Fur Trade and Industry

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FUR TRADE AND INDUSTRY Jews arrived at the fur trade and industry through their commerce between the Mediterranean littoral and Continental Europe, in particular Eastern Europe. Their active participation in the central European fairs enabled them to play an important role in the development of the fur trade. During the ninth century the Jewish merchants known as Radanites were among the principal agents in the international fur trade. They may have purchased the furs at the northern end of their European itinerary, but more likely bought them in the land of the *Khazars, since pelts could be obtained there cheaply, and secured for the Khazar kingdom a central position in the international trade (taxes there were occasionally collected in furs). The report of Ibrahim ibn *Yaʿqub in the tenth century shows that Jewish and Muslim merchants in Prague dealt in furs and hides of various kinds, among other goods. The fur trade must have remained an important part of the business of Jewish merchants visiting Russia (holkhei Russia) in the 11th and 12th centuries. Furs were among the wares of the 11th-century Mediterranean merchant Naharay b. Nissim. The extent to which the fur trade and payment in furs figured in Jewish life and imagination is shown in a 13th-century tale about "a Jew who went afar and saw in his dreams a Jew whom exalted ones were weighing in a balance, and his sins were found to weigh heavier; they said: as his sins are heavier he will have no part in the world to come. [Then] others came and said: you did not weigh fairly, and they put pelts and other furs on the man, and he was heavier; they said: he shall enter the world to come.… And they said: those furs they put on him were furs he paid in tax" (Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. R. Margalioth (1924), no. 654, p. 421).

In the 13th century Jewish merchants imported furs from Hungary into Little Poland. The Jews of Volhynia and Red Russia, especially at the close of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, held a prominent place among the merchants who imported Oriental goods and traded at the fairs of Lvov and Kiev – these imported, among other articles, furs and horses. During the second half of the 15th century, and especially after 1454, following the extension of Polish rule to *Gdansk (Danzig), participation of Jews in the northern trade intensified; among the cargoes rafted down the rivers there were hides and furs. Furs held an important place among the goods supplied by Jews to the courts of the Polish kings. Sebastian *Miczyński (1618) tells that "there are two Israelite brothers who, upon arriving in Lvov where various goods arrive from Turkey… took into their possession almost all the furs … and this is not all.… They [the Jews], despite existing laws and privileges, import from Bohemia, Moravia, and Germany finished goods and prepared furs, fox furs made from the hide of the belly." Throughout the 17th century, the Jewish merchants of Poland played a main role in the overland export of hides and furs. The regulations of the furriers' guild of Cracow of 1613 show that its members were, in fact, fur merchants. In Bohemia during the 15th to 16th centuries the Jews were prominent in the fur retail trade. In 1515, when the municipal councillors of Prague sought to reduce Jewish competition in trade, they prohibited them, among other things, from preparing or selling cloths and new furs. On the other hand, they were authorized to sell used clothes and furs at the fairs. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Jews of Amsterdam also engaged in the trade of furs, which they imported from Frankfurt. The city of *Leipzig was an important center of the fur trade. Here, the Jewish merchants of Austria, Germany, and Russia played a pioneering role through their participation in the fairs of the city from the beginning of the 16th century. In recognition of their contribution toward the import of raw materials for the hide and fur industries, the Jews of Poland and Russia were authorized in 1747 to settle in Leipzig without paying taxes. Jewish merchants from Brody, Lissa (Leszno), and Shklov were among the most active fur traders at the fairs of Leipzig. During this period, the other principal centers of the fur trade in Germany were Breslau and Gross-Glogau (for furs imported from Russia, from the region of Crimea), as well as Luebeck and Hamburg (for furs from Siberia and the Scandinavian countries).

In North America the Jews played an important role in the fur trade during the colonial period. George Croghan, a prominent fur trader in the second half of the 18th century, was assisted by many Jewish suppliers. In 1765 the brothers Barnard and Michael *Gratz established an extensive commercial partnership with non-Jewish merchants and their activities included trade in furs. Other important fur traders in the colonial period were Hayman *Levy, Joseph *Simon, Salomon Simson, and David *Franks. In Canada, the town of Trois Rivières became the center of the fur trade, in which Aaron *Hart and Samuel *Judah, who exported furs to England, played a considerable role. The sales of the American-Russian Fur Company were handled by the J.M. Oppenheim firm, London's largest fur house. Before the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867 the Russian firm began selling furs to independent fur traders of San Francisco, many of whom were Jews, eager to penetrate the lucrative seal islands of Alaska. Indeed the negotiations of Hutchinson, Kohn, and Co. for purchasing the Alaskan fur monopoly influenced the decision to purchase the territory. The Russian company's rights and assets were subsequently bought by this firm. Californian Jews were prominent in the "fur rush" to Alaska. The Alaska Commercial Company, headed by Lewis *Gerstle and Louis Sloss, continued to dominate the fur trade after Alaska was purchased by the United States. On the east coast a number of German-Jewish firms sprung up for the processing of fur products, the largest being A. Hollander and Sons of Newark, New Jersey.

The year 1815 was the start of a prosperous period for the fur trade of Leipzig as a result of which a local fur industry was established. The first Jewish company, founded by Marcus Harmelin in 1830, existed until 1939. With the unification of Germany in 1871, the Jewish fur industry of Leipzig received new momentum when Jewish fur merchants of Berlin, Breslau, Brody, Frankfurt, Fuerth, and Hamburg settled there or opened branches of their businesses. Even the new Jewish companies then beginning trade in New York, such as Ullmann and Boskovitz, opened branches there. The fur trade between Russia and Germany remained at a peak level until World War i, and the important Jewish furriers of Leipzig took part annually in the large fairs of Russia. According to the census of 1897, Jews formed 90% of the fur merchants in Congress Poland, and according to the census of 1900 in Galicia they formed 80% of the hide and fur merchants. Even though World War i brought a crisis to the fur trade, the principal companies in Germany recuperated immediately afterward, when trade relations with the United States intensified. In 1921 the trade was also renewed with the Soviet Union. It has been estimated that in 1929 there were about 1,228 fur industry enterprises in Leipzig of which at least 513 were owned by Jews. Of the 794 fur merchants then living there, 460 were Jews. Before Hitler's rise to power, the Leipzig fur industry saw a period of prosperity during which many Jewish companies began to open branches in other places. Subsequently the Jewish fur industry throughout Germany was brought to an end. The centers of the Jewish fur industry were then transferred to other places, with refugees who had succeeded in escaping Nazi Germany occasionally occupying leading positions.

Though the fur-working industry in the United States in the 19th century was largely in the hands of Germans, the large Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe from the 1880s on had brought a flood of Jewish workers into the profession, many of whom were forced to labor under sweatshop conditions. In 1912 an estimated 7,000 out of 10,000 fur workers in the United States were Jewish, the great majority concentrated in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. A Jewish Furriers Union was organized in 1906 but soon dissolved. In 1913 the International Fur Workers Union came into being, the leadership and rank and file of which were both heavily Jewish. Under the leadership of Benjamin *Gold, the Furriers International was for years among the most politically radical unions in America.

A study undertaken in 1937 indicated that approximately 80% of the employees in the fur industry in the United States, and over 90% of the employers, were Jewish. The largest of these Jewish fur firms was Eitington-Schild of New York City, whose president, Motty Eitington, was a leading figure for many years in the Associated Fur Manufacturers, as was another large Jewish fur dealer, Samuel N. Samuels. In Canada, Jews became prominent in this branch, notably in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. A census held in 1931 shows that 48.65% of the employers and directors and 31.82% of the workers in this industry were Jews. Most had acquired their professional knowledge in their countries of origin in Eastern Europe, and they contributed largely to promoting the industry in Canada.

In London Jewish companies were estimated in the 1960s to constitute about two-thirds of the city's fur enterprises. They contributed considerably toward the development and improvement of methods employed in the fur industry, such as the preparation and dyeing of furs. In Argentina in the same period about 80% of the fur enterprises were owned by Jews who organized a trade association, the Sociedad Mercantil de Peleteros. In Israel the fur trade and industry employed in 1969 about 500 workers in 70 firms specializing mainly in broadtail and karakul. Production, primarily aimed at export, earned approximately $1,000,000 in 1963 and over $3,500,000 in 1969. A small number of minks and chinchillas were reared on farms. In subsequent years Jewish participation in the trade declined with the general decline in the wearing of fur and the hostility of pro-animal protestors, not to mention the movement of Jews away from traditional trades. Israel joined nearly 100 other countries in banning the use of traps. In 2003 Israel exported just $1 million worth of leather products and dressed furskins.


I. Schipper, Di Virtshaftsgeshikhte fun di Yidn in Poiln be-Eysen Mitelalter (1926), passim; F. Dublin, in: pajhs, 35 (1939), 14–16; L. Rosenberg, Canada's Jews (1939), 178–9, 186; N. Barou, Jews in Work and Trade (19483), index; L. Rabinowitz, Jewish Merchant Adventurers (1948), 82ff., 164ff.; P.S. Foner, Fur and Leather Workers Union (1950), 20–21, 24–26: R. Glanz, Jews in American Alaska (1953), 46; M.U. Schappes, Jews in the United States (1958), index; W. Harmelin, in: ylbi, 9 (1964), 239–66; J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 vols. (1951–53), index; idem, American Jewry Documents (1959), index; H.A. Immis, Fur Trade in Canada (1956); M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965), index.