By Lenore Harrison
The Life History Project, part of the New Deal era Federal Writer’s Project, allows us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people during the Great Depression. Sam Slatkin, who immigrated to the US from Russia in 1906 and settled in North Carolina, is one such person. Through the ups and downs of the tailoring business and a rocky marriage, Slatkin’s story is indicative of the facets of Jewish immigration prior to World War I and of early 20th century gender relations.
Early Life in Russia
Sam Slatkin was born in Russia in 1892, to a Jewish interior decorator (Abner). After learning to speak Yiddish and Russian in primary school, he became a kindergarten tutor at twelve years old in a farming village.
Journey to the USA
In 1905, the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war caused Slatkin to lose his job. After Slatkin's father’s death in 1906, Slatkin’s uncle, a butcher in the Northeast US, helped him immigrate to America. Disliking the butchering trade, Slatkin soon found a job in a clothing factory, embarking on his path to becoming a tailor.
A Russian immigrant in Olga, Louisiana
Soon after Slatkin began working in New York City, a distant relative of his uncle offered to teach him tailoring in Gastonia, North Carolina. Slatkin jumped at the opportunity to learn a skilled trade and boarded with a Jewish family in Gastonia, saving his wages to bring his sister to the US.
After losing two jobs in succession due to the bankruptcy of his employers, Slatkin opened his own tailoring shop in Gastonia. After a rocky start, his business grew rapidly. With the outbreak of World War I and the demand for tailored military uniforms, Slatkin was doing very well by 1918. However, he was young, and failed to save money during this time of prosperity.
Gastonia, NC as seen from Highway 2
In early 1919, Slatkin met his wife. They married in December of that year. Almost immediately, they began to disagree over money, beginning the marital problems that plagued them throughout their life together. From 1920 to 1927, the couple had four children, and for much of this period of time Slatkin’s wife and her parents begged him to move the family away from Gastonia. He was eventually convinced make a series of unwise financial decisions but ultimately stayed in Gastonia. In 1927 Slatkin’s business faltered and his wife soon fell ill, requiring hospitalization. In 1929, the Depression hit, and Slatkin, like so many others, was broke.
Business declined and Slatkin’s wife continued to overspend until 1936, when she left him and took their children back to her hometown. He followed in 1937, and, after several years of separation and reunion, their disputes escalated so far that Slatkin was charged with non-support and jailed in 1938. At the time of his Life History interview, Slatkin was paying his wife $15 a week and was living alone in Gastonia.
Sam Imber stitches clothing in a garment factory in New Jersey.
Sam Slatkin was one of over 2 million Jews who entered the United States from 1881 to 1928, the majority from Russia (Gold 115). He differed from other Jewish immigrants in several ways. Although he did have a “comparatively high level of occupational skill” and was self-employed, Slatkin settled not in an urban center, but in North Carolina (Gold 114). During the decade leading up to World War I, shortly after Slatkin immigrated, 70% of Jewish immigrants who entered the country through New York stayed in the city (Gold 116). Slatkin also did not immigrate to the United States with his whole family, like many other Jewish immigrants, although he did engage in “chain migration” (Gold 118, Hyman par. 4).
Anti-Semitism was rampant in Slatkin’s time period. “Colonies of immigrants recently come to this country” were accused of being a “menace to the people as long as something positive was not done to spread among them the American tradition of majority rule” (The New York Times 15). Slatkin’s Life History has a, perhaps tellingly, conspicuous absence of any mention of anti-Semitism. As a resident of the rural South in 1939, it is entirely possible that Slatkin avoided mentioning anti-Semitism out of fear.
Much of the strife in Sam Slatkin’s life was the result of marital problems. Slatkin’s tailoring business underwent frequent downturns. Therefore, his wife likely suffered greatly during these periods because “the gendered expectations regarding work and the lower salaries that women earned made mothers particularly vulnerable when no male breadwinner could be counted upon [thus] women were more likely to be poor than were men” (Hyman par. 10). Slatkin’s Life History is of course told from his perspective, but it is possible that he failed to notice the strain his wife underwent during periods of downturn, contributing to their marital distress.
The Life History Project
The Life History Project was part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a stimulus effort during the Great Depression intended to employ out-of-work writers. The aim of the Life History Project was to record the stories of ordinary people through interviews (Couch). However, some contested the worth of the project. A veteran writer for the North Carolina Life History Project, Leonard Rapport claims that his instructions to interviewers that the stories be “almost stenographic accounts” were “largely ignored” (13). He also gives accounts of life histories being invented by the interviewers, who he believed “[thought] of themselves as creative writers, and most likely, in the innermost adytum, potential fiction writers” (Rapport 14). However, Jerrold Hirsch directly responds to Rapport, stating that “before the tape recorder almost all direct quotation is open to question [but] when read critically and used in conjunction with other documents historians have found quoted material in diaries, memoirs, letters, and journals valuable sources” (87).
Based on mentions of him and his business in local newspapers, Slatkin existed. How much of his story was accurately recorded, however, is debatable. Many of the problems with which Rapport discredits the Life Histories are absent in Slatkin’s interview; it reads like the transcript of a conversation. Although issues exist in other Life History interviews, examples like Slatkin’s demonstrate that the Life Histories as a whole are valuable records of the lives of ordinary people.
Abner, John H (interviewer): Tam Levine, Tailor, Folder 283 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3760, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Gold, Steven J. “From ‘The Jazz Singer’ to ‘What a Country!" a Comparison of Jewish Migration to the United States, 1880-1930 and 1965-1998.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 18, no. 3, 1999, pp. 114–141. www.jstor.org/stable/27502452.
Hyman, Paula E. "Eastern European Immigrants in the United States." Jewish Women's Archive. Jewish Women's Archive, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.
Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review, vol. 7, 1979, pp. 6–17. www.jstor.org/stable/3675185
Terrill, Tom E., and Jerrold Hirsch. “Replies to Leonard Rapport's ‘How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.’” The Oral History Review, vol. 8, 1980, pp. 81–89. www.jstor.org/stable/3675217.
"SAYS JEWS GRASP OUR TRADITIONS; Rabbi Silverman Defends Russian Immigrants from Strictures of Prof. Prince. BOTH URGE AMERICANISM." The New York Times 2 Mar. 1919, sec. 1: 15. The New York Times Times Machine. The New York Times. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
Lee, Russell. Resident of Olga, Louisiana, a Russian emigrant. Digital image. Photogrammer . Yale University , n.d. Web. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997024465/PP>.
Vachon, John. Gastonia, North Carolina. On U.S. Highway 29 from a truck enroute to Greenville, South Carolina. Digital image. Photogrammer . Yale University , n.d. Web. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001023195/PP>.
Lee, Russell. Proprietor of tailor shop at steam presser, University Place near 11th Street, New York City. Digital image. Photogrammer . Yale University , n.d. Web. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997021105/PP>.
Lee, Russell. Sam Imber, tailor in cooperative garment factory, Jersey Homesteads, Hightstown, New Jersey. Digital image. Photogrammer . Yale University , n.d. Web. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997020980/PP>.