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Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Jews in the Lynn Shoe Trades
Women stitchers at work at A.E. Little and Company, a shoe manufacturer located at 70 Blake Street in downtown Lynn, ca 1910s. Courtesy Lynn Public Library.

Women stitchers at work at A.E. Little and Company, a shoe manufacturer located at 70 Blake Street in downtown Lynn, ca 1910s. Courtesy Lynn Public Library.

Thousands of Russian Jews came to Lynn to work in its shoe factories. The economic life of the Lynn Jewish community was inextricably linked to the shoe industry, which became the major source of the Jews’ upward economic mobility. Even as the electrical industry developed in their midst, and the city’s other immigrants became increasingly involved in it, immigrant Jews remained wedded to the shoe industry and its allied trades….

Adapting to Lynn’s Economy

Most of the Jewish shoemakers coming from Russia came from towns and villages where shoes were still handmade, with the only shoe machinery being an occasional sewing machine. They were artisan shoemakers of the type common in Lynn in the pre-factory era.

The Jewish shoemakers entering the Lynn factories had a solid technical knowledge of how to make a shoe and also knew how to go about selling them. Once in Lynn, Jewish immigrants of all occupational backgrounds sought to adapt to the shoe trades. Those who didn’t go to work in the factories often came to be connected with the local shoe industry through forms of petty trading and brokering reminiscent of Jewish commercial activities in the Pale [of Settlement]. In Russia, the major local industry was agriculture, and therefore the petty trade of Jews had centered upon agricultural products and byproducts. Since the major industry in Lynn was shoe manufacturing, unskilled but enterprising Jewish immigrants soon became involved in petty trades connected with it. They discovered, for instance, that shoe factories produced large quantities of scrap leather, defective shoes, and other seemingly worthless byproducts. Some of the Jewish men began collecting these junk items, cutting them up into salvageable pieces of leather and then reselling them. It was in this rather inglorious manner that Jewish involvement in the shoe industry’s allied trades began….

The era of immigrant-owned shoe firms began… with the founding of the firm A. Jacobs and Sons in December 1910. Abraham Jacobs had emigrated from London in 1880, where his family had been in the shoe business. He moved to Lynn from New York in 1909 and went into the leather remnants business with a salesman named Jacobson. A year later they began manufacturing infants’ shoes. It became a common practice for aspiring Jewish shoe manufacturers to begin by making infants’ or children’s shoes, since they could be made from the leather remnants with which so many of them dealt.

Between 1915 and 1930, close to one hundred different shoe manufacturing firms were started up by the city’s immigrant Jews. The majority of the firms were short-lived, however, as individuals went in and out of business and changed partnerships at a dizzying pace. Nearly one-third of the firms were out of business within one year, two-thirds within three years, and three-fourths within five years. The number of [Jewish-owned] firms in business at one time rose from nine in 1918 to nineteen in 1925 and to thirty-one in 1927.

Success and Mobility

As an increasing number of immigrant Jews succeeded in becoming established entrepreneurs, the Jewish community of Lynn began to change in character. What had been a working-class community of newly arrived immigrants gradually became more prosperous and Americanized. The changes were reflected in the evolving middle-class lifestyle of the successful entrepreneurs. But even so, the immigrant Jews continued to comprise a cohesive community, centered upon family, friends, and synagogue.

The most successful of the manufacturers moved into houses in the Diamond District along the ocean, from which immigrants had traditionally been excluded. Many, however, chose to remain in the Jewish neighborhood [of the Brickyard] or settled in nearby areas such as Lynn Highlands or the blocks just north of the Common….

The decline of the local shoe industry was mirrored in the decline of the Jewish community in Lynn. In the decades following the end of World War II, the second-generation Jews abandoned Lynn for the nearby towns of Swampscott and Marblehead. Already in 1955, half of the ten thousand Jews of greater Lynn lived in the neighboring towns. There, a transplanted community of young and increasingly affluent Jews quickly took form, and a new generation of Jewish institutions arose…. By the 1960s, only a small number of mostly elderly Jews still lived in Lynn’s rapidly aging downtown district. A few years later, the neighborhood itself ceased to exist in its old form, as houses, streets, schools, and even the old Ahabat Sholom synagogue were razed to make way for urban renewal.

From: Stephen G. Mostov, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Jews in the Shoe Trades in Lynn, 1885-1945,” in Alan S. Pierce, ed., A History of Boston’s Jewish North Shore (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009), 32-43.

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