Exhibit Explores Jewish History on Fabric Row

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The garment industry — also known as the rag trade, or the schmatte trade — fed much of the commercial activity. There were dozens of sweatshops, fabric stores and tailors, and the pushcart vendors who couldn’t afford a brick-and-mortar shop sold remnants by the side of the road.

It’s hard to imagine now, but for a significant portion of the last century, the neighborhoods of Queen Village and Society Hill were home to a thriving Jewish Quarter.
South Fourth Street, in particular, was a hub for Jewish life. In a 1914-15 annual report of a neighborhood settlement house at Fourth and Bainbridge streets, Fourth Street is described as “Philadelphia’s closest approach to New York’s Lower East Side, where we have the pushcarts, crowded streets and pavements, the open air display of calico, candy, pickles and fish for sale.”
Harry Boonin, author of The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia, characterized Fourth Street in similarly vivid terms, as a land of “pickle barrels and union enforcers, dreamers and paupers, curbside bookies and curbside elections, saloons, pool halls and feed stores — and in the middle of all this excitement were the synagogues, dozens of them.”
The garment industry — also known as the rag trade, or the schmatte trade — fed much of this commercial activity. There were dozens of sweatshops, fabric stores and tailors, and the pushcart vendors who couldn’t afford a brick-and-mortar shop sold remnants by the side of the road.
All of it is known now as Fabric Row, and it’s the focus of an exhibit that opens June 23 called “Philadelphia’s Fabric Row: The Pushcart Years, 1905-1955” at the Philadelphia History Museum on South Seventh Street.
The curator of the exhibit, Michele Winitsky Palmer, comes to the subject from a personal vantage point: “My father had a fabric store on Fourth Street,” she said on the phone from her home in Connecticut. “I lived there with my family until I was about 4 years old, on top of the store, so I grew up with fabrics. In a way, I took them for granted and really wasn’t all that interested. They were there.”
But something changed when she came back to Philadelphia about 20 years ago.
“I’d been living in Connecticut for a long time, since the ’60s, but I still have some family in Philadelphia,” she said. “I went back to Fourth Street, and I was sort of overcome with nostalgia. Maxie’s Daughter is the store where my dad had his store, and I walked in there and burst out crying.”
A writer who also worked as an oral historian at the University of Connecticut, Winitsky Palmer decided to conduct some research on the subject of Fabric Row, and got caught up in the project.
“I did a series of oral history interviews with some of the old-timers on Fourth Street, and then I created this website — my husband helped me with it — called fabricmuseum.org.”
Since then, she’s become a collector of vintage fabrics, and even toyed with the idea of starting a fabric museum on Fourth Street, but felt it was too big a project to take on from another state. The exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum, which grew out of a Fabric Row exhibit on her website, seemed the most feasible way to further explore this history. The community sponsor for the exhibit is the Philadelphia Jewish Archives.
The exhibit covers 50 years in Fourth Street’s history. It starts in 1905, when Russian pogroms triggered a huge wave of Jewish immigration to the U.S. It ends in 1955 — the year pushcarts were banned.
One of the exhibit features is a timeline that shows how world, national and local events impacted South Fourth Street — with some surprising results.
“The Depression actually was not a bad time at all on Fourth Street,” said Winitsky Palmer, “because people couldn’t afford to buy clothing, so they bought fabric and made their own clothes. Actually, World War II was much more difficult. All of the fabric manufacturers were selling to the government, so there wasn’t a lot of fabric to be sold in the stores. I heard stories of my father traveling all the way to Washington to try to find fabrics to sell in his store.”
Another section of the exhibit is called “A Neighborhood of Immigrants.” “Philadelphia was where there were many clothing manufacturers,” said Winitsky Palmer, speaking of the late 19th and early 20th century. “So a lot of tailors and seamstresses from Russia came over and a lot of peddlers came over. Some of the peddlers went on to establish storefronts with fabrics.”
That, she said, was the foundation of Fabric Row, which evolved into a rather multifaceted commercial hub.
“It was a whole range of stores, from those who were selling schmattes of not very good quality to others who were very high end.”
The high-end storeowners, like Samuel Goldberg, went to great lengths to please an elevated clientele that included Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly’s mother.
“He traveled around the world to buy very exquisite, beautiful French and Italian fabric,” said Winitsky Palmer, “and also went to South America and other countries to find hand-woven and hand-embroidered fabrics.”
Then there were the pushcart vendors, half of whom sold produce, while the others hawked remnants, trimmings or clothing.
In addition to the fabric stores, there were plenty of other businesses as well.
“There there were so many food stores of all types, like at least one or two delicatessens on every corner,” Winitsky Palmer marveled. “There were the kosher butchers, kosher poultry shops. There were dairy stores that sold milk and eggs and butter. T, there were fish stores, bakeries …
“It was really a mix of people on Fourth Street,” she added. “The neighborhood was Jewish, but surrounding that Jewish neighborhood there was a Polish neighborhood, African-American, Italian, and they all came to shop on Fourth Street.”
With this museum show, Winitsky Palmer hopes to bring more attention to what Fabric Row storeowners accomplished.
“They became entrepreneurs,” she said. “Some of them hired designers to create fabrics that were sold exclusively in their shops, and some of them went into wholesale. They went beyond Fourth Street.”
Most of all, the show is in honor of her father, who died in 1978.
“This is a tribute to him,” she said, “and to all those who started their businesses down there.”
Philadelphia’s Fabric Row: The Pushcart Years, 1905-1955 opens today at the Philadelphia History Museum at 15 S. Seventh Street. For more information about the exhibit, call 215-685-4830.
Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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