The Rag Race

How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire

320 pages

December, 2014

ISBN: 9781479847181



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Adam D. Mendelsohn is Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research and Associate Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. He is the co-editor of Jews and the Civil War: A Reader (NYU Press, 2010) and of Transnational Traditions: New Perspective on American Jewish History.

All books by Adam D. Mendelsohn

Winner, 2016 Best First Book Prize from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society

Finalist, 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Winner, 2015 Book Prize from the Southern Jewish Historical Society 

Finalist, 2015 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies 

Winner, 2014 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies from the Jewish Book Council

The majority of Jewish immigrants who made their way to the United States between 1820 and 1924 arrived nearly penniless; yet today their descendants stand out as exceptionally successful. How can we explain their dramatic economic ascent? Have Jews been successful because of cultural factors distinct to them as a group, or because of the particular circumstances that they encountered in America? 

The Rag Race argues that the Jews who flocked to the United States during the age of mass migration were aided appreciably by their association with a particular corner of the American economy: the rag trade. From humble beginnings, Jews rode the coattails of the clothing trade from the margins of economic life to a position of unusual promise and prominence, shaping both their societal status and the clothing industry as a whole. 

Comparing the history of Jewish participation within the clothing trade in the United States with that of Jews in the same business in England, The Rag Race demonstrates that differences within the garment industry on either side of the Atlantic contributed to a very real divergence in social and economic outcomes for Jews in each setting.


  • "Drawing upon the social and economic historiography of Britain, Australia, and the United States, this book weaves together disparate historical threads into a seamless narrative with a compelling argument. Making shrewd use of historical comparison, it illuminates the interplay of inherited culture with historically contingent structures of opportunity. The result is a book studded with insight, and written with wit and style."

    —Jerry Z. Muller, author of Capitalism and the Jews

  • "Deeply researched and beautifully written, The Rag Race returns to a classic topic—the story of Jewish immigrants in the clothing industry—to shed entirely new light on the route that led from the sweatshop to success. Moving the conventional starting point backward, from the turn of the twentieth century to the early 19th century, Mendelsohn demonstrates how early differences in Jewish settlement and the structure of the garment trade led to divergent Jewish trajectories on both the U.S. and British sides of the Anglophone world. An outstanding example of comparative history, The Rag Race offers insights that any scholar or student of immigration will appreciate."

    —Roger Waldinger, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles

  • The Rag Race traces the involvement of Jewish immigrants in the shmatte business, and draws connections between that involvement and the economic ascent of Jews in America.”

    New York Jewish Weekly

  • "Mendelsohn joins the scholarly debate over the roots of Jewish economic success in the U.S. This he does with great style and energy, offering vivid descriptions, telling detail, and clear arguments, all based on meticulous research. This is a superb book that is a model of comparative and transnational history. It should be read not only by historians of American or modern Jewry, but by historians of immigration, business, fashion, and urban life."

    American Historical Review

  • "In The Rag Race, Adam Mendelsohn traces the intertwined fates of the Jewish community and the garment industries in America and Britain...Like any good historical writer, he turns documents and data into relatable human stories."

  • "An inquiry into the wellspring of modern Jewish economic success, [The Rag Race] attends to the origins of the garment industry, poking around in the dusty, and often little-known, corners of a global exchange based on kinship and the Jewish collective...The Rag Race is a remarkable achievement, a testament to the vitality of the historical imagination."

    Jewish Review of Books

  • "With this gracefully written monograph, deeply researched on three continents, Mendelsohn joins a cohort of scholars writing Jewish economic history through a transnational lens.”


  • Adam Mendelsohn’s The Rag Race is a masterpiece. It is not the equivalent of a garment cut out from a pattern, but rather an original. It is a history of the Jews in the “rag trade”—from the collecting, patching, and reselling of rags in early nineteenth-century London and New York; to the development of garment workshops making new (“ready-made”) garments for sale; to the modern industrial production, distribution, and selling of garments in the late nineteenth century. It is the story of Jews in London and New York—the two primary English-speaking centers for Jews, as well as for the garment industry. Appropriately, The Rag Race won the 2015 National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.

    —Barry R. Chiswick, The American Jewish Archives Journal

  • The maturation of a post-Marxian “economic turn” in the field of Jewish history has been in the making for quite a while now. Adam Mendelsohn’s new book on the garment trade in America, Britain, and the British Empire is not just a worthy contribution to this growing stream of scholarship; it is, in many ways, a milestone. It is not “just” about the dynamics of consumer patterns, or labor history, or ethnic networks, or Jewish-Gentile relations, or the globalization of commercial activity. It is about all of these at once. The Rag Race, a painstakingly researched work of comparative social and economic history, deals with what is arguably the keystone in the entire structure of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Western Jewish economic history: THE industry that was almost legendary for providing jobs and an entrepreneurial niche for hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jews on both sides of the Atlantic. Mendelsohn shows just how much about the “rag race” we did not really understand before.

    —Eli Lederhendler, American Jewish History

  • “Adam Mendelsohn’s The Rag Race is a masterpiece.  It is not the equivalent of a garment cut out from a pattern, but rather an original.”

    The American Jewish Archives Journal

  • The Rag Race offers an impressively researched comparison of the workings of this niche in two different nations.”

    The Journal of American History

  • “Mendelsohn’s argument is enlightening and persuasive at every turn.”

    Winterthur Portfolio