In the 1930s, one American brand boldly declared that they had delivered something “the Hebrew race has been waiting 4,000” for – Crisco. Yes! Finally, Proctor and Gamble was giving Jewish kitchens an all-vegetable cooking fat that could be used in kosher cooking of any kind. They were likely right that kosher cooks would benefit greatly from their product, but their bold declaration was an act of pure marketing, not altruism. And Proctor & Gamble was not alone. As the turn-of-the-20th century saw first-generation families grow, assimilate, and become more fully a piece of the social and economic structure of the country, big brands saw dollar signs. The population had exploded in the previous few decades, and within this new population lay the potential for millions of new customers. But how to inspire brand loyalty in someone with different habits, backgrounds, and priorities than your core audience? Brands knew they’d have to change their message to reach these groups, and they scrambled to speak to new Americans, literally, in their own language.
Brands like Crisco went farther than just announcing their products could be used in Jewish households – they wanted to make their brands indispensable in these homes. In the 1930s, Proctor & Gamble released a dual English/Yiddish language cookbook, full of recipes “for the Jewish housewife” that all used – you guessed it – Crisco. Now they were not only hawking their product but, they could argue, providing a service to Jewish Americans. The cookbook was a way for Jewish housekeepers to cook like an American while maintaining their own traditional customs. Maxwell House did the same, positioning coffee beans as berries and therefore kosher for Passover. To solidify consumers’ connection between their coffee and the holiday, Maxwell House distributed a special branded Haggadah, for free, to Jewish customers. Many Jewish Americans today fondly recall using the Maxwell House Haggadah in their family’s traditions.
Smart American brands looking to woo new immigrants at the turn-of-the-last century knew that at the very least, they’d have to speak to new immigrants in their own language. Non-English ads broadened the reach of their advertisements and engendered feelings of comfort and closeness – a feeling that the brand was meeting these new customers on their own level. Brands like Coca Cola, Palmolive soap, Gold Medal Flour and Corn Flakes all advertised in the booming Yiddish language press. The Forward newspaper was the standard, since it was the most widely read, but there were many such publications in New York at the time that all ran Yiddish ads for classic American brands. Some ads, channeling the same intention as Crisco and Maxwell, would provide recipes that helped bridge the cultural divide.
These ads weren’t just relegated to the pages of the newspaper – they appeared in shops and along the street. Brands like Singer, whose innovative design revolutionized the industry, advertised to Jewish women with shop signs that matched what they’d be used to seeing in their local neighborhood shops. Possessing both technical expertise as well as a flair for business, Singer was the first to look beyond the commercial market and see tremendous opportunity – as yet untapped – selling sewing machines directly to households. And they sold directly to households of all kinds – using tactics like Yiddish to connect with new customers.
Innovation and attention from brands like Singer really could change life for millions of people, including immigrants on the Lower East Side. By the 1850s, Singer’s innovations had reduced sewing machine prices from $100 to $10, putting home machines in reach for a whole new class of Americans. And in a move that certainly benefited low-income immigrant families, Singer’s company was the first to offer payments through an installment payment plan.
Having a sewing machine at home actually presented Lower East Siders with better economic opportunities. Fifty years after Singer’s innovations democratized the sewing machine, more than half of the Lower East Side’s working population were in the garment industry. By 1910, 70% of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40% of the men’s was produced in New York City. Many immigrants set up garment shops inside their tenement apartments and a Singer Sewing Machine was an invaluable investment. Although hand stitching was still demanded for certain kinds of detail work, it was impossible to compete with the speed of a sewing machine for less detailed work. An experienced seamstress could easily sew 40 stitches per minute by hand, but at 900 stitches per minute, a skilled sewing machine operator was capable of working nearly 23 times faster. This all equated to better wages and opportunities to build a more stable life.
The painted metal Singer sign shown here hangs in the Museum at Eldridge Street’s permanent exhibition gallery. (Learn even more about the sign here.) It’s a charming historic artifact, but it tells a meaningful story. It exemplifies Jewish immigrants’ evolution from outsiders to insiders – at least in the eyes of American corporations. To be marketed to as consumers marked a new stage in the identity of American Jews. They were being recognized by the establishment as a powerful demographic, and one worth catering to and courted.