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Book Notes: Immigrant Furniture Workers in London, 1881-1939, and the Jewish Contribution to the Furniture Trade, William I. Massil

Michael Lazarus

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Immigrant Furniture Workers in London, 1881-1939, and the Jewish Contribution to the Furniture Trade, William I. Massil (London: Jewish Museum in association with the Geffrye Museum, 1997) ISBN 1871447046. x + 84 + [12] pp. of plates. ?5.95. I must begin by declaring an interest: in the winter of 1949, aged 15, I was apprenticed to the cabinet making firm of R. &amp; A. Bernstein, makers of hand? made reproduction furniture. Armed with ?5 with which to buy tools (lent to me by the Jewish Board of Guardians and repaid at the rate of a shilling a week), I set foot in Virginia Road, at the very centre of the Jewish furniture makers' Shoreditch ghetto; the neighbourhood which is also at the heart of William Massil's book. To say I walked blindly and uncomprehendingly into this ghetto would be an understatement. What I uncovered during my five-year sojourn was a world which had at its very heart a harsh, unforgiving ruthlessness in which each tier in the hierarchy of maker, factor, wholesaler and retailer exploited the one below in search of an improved margin. Accordingly, if anything in William Massil's book can be seen as a shortcoming, it is his failure (reluctance, maybe?) to qualify the essentially romantic nature of his narrative with, at least, some minimal attention to the cruelty which also helped fashion the success story of which his book is made. These were no Quakers; no social theory leavened their relentless search for profit and the better life that would follow in its wake. The story of 338</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes the Jewish struggle to build a future in British society is not an entirely attractive one and the picture of Jew helping Jew, which many still like to paint, is, of course, not by any means the whole, unvarnished truth. Accordingly, I should have preferred Massil's book to have better reflected the less palatable side of what is, none-the-less, a remarkable story. The extent to which Jews came to dominate the furniture industry, both in manufacturing and retailing, paralleled a similar domination in the clothing industry; and this probably says more about Jewish entrepreneurial skill than about the industries in which these skills were practised and honed. Perhaps, above all, MassiPs book will prompt the reader to wonder how it was that the likes of Simon Sadovsky, Isaac Wiseman, Jack Cinnamon and Israel Bercovici, penniless immigrants from Russia and Romania, were able to develop the skills necessary for the establishment, development and management of large and com? plex businesses, without the aid of an education, let alone Business Schools, MB As and consultants? Although Massil mentions in passing the appalling conditions in which men worked, he chooses not to elaborate. And herein lies the greatest weakness of this book. To all intents and purposes, it is less about immigrant furniture workers than about a relatively small number of entrepreneurs who became well known, successful businessmen. For the most part, the furniture workers of London, based mainly in Shoreditch and its immediate environs, laboured in workshops where the only source of heat was a small grate on which glue was kept fluid. In winter they froze; but the glue was warm. Sanitation was minimal and only for the large number of rats were the conditions in any way amenable. The failure to pay these men proper and appropriate attention is indeed unfortu? nate. Not surprisingly, accidents were frequent and again Massil disappoints by making no mention of the Mildmay Mission Hospital, otherwise known as the Cabinet Makers' Hospital. Here, in Austin Street, close to Shoreditch church, a dedicated team of Sisters attended to the needs of generations of cabinet makers without regard to race, religion or creed, which was just as well, since most of their customers were Jews. And there is another omission from William Massil's book which surprises: nowhere is there a single word about the french polishers who gave the furniture the finish necessary to its successful sale in shops and stores up and down the country. These men were craftsmen of a quite special order and their invisibility is undeserved. On the whole I enjoyed this book, notwithstanding its obvious shortcomings. It highlights the early days of a remarkable generation, to whose determination and ultimate success we owe some of our own prosperity. But the picture is too incomplete to be a total success. Michael Lazarus 339</page></plain_text>

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