Jewish Spaces


‘From Peddlers to Shopkeepers’. How Consumption Came to the Countryside

(Ruth Leiserowitz)


My paper seeks to elaborate the role, function and perceptions of Jewishness and Jewish actors during the beginning of consumption in the rural area in the context of diaspora. Were there forms that were unique to either village or town? I will present my paper with 7 points and 23 pictures. This is a case study in a border region. – East Prussia. Therefore, this photo demonstrates the important role that border played in this region.
The starting point of observation is the East Prussian border area in the first half of the 19th century. It was here that Prussia bordered on the old Lite or Lita, the region in which the Lithuanian Jews, the Litvaks, lived from the end of the 14th century until the beginning of the World War II. This is the region which is today the intersection where Poland, Lithuania, and the Kaliningrad region meet. This was once the periphery of the empire in which there were no shops in the countryside. The villagers occasionally acquired a few necessary items at markets and fairs or from Jewish peddlers who came from the other  side of the border – from the edges of the Russian Empire.



In the first half of the 19th century, peddlers, primarily of Jews from Poland and Lithuania, offered their wares to the villagers, bringing to this border region a transnational material cultural exchange. Prussian authorities were interested in supporting and promoting this commercial exchange as much as possible because it proffered significant economic advantages to the region. Furthermore, native merchants were pleased with this commercial activity, since it was only through this exchange that they had access, albeit slight, to a foreign market. It seemed that only Jews were able to surmount the manifold obstacles in the Prussian-Russian-Polish trading business. In addition to their knowledge of the respective languages and countries, they had at their command as well: a mercantile sense, embedded in a functioning cross-border network; the availability of sufficient capital; strong intercultural competence, and, in order to overcome the strains of their costly and uncomfortable journeys, a high motivation towards ownership. This group of Jewish merchants was well-liked on the Prussian periphery. Many of the Litvak-Jewish traders, who began their Eastern Prussian careers as peddlers, later ended up as bearers of a solid merchandise trade in the Prussian region.

Let me focus on Litvaks coming into the area after 1840. The first group of Jews were already well settled in the small towns. The newcomer had to start on an lower level.
The majority of the traders travelled by horse or on foot. They generally used side roads; because it was precisely there that there were more customers than at the large places on the country roads. The regular selection which ambulant trade offered improved supply conditions in the countryside and created new needs. Jewish and Christian salesmen contracted peddlers as in-betweeners.
The customers seemed to accept the Jewish peddlers and to use their services to a greater extent.This is the only way to explain the growth in wealth of various traders, who finally managed to establish their own premises in East Prussia with their business. Sources show that numerous traders from the other side of the border looked for a firm area of trade, built up a constant body of regular customers there, applied for permanent residence and gradually became well-known personalities who were able to receive certificates of their good name from the mayors on request. These were frequently asked for when a peddler planned to stabilize his local trade connections, i.e. to settle permanently and to make an application for naturalization. If customers were satisfied, they would gladly support the wish to settle, since they saw the obvious advantages for both sides.


From police reports, we know what was contained in the satchels of these peddlers. The range of goods of a peddler comprised mostly the following articles: penknives, shaving razors, scissors, pipe bowls and fittings, buttons, ribbons, soap and cloth. But clocks as well were traded. Especially in the winter, the textile merchants were on the move, as confirmation dresses and suits were sewn for Easter. The peddlers came regularly, and so desires could be expressed, and orders placed. Undoubtedly, a range of demands evolved in this time.


Railway construction in East Prussia began in the 1850s. In addition to the state-sponsored main lines, scores of secondary lines quickly sprouted, which allowed the development of a dense transportation network. The railway provided a considerable improvement to trade possibilities, since new buying and selling markets could be accessed, greater turnover was achieved and the city and the countryside came closer.
As the possibility now existed to deliver an ample range of goods as far as the villages, many shops appeared, and many travelling vendors and peddlers thus put down roots. In addition to soap, kerosine and accompanying lamps, everything which a farmer might not, or could not produce himself was sold in these shops. A locality which featured a shop hence offered an added attraction.
The mobility between the city and the countryside increased, and so did the influence of the city on the rural area . The freshly established traders imported fashionable clothing, modern furniture, bicycles, sewing machines and the telephone. With boosted sales, the railway decidedly enhanced trading opportunities (Richarz1997:8). Rural communities were now in a commercial and communication relationship which emanated from the city. The first traces of cultural homogenization gradually began to show themselves here as well as in East Prussia (Haupt/Mayaud 1999: 355).

Jewish marketing

Can we speak about „Jewish marketing“? To what extent were the shopkeepers and their families pioneers of consumption? The expanding middle and upper class of Jews in the villages oriented themselves according to the urban bourgeoisie in their consumer behavior and soon also in individual modes of life. Here we could say that an acculturation took place at a great distance. One example is that they sold postcards from their shops and used them.(The production of view cards increased significantly after the permit of Reichspost in 1872.) This was a very innovative measure.
The first generation of Jewish shopkeepers were immigrants from neighboring regions of the Czarist Russian Empire, who traditionally also had numerous children. They themselves were the first consumers of such products and equipped their houses in an urban manner with them. They demonstrated for the village dwellers novelty.
Further information on the dowrey of daughters of shopkeepers is given by some marriage records.
Upon examining the marriage contract (with conditions of property division in the event of separation) dated from 3 August 1868, of Heinriette Bräude, a merchant’s daughter, we see among others things, “5 silk dresses, 20 various woolen and half-woolen dresses, 6 coats, 1 double breasted, 1 velvet, 2 silk, 2 summer coats.” (Marriage contract, 3 Aug. 1868, no. 1573, Ap. 2, B. 2097, Šilutės valsčiaus teismo fondas [Šilutė District Court], Lithuanian State Archives, Klaipėda). This itemization, documented by a notary, shows that this merchant’s daughter was well-to-do(?) and possessed far more clothing than she in general required. Their property distinguish the families of Jewish shopkeepers from the rest of the population in a given village. A further characteristic, which was clearly perceived by their cohabitants, was that the shops remained closed during the High Holidays of Judaism, and the families often went away—to a nearby town, where there was a synagogue. Although the rural inhabitants recognized the Jewish faith of the shopkeepers, they did not associate the wares in their shops as Jewish. Those items were products of modernity, for which general promotions and advertisements also appeared in periodicals and newspapers.
The expanding middle and upper classes of provincial Jews oriented themselves toward consumerist behavior and soon also towards the unique ways of life of the urban Jewish bourgeoisie. As Monika Richarz formulated, it was a matter of “acculturation over a great distance.” Soon new educational needs appeared as well. The children, who thanks to the railways, were often sent to nearby towns to school because of their parents’ aspirations to join the urban Jewish bourgeoisie. The Jewish shopkeepers were the precursors of the middle class in rural areas. They represented a firm fixture of the villages and the rural social fabric. Nonetheless, the public assumed that they would gradually disappear from the East-Prussian countryside in the beginning of the 20th century, as the children of these families left for work in the cities and only seldom returned. They frequently established new businesses in the small towns of the region, where they specialized in, among others things, fabric and clothing.

The Salamander Example

In 1904 a Berlin shoe vendor registered the trademark “Marke Salamander” for footwear and accessories. Already by 1905, a branch system of the “Salamander-Schuhgesellschaft mbH” arose, which organized cost-efficient distribution, and at the same time facilitated advertising and sales. Independent retailers obtained the exclusive right of sale for “Salamander-Schuhe” in their respective locations and received advertising support from the company. Thus selective distribution, joint promotion and uniform pricing policies were organized. The first dealers who distributed Salamander-Schuhe in the province of East Prussia were Jews. In some cases they radically changed the profile of the land—from general stores to specialty shops. (In this case the strategy proved useful, as in the meantime many competing general stores with the same range of products had been established.) In other cases, they set up new shops, which, owing to their design and configuration, had a unique selling point and became magnets. In a third variant, the range of choices in a general store was augmented to include an assortment of shoes. All of these examples of shops had Jewish proprietors, who, moreover, were related to each other. Whoever was successful as a retailer quickly enlisted relatives to their branch. Through new, attractive and very modern advertising efforts, sales were boosted.


Jews fulfilled an important role in the propagation of consumerism to rural areas and proved to be innovative players. Through their distinctive position, they and their families served as a model for consumer culture in the countryside.