Commentary Magazine

From the American Scene: The Beginnings of the Family Fortune

In recording the early struggles and triumphs of his father in the days when he worked as foreman of a shop making “ladies’ wrappers,” Charles Reznikoff tells a story that thousands of American Jewish families will recognize as their own.



Brownsville is now well within the city of New York. The subway runs through Brownsville; it has at least a hundred streets and all are paved; almost all the houses are of brick. Then it was only a wooden village with a few muddy streets that, east, west, and south, led to the fields and marshes of Brooklyn. The people of Brownsville—as they still are—were mostly Jews. At that time, in 1895 or so, they were almost all immigrants, just come from Russia. Young and strong, for the most part, they held their heads high and felt themselves beneath no one, although their own work was humble. But, if they thought themselves the equal of anyone, they thought everyone their equal, and called all men brothers.

My father then was young, too; thin, neither tall nor short; with brown hair and mustache and pale face; in fact, he was rather good-looking. My mother was tall for a woman and strong. Her face was round and her skin somewhat dark, her cheeks ruddy and her cheekbones somewhat high, her nose short; her eyes, like her hair, were dark brown, and bright. But her eyesight was none too good, for she had been earning her living as a seamstress ever since she was little. Her photographs showed her rather homely—and this was always a surprise to those who knew her winsome face.

As for me, I was an ugly baby—to judge from the photograph my mother kept as precious—with head too large for my body. A visitor, who saw me crawling about the floor ready to catch at the wheel of my father’s sewing machine, called me, to my mother’s vexation, “a spider.” (My mother spoke of it with bitterness when the man who had said it was long dead and buried.)

For two or three years my father had been earning his living as a sewing-machine operator, working from six, or earlier, in the morning until eight, or later, at night, every day except Saturday. My father did not think the hours long. When he began work as an operator, he had to work every day and every night, except Friday night (when the Sabbath begins), until ten. Then he was sewing “knee-pants” for boys, out of cloth that had been used for men’s trousers, dusty cloth, still smelling of sweat and the damp cellar in which the bundles of old trousers had been stored. But now he was sewing “ladies’” wrappers out of clean new goods.

My father’s sewing machine with a new treadle that helped him sew faster belonged to him, and he worked at home. My mother’s sewing machine was there, too. If there was more than enough to do, the daughter of a neighbor or, perhaps, a tailor out of work brought in another sewing machine and sewed with my parents. They worked for a manufacturer in Manhattan whose prices for sewing were a little better than those paid by others. But Henry Ettelson’s wrappers had to be carefully made. The cloth, of many kinds and colors, was cut in his place according to his patterns, and the bundles to be sewn into wrappers sent out to Brownsville by wagon.



One day, when my father brought back the wrappers he had made, he saw Ettelson together with the designer and forewoman in the showroom. The three were arguing about a wrapper on the figure. (The forewoman was in charge of the contractors including those, like my father, who sewed at home and hardly had the dignity of a contractor.) My father stood in the outer office, waiting for the forewoman to examine the wrappers he had brought, when the designer caught sight of him through the open door. “Come in here!” he called.

My father walked gingerly upon the carpet of the showroom, well aware of his muddy shoes, for Brownsville was a muddy place. “Here is a man who understands his work,” said the designer. “You will admit that,” he added, looking at the forewoman. She nodded stiffly, her face flushed with anger. (Unlike her employer and the designer, she was not Jewish.) “All right,” went on the designer, “let us ask him how he thinks this wrapper should be made.”

Ettelson, who had been looking closely at the wrapper on the figure, turned to look at my father. “How would you go about ‘setting in’ the yoke with goods like this?” he cried in his shrill voice.

My father was pleased, of course, to hear himself praised and to have his opinion asked but he tried to keep from smiling. He fingered the goods thoughtfully. Then, speaking slowly and in a low voice, he showed them how he would “set in” the yoke. This was just how the designer had been telling the forewoman to have it done by the operators and, when she would not, he had asked Ettelson to settle their quarrel.

“All right,” said Ettelson, after my father had explained why that kind of goods had to be sewn his way, and turning to the forewoman said: “Do it like that, please.”

But the forewoman answered: “I am through here.”

The designer smiled. And Ettelson put him in charge—at once—of the operators and the contractors.

Now my father hoped to have plenty to do. Things could not have turned out better, he thought. But the times became worse and the designer, for all his friendliness, could only send my father one bundle a week; and there was no work at all to be had elsewhere. One bundle a week was not enough for a man, let alone a man with a wife and baby. Besides, my parents had a neighbor who was out of work and they felt that they ought to share the single bundle. The three used to sew it at night and, during the day, my father and his neighbor looked for work. They found some at last in a shop making “sailor suits” for boys, but neither could earn more than three dollars a week. Times were really very bad.

In the spring business was better and my father had plenty to do sewing wrappers for Henry Ettelson. But his happiness did not last long: he heard that Ettelson was going to have sewing machines run by electricity. Other manufacturers of wrappers were fixing up such shops for themselves, and Ettelson, if he was to stay in business, had to have one, too. Now, my father thought, Ettelson will probably have no work at all made outside; for a sewing machine run by electricity could turn out wrappers faster and cheaper than a man working any kind of treadle by foot. At best, Ettelson’s shop would make the most profitable work during the season, and all his work in the slack.

My father knew the man who was to be Ettelson’s foreman. He was a contractor of wrappers who had as many as twelve operators working for him, and the work of his shop was as good as my father’s. The two had often met in Ettelson’s place and were friendly. My father was willing to be his helper for as little as ten dollars a week. The man cheerfully promised to hire my father but, when the shop was ready and he became the foreman, he hired his brother-in-law instead.

However, he was not able to run Ettelson’s shop. A great deal of goods was spoiled by the help and Ettelson had to let those who worked outside make the better grade of wrappers. My father had never earned as much before and that season made about twenty dollars a week. Everybody in the trade was now saying it was the foreman’s wife who had run the contracting business so well. When the season was over, Ettelson let the man go and asked my father to be the foreman at fifteen dollars a week.



Now that my father was offered the job of foreman, after he had been willing to be merely a helper, his conscience began to bother him. He asked for time to think it over and went about to his friends to hear what they had to say. One said flatly that he should not take the job, for he must become a “slave driver” and would only do well just as long as he could exploit the help for the “boss”; another said that, just as long as there were “slaves” under capitalism, he would not help matters by not taking the job and he had the right to better himself. Still another said that he must take the job for the sake of his family; if he did not, another would; but my father could see to it that those who worked under him made a living: he should merely drive them, not whip them. This seemed sensible, and idealistic enough, and my father became Henry Ettelson’s foreman.

He soon found out that Ettelson’s other help, who had been friendly when he came looking for work to do at home, were unfriendly now that he had become the foreman. He knew how unfriendly they had been to the man whose place he had taken, but their unfriendliness to himself surprised him, for he wished all men well.

My father, to make the best showing, wanted the most profitable work made right in the shop; in fact, he wanted the shop to make all that he had feared it would when he was one of those who worked outside. But the designer, who was still in charge of those who worked outside and who had been so friendly to my father when he was one of these, was always trying to send them the most profitable work. He would have done so, too, since he was also in charge of the cutters, had not my father kept watch on what was ready for the sewing machines. It was to the designer’s interest, so the man thought, to have the shop not so profitable as it might be, that his own position, in charge of the work outside, might be stronger. And when he found my father treading on his toes, asking for this bundle and that, he made up his mind to be rid of him as he had rid himself of the other foreman.

At home, my father complained about his troubles—how irritable Ettelson was and how treacherous the designer. My mother listened patiently, sometimes, with her round brow wrinkled, and told him that he must win out because he had the interest of the business at heart: Ettelson would see that, soon enough, because he was no fool. At other times, with a scornful smile that always angered my father, she told him that it was better for him to be out in the world, struggling with men as good as he or better, than to be in a corner of his own home sewing away at his sewing machine. And he did not give up his job, although he wanted to.

My father always stayed later than the sewing-machine operators. One evening, he saw the young fellow who cleaned the shop sweeping a bundle of collars along with the rubbish. My father wondered what to do. He could, of course, send him away and it was no trouble at all to find another chap. Just scrawl a sign on a piece of cardboard and hang it downstairs at the door and before he should have time to come up, half a dozen fellows would be in the place begging for the job. But my father still had enough of the taste in his mouth of looking for work not to fire a man pronto. Although he was sure the young fellow was helping the designer make trouble, my father merely said sternly: “Take the collars out of the rubbish or I’ll ask Mr. Ettelson to do it.”

After that, whenever my father opened a bundle of work as it came from the cutting room, before he gave any of it to the operators, he looked to see if all the parts were there. If he was short, as he was time and again, he sent word to the designer; in a little while, whatever was missing would be sent in with bits of cloth clinging to it, as if it had been thrown on the floor among the cutters’ rags.



This sparring with the designer had been going on for some time, with my father blocking him, when the designer thought it time to change his tactics. When my father next sent for what was missing, the designer came up to him shouting that it must have been lost among the sewing machines or at my father’s own table. The designer supposed that Ettelson would come to see what was wrong and, surer of the designer, the older hand, would merely go back to his office, the designer’s charges ringing in his ears.

But Ettelson, impatient though he was, listened to what both had to say. Instead of going back to his own work, he remained beside my father’s table and sent for the bundles still in the cutting room. “Let’s open them,” he said. “Maybe we’ll find the missing collars in one of these.” The bundles were opened and Ettelson went through them himself. He did not find the collars but saw that in one the belts were gone. He turned to the designer and asked angrily in his shrill voice: “How is this?”

“I suppose the marker forgot to mark them. I’ll talk to him about it,” and the designer went away, supposedly to do so. My father told the young fellow who swept the place—now friendly because he had not been “fired”—to look among the cutters’ rags. Sure enough, by the time the designer was back, the missing collars and belts were on the table.

“Who cut this?” asked Ettelson.

“My brother,” said the designer. He added lamely: “No matter how careful a cutter is one of the smaller parts sometimes falls on the floor.”

Ettelson did not trouble to answer him and sent for the designer’s brother. “You can go,” he said. “You are through here.” Then, turning to the designer, he added: “Be careful or your contract won’t help you.”



A few days later, when my father went to the cutting room for work, there was none: the shipping clerk, on orders from the designer, had sent away all that was cut to the contractors, and it would be several hours before other work was ready for the shop. My father went back and pulled out the switch; the sewing machines stopped and he told the girls to be back after lunch.

Ettelson hurried in at the sudden quiet. It was only fair, my father explained, in answer to his angry questioning, that all stop rather than that some work and others not. Ettelson was doubtful. Still, it was clear that all the work should not have been sent away and operators of his own shop left without any, and he told the clerk not to ship a bundle again before my father had taken what he needed.

The designer at last went too far. He and the cutters used to work on Labor Day without the double wages they had a right to, and Ettelson would pay them for the three Jewish holidays that come soon after, when they did not work (the two days of Rosh Hashanah, when the New Year is celebrated, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). Now the designer told his cutters they were not to work on Labor Day unless paid double; if Ettelson would not pay them double, they were to strike; and, if they did strike, they were also to demand that his brother be hired again.

Ettelson, however, paid them double for their work on Labor Day when they asked for it—and said nothing. Then he took two days’ wages from their pay for not working the days of Rosh Hashanah.

The designer asked: “What’s this? Why don’t you pay us for the two days as always?”

“Because you didn’t work,” said Ettelson calmly. “When you work for me, I pay you. When you serve God, let Him reward you.”

“If you don’t pay us, the cutters will strike.”

“If they strike, they are through here. And you, too.”

“O no, I’m not!” shouted the designer. “I have a contract and it has two more years to run.”

Ettelson did not answer him but went into his office. In a few minutes, the cutters were out on strike. Ettelson walked into the cutting room and found the designer there. He told him to leave. The designer did not budge and went about doing whatever he was at. Ettelson then sent the errand boy for a policeman. The designer blustered but the policeman put his hand under the designer’s arm and led him downstairs. Now, as the sagas say, he is out of the story.



Next day, Ettelson had a new designer. He was not a Jew. A personage in the place where he lived (his home was in a small town near the city), mayor of the town and an elder in his church, he was a man of about fifty with gray eyes, long black beard turning gray, neat black clothes, and a heavy gold watch chain across his vest. He spoke little and, for the most part, calmly without gestures or inflection: a calm man whom God had made out of a cool Northern earth.

In the cutting room, not a set of patterns was in order; in some, all the patterns of a size were missing; in others, the patterns of a part in all sizes; and the patterns used most were all gone. (Months later, they were found hidden under old packing cases in the stock room.) But my father helped the new designer every night, sometimes until ten o’clock, until he had the patterns in order again. For this, Ettelson raised my father’s wages three dollars a week.

The new designer was polite to my father at first but, perhaps, he found him somewhat of a nuisance—shouting at the operators, bustling in and out of the cutting room and shipping room, yes, even his readiness to help. And my father, warm with gratitude for the three dollars extra he got a week, wanted to help all the more.

Once the new designer made a good-looking style—one of the best Ettelson ever had. But my father saw that it would be hard for an operator to sew. He told this to the designer as politely as he could, and was about to tell him that the pattern would have to be changed and how he thought it might be made, when the new designer interrupted him to say briefly: “Go to hell!”

My father could take a hint and went away to his sewing machines. When the first lot of the new style was cut up, he took only two bundles and gave only one to his operators. The other four were sent to the contractors. On the third day, when the wrappers should have been brought back, the contractors came with their work unfinished and said they could not make the style for twice what they were paid.

Ettelson called my father into his office and asked him how he had found the style. My father explained why it was hard to make. “That’s too bad!” said Ettelson. “We are overloaded with orders on this style: we never had such a seller. Is there no easier way to make it?”

“There is, but the pattern will have to be changed.”

“Why didn’t you tell that to the designer?”

“I was going to, but he told me to go to hell.”

Ettelson sprang up from his chair and was off like a shot to the cutting room. In a few minutes, the new designer came up to my father, face flushed and set. But he said quietly: “Please show me what you meant.”

“With pleasure,” said my father, just as dignified. “But I cannot explain it. If you’ll let me, I’ll make a pattern.”

My father went into the cutting room and found Ettelson standing there. In about ten minutes, my father made a pattern, cut out a yoke, and then he said to the new designer: “Please come with me. I’ll show you how this will work so that any operator can make it.”

Ettelson followed them. My father seated himself at a sewing machine. In a few minutes, he made the yoke and sewed it to a “front”: it was as good as the sample. The new designer looked away from my father’s elated face for a moment. Then he took his hand, shook it warmly, and said he was sorry for what he had said.

My father’s wages were raised again, this time two dollars a week. And Ettelson told his new designer that before a new style was cut, he was to bring the pattern to my father for any change—if needed.



My father had seven “front-makers” working for him. One morning, five did not come to work. In a couple of hours, he knew, there would be no work for the girls sewing other parts; nor could they take the place of the “frontmakers” just like that, for these made about a quarter of the wrapper and the work took most skill. For an hour, my father did not know what to do and puttered about.

Suddenly, it was clear to him that one girl need not make all the “front.” He opened no more bundles and gave six girls, who had been working at sleeves, collars, and belts, the “fronts” to make: two to join the “centers,” two to gather and hem ruffles, and two to sew ruffles to yokes. The two “frontmakers” who had come to work had only the “setting on” of the yokes to do. My father went from one to the other of the eight, showed them how he wanted the work made, stood over them, and saw to it that nothing was spoiled. By noon, the shop was running smoothly without the five “front-makers.”

Ettelson had heard that most of his “frontmakers” had not come to work. He kept peering about but, since all in the shop were kept busy, he said nothing until my father was back from lunch. Then he stopped him and said: “I hear you’re in trouble.”

My father smiled. “I’ll see you before I go home, Mr. Ettelson. I’ll know more about what I’m trying to do.”

By the end of the day, my father had got as much work from thirty-one operators as he had from all of them before. He told Ettelson how he had hit upon what he called “team work” and the saving because of it. “I must tell you,” my father went on to say, “that the workers have as much right to the added profit as he who hires them—he has no right to it all!” A good socialist might have said that the workers had the right to all the profit but, clearly, it would not have been wise or useful for my father to go that far. It seemed to him that Ettelson’s thin lips tightened, as it was. But Ettelson nodded.

A month later, the shop by “team work” instead of “section work” made about half as much more, the operators earned a quarter as much more, and, at the new year, my father was to get twenty-five dollars a week.



Sunday was the pleasantest day for me, too. Then my father would lie in bed late (Ettelson’s place was closed on Sunday—not Saturday) and our home would be lively with pleasant chat as my mother made our breakfast. I would leave my cot for the big bed to climb upon the pillows or on my father as he lay under the quilt—to jump and keep jumping on the bed until I fell down laughing.

But one Sunday my mother dressed me early. The sliding doors of the parlor were opened, and I saw the sun shining through the white lace curtains that were starched so stiffly I did not like to touch them. I visited my enemies, the rubber plants near the window, to look again at the big thick leaves I disliked, but I had no time to stick a pin into them secretly and see the white sap. The doorbell kept ringing, friend after friend came, and the threshold was noisy with cheerful greetings.

The children of my age or so, old friends and friends brand-new, led by me, were soon racing up and down the long hall of the flat until we were wild with joy—and the man who lived downstairs came up to say timidly that his wife had a headache and would we please stop. I had run to the door, thinking it was still another friend. From behind my father’s legs, I looked up at our neighbor’s face, unpleasantly surprised to find myself the subject of their brief talk and the cynosure of their eyes.

I marshaled my companions into a favorite corner, between my parents’ bed and the wall, at a loss what to do next. But just then my mother called out that dinner was ready. At this, all the children scrambled into the dining room to find my mother bringing a great tureen of steaming beet soup, while she and the other women cried out: “Be careful!” My father was already seated at the head of the table, filling little glasses of brandy for the men.

One of the guests, the very man who had said when I was a baby that I was like a spider, now said in his dry voice, looking at my mother with a sarcastic smile: “May I ask what we are celebrating?”

My mother, busy dishing out the beet soup, her round face flushed, replied: “We were going to tell you after dinner, but since you ask—Nathan has had his wages raised five dollars! From now on he will get twenty-five dollars a week, and we have invited you all to celebrate with us.”

The company turned to look at my father and almost all murmured congratulations. But the guest whose question had been answered smiled wryly and said: “Why celebrate? A day will come when his boss will take five dollars from Nathan’s wages.” He helped himself to a nice slice of herring before anyone else should get it.

“I hope not,” cried my mother cheerfully, hiding her anger. “I hope, rather, that you will all be our guests when Nathan has his wages raised again.” And that nobody might be envious, thinking of his own wages or of a less worthy husband’s wages or, perhaps, the lack of any, she went on: “In other shops, a learner must work four weeks for nothing and the foreman gets as much as ten dollars from every learner he takes in. His boss gave Nathan the right to such money but he has never taken it. And in a shop as big as Ettelson’s he could make a lot that way from the learners!”

By this time, every man had his glass of brandy and the women had been offered some and had all refused. My father, to end my mother’s praise of him, called out in Hebrew the traditional toast: “To life!”

“To life!” the guests answered and were promptly helping themselves to black olives and slices of herring.



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