his second wife, Nellie Keep. Nellie was born April 1, 1917, in Oxford, England to Edward Keep and Nellie Massey. She and Arthur were married in New Hampshire on December 18, 1947. Like Arthur, Nellie had been previously married and divorced.

Marriage record of Arthur Devane and Nellie Keep, New England Historical Genealogical Society; New Hampshire Bureau of Vital Records, Concord, New Hampshire, Ancestry,com. New Hampshire, Marriage and Divorce Records, 1659-1947

The record for their marriage is interesting. Arthur reported that his father’s name was Leslie DeVane, not Abraham Cohen, the true name of his father. He also reported that his father had been a jeweler, when in truth, like so many of my Cohen relatives, Abraham had been a pawnbroker. Michael wasn’t sure whether Arthur did this to hide his background from his new wife or for some other reason, but Nellie did at some point know the truth of Arthur’s family background because she revealed it to Michael.

Part of the family lore is that Arthur had hoped to take over his father’s pawnbroker business, but that his father Abraham lost the business when his second wife Elizabeth died in 1939 and her family acquired it and apparently pushed Abraham out. That is why, as noted in my earlier post, Abraham’s death certificate in 1944 listed his occupation as elevator operator—a job he’d had to take after losing his business.

Abraham Cohen death certificate.

That meant Arthur also lost the business. Instead, Arthur ended up rejoining the military and spent most of his career serving his country in the US Air Force, as has his son Michael. Arthur was stationed over the years in England, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. He retired as a master sergeant in the Air Force after twenty years of service.

Arthur DeVane, born Arthur Cohen, died on April 16, 1976, in Burlington, New Jersey. He was sixty-eight years old.6  He was survived by his wife Nellie, who died in 2005, 7 and their three children and their grandchildren.

Michael kindly shared with me the following photograph of his father as a boy.

Arthur Cohen (later DeVane). Courtesy of Michael DeVane

I saw some similarity between young Arthur and his first cousin, once removed, my grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen, Sr., as a little boy, but it could just be the haircut.

John Cohen Sr as a baby

Michael also shared the following photograph of his father Arthur in 1948:

Arthur DeVane, 1948. Courtesy of Michael DeVane

I don’t see many resemblances here to either my father or my grandfather, except perhaps around the mouth and the large forehead.

John N. Cohen, Sr., 1921

John N. Cohen, Jr. c. 1945

I am so grateful to my cousin Michael, my father’s second cousin, for finding me and sharing his father’s story and photographs with me.



  1. Arthur J DeVane, Gender: Male, Spouse: Ruth H Bussard, Spouse Gender: Female
    Marriage Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, Marriage Year: 1931
    Marriage License Number: 606549, Digital GSU Number: 4141671, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951 
  2. The Philadelphia Inquirer – 27 Feb 1940 – Page 11, found at 
  3. Ruth Devane, Gender: Female, Spouse: Marturano, Spouse Gender: Male
    Marriage Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, Marriage Year: 1940
    Marriage License Number: 716706, Digital GSU Number: 4141873, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951 
  4.  Year: 1940; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: m-t0627-03723; Page: 61B; Enumeration District: 51-1118, 1940 United States Federal Census 
  5. Arthur J DeVane, Birth Date: 9 Dec 1907, Birth Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, Gender: Male, Residence Date: 2 May 1950, Residence Place: Upper Darby, Delaware, Pennsylvania, USA, Pennsylvania, World War II Veteran Compensation Application Files, 1950-1966 
  6. Arthur Devane, Social Security Number: 182-10-8245, Birth Date: 9 Dec 1907
    Issue Year: Before 1951, Issue State: Pennsylvania, Last Residence: 08016, Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA, Death Date: Apr 1976, Social Security Administration; Washington D.C., USA; Social Security Death Index, Master File, U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 
  7.  Nellie A Devane, Social Security Number: 144-38-3406, Birth Date: 1 Apr 1917
    Issue Year: 1963, Issue State: New Jersey, Death Date: 26 Jun 2005, Social Security Administration; Washington D.C., USA; Social Security Death Index, Master File, U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 

Elizabeth Cohen’s Descendants: The Story Continued

In an earlier post, I detailed the difficult search for the story of Elizabeth Cohen and the lucky break I had in finding one little newspaper mention of a charitable donation that opened the door to the rest of her story: that she had first married Benjamin Heyman and had two children, Florence and Herbert, that Benjamin had died before Herbert was two years old, and that Elizabeth later married Bernard Sluizer with whom she had another child, Mervyn Sluizer.  That was where the post ended.

I have been very lucky again in finding one of Bernard and Elizabeth Sluizer’s great-granddaughters, Janet Elizabeth Sluizer (named for her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Cohen Sluizer).  I now know more about Bernard and about their descendants including some photographs that bring these names to life.  Bernard was the first born child of Meyer and Margaret (nee Lince) Sluizer, who were both born in Holland in the early 1830s.  The records conflict as to when they arrived in the US, but by 1860 they were certainly living in Philadelphia as Meyer filed a Declaration of Intent to become a citizen that year and Bernard was also born in Philadelphia in 1860.  Meyer was first a tobacconist and later became a china dealer, according to several Philadelphia directories.  He and Margaret had six more children, the last born in 1877.  Meyer died in 1880, leaving Margaret with many young children still at home.  Margaret lived to be 88, dying on August 20, 1921.

Bernard, who was twenty when his father died, was employed as a salesman in 1880, but no specific business was given on the 1880 census.  He remained a salesman of some kind at least until he married my great-grandaunt Elizabeth Cohen in 1892, when not surprisingly he became a pawnbroker.  As I’ve already written, Bernard took in Elizabeth’s two children from her prior marriage to Benjamin Heyman, and then in 1893, Bernard and Elizabeth had a child of their own, Mervyn.

Mervyn married Irma Wise in 1916 when he was 23 years old and she was 21.

Mervyn Sluizer, Sr.

Mervyn Sluizer, Sr.

Irma Wise Sluizer

Irma Wise Sluizer

Mervyn also became a pawnbroker, working in his father’s store. Here is a wonderful photograph of Bernard (far left) and his son Mervyn (far right), working in his pawnshop.  This is the first photograph I have seen of one of the many family pawnshops.  I love the musical instruments in the background, the huge trunks in the foreground, and all the other signs and details that help convey a sense of what these stores were like.

Bernard Sluizer's pawnshop Bernard, far left; his son, Mervyn, Sr., far right

Bernard Sluizer’s pawnshop
Bernard, far left; his son, Mervyn, Sr., far right

Mervyn and Irma had two children, Mervyn, Jr., born in 1920, and Margaret, born in 1924.  Margaret must have been named for Mervyn’s grandmother, Bernard’s mother, Margaret.  It is a little surprising that Mervyn did not name his daughter for his mother, Elizabeth, who had died in 1923, instead of his grandmother, but perhaps it was just too close to the time she had died.  In 1930, Bernard, now a widower, was living with Mervyn, Irma, and their children.

Sometime between 1932 and 1935, Mervyn and Irma divorced, according to their granddaughter Jan Sluizer.  On the 1940 census, Irma was living with her two children, Mervyn, Jr. and Margaret.  Mervyn, Sr., had remarried by 1940 and was living with his new wife, Anne, and her two children from a prior marriage, Bernard and Sidney Riskin.  Mervyn Sr.’s father Bernard was also living with him and his new family.  Mervyn, Sr., and Anne moved to Atlantic City sometime after the census and were living there for several years.

Mervyn Sluizer's house in Atlantic City

Mervyn Sluizer’s house in Atlantic City

Mervyn, Sr. (far left) and Anne (center) in Havana, 1937

Mervyn, Sr. (far left) and Anne (center) in Havana, 1937

Mervyn Sluizer, Sr., third from right

Mervyn Sluizer, Sr., third from right

Anne and Mervyn Sluizer, Sr., far left

Anne and Mervyn Sluizer, Sr., far left

In 1941, Merv, Jr., graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an engineering student and a member of Sigma Tau, the engineering honor society.

1940 University of Pennsylvania Yearbook

1940 University of Pennsylvania Yearbook

Merv Penn 2

( U.S. School Yearbooks [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.
Original data: Various school yearbooks from across the United States.)

His grandfather Bernard died in 1944, and six years later his father Mervyn, Sr., died also.  Mervyn, Sr., was only 57 years old.  Meanwhile, in 1942 Mervyn, Jr., had married Shirley Harkaway, whom he had met at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here is a picture of Shirley as a young child with her mother Ida,  as well as a picture of Ida as a child with her sisters:

Shirley Harkaway with her mother Ida Lutsky Harkaway

Shirley Harkaway with her mother Ida Lutsky Harkaway

Ida Lutsky, rear center, with her sisters

Ida Lutsky, rear, right, with her sisters


Mervyn, Jr. and Shirley had two children, including Jan, the cousin who has supplied me with all of the wonderful photos posted here.

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr.

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr.

Mervyn, Jr.’s sister Margaret also married and had three children.  Her husband, Dr. Manfred Goldwein, had been one of the children who had been taken out of Europe to England on the Kinder Transport to escape the Nazis; the rest of his family was killed in the Holocaust.  He became a medical doctor and one of the top rated doctors in Philadelphia.

Jan also provided me with two newspaper articles about her father, Mervyn, Jr., including his obituary.  Both portray a man who was a lifelong volunteer in his community and one who had a special passion for the Boy Scouts. The first article, published by the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent in August, 1962, when Mervyn, Jr., was 42, described his history of service to his community.  According to this article, Mervyn, Jr., was active in the Allied Jewish Appeal in Philadelphia and had recently been named Chairman of its Metropolitan Division after serving as Vice Chairman and also playing an active role in the organization since 1948.  He also was active in B’Nai Brith and on the national board of trustees of his college fraternity.   He had been actively involved in scouting since he was a boy and was at that time the scoutmaster of Troop 185, which was affiliated with Adath Jeshurun synagogue.  Mervyn Jr.’s grandfather, August Wise, his mother’s father, had been one of the founding members of Adath Jeshurun.  Mervyn was himself a member of Beth Tikvah synagogue and served at one time as its president.

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr.

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr.

Philadelphia Jewish Exponent August 1962

Philadelphia Jewish Exponent August 1962

Irma Wise Sluizer (1895-1969)

Irma Wise Sluizer

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr., died on October 12, 2000.  He was eighty years old.  The obituary below, which appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, also portrays a man who lived a full life, dedicated to service and to his profession as well as to his family.  There is a scholarship in his name created by alumni of his troop, Philadelphia Troop 185, to honor his memory and to provide financial support for Philadelphia area Boy Scouts pursuing higher education. It is specifically provided to Eagle Scouts, as Mervyn spent a great deal of time helping scouts achieve that difficult level of scouting.   There is also a second scholarship in his name sponsored by his fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania, Pi Lambda Phi.

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr. obituary

Mervyn Sluizer, Jr. obituary

My great-grandaunt Elizabeth Cohen, who died when her grandson Mervyn, Jr., was only three years old, would undoubtedly have been very proud that he grew up to be such a generous and decent man, a college educated professional, one of the first in the family, and a man who gave so much to his community.  He would have turned 94 just this past weekend on July 12.






The Eleventh Child of Jacob and Sarah Cohen:  My Great-Grandfather Emanuel (FINALLY!)

About a month ago, my father (who reads the blog regularly) asked me when I was going to get to his grandparents.  Although I wanted to get there also, my linear mind would not let me “skip ahead.”  I knew that if I did, I’d get too caught up in my direct ancestors and not want to return to all the “lateral” relatives.  So I have stuck, more or less, to my plan and taken each of Jacob and Sarah’s children in birth order.  (Yes, I had to skip Reuben and Arthur while waiting to hear from descendants, but otherwise, I went in order.)  There are still two more children to do after my great-grandfather, Jonas and Abraham, so I still have to resist the temptation to move on to my great-grandmother’s Seligman line.  Also, I still have to return to Jacob’s brother Moses and his family and also some of Jacob and Sarah’s grandchildren whom I’ve yet to research or discuss.

But for now, I finally get to talk about my father’s grandfather Emanuel and his family.  Sadly, my father never knew Emanuel because he died just a few months after my father was born.  There is no one else left for me to ask about Emanuel since there are no other descendants still alive who would remember him.  But my father knew his grandmother, Emanuel’s wife Eva May Seligman, very well, and he remembers other family members as well, although he has not seen or been in touch with them for more than 60 years.  And I never knew any of his Cohen relatives other than my aunt, Eva H. Cohen, who died in 2011.  I never met my father’s father or his uncles or his cousins.

Thus, most of what I know about Emanuel and his sons and their families is based on the same kind of resources I’ve relied upon in all my other research, sprinkled with some family stories from my father or indirectly from my aunt as my brother remembers them.  As I was writing this post, my father also sent me copies of pages from a  family bible that revealed some other dates of births, marriages, and deaths.  There is also a suitcase filled with photographs and papers in my parents’ garage that I have not yet had a chance to examine.  I hope to get to that suitcase soon, but it may have to wait until after the summer.

That means that right now I have no pictures of my Cohen great-grandparents and only a few of my grandfather.  I have none of his brothers or their children.  Of course, it is in part because of this lack of knowledge that I started doing this work in the first place.  I knew so little about any of my grandparents, less about my great-grandparents, and nothing about my great-great-grandparents.  Now I am working hard to fill in those gaps.

So let me start to tell the story of my great-grandparents Emanuel and Eva Seligman Cohen, and eventually I will have to come back and add some pictures and other materials, assuming some exist in that suitcase.

My great-grandfather Emanuel was the eleventh child of Jacob and Sarah Cohen, born June 10, 1862, during the Civil War.  (The family bible has a different date—June 14, 1860, but given that I have eight other sources indicating he was born in 1862, including his death certificate, I will stick with the 1862 date.)   In 1870, when he was eight years old, he was living with his parents and ten of his twelve siblings at 136 South Street in Philadelphia. I imagine that his childhood was a happy one.  His father’s business was successful, and he was surrounded by siblings.  His oldest sister Fanny was married when Emanuel was only four, and he had nieces who were only a little older than he was in addition to all his siblings.  His brother Lewis was only two years older and his brother Jonas two years younger.  It must have been quite a household.

Jacob Cohen and family 1870 US census

Jacob Cohen and family 1870 US census

By 1880, his life had changed.  His mother Sarah had died in 1879, and only five of his siblings were still living at home: two of his older sisters, Hannah and Elizabeth, and his three brothers closest to him in age, Lewis, Jonas, and Abraham.  Emanuel was working as a clerk in one of the pawnshops.  He was eighteen years old.

Jacob Cohen and family 1880 US census

Jacob Cohen and family 1880 US census

On January 27,  1886, Emanuel married my great-grandmother, Evalyn Seligman, who was later known as Eva May and as Bebe by her grandchildren after my aunt called her that when she was a toddler.  I don’t know how my great-grandparents met.  He was 24, she was 20.  In 1886, they were living at 404 South Second Street, and Emanuel was working for his father’s pawnbroker business.  Their first child, Herbert S. Cohen, was born on either January 28 (family bible) or March 5, 1887 (Philadelphia birth index). On this one, I will rely on the bible as the entry was made by Herbert’s mother, Eva May, who would best know when her child was born.  Their second child, Maurice Lester Cohen, was born on February 27, 1888 (both sources agree here), and the family was living at 1313 North 8th Street, and Emanuel was working at 901 South 4th Street.

On October 17 (bible) or 22, 1889, two and a half year old Herbert died from typhoid fever, as had several of his little cousins.  Just two weeks later, a third son, Stanley Isaac, was born on November 4, 1989.  How terrible it must have been for my great-grandparents to be mourning one child while another was born.  How did they find a way to celebrate that birth and manage through those difficult, early weeks of infancy while their hearts were broken?

Herbert Cohen death certificate 1889

Herbert Cohen death certificate 1889

In 1890, the family was still living at 1313 North 8th Street, and Emanuel was still working as a pawnbroker at 901 South 4th Street.  They were still there in 1893 because when Emanuel’s uncle, Jonas H. Cohen, died in January, 1893, the funeral took place at Emanuel and Eva May’s residence.  I wonder why, of all the nephews and nieces of Jonas, Emanuel was the one to have the funeral at his home.

funeral at emanuels

(“Mortuary Notice,” Thursday, January 26, 1893, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA)   Volume: 128   Issue: 26   Page: 6)

By 1895, the family had moved.  Emanuel’s brother Isaac had also lost his wife Emma in 1893, and as of 1895, Emanuel and his family had moved into Isaac’s house at 1606 Diamond Street, presumably to help Isaac take care of his teenage son, Isaac W. On December 6, 1895, my grandfather, John Nusbaum Cohen, was born, completing Emanuel and Eva’s family.  Emanuel continued to work at the 901 South 4th Street pawnshop.

John Cohen as a baby

John Nusbaum Cohen about 1896

As I wrote about previously, Isaac was sixteen years older than Emanuel, so I am not sure why, of all the siblings, he chose to live with his much younger brother Emanuel.  I think it says a lot about what kind of people Emanuel and Eva May were, taking in these two family members while also raising three boys of their own.  Emanuel and Eva had also been the ones who opened their home for the funeral for Emanuel’s uncle Jonas. According to the 1900 census, they did, however, also have two servants helping them in the home so perhaps it was not as onerous as it might seem; perhaps they were the best situated to do these things.

Emanuel Cohen and family 1900 census

Emanuel Cohen and family 1900 census

I would imagine that the 1890s were overall not an easy decade for the extended Cohen family.  First, the family patriarch, Jacob, died on April 24, 1888, just two months after Maurice was born. His brother Jonas H. Cohen, the last of Hart and Rachel’s children, died five years later on 1893. Also, a number of Jacob’s young grandchildren died during this decade, including many of Reuben and Sallie’s children and also Benjamin Levy, Maria’s son. His brother Isaac had lost his wife Emma. On the other hand, there were many children born, many siblings married, and business overall seemed to be thriving for the family pawnshops.

As of 1905, Emanuel and his family had moved down the street to 1441 Diamond Street.  On the 1910 census, they are listed as living at 1431 Diamond Street, and Isaac, Emanuel’s brother, was still part of the household, along with Eva, all three of Emanuel’s sons, and two servants. Maurice, who was 22, was working as a salesman for a clothing business; Stanley (20) and John (14) were not employed outside the home.

Emanuel Cohen and family 1910 census

Emanuel Cohen and family 1910 census

In the 1913 and 1914 city directories Emanuel is listed as a pawnbroker at 1800 South 15th Street.  His brother Isaac died in 1914, and as of 1917 the family had moved again, this time to 2116 Green Street.

His oldest son Maurice married Edna Mayer on January 19, 1915.  Their son Maurice Lester, Jr., was born January 30, 1917.   According to the 1917 city directory, they were living at 4248 Spruce Street, and Maurice was working at the South Philadelphia Loan Office; on his draft registration that same year he described himself as self-employed as a broker.

Maurice Cohen World War I draft registration

Maurice Cohen World War I draft registration


On the 1920 census they were still living on Spruce Street, and Maurice’s occupation was pawnbroker.

Maurice Cohen and family 1920 census

Maurice Cohen and family 1920 census

In 1917 Stanley was still living at home and was the proprietor of a pawnshop at 2527 South 13th Street, according to his World War I draft registration.  In the 1917 city directory he is listed as working at the South Philadelphia Money Loan Office, the same business where his brother Maurice was working and presumably the shop located at 2526 South 13th Street.  He is also listed at the same business in 1921, living at 2114 [sic?] Green Street.

Stanley Cohen World War I draft registration

Stanley Cohen World War I draft registration

In 1917 my grandfather John was also living at home at 2116 Green Street and employed as an advertising salesman for the Morning Bulletin, according to his World War I draft registration.

John Cohen Sr. World War I draft registration

John Cohen Sr. World War I draft registration

According to the 1918 city directory, John was in the United States Navy at that time.  I have not yet found anything more specific about his military service.

In 1920, Emanuel, Eva (listed incorrectly as Edith), Stanley, John, and two servants were living at 2116 Green Street.

Emanuel Cohen and family 1920 census

Emanuel Cohen and family 1920 census

Interestingly, in the 1921 city directory, Emanuel’s business was now classified as watches and jewelry.  Had he left the pawnbroker business between 1920 and 1921, or was this just another way of describing his business?

I didn’t think I would be able to find the answer, but then, to be honest, I stumbled upon it.  I had found my grandfather John’s 1921 passport application almost a year ago and found it interesting that he was applying for a passport to go to Cuba for up to twelve months. I also found the similarity between his signature and my father’s signature rather remarkable.

John Cohen passport app cropped

John N. Cohen passport application 1921

I had noticed that the page facing his application had a photograph of someone else, the person whose application preceded his in the database.  So I went to the following page to see if his photograph appeared on that page, and sure enough it did.  It also had a physical description of my grandfather: 5’ 6” tall, with a high forehead, straight nose, grey eyes, regular mouth, round chin, dark brown hair, dark complexion, and an oval face.

John N Cohen passport application page 2

John N Cohen passport application page 2

What I had not noticed the first time I studied this document was the letter that appears on the facing page—a letter signed by my great-grandfather Emanuel, certifying that his son, John N. Cohen, was going to represent the interests of the “Commodore” in Cuba.  The letter was on the stationery of the Commodore, located at 13th Street and Moyamensing Avenue, with the slogan “Our Policy One Price for All.”  I had never heard this business mentioned or seen it named on any other document.

Letter by Emanuel Cohen  March 5, 1921

Letter by Emanuel Cohen May 21, 1921

After some work on, and Google, I finally found an advertisement for the business:

The Commodore ad from Our Navy, vol. 13

This was a business owned or at least managed by my grandfather when he returned from the Navy to provide merchandise to veterans at a fair price. I found this ad interesting in several ways.  First, I love that he sold suits “both snappy and conservative.” I also found it interesting that the ad proclaims that it has “no connection with any other store in Philadelphia.”  Was this my grandfather’s way of asserting his independence from the family pawnshop business?  Or was this some trademark issue involving a store with a similar name?  (I did see ads for a furniture store advertising a living room set as The Commodore.)  My father had never heard the store referred to by this name, but said he did recall that his father had a Navy friend whom he referred to as the Commodore who was his connection to the Navy Yard in Philadelphia.  My father does remember visiting the store years later when his grandmother was managing it and selling only jewelry, not men’s clothing, snappy or otherwise.

The years between 1920 and 1930 were years of growth for Emanuel and Eva’s sons.  In 1922, Maurice and Edna had a second son, Emanuel.  On January 5, 1923, Stanley married Bessie Craig, who was fourteen years younger than Stanley. Their daughter Marjorie was born two years later in 1925.

My grandparents, John Nusbaum Cohen, Sr., and Eva Schoenthal, were married on January 7, 1923, according to the family bible. (I assume they were married outside Pennsylvania since there is no marriage record in the Pennsylvania index for them) My aunt, Eva Hilda Cohen, was born January 13, 1924, and my father John, Jr., was born two years later.  My father recalls that the family was also living on Green Street in 1924 when his sister was born and at 6625 North 17th Street when he was born.  (There were no city directories available online for the years between 1922 and 1926.)  (The fact that there were two Emanuels, two Maurices, three Evas, and two Johns in their family must have created some confusion, though Maurice, Jr, was called Junior and Emanuel II was called Buddy. My father was always called Johnny.)

This is the only picture I have of my grandparents together.  They were certainly a handsome couple.  And they were certainly wearing  “snappy” clothing!  I am struck by the Star of David that my grandmother is wearing; they were not religious people, but obviously she felt a strong enough Jewish connection to be wearing such a large star.

John and Eva Cohen  c. 1930

John and Eva Cohen, My Paternal Grandparents
c. 1930

Eva Hilda Cohen

Eva Hilda Cohen

I have always loved this picture of my father; his face really has not changed in many ways.  He still has those beautiful, piercing blue eyes.

My father at 9 months old

My father at 9 months old

Reverse of John Jr at 8 months but 9 months

The reverse side of the photo above—inscribed “Taken a about 9 months, Johnny”

Another wonderful picture, capturing my father as a happy little toddler.

John Jr


Although the next photograph is badly damaged, I am including it in large part to show the inscription on the back, “Johnny Boy.”  My father said that his grandmother Eva May was the one to label the photographs, just as she was the one who made the entries for her children and grandchildren in the family bible.  I like to think that I have inherited her role as a family historian and photograph archivist.

Johnny Boy reverse of John Jr as child

“Johnny Boy”

John Jr little boy


This photograph below captures my aunt as a young girl.  She was a strong and independent person who always stood up for herself and knew what she wanted.


Eva Hilda Cohen

My Aunt, Eva Hilda Cohen

If the 1920s were years of growth, they were also years of loss.  On February 21, 1927, my great-grandfather Emanuel died after a cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal, according to my ever-reliable medical consultant).  It looks like the principal cause of death was pneumonia and either anemia or a hernia.  It also says he suffered from diabetes mellitus.  He was only 64 years old.

Emanuel Cohen death certificate 1927

Emanuel Cohen death certificate 1927

These were also years of loss for the larger Cohen family; by the time Emanuel died in 1927, he had lost all but two of his siblings, Hannah and Abraham, and Hannah would die just a few months later.  Although Jonas had died in 1902, Hart and Fanny in 1911, and Isaac in 1914, between 1923 and 1927 the family lost eight siblings: Joseph (1923), Elizabeth (1923), Lewis (1924), Maria (1925), Rachel (1925), Reuben (1926), and then Emanuel and Hannah in 1927.  Of the thirteen children of Jacob and Sarah Cohen, only one remained after Emanuel and Hannah died, the baby Abraham.

The next decade, the 1930s, were also very challenging years for Eva, Emanuel’s widow, and her three sons. According to the 1930 census, Stanley was now working as a broker. My grandfather John listed his occupation as a clothing and jewelry merchant on the 1930 census, perhaps still working at The Commodore; he and his family were still living at 6625 North 17th Street at that time, which was about fifteen miles north of the Commodore location.

My grandparents, my aunt and my father on the 1930 census

My grandparents, my aunt and my father on the 1930 census

I could not find Maurice on the 1930 census, unless he is the Maurice L. Cohen listed as living with a wife Celia, a son Lester, and a daughter Nannette.  I dismissed this household many times, but since I cannot find him elsewhere and since his son’s middle name was Lester and his other son was Emanuel, which could have been heard by a census taker as Nanette, I suppose, I am inclined to think that this is probably Maurice’s listing, but perhaps not.  At any rate, I was able to find Maurice’s death certificate.  He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on August 14, 1931; family lore is that he had been suffering from cancer.  He was only 43 years old, and his sons were fourteen and nine years old when he died.

Maurice Cohen death certificate 1931

Maurice Cohen death certificate 1931

Some years after Maurice’s death, his widow Edna moved to southern California.  According to the 1940 census, she and her two sons, Maurice, Jr., and Emanuel, now called Philip, were living in Los Angeles, although the census indicates they were all still living in Philadelphia in 1935.  My father recalls going to camp with both of his cousins in 1938, so I assume it was sometime after that that Edna and her sons moved away.  My father said he never saw them again.

Edna Cohen and sons 1940 census

Edna Cohen and sons 1940 census

Maurice was not the only one to face serious medical problems during this time period.  My grandfather John contracted multiple sclerosis also during this period.  My grandmother, a sensitive and fragile person, was herself hospitalized and unable to care for her husband or her children, and so John, Sr., and his two children were taken care of by his mother, Emanuel’s widow, Eva May Seligman Cohen.  Once again my great-grandmother opened her heart and her doors to care for family members as she had done over 25 years earlier for her brother-in-law Isaac and his son.

In 1936, my grandfather was admitted to a Veteran’s Administration facility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, over forty miles away from Philadelphia.  He lived the rest of his life until he died on May 2, 1946.  He was 50 years old.

John Cohen, Sr. 1940 census

John Cohen, Sr. 1940 census

My great-grandmother continued to care for his children, my father and his sister, until she died on October 31, 1939, from heart disease.  My father and aunt then lived with various other relatives until their mother was able to care for them again.

Eva May Seligman Cohen death certificate

Eva May Seligman Cohen death certificate

Stanley, Maurice and John’s brother, did not face the terrible health issues faced by his brothers.  In 1940 he was working as a pawnbroker, and according to his World War II draft registration in 1942, he was self-employed, calling his business Stanley’s Loan Office.

Stanley Cohen World War II draft registration

Stanley Cohen World War II draft registration

In the 1950s, Stanley and Bessie moved to Atlantic City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Bessie died in April, 1983, and Stanley died in July, 1987.  He was 97 years old.  I have located where his daughter was last residing and hope to find a way to contact her.

As for Maurice’s family, I don’t know very much about what happened to them after they moved to California.  Edna died in 1979, and Maurice, Jr., in 1988.  Both were still living in California when they died.  Emanuel Philip was harder to track down, but I eventually found him as Bud Colton in the California death index.  How, you might wonder, did I know that Bud Colton was the same person as Emanuel Cohen? Well, the death index listed his father’s surname as Cohen and his mother’s birth name as Mayer.  In addition, he was always called Buddy by the family.  Colton is fairly close to Cohen in pronunciation, and there was some family lore that he had in fact changed his name to something else.  Bud served in the army during World War II as Bud Colton.  He married Helga Jorgensen in April, 1957, when he was 34 and she was 49.  Bud died in February, 1995, and is buried as a veteran at Los Angeles National Cemetery.  I did not find any children of either Bud or Maurice, Jr.; although I found a few Maurice Cohens in the California marriage index, only one of those marriages seemed to have resulted in a child, and her birth certificate revealed that her father Maurice Cohen was not the one related to me.  The other two Maurice Cohen marriages would have been fairly late in Maurice’s life (if in fact it was the same Maurice Cohen), and I found no evidence of any children from those marriages.  Given the age of Helga when she married Bud, it also seems unlikely that that marriage resulted in any children.

It is rather sad that we know so little about my father’s paternal first cousins, but this was all I could find up to this point.  I will keep looking and hope that more information will turn up.  Perhaps in that mysterious suitcase I will find more pictures, more documents, more answers.  Nevertheless, I know a great deal more now than I once did about my great-grandparents Emanuel and Eva Cohen and my paternal grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen.

Below is the headstone for my great-grandparents Emanuel and Eva May and for my grandfather, John N. Cohen, Sr., who were buried at Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Philadelphia.  Maurice is also buried there, one section over.

headstone for emanuel, eva and john n cohen











A Man of Character and Integrity: A Profile of Reuben Cohen, The Pawnbroker

Reuben Cohen

Reuben Cohen

In 1921, The Literary Digest published a profile of Reuben Cohen, Sr., and his career as a pawnbroker.  As I posted previously,  I had a skeptical view of pawnbrokers before I started researching my Cohen ancestors.  Certainly some of that research has been consistent with that view, but overall my opinion of the pawnbroker business has changed dramatically, especially after reading from Wendy Woloson’s In Hock, Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (2006).

There appears to be no reason to doubt the integrity or the character of most of the Cohen men who went into the pawnbroker business in Philadelphia, starting with my great-great-grandfather Jacob and carried on by his sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons.

The profile of Reuben Cohen, Jacob’s son, my great-grandfather’s brother, provides a fitting end to my telling of the story of Reuben and Sallie and their seventeen children.  It appeared in the Literary Digest for April 23, 1921, pages 48, 50, just five years before Reuben died.  Most of the article consists of direct quotes from Reuben himself, making it a valuable piece of family history for me and for all my Cohen cousins and relatives.

Reuben is portrayed as an honest, good, man, an articulate and thoughtful man, a man who believed that his work was not only about making money for himself and his family, but also about helping people who needed money and were not able to get that money from a traditional bank.  I am quoting the article in full because I hope that it helps to preserve the legacy of Reuben Cohen and also to provide a more positive view of the role of the pawnbroker.


COFFINS, false teeth, wooden legs, anvils, anchors, horses, and auto mobiles—that sounds like an extract from the catalog of a museum of contemporary times, but, really, it is a partial list of odds and ends taken in by a Philadelphia pawnbroker. For fifty years, we are told, Reuben Cohen has performed the office of “uncle” to an innumerable army of more or less distant relatives whose ways of living, or misfortunes, led them to establish a connection with him. Once, he avers, it was an undertaker, to whom the continued good health of the community had meant serious financial loss. The undertaker had become overstocked with coffins, and needed hard cash for the butcher and groceryman he had failed to bury. At another time it was a horse dealer, who needed ready money more than a mount. At another time, still, it was a man who found that he could get along temporarily without his underpinning provided he could get something under his belt. False teeth form a ready article of sale and are more easily disposed of than anchors. But even an anchor may find a temporary resting-place in the back room of a pawnshop.

During his half century under the sign of the three balls Mr. Cohen evidently turned few away from his door. And he found that it isn’t only the poor who seek to be tided over an unlucky financial venture, or to raise money for an unexpected need. Sometimes people who are reputed rich ring the bell after nightfall, and come in lugging the family silver or a bagful of ancient heirlooms. Reuben Cohen has been “uncle” to them all, and he has had a rare opportunity to study all phases of human nature. Said he recently to a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

“A woman who had all the appearance of class came into my place one day and pawned a fine silver set. It was after I had been in business long enough to have saved enough money to take a real vacation.

“My wife and I went down to the old Hotel Stockton, at Cape May, three days later. And whom should I see, as I walked into the lobby, but that woman who had pawned the silverware. She was drest in the height of fashion. No, she didn’t recognize me then, and she never recognized me many other times when I saw her there. But I recognized her. Incidentally, she never redeemed her silverware.

“Now you don’t want to get the idea that everyone who comes to a pawn broker’s shop is a waster, a spender, improvident, you know, and all that. Maybe some of those with that richness bluff are that way, but the majority of the people who come to me are poor.

“I think a reputable pawnbroker can be described as the poor man’s banker. Poor people can not get loans from banks. Still there are lots of times when a poor family that has only so much income coming in each week has to have what is to them a large sum at one time. They go to a pawnbroker then, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

“Then there are some really well-to do people who can get loans from banks, but have real misfortunes and find themselves unable to pay off the bank loan. Then they pawn some stuff to get the money to pay off the bank loan.

“That was the case with the last fellow who pledged an automobile with me. He had to meet a note on a Camden bank, and he begged me to take the automobile as a pledge. I got stung on that deal, too. I had to sell that automobile later for a good deal less than I lent that man.

“I can tell the value of most things pretty well, but I don’t think I’ll take a chance on another automobile. I might still take a horse, but no more of them are being offered. I took quite a few in my day.”

Mr. Cohen gave a reminiscent chuckle as he told about the time an undertaker had pledged several coffins and some coffin trimmings: 

“My assistant was out when the coffins came in,” he said. “The coffins were stood up at the back of the store. When I heard my assistant coming in, I ran back and stood up in one of the coffins. When he saw me there, he gave a frightened jump and might have run out of the place if I hadn’t stept out and laughed. That undertaker’s business must have picked up, for he redeemed the coffins and the trimmings, and you can be sure I was thankful for that.

“Talking about business ups and downs, I had a funny experience one night ’way back. In those days Saturday nights were our busiest times. One Saturday night when old Maxwell Stevenson was running for Congress in this district he made a speech on the corner right across from my place.

“He talked for hours—in fact, until I closed in disgust. He must have been a wonderful speaker, for not a single customer entered my shop while that other attraction was running across the way. 

The veteran money-lender became curious when he was led into a discourse on the ethics of the business.  He said that he knew that the popular picture of the man in the establishment that advertised itself with the three golden balls was that of a merciless gouger.  That there were some of that type he did not doubt.

“But I know there are others.  Since you are asking me about my experience, I will tell you that the time with the automobile was not the only time I have been stung.  I took that machine at a value that I knew was higher than its true one because the fellow needed a certain amount of money to meet his note.  And the bank wasn’t going to wait for its money.

“The fellow promised, of course, to redeem the automobile, but I never said more than once, and, altho after each time I made up my mind to be more cautious, I’d make the same mistake, because I couldn’t resist the appeal some smooth tongued rascals could make. And, mind you, I don‘t pose as being unique in my business. I take great pride in the small success I have been able to make because I have always tried to get the confidence of my customers, and I am sure that is the reason for my success.”

Mr. Cohen is large, broad-shouldered and for all his sixty-seven years, presents a ruddy, healthy, well-preserved picture of a man who might well be taken for a prosperous insurance broker, the business of one of his sons. He has a cheerful appearance and a bluff, hearty manner.

He has never moved out of the neighborhood in which he grew up. He lives in a little house next door to his place of business. Despite his laughing good nature, he contest that he has had his share of sorrows. Of the eighteen children born to him and his wife only seven are living, four sons and three daughters.

There are two things of which he boasts. One is that his son, Simon L. Bloch Cohen, was a member of the First Division, and gassed, shell-shocked, and twice wounded, and was decorated with the Croix do Guerra by Marshal Foch. The other is that his lifelong friend, Warden Robert McKenty, of the Eastern Penitentiary, named one of his sons Reuben Cohen McKenty. 

Reuben died five years later, and thanks to Pennsylvania’s release of more recent death certificates, I now have access to his death certificate:

Reuben Cohen, Sr. death certificate 1926

Reuben Cohen, Sr. death certificate 1926

In Reuben’s memory and in memory of his son Simon of whom he was so proud, I will end this small chapter of my family history with a photograph of Simon’s Croix de Guerre and with the famous symbol of the pawnbroker, the three gold balls.

Croix-de-Gurre-Back Simon LB Cohen

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers--three connect...

The Pawnbrokers: Not Reality TV, but Realities

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers--three connect...

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers–three connected balls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, I always heard my father’s family’s business referred to as jewelry and/or china dealers; I don’t recall them being described as pawnbrokers.  Maybe I just wasn’t listening (quite likely), or maybe that’s how my father explained it when I was too young to understand what “pawnshop” meant.

Anyway, I never thought of them as pawnbrokers.  My image of a pawnbroker was based on what I saw on crime shows on television, in movies like The Pawnbroker, and through windows as we drove through poor neighborhoods in New York.  The pawnshop was a place for either desperate people in need of money or criminals fencing stolen goods.  The pawnbroker was someone who was thus taking advantage of someone’s misfortune or the willing or unwitting participant in a crime.  I know of two incidents where my ancestors aided the police in solving crimes, so I am hoping that they were not complicit in receiving stolen goods, but were they taking advantage of the misfortunes of others?  Was this just a stereotype promoted in popular culture? Were pawnbrokers actually parasites, usurers, or were they providing a much needed service?

The Pawnbroker (film)

The Pawnbroker (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, I had not really focused on this as I was researching until I could not decipher a word on the 1910 census for Joseph Cohen’s occupation, as I posted earlier this week.  I had asked for help here and elsewhere to decipher the word.  Several people expressed the same opinion—that the word is “loan office.”  As one person commented, it was just a nicer term for a pawnbroker.  Joseph may have been attempting to convey a less controversial image of his occupation.

I decided to do some reading to see what I could learn about pawnbrokers.  First, I wanted to better understand how the pawn business works.  I know that there are now a few reality television shows based on pawnshops, most notably Pawn Stars.  (One of my students brought this up in class this year during a discussion of bailment contracts, and I was sure he had said PORN Stars.  Just shows how uncool I can be….)  I read a few definitions and websites online about how pawning works, and this one seemed to be fairly accurate and concise, from “a dealer licensed to lend money at a specified rate of interest on the security of movable personal property, which can be sold if the loan is not repaid within a specified period.”

Wikipedia has a more expanded definition:  “If an item is pawned for a loan, within a certain contractual period of time the pawner may redeem it for the amount of the loan plus some agreed-upon amount for interest. The amount of time, and rate of interest, is governed by law or by the pawnbroker’s policies. If the loan is not paid (or extended, if applicable) within the time period, the pawned item will be offered for sale by the pawnbroker. Unlike other lenders, the pawnbroker does not report the defaulted loan on the customer’s credit report, since the pawnbroker has physical possession of the item and may recoup the loan value through outright sale of the item. The pawnbroker also sells items that have been sold outright to them by customers.”

So a person who needs money but for some reason cannot obtain a bank loan—insufficient credit, time pressure, some other reason that makes a bank an impractical choice—can take their property—jewelry, household items, clothing, whatever—to the pawnshop; the pawnbroker assesses the value of the items and provides a loan of cash to the person who agrees to pay with interest within a set period of time or to forfeit the personal property.

Since the pawnbroker must be licensed and since there are numerous state and federal regulations that apply to the business, there is nothing inherently shady about this business. It is a legal method of loaning money to those who choose not to go to a traditional bank.  So why is there an aura of shadiness often associated with the business?

Wendy A. Woloson wrote a book entitled In Hock, Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (2006) that addressed just this question.  She wrote:

Pawnbrokers were at once essential to the continued well-being of this economic system and important scapegoats for the various social ills that the financial difficulties it brought.  Loans from pawnshops supplemented substandard wages, enabling workers to continue to feed their families and producers to continue to exploit their workers.  Although industrialists indirectly benefited from the services pawnbrokers provided, it was also in their interest to encourage the idea that pawnbrokers were fringe operators whose business had no place in the “mainstream” economic system. (p. 21)

Woloson contended that these capitalists promoted an image of pawnbrokers as hard-hearted, greedy and criminally inclined foreigners who used shady practices to exploit their customers. She also asserted that there was a fair degree of anti-Semitism behind these stereotypes.   Although not all pawnbrokers were Jewish, many were.  As Woloson explains, “Jews’ involvement with pawnbroking resulted not from any inherent character flaws or moral failings, as the popular press often posited. Rather, they took up pawnbroking and like occupations largely because they were barred from other trades, especially the mechanical and artisanal, and so necessarily developed an acumen dealing in consumer goods as peddlers, used clothing dealers, and auctioneers.”  (p. 71)

Of course, the negative stereotype of the Jewish moneylender is far more ancient than 19th century America; Shakespeare’s character Shylock from Elizabethan times is evidence of the way society and popular culture have long depicted Jews who were involved in the lending business.  Woloson elaborated on the role this stereotype and the anti-Semitism in society in general had on the popular assumptions about pawnbrokers—that they were Jewish opportunists taking money from hard working Americans.  (pp. 21-24)

Pawnbrokers were aliens in a commercial world populated by supposedly moral and upright Christian entrepreneurs, and the very nature of the business set it apart from ‘normal’ economic dealings.  The antithesis of merchants, pawnbrokers doled out money instead of taking it in, profiting from customers who lacked capital rather than possessed it. (p. 29)

As Woloson wrote, “Jews’ affiliation with pawnbroking and affiliated trades, such as dealing in used clothing and auctioneering, created among them a cohesive, commercially defined group; yet it also reinscribed outsiders’ perception that they operated beyond the currents of mainstream trade.” (p. 25-26)  Woloson explained that since most Americans in the early 19th century did not know many Jews, their preconceived image of the Jew as a greedy moneylender was reinforced by the fact that many pawnbrokers were Jewish. “It mattered little whether or not individual pawnbrokers were Jewish. Because they were all assumed to be, people scrutinized their business practices and questioned their ethics.” (p. 26)

Even as many Jews achieved substantial economic success through other businesses and finance in the 19th century, there was a common assumption that they had done so illegally, and the stereotype of the greedy, heartless moneylender persisted as part of popular culture. (p.28)  Pawnbrokers became common stock characters in works of popular culture, further promoting the negative and anti-Semitic stereotypes; Woloson catalogs a number of examples of novels and plays using such characters based on this stereotypes (pp. 28-53).

Woloson then provides evidence that in fact pawnshops served important public functions and were set up in ways to prevent exploitation of those who used their services. She describes how as cities grew and people outside the wealthy classes needed access to cash on short notice—to pay taxes or acquire assets they need to live or to work, there was a need for the services of pawnbrokers.  In the early 19th century, cities began to adopt regulations for pawnbroking.  I saw many legal notices in the Philadelphia Inquirer announcing the issuance of pawnbroking licenses to my ancestors and others. These required the posting of an expensive bond and thus ensured a commitment by the pawnbrokers to run their businesses in compliance with the regulations.  (pp.  54-57)

These local regulations controlled both the interest rate a pawnbroker could charge and the period a pawnbroker had to wait before the customer’s goods would be forfeited to the shop and available for sale.  For example, in Philadelphia in the 1860s, the interest rate could not exceed 6% and the pawnshop had to hold collateral for a year before reselling it. (p. 58)

Pawnbrokers hoped that this would add some legitimacy to their business and to their image, but apparently that did not occur.  As Woloson wrote:

Pawnbrokers were hardworking people who offered what was fast becoming a necessary service in maturing American cities, providing short-term loans on modest forms of collateral. Yet their profession, like dogcatching, was not one that people aspired to. Unlike clerks and mechanics, who received education through apprenticelike training and shared social activities, pawnbrokers enjoyed neither professional prestige, identity, specialized education, nor occupational camaraderie.  (p. 58)

According to Woloson, most pawnbrokers learned the trade by starting out as general dealers in goods, learning how to assess the value of those goods.  This is consistent with the experience of my ancestors.  First, they sold used goods and then perhaps newer goods, including china and clothing primarily.  Then they became pawnbrokers.  “A lasting and successful career in pawnbroking rested on one’s ability to identify local market niches and to accurately appraise a miscellany of goods.” (p. 60)

In Woloson’s opinion, these pawnbrokers provided substantial benefits to the people and the cities they lived in.  The money borrowed from the brokers helped not only their customers, but the economy of the city by enabling those people to buy goods and services and thus support local businesses.

She also discusses the typical patterns of the pawnbroking business in various cities, including Philadelphia.  Woloson noted that pawnshops tended to locate in areas that sold used clothing and furniture and other second hand goods rather than in the commercial heart of the cities where more elite retail centers would be located.  In Philadelphia, that meant that most pawnshops were located either north or south of the center of the city in areas, for example, like South Street where my great-grandfather’s pawnshop and home were located for many years.  Woloson provides this insightful description of that neighborhood in the mid-19th century:

Unburdened by any systematic police control, the diverse population and its many activities brought a liveliness to these areas. The very rich and the very poor mingled freely, as did members of various ethnicities and races. While this social mixing may have been scandalous to outside observers, residents themselves shared the collective ambition of getting ahead. The neighborhood’s mixed population at midcentury engaged in many enterprises. They drank, whored, pilfered, and occasionally rioted their way down South Street. By 1839 there were at least sixty-two taverns in the ten-block area.39 Men had their pick of brothels. ….  Some back alleys harbored “houses of prostitution of the lowest grade, the resort of pickpockets and thieves of every description.” Strangers were “earnestly admonished to not go there.” In contrast, another brothel only a few blocks away was home to a respectable “swarm of yellow [mulatto] girls, who promenade up and down Chestnut Street every evening, with their faces well powdered.” The lower sorts needed pawnbrokers to get them through the exigencies of the day and to fund their debauchery at night. Ten of the city’s thirteen pawnbrokers in 1850 were on South Street or within one block of the corridor. Rooted, the shops continued to hem the southern and northern fringes of the city until the end of the century.  (pp. 64-65; footnotes omitted)

H. Williams & Co. Ltd. Pawnbrokers

H. Williams & Co. Ltd. Pawnbrokers (Photo credit: christopher.woo)

This description gave me a far different impression than I previously had about how and where my great-grandfather Emanuel and his many siblings grew up; whereas I had never assumed that this was a wealthy neighborhood, I had assumed it was fairly safe and middle-class since Jacob had servants and a business that supported so many people.  Did my great-grandfather grow up hungry?  Probably not, but neither did he grow up in some swanky suburb or upscale city neighborhood.  He grew up surrounded by thieves, pickpockets, brothels, and bars.

These locations were, in Woloson’s view, business necessities.  The people who needed the services of the pawnbrokers were not the wealthy who shopped at fancy stores, but the working class and poor residents who could not get by without a quick and fairly easy loan.  Woloson opines that in some ways pawnbrokers were more straightforward businesspeople than those who used sales techniques to manipulate customers into buying goods.  In Woloson’s view, “Pawnbrokers made no pretense that they did anything other than loan money, and in this way many may have been more honest professionals than the retailers pushing goods on the other side of the city.” (p. 67-68)

Another pattern observed by Woloson was the tendency of pawnbrokers to expand and pass down their businesses within their families.  “Established, successful pawnshops were often passed down through single families rather than being taken over by outside partners; younger generations grew up in the trade and learned from fathers, uncles, and brothers, thus providing steady income to families over generations and contributing to social and economic stability where pawnbrokers resided.”  (p. 74)

Finally, Woloson also discusses the relative economic success of pawnbrokers, debunking the myth that many were wealthy as a result of the exploitation of those of lesser means.  She wrote:

Like many other businessmen operating in interstitial markets, most pawnbrokers worked the margins. Once they reached their professional apex, they typically did not advance much beyond the class of their customers and failed to accumulate enough capital to invest in larger financial endeavors that would have elevated them socially and economically. A pawnbroker’s profits were tied to the economic fortunes of his customers, and he often suffered losses at auctions of unredeemed collateral, especially during economic crunches. Pawnbrokers running shops in smaller cities necessarily supplemented the lending business with other petty entrepreneurial activities. Average pawnbrokers made enough money to support their families and to keep the business going, but probably not much more.  (p. 75)

I am really glad that I found this book because it has really given me a new perspective on my Cohen ancestors.  Compared to my Brotman and Goldschlager relatives, I’d always imagined that my Cohen relatives were wealthy and established.  Of course, by the late 19th century, early 20th century when my mother’s family started to arrive from Galicia and Romania, the Cohens had already been here for about 50 years and were well-settled, owning their own businesses, speaking English, and American-born.  They had the advantages of being here much earlier and so were far ahead economically when my mother’s family arrived.  But they were not the wealthy elite; they were probably at most middle class business people who were working in unpleasant neighborhoods, subjected to negative stereotypes based on their trade as well as their religion, and engaged in a business that required some risk-taking and business acumen but was not well-regarded.  That must have been very painful and frustrating.

Having this new perspective will help me better understand their lives as I continue to move forward in telling their story.





Enhanced by Zemanta