Interwar Affluence

Jews in Waterville in the Interwar Years: Occupations, Affluence, and the Career Choices of Children

by Tendai M’ndange-Pfupfu ’13 (January 2011)

Working in more skilled occupations, Jews earned more money than did other immigrant groups. Their relative income and occupational security made it easier for Jews to invest in the schooling of their children. This combined with the permanency of their immigration, urban residence, and the availability and access to public school education. Together, these structural features explain why … Jews accounted for relatively high percentages of those who attended schools and universities in the large cities of the Northeast. (Perlmann 129)

The topic that I am dealing with is the economic patterns of Jews living in Waterville during the interwar years. Examining Waterville property tax records from 1920 to 1935 gives a good estimate of affluence. We also have data on college attendance for many of the children living in Waterville during the interwar years. From these data we can explore patterns in affluence and college attendance and begin to explain the reasons for the career choices made by Jews in Waterville.

The story of Jews in small-town America in the interwar years involves the story of economic progress in the United States. Those stories begin with entrance of Jews in to an “ethnic entrepreneurial niche” (Morawska 31). Predominant occupations among Jews living in small-town America were peddling and, a little later, junk dealing. Using skills tracing their origins back to the shtetls of Europe, many Jews began their economic journey from a humble starting point. These peddlers did not own any land at first, but perhaps boarded or rented from other Jewish families there. Many of them could not even become peddlers without the help of other Jews. Some Jews got into peddling because a relative was already doing it or already lived in the area, but there are also many stories of store owners and more established Jews loaning out merchandise to newly immigrated Jews, and telling them that they can pay it back by selling it. The peddlers went out and sold the items. Some eventually also bought rags, scraps and junk. If they were successful enough, the peddlers could pay off their small debt, and buy a horse, maybe a cart, and eventually, a small storefront. Evidence of peddling is not seen very explicitly in the tax records from the ’20s and ’30s because by the 1920s, any Jews who had been successful peddlers in the late 19th or early 20th centuries had progressed to other professions, while the unsuccessful ones probably left town because they could not make a living.

Jews believed that education was the vehicle to reach the milk and honey that apparently lay free for the taking in the United States. As Robert Hains says, “one of the reasons the Hains family stayed in Waterville, because there were opportunities to move on, was… Colby—education being very important to most Jewish people and Jewish families, Colby was a magnet that helped to keep them here.” Like the Hains family, many other Jews chose to stay in Waterville to take advantage of the available higher education for their children. As Lester Jolovitz puts it, “studies were paramount.” That statement gives us a look at another angle of how occupations and education were related.

Retailing was a much more stable method of making money than peddling because it was not as labor-intensive. After peddling out to each customer individually, a friendly relationship was built, and the customers would now go to the store to shop. In the stage when the peddlers started becoming merchants, many chose a specialization. Some focused on dry goods, some clothing, some groceries, etc. This specialization is what led to the creation of small, family-owned businesses.  In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for example, 83% of Jews were self employed in trade: 33% were store owners, 23% were independent artisans and 27% were peddlers in 1910 (Morawska 41). A similar pattern is evident in Waterville, where retail specializations included grocery, clothing, and shoe stores.

We can see from the tax records in Waterville that the majority of the Jews were already involved in retail by 1920. Many of the Jews in Waterville in the 1920s and 30s had previously been peddlers, but starting in at least 1920, they were setting roots down by running stores. About 50% of the Jews in Waterville from 1920-1935 were merchants, soda manufacturers, or owned retail stores; 26% were junk, metal or waste dealers; 8% were laborers; and 4% worked with cattle. The majority of people in Waterville, in contrast, were laborers in the factories and mills located around town. They were one of the major attracting aspects of Waterville. Lester Jolovitz recalls his feelings about leaving Waterville:

Well, when I say I wanted to get out of Waterville, because Waterville at that time didn’t offer very much. Either I’d go to my dad’s grocery store or go into the mill, the factories, which were predominant in Waterville. There were cotton mills and woolen mills and [pulp] mills and all kind of factories. And this is where most of my high school friends ended up. And somehow, my parents instilled in me and my brother that there was more to… well, it was generally understood we’d go to college.

Education was the accepted path to getting out of Waterville and moving up along the socio-economic ladder. For one reason or another, ambition or perhaps even antisemitism, Jews did not flock to factory and mill jobs like other ethnic groups did, they created their own businesses. The pattern presented as the “entrepreneurial niche” by Morawska is apparent in the fact that so few Jews are iterant workers or laborers in Waterville at that time, the vast majority are self-employed.

As a whole, retail merchants were the most affluent group in Waterville. The two most successful scrap dealers were even wealthier, while the remaining scrap dealers were significantly poorer. The most successful scrap dealers had about $15,000 in real estate and $150 in personal property, while retailers and merchants averaged $13,300 in real estate and $2600 in personal property. These were definitely the best-off occupational groups, followed by the one garage owner in town, who had around $7300 in real estate and $530 in personal property; the two soda manufacturers, who averaged almost $7000 in real estate and $1500 in personal property; and the nine junk dealers, who averaged about $5300 in real estate and $430 in personal property. In contrast to these prosperous occupations, grocers and laborers were the worst off. Grocers averaged only $1730 in real estate and $610 in personal property, laborers had $2430 in real estate and almost $250 in personal property. These numbers show us the upward trend in moneymaking by the retailers, merchants and junk and waste dealers, who themselves, or whose parents, upgraded from peddling their goods only 20 or so years before.

Average real estate and personal property holdings, by occupation; data from City of Waterville tax records, 1920-1935

Many Jews in Waterville accumulated enough resources to give their children good educations by the ’20s and ’30s. The retail merchants and junk dealers were able to send their children to Colby, which was pretty much right down the street, and even laborers had an opportunity to send their children to college, even if they could only send one. The fact that Colby was apparently willing to admit all qualified Jewish students adds meaning to the data we observe about college attendance. Jews in Waterville as a whole sent their children to school at high rates, and among the Jews in Waterville, the merchants and retailers sent the highest percent to college: 67%. These families were also, on average, the most affluent Jews in Waterville. Junk and waste dealers sent 40% of their children to college.

Using the college education they received, many children were able to pursue careers in professions, but some interesting questions are why some children did not get to go to college, and even if they did, why some came back to work in Waterville instead of leaving for the big cities and places where their professional skills could be fully utilized or rewarded. There were bound to be some Jews who could not attend college for any number of reasons, money being one of them. But why did some children come back to places like Waterville to run the family store instead of becoming a lawyer or a doctor?

In our data set I think that a few different things can be noticed about Jews in Waterville. There were some who came back to work in the family store, some who left to become professionals, and some who did not attain higher education nor a profession.

Among those who came back were ones who had a strong identity with their Jewish culture in some way. The “entrepreneurial niche” that their parents had scraped out was too important to them to simply let disintegrate, so they decided to maintain it. This was probably caused by the type of environment the children grew up in. In many of these cases the businesses were doing well, so there was little economic sacrifice in keeping the family business afloat instead of attaining a career in the prestigious professions.

Many children already had experience working in the family business. When they were young, they would help out with the store, so when they grew up, they already had many of the skills needed to continue the success of the business.  Lester Jolovitz recounts his experience growing up: “if they got busy downstairs, we had a signal. My father would rap, knock on one of the pipes that came from the store upstairs, I guess a water pipe or whatever, and that was a signal that somebody should go down and help out, that we were busy. So, we all participated in the store.”

Some children left for school and never came back, either from pushing of parents or determination of the children themselves. Lester Jolovitz explains his reasons for pursuing a different career path than his father. He ended up coming back and working in Waterville, but not running his father’s store, as a self-made lawyer. “I hated the business. From an early age, I decided this is not for me. And, I always, I don’t know why, I just knew that I would not end up working in my father’s store, or go into the mill, as 99% of my friends did, go into the factory. I always had an idea there was more to life, there was something out there that I was not quite aware of, and I decided to go to law school.” Mr. Jolovitz also talks about a trip he made to New York, and was so impressed by the way one of his friends lived. It kind of opened up his eyes to the real opportunities outside of Waterville.

On the whole, we see a focus on education and hard work by the Jews in Waterville, but there was not a single outcome of sending children to college. There is certainly a relation between affluence of a family and if they sent their children to college. What the children did with their education varied from case to case, though. Some left for a better life in the bigger cities of America and some returned to Waterville to continue family traditions or start businesses of their own.

The big trends were that wealthier families sent more children to college. There seems to be no relation between any one occupation and the likelihood of forgoing a professional career to continue a family business in that occupation. As many children of junk dealers went into junk as sons of merchants went into retail. One son of a grocer became a grocer, and one son of a laborer became a laborer. The important pattern is that more children went into other professions. Of the twenty children of Jews in Waterville for whom we have occupational data, only 8 went into the family business. The others took occupations of their own. All of the children who went into the family business were exclusively boys. The other boys became a lawyer, dentist, intern, clerk, and store owner. The girls became bookkeepers, a teacher, a librarian and a restaurant worker. Already at this stage, Jews were starting to become prominent members of the professions, and even those who did not achieve high level professional jobs, were nonetheless attaining jobs that would increase their standard of living higher than their parents’.

College attendance among the children of Waterville's interwar Jews

Print Sources


Morawska, Ewa.  Insecure prosperity: Small-town Jews in industrial America, 1890-1940 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Perlmann, Joel. Ethnic differences: Schooling and social structure among the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Blacks in an American City, 1880-1935 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).


Hains, Robert. Interviewed by Jena Hershkowitz, January 7, 2010.

Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 10 and 21, 2010.