The Rag Race. How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire. By Adam Mendelsohn. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 196 pp.
The maturation of a post-Marxian "economic turn" in the field of Jewish history has been in the making for quite a while now. Adam Mendelsohn's new book on the garment trade in America, Britain, and the British Empire is not just a worthy contribution to this growing stream of scholarship; it is, in many ways, a milestone. It is not "just" about the dynamics of consumer patterns, or labor history, or ethnic networks, or Jewish-Gentile relations, or the globalization of commercial activity. It is about all of these at once. The Rag Race, a painstakingly researched work of comparative social and economic history, deals with what is arguably the keystone in the entire structure of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Western Jewish economic history: THE industry that was almost legendary for providing jobs and an entrepreneurial niche for hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jews on both sides of the Atlantic. Mendelsohn shows just how much about the "rag race" we did not really understand before.
He has, in the process, asked entirely new questions and reformatted some of our standard assumptions. What were the historical connections between the seamy trade in second-hand clothing and the eventual minting of a new market in standardized, ready-to-wear apparel? What were the differences between London, Leeds, and Manchester on the one hand, and New York and Chicago, on the other, in terms of business environment, labor recruitment, and the means of ascent from workbench to front office? What did the advent of large emporia do for the supporting branches of manufacturing and, particularly, for small-scale workshops? What is the truth behind the old claim that the American Civil War proved to be a source of bounty for Jewish marketing and manufacturing innovators? Why did the opening of a market in readymade women's wear create crucial commercial advantages for small manufacturers? Why did timing mean all the difference between catching up with an industry on the rise and finding oneself more or less limited to life-long blue-collar employment?
Mendelsohn's treatment of these and other pertinent issues lead him to conclude, "The prosperity of Jews in the United States was not wrought by magic and genius.... But for the confluence of structural forces ..., the fortunate positioning of Jewish...