Almost all of the early Jewish immigrants, with the notable exceptions of Abraham Nordheimer and Simon Oberndorffer, dealt at first in second-hand and scrap goods such as clothing, furniture, metal and timber.
The reason was simple. Scavenging (what we now call recycling) was the most efficient mode of business for an immigrant group with little access to capital. Moreover, although a difficult way to make a living, the collection and resale of castoff articles and materials in one form or another afforded a measure of independence unavailable to the common labourer. For non-Christians living in a Christian land, self-reliance meant having the power to set one’s own hours and to observe one’s own Sabbath and holidays.
This economic pattern was not unique to Kingston or Canada. Novelist Mordecai Richler’s grandfather worked in a scrap-yard by the waterfront; so did Leonard Cohen’s. Ragmen scoured the streets of “The Main,” Montreal’s Jewish district, singing out “Rags, bones, bottles!” or “Old Clothes!” Even British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, though of a patrician background, was derisively referred to by his political opponents as “Old Clo’s”. In the United States, an incredible 90% of the scrap-dealerships were still Jewish-owned family businesses up until the 1990s.
The Jewish pedlar is as iconic an historical figure as the scrap-dealer; indeed the two occupations were inextricably entwined. As Gerald Tulchinsky writes in Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey:
Many of these people began as pedlars selling merchandise from small carts or buggies in rural areas, or along the streets in towns and villages, securing the merchandise on credit from a metropolitan wholesaler. In a few years, he might have done well enough to open a small store. Instead of cash, some pedlars took livestock or produce as payment, while still others accepted any scrap metal, hides, or furs that farmers had for barter. Those seeking scrap metals, for example, sometimes offered new kitchen utensils to farmers in exchange for cast-off implements. Such metals would be hauled back to the pedlar’s yard, knocked apart with crow bars and sledge hammers, thrown into piles, and sold off to brokers who shipped it by rail or truck to the steel mills in Hamilton, Sydney, and Sault Ste. Marie. . . . These dealers served as commercial intermediaries between the nearby farms and the metropolitan centers. Pedlars and storekeepers offered much the same kind of link between the rural community and the growing populations in their towns, while, as purchasers from Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg wholesalers, they also linked the towns to the metropolises.
One man’s junk is another’s treasure. Bones were ground into meal for fertilizer; old clothing, if beyond repair, was processed into “shoddy” to make paper; and discarded furniture was broken down to make fuel, or refurbished as antiques. To this day, there are traces of the pioneering past in this city’s Jewish businesses. The giant KIMCO recycling plant on Counter Street began as a small scrap yard on Rideau Street. Kingstonians may be familiar with the Abramsky name, associating it with real estate; but the family business began a century ago with an ancestor’s stint as a pedlar at the corner of Princess and Division.