the lehmans in alabama --3/4/24

Today's selection -- from The Money Kings by Daniel Schulman. Jewish families migrating to America in the early 1800s to establish businesses often sought locales where they had friends or relatives or felt they would face little competition. For the Lehman family, that meant Alabama:

“‘Not respectable’— that was how one representative of credit rating agency R.G. Dun & Co., assigned to assess Emanuel and Henry Lehman's business, described the brothers' operation in December 1849. The Lehmans, he noted, had sunk everything they owned into their Montgomery, [Alabama] dry goods shop, located in a two-story wood-frame house at 17 Court Square, within earshot of the barking auctioneers at the city's slave market. The credit reporter provided no further information to support his conclusion. But subsequent entries hint at what he might have found objectionable about the Lehmans. ‘V[ery] little reliance is here placed in any descendants of the tribe,’ another correspondent commented a few years later. By this time a third brother, Mayer, had joined the business. ‘They are in fair cr[edit] here, but Jews seldom remain and make good citizens.’ Another note was even more pointed: ‘We think they are of that class to whom when goods are sold a strict watch sh[ould] be kept upon their movements.’ 

“These early reports spoke less to the Lehmans' character than they did to the ingrained prejudices of the times. But in another respect, they did say a lot about the brothers—showing the obstacles they overcame as they established themselves as some of the South's leading businessmen in just a decade's time. 

“Henry Lehman, born in 1822, paved the way for the brothers' rise in Montgomery and, later, New York. The Lehmans hailed from the small Bavarian village of Rimpar, six miles north of Würzburg, where the family was part of a tight-knit Jewish community of 108. The family name had originally been not Lehman but Löw (lion). Following an 1813 edict requiring Jews to select new surnames and swear an oath of loyalty to the state, Abraham Löw, the patriarch, had chosen Lehmann. (After emigrating, the brothers dropped an n from Lehmann.)

“Compared with other Jewish families, the Lehmanns were relatively prosperous. Abraham, a cattle merchant who had a sideline selling wine, owned a comfortable home near the fortified walls of a fourteenth-century castle, where Eva Lehmann gave birth to ten children. Only seven—four boys and three girls—survived until adulthood.

“Henry was the second oldest of Abraham and Eva's sons, Emanuel the third, and Mayer the youngest, which meant they stood little chance of making a life for themselves in Rimpar or the surrounding villages. Abraham and other Jewish heads of household had to pay Landesscbutzgeld, protection money, to live in Rimpar and other towns. Protected Jews were listed on a register known as a Matrikelliste— essentially, a quota system intended to limit the Jewish population. A Jewish family's oldest son typically received a place on the register (his brothers were out of luck), a privilege that went to Seligmann Lehmann, who joined his father in the cattle business. Little more is known about the oldest Lehman brother, though Mayer's youngest son, Herbert, a governor of New York and U.S. senator, once hinted at why this might be so. ‘I rather think he was the Lehman skeleton in the closet,’ he said, ‘as I have always understood that he was a very good, workman-like drinker.’

“When Henry reached twenty-one, he faced an uncertain future in Bavaria. So like Joseph Seligman and thousands of other young men of their generation, he sailed for America. He arrived in New York on September 11,1844, and soon boarded another ship to Mobile. Henry's itinerary suggested he already had friends or relatives in the South. He may have gravitated to Mobile based on family ties with the Goldschmidt family of Herbsdorf. Two Goldschmidts traveled to America aboard the same ship as Henry. And a Herbsdorf émigré named Lewis Goldschmidt (Goldsmith, after he reached the U.S.) operated a clothing store in Mobile. If the Lehmans were not acquainted with the Goldsmiths before, then they would get to know them well. Mayer Lehman would later marry in the New Orleans home of one of Lewis Goldsmith's sons.

A door-to-door peddler, 1905

“Goldsmith's shop was a popular way station for young German-Jewish immigrants like Henry, who purchased all the merchandise they could carry and ventured out to peddle their wares, visiting farms, mining camps, and remote hamlets. Jews peddled throughout the United States, but they were often drawn toward developing regions where they faced little competition and could sell their merchandise at a premium. That was why budding businessmen such as the Seligmans migrated south, where the region's upstart communities were experiencing a surge in population growth.

“Peddlers were like mobile department stores, and they tended to specialize in luxury items, extravagances, and ‘fancy’ goods (decorative knickknacks and accessories). There often seemed to be no end to what a peddler could produce from his pack or excavate from his loaded cart: almanacs, mirrors, picture frames, china, cutlery, table linens, bedding, shawls, coats, shoes, lace, silk, embroidery patterns, watches, jewelry, sewing machines.

“Peddling was the most popular start-up profession for the German-Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1830s and '40s because it was a familiar one. It had been one of the few professions available to their fathers and grandfathers in the old country. In an America rapidly expanding south and west, peddling offered new arrivals a foothold on the economic ladder. ‘I call it the Harvard Business School for Jewish boys,’ said John Langeloth Loeb, Jr., a great-grandson of Mayer Lehman and onetime U.S. ambassador to Denmark. 

“After gaining some experience, the next rung up for peddlers was opening a store. Within a year of arriving in Alabama, Henry Lehman had saved enough to take this step, choosing Montgomery as the place to hang his shingle.”



Daniel Schulman


The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America




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