Abstract: German Jews as Nineteenth-Century Pioneers in the American Apparel Industry

Phyllis Dillon


The ground work for Eastern European Jewish involvement in the apparel industry was laid by German-Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs beginning in the 1830s. By the 1840s manufacturing of ready-made men's clothing expanded for retail and wholesale distribution in response to population growth, industrialization, and the expansion of the frontier. German Jewish immigrants moved easily from peddling and shop keeping to manufacturing men's and boy's clothing in New York and new cities on the expanding frontier such as Cincinnati, Rochester, and Chicago. In the Civil War the industry further expanded with labor supplied by a growing immigrant population of tailors and seamstresses. By 1870 the American ready-wear industry was primarily German Jewish owned. Jobbing, wholesaling, innovation, merchandizing, and national advertising were invented by menswear firms before the women's industry. By offering fine tailoring and quality fabrics for all price points, the menswear firms co-opted custom tailoring and accustomed Americans to high quality ready-made clothing. German Jews were also prominent in the expansion of the women's industry beginning in the 1860s with the manufacturing of hoop skirts, corsets, and mantles/capes. Firms multiplied in making shirtwaists and cloaks and suits for department stores and mail order houses. They easily replaced department store in-house manufacturing. The relationships of women's wear manufacturers with Berlin in the 1890s also raises questions about Berlin's significance before Paris as a source of fashion models for American wholesalers and Germany's own apparel history.