“Like some American Jewish worthies,” writes Jacob R. Marcus, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of American History at Hebrew Union College, “Haiman Philip Spitz came to America via England. He left his native Posen, where he was born in 1816, and lived for five years in England. . . . He was twenty-four . . . [when he] landed in New York.
Spitz’s memoirs help us to gauge the beginnings of the participation of the Jews in the garment industry. In the middle 1840’s he was manufacturing clothing in the North for Southern markets.
For a while he lived in New Orleans and, like many others in that city, was belligerently desirous of hastening the conquest of Mexico, documenting his bellicose sentiments by fighting in the army of General Zachary Taylor. After the Mexican War he moved to Bangor, Maine, where he remained for about a decade, until the panic of 1856-57 crippled the lumber business and compelled him to seek greener fields.
Wandering about, always looking for larger opportunities to support his ever-increasing family, he found himself in 1859 in Baltimore, where he lived for a generation, before joining his children in San Francisco. While in the Maryland city, he engaged in the wholesale liquor and cigar trade, and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, he sold hats, caps, boots, and other clothing and garment supplies to the army. That type of business was not new to him; in 1845, the year before the war with Mexico, he had sold to the government summer suits for soldiers, at $6 apiece.
Spitz was interested in Judaism. It was in his house in Bangor that the first synagogue in Maine was called into existence—in 1849, not 1852, as he erroneously wrote in his reminiscences. In post-bellum Baltimore he was, apparently, active in the congregation of Rabbi Benjamin Szold. Jewish traditions and ceremonies were observed in his home. At the Seder, the Passover feast, in his home in San Francisco in 1883, he sat at the head of the table and could smile upon his wife, seven children, six grandchildren, two sons-in-law, and others.
“Spitz died some time after 1886, the year in which he finished writing Haiman Philip Spitz, An Autobiography.
The present extracts from Spitz’s autobiography are taken from Volume I of Memoirs of American Jews, a three-volume collection edited by Dr. Marcus, to be published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, with whose permission we reprint them. The first two volumes of this work are to appear shortly. Last month we published excerpts from the autobiography of Raphael J. Moses, “Major Raphael J. Moses of Georgia,” taken from the same source.—Ed.
On the thirteenth day of April, 1816—in the Hebrew calendar, the ninth day of Nesan—Ernestine, daughter of Philip Lichtenstine, gave to her husband, the merchant Abraham Spitz, her first-born son; they named the child Haiman Philip Spitz. . . .
In 1834, my second sister, Rosa, married a gentleman named M. Levy. In that year I left Posen for Bromberg, in Prussia, took a place in a dry goods store, remained one year, and then went home again. I arrived in Posen in the month of April, before Easter, to be with my parents and brothers and sisters during the holidays. In June, 1835, I left home for England, arrived in London in September, took a situation in a French bazaar, with a small salary, not knowing the English language, which was hard in the beginning. I tried to learn, to better my condition, in which I succeeded.
The next year my firm sent me out as a “commercial traveler”—so-called in England. I worked hard and faithfully, and succeeded in getting good customers. My sales improving year after year, my salary was raised accordingly. After working several years with that house, and having saved some money, I concluded to go into business For myself, and established [settled] in Bath, England.
My brother, Peter, arrived in London; he came to work for me. I traveled to solicit trade and gain customers; my brother remained at home to attend to the orders. Finding that my brother was not the proper man for the place, we did not stay long together. I concluded to sell out my business to Mr. Joseph Samuel[s], of Bath. My brother having a desire to go to America, but not having the means necessary, I furnished him the passage money and $250 besides; my brother was a furrier. Then he and a gentleman named M. Marks, who was a capmaker, and who was worth $250, formed a partnership and left together for America in 1839, and I [went] home. . . .
I assisted the old folks, to make them comfortable. I went in the grain and wool business with my father, remained a few years with them at home, left the business with my father and started for England, June, 1840, arrived in London from Hamburg in July, went to Bath to settle up my business with Mr. Samuels, went from there to Birmingham, then to Liverpool, where I took the sailing ship “North Carolina” for New York, [and] arrived in New York on August 3d, 1840. . . .
. . . I had no liking for New York, and made up my mind to go to New Orleans. My brother paid me the money which I loaned him in Liverpool, England. I purchased goods in New York—caps from the firm of Spitz & Marks; sent the goods by a sailing vessel to New Orleans. At that time we had no steamers on that road. A few days afterward I went on board of the Ship, accompanied by my brother and Mr. Marks. I looked around the ship and found a very rough crowd, cursing and swearing. I felt I must go, having paid my money; but I felt I ought to stay when my brother bid me goodbye. I went with them as far as the shore. My brother said: “Rush back; the ship will go in ten minutes.” “Let it go,” I said. He said again: “Go.” I turned around to go on board. “Good-bye!” my brother called. I turned again from the ship toward my brother, and said: “By the help of God, I will not go with that ship,” and went home with him, losing my passage money.
A week after, I left New York for New Orleans. I arrived at that place, after a passage of thirty-two days, on September 25th, 1840. I found the place deserted, and the yellow fever raging and a good many people dying; black crape on so many doors, which I had never seen before, that really I got frightened. It looked very discouraging. A week after my arrival I asked about that ship—when it would arrive. To my horror I read in the paper that the ship was lost, and with it the captain, the crew, and over 100 passengers. It was a total wreck. I was very sorry for them, and thanked the Almighty for saving me.
A few weeks after my arrival the yellow fever checked, and a great many people commenced to arrive in the city from the East and the West. Everything began to look lively, and business was good. I took a stand in the market with those goods I brought from New York. I did a good business. Expenses of living were very high: $5 a day in a sailors’ boardinghouse, and other houses, which were not fit to live in. Hotels rated high, and in private houses you were not safe. . . .
Things began to look satisfactory with me; I had good health and plenty of business. A man who came with me from New York (the father of five children) was taken sick in his boardinghouse, and was sent to the hospital. The next day I went to the hospital to inquire after his health and, to my great surprise, was told that he died that morning of yellow fever. I felt very sorry for him. I was also told that if I wanted his body, to do me a favor it would be given to me if I pay expenses; if not, it would be given to the doctors [for dissection]. I went to several of my countrymen, got the sum together, handed it to the man at the hospital, got the body, and had it buried in a Jewish burying ground.
A few days after this his wife, with two children, arrived, looking for her husband, but could not find him. She was told to go and see me. She came to my place of business, asked me what had become of her husband, whether he was dead or among the living. Seeing the situation of the poor woman, who was half crazy, I told her that he had gone into the country to peddle and would be back in a few weeks. I asked her: “Where are your children?” “On the ship,” she said. “What made you come out so quickly?” She answered: “I cannot live without him.” I went with her to the ship, got the children and her baggage, and took them to a boardinghouse. A week after, I told her that I had received a letter from her husband at Mobile, Ala., that he would go from there to New York. The poor woman believed all that! I showed her a bogus letter. I believed she would be better off in New York, and my object was to induce her to go there. She was anxious to go back. I engaged berths, paid for them, and gave her some money, Which I told her I would charge to her husband. They arrived in New York. When there she found out her husband had died of yellow fever at the hospital. She wrote to me to let her know all the particulars, which I answered, and sent her the death certificate; also, in what Jewish burying ground he was buried, and the name of the congregation. It was no encouragement for me to like New Orleans—such a sickly place.
I attended to my market business, in company with a man of my age, born in the same place, in Posen; his name was J. Spiro. He was in the grocery business; I with Yankee notions. We had a small room rented, where we slept. Our market business commenced at five o’clock A.M., and closed at 1:00 P.M. The balance of the day I went peddling, making a little money. Thinking I could not make enough money to go East and back again (I had to go East for my goods, but my partner bought his groceries in New Orleans), I concluded to go to the country and peddle, to make more money. Besides, I did not like city life in the style in which it was conducted at that time—too much fun and devilment for me. So we parted. My partner left New Orleans for Rio de Janeiro, and I went by steamer with my goods to Natchez, Miss., bought a horse, and traveled the country—through Mississippi and Louisiana—and sold a good many goods. I have never heard of my partner to the present day.
The hardships in that country at that time were many, the country roads were bad, and we had to stand a good deal; the sales were small, but the profits were large; the people were economical, and there was not as much money in 1841 in this country as there is at the present day.
In April, 1841, I left New Orleans for New York, took with me $2,000, bought goods at auction and in several other houses, mostly for cash—a few on credit—some ready-made clothing and caps of the firm of Spitz & Marks.
September, 1841, I left New York and returned to New Orleans and sold my goods at good profit. In that year my brother Peter married in New York, dissolved partnership, and moved to Boston.
May, 1842, I left New Orleans again for New York. My capital having increased, I bought more goods, went to Boston to see my brother and his wife. He had established himself in the cap business. I gave up my fancy business, went to New York, and commenced making up clothing for the southern market. I bought some tailors’ trimmings for tailors, and left for New Orleans, where I sold my goods. I continued in this business, going every year to New York to make up clothing for the South.
In 1845, business was remarkably good, and I had to order goods to be sent to me. At that time war broke out with Mexico, through the influence of a certain gentleman [John Slidell?] with whom I was acquainted, and what we called the “Filibusters.” I was a member of that society. Its aim was to bring on a war with Mexico. It was a secret society, composed of Americans. . . . I belonged to a military company called the “Harrison Grays.”
One day the steamer “Galveston” arrived from Texas with the news that American blood had been spilt on American soil by Mexicans this side of Fort Brown, and that our country was in danger. They commenced drafting. All the city military companies were called out—our company among them—by General [Persifor F.] Smith. Speeches were made by several soldiers, and the question asked if all the companies present would volunteer to start with the steamer “Galveston” to Galveston, Texas, to the seat of war. To which we all said, “Yes,” except two Spanish companies; they refused to fight against Mexico. Their swords were taken from them, and they were disbanded by order of General Smith. All the rest of the companies were sworn in and equipped. We put ribbons on our caps as volunteers, and with a band of music, marched through the streets to get more volunteers, in which we succeeded. We certainly were the cream of the city—merchants, doctors, lawyers, judges, mechanics. We marched down to the wharf to go on the steamer, greeted by the people all the way. We arrived in Galveston, and were put under General [Zachary] Taylor’s command. Our company was sent out to watch bridges and reconnoiter.
We were not in any battles, except at Cerro Gordo and Resaca de la Palma [Palo Alto?], where Major [Samuel] Ringgold, from Baltimore, was killed. After that we were again sent to watch bridges. We had hard times. Several of our company were , wounded by the Mexicans. We stole from the farmers all we could find and left them nothing. We had good times, plenty to eat, and we wasted the rest.
During that time they were drafting in New Orleans and bounties given. Men were coming in large numbers from all parts of the United States. We were discharged and sent back to New Orleans. When we arrived the governor, mayor, city officials, and the citizens showed us great honor, for we were the first when our country was in danger. . . .
A few weeks after that I left New Orleans for New York. I went to Boston to see my brother, and while there looked around the city to find some business to settle in. I concluded to go in business with my brother Peter, the firm to be Spitz & Brother, Wholesale and retail clothiers. We located on Hanover Street, with a branch house at New Orleans, which I was to attend to. The manufactory was in Boston under the management of my brother. He was married, while I was still single at that time, although four years older than he. He was active, and paid strict attention to business; I, also, to my branch, and everything went on satisfactory for a year or so. Here a mistake was made by my brother. . . .
A man came to my brother with the sheriff and asked him to go bail for him or else he would be ruined, at the [same] time crying bitterly. Brother knew the man, and believed what he said to be true; that his partner ran away and took all the money with him, and that he was arrested. My brother being young, honest, and inexperienced, gave bail for him. He did not let me know, for I certainly would have refused, a mistake which he afterward found out to his sorrow. We owed the merchants with whom we were dealing, and they believed we were swindlers, also, on account of our bailing that man; so they attached the store in Boston, and also my business in New Orleans. I released my part of the indebtedness for one-half cash and notes for the balance, with my brother’s endorsement. . . .
In 1846, we gave up our southern trade, and I returned to Boston. I settled our affairs with our creditors, continued the retail trade in Boston, and everything went on well again under my management. We had a good city and country trade.
On February 3d, 1847, I married in Boston, and ten months after, my wife gave birth to a son. We named him Samuel. He died when eleven months old and was buried in Boston, in 1848. After the death of my boy, which I took very hard, I became discouraged, and not seeing a good prospect for business, we dissolved partnership.
I left Boston and went to Bangor, Maine, took a store on the Kenduskeag bridge, and again commenced the clothing business. In the beginning it was dull. The people there did not encourage newcomers until they became acquainted. It was an English custom. They generally asked to what church you belonged; they would patronize church members. It was a poor chance for me, being an Israelite. I found out I would have to become acquainted in order to make a living. I liked the place and the style of the people; so I tried to make friends. Being a Mason, I visited lodges; joined the Odd Fellows and other societies, and became a citizen of the United States; I became acquainted with their style.
My wife having been raised in this country, she made many friends; we were respected by those with whom we had dealings, my business improved, and we were perfectly satisfied with our surroundings. There were six Jewish families in Bangor: one kept a clothing store, two kept dry goods stores, and the others peddled. We visited our neighbors and places of amusement; we visited American families, and they visited us, and we were much liked. It was our spring of life, which we spent to our satisfaction.
In Bangor we found the people with whom we associated to be of a fine order. Myself and wife were happy and prosperous. I bought a fine house, formerly owned by a Mr. Jordan; it contained all the modern improvements, with a stable in the rear. . . .
In 1852 a congregation was established in Bangor. Mr. [Moses] Silber was president; H. P. Spitz [myself], vice president.
In 1856 and 1857 business became very dull; a panic prevailed all over the United States. Maine was a great sufferer, as nearly the Whole trade was lumbering, which was entirely stopped. I kept a wholesale and retail clothing store and furnished the lumbermen with their outfit when going to, and returning from, the woods. As this trade was lost to me, and having a large family to support, I contented myself with the retail trade; but business getting worse and worse, and no prospect of it getting better, I concluded to break up business and leave Bangor with my family and go to Boston. We arrived there in 1858.
I took a house on Shawmut Avenue, and a loft on Milk Street, and sold liquors and cigars, at wholesale and retail. My trade was good; but Massachusetts passed a liquor law, making liquors contraband, and all such debts could not be collected by law. . . .
I collected all I could and left for the West. I took my eldest daughter on a visit to my sister, in Hartford, Connecticut. The child did not want to stay; took her with me to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; left her with some relatives in Baltimore, and went to Cincinnati and several other places to find a place to settle in.
I could not be suited, so I went back to Baltimore, and after looking around for a week, found a house and store on Lexington Market; a four-story brick building with a store, a fine cellar, and a splendid yard; a suitable place for the business which I intended carrying on—a cellar large enough to hold 100 barrels of whisky. I went to the landlord, took a lease of the house and store for one year, with the privilege of three years more; took the keys, and was happy to think it would be a good place for business. I left my daughter in Baltimore and went to Boston to bring my family.
On arriving in Boston, I found my wife sick in bed, but my five children in good health. Imagine, dear children, how I felt—ready to start but having a sick wife on hand. My wife and children were all to me, and for their sakes I worked—looked out for their comfort and education. Although a merchant with limited capital, I managed just as well as any rich merchant. . . . I spent a good deal of money to have my daughters accomplished and my sons educated, so that they would be able to go into any branch of trade in which I had succeeded that might be offered to them. I always was in moderate circumstances; could always make as much as we needed, and even something more. . . .
I was waiting until my wife got better to go to Baltimore. I wrote to the landlord to be excused for not coming, giving my reason, and stated that we would come as soon as she was better. In answer to this he said he would rent the house if I did not send him three months’ rent in advance. I sent him the money, and he sent me a receipt. My wife getting better, I was a happy man again. We made arrangements to leave. We had the furniture, pictures, and all the household goods packed, and with my liquors and cigars, they were shipped by steamer to Baltimore. Mother, five children, and myself went also by steamer. Our passage by rail would have been much cheaper, but thinking it would be much better for our health, it being in July, to take a sea voyage, as they would become more acclimated upon arriving at Baltimore. . . .
It was very hard for us to break up home and business in Boston, and part from brothers and sisters and friends; but such is life. We cannot have what we wish; only that which is ordained for us. When in Bangor, I had a photograph taken of the birthplace of our six children and of ourselves, of which they were very fond. . . .
On July 22d, 1859, we arrived in Baltimore with six children; our eldest daughter, seven years old, and our youngest son, Jacob, fifteen months. I opened a wholesale liquor and cigar /?/ore. When our piano, furniture, and household goods arrived, which were many, we moved into our house. For our passage, stock, and furniture I paid $658.40. We had a nice yard for the children to play in. . . .
In the beginning my business was not as good as it should have been. I could not make a living or cover my expenses. I did not want to lose what little I had, so I concluded to try to get a situation which would enable me to attend to my own business at the same time I attended to another’s. Such a situation I would have accepted. I visited the Masons’ lodge, got acquainted with several brothers, told them my situation, and gave them references in Bangor; told them I was able to be a bookkeeper, or an assistant, or a salesman; would like to have a situation from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.; and that I was willing to work. Two weeks after that a gentleman got me a situation to my wishes; it was to be assistant bookkeeper in a commission house, with a salary of $75 per month, and time from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. . . .
During my absence my clerk received orders, and when at home I attended to it myself. The first year, with my salary and hard work—attending two places of business—I made my expenses. The second year my trade improved, and I was obliged to give up my situation. My employers were glad that my business was improving. They sent me to a tailor to have a fine suit of clothes and an overcoat made for myself, as a present for faithful services, for which I thanked them. I left them in January, 1860. The war broke out. One partner [in the business I just left] was a Rebel; the other a Union man. They broke up business and retired. The Union man left the books and business under my charge to close. For salary I was to receive a percentage of all the money I collected. . . .
War had been declared; soldiers were gathering in all parts of the United States to go to the seat of war (Washington), then to Virginia. The first regiment (the Sixth Massachusetts) arrived in the city of Baltimore. The citizens tried to prevent their landing and in doing so killed several soldiers. The people became terribly excited and rushed to the armories and took possession of all the arms. The bridges in the city were burned down by orders of Mayor Brown and Marshal Kane. The city was in a horrible condition; nothing could get in or out; business was entirely stopped; no work for mechanics or laborers; the poor were in great distress. . . .
The Union people had to keep still; all had to pretend to be Rebels. In order to be treated right in school our children were obliged to carry Rebel emblems. Afterwhile things began to look a little better, although hurrahing for Jeff Davis was heard everywhere. Our city was very hard to get through; but after a good many reinforcements had been to Washington by water, it became better regulated, and the bridges were rebuilt. The mayor, the marshal, and a great many Rebel citizens were arrested; martial law was declared; people began to breathe more freely; soldiers in great numbers were arriving day and night, and business began to improve. I put up a place at the Washington depot, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and opened a liquor and cigar store to supply passengers and soldiers, which proved to be a success. I still continued my other store, which I attended myself, while I employed a man to take charge of the one at the depot. But the government passed a law forbidding the soldiers to buy liquor and the merchants to sell it, as it was reported that it had been poisoned.
After taking the liquors out, so that I would be free from the law, I sold the place to a Mr. Morris, from Virginia; he had lost all he had except $6,000. He sold groceries. I gave him the lease of the house and store; his wife and son kept it, did a good business, and made money. Two years after he got sick and died, leaving a wife and eight children. The son who had charge of the business left it and went South, taking the money with him, which he spent in helping the Rebel cause. The woman sold her business. She lost nearly all she had, and had seven children to take care of. Myself and several gentlemen with whom she dealt helped to support her. She had property in Richmond, and after that place had been taken by the Union Army she went back with her family. . . .
My business then was good, although many restrictions were placed upon merchants in selling goods. I had lost some money before the war commenced. One day a Southern man came into my store and handed me $250 which had been sent to me by a gentleman living in South Carolina; he had been a school friend of mine in Europe. I sold him goods in Baltimore. . . .
A society was formed called “The Minute Men” to protect the city when in danger, of which I was a member. Several patriotic gentlemen of wealth sent me to army headquarters, near Richmond, with some goods for our officers and soldiers. Then I received a commission from the government and went to Norfolk, and from there to the White House, where I received some papers to go further. I went to Camp Lincoln, four miles from Richmond; arriving there, I delivered my papers to the provost marshal, General Porter; I was introduced to General McClellan and officers; disposed of the goods, and sent for more. This was on the Chickahominy River. The goods which I had were Kossuth hats, military caps, boots, underwear, and blue sacks, with U. S. buttons; also, shoulder-straps for generals, colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants. . . .
I left . . . for Baltimore, where I arrived July 5th, 1862, still sick; it was nearly a year before I got well. I had contracted a Chickahominy River fever. I was not able to get back to the seat of war again, so remained at home and attended to my business, and managed to get along very well. Business commenced to be good all over the Union. I speculated in whisky and had bought a large stock, when the government raised the tax on all liquors. My health improved, and I enjoyed myself with my family. In 1863, my health was restored; my two daughters were in the high school, and my sons were advancing in their studies. I felt proud to know that my boys would be able to fill any situation that might be offered to them. Things went on very well in my domestic and business relations; my children were growing up to my heart’s desire, and we were all blessed with good health. Our children had great desire to study, which pleased us.