July 28, 1877

Michael Angelo Wolfe


Anti-Semitism; Jewish Americans;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Clerk. "I am very sorry, but my orders are ___."

Tourist. "Yesh, yesh, I know all about your orters; but how voz it dot you knowed I vozn't a Ghristian?"

This cartoon is based on an actual incident when a hotel in the resort area of Saratoga, New York, denied a room to a Jewish tourist.  On the editorial page of Harper's Weekly the anti-Semitic practice was condemned.  Here, though, the cartoonist makes light of the situation by stereotyping the appearance and speech of the Jewish patron.

The first Jews in New York were Sephardic immigrants from Brazil, who arrived in New York City in 1654.  By the eighteenth century, the city had the largest Jewish population in America, but Jews represented only one percent of the national population in 1789.  As late as 1825, there were only 500 Jews in New York City.  Yet by the mid-century, the metropolis was home to 50,000 Jews (one-third of the American Jewish population), many of who had fled Germany and other Central European nations.  (The cartoon's tourist speaks with a German accent.)  Bavaria and other German states had enacted discriminatory laws against their Jewish residents, severely restricting their ability to travel, marry, and transact business.

Like other ethnic groups, New York's Jews established houses of worship (27 synagogues by 1859), fraternal organizations (such as B'nai B'rith), newspapers (e.g., Jewish Messenger and Hebrew Leader, both of which had national circulations), hospitals (the Jewish Hospital in 1852, renamed Mount Sinai in 1866), charities (including a fundraising ball at Niblo's Garden in 1858 attended by the mayor), and educational institutions.  The development of a full-fledged Jewish community corresponded with the rise of anti-Semitic caricatures in the press, although there was no major public backlash at the time.

Many of the German Jews who immigrated at mid-century were middle-class businessmen (unlike later immigrants from Eastern Europe who tended to be poorer and less skilled).  Some, like August Belmont and Meyer Guggenheim, became prosperous and well respected leaders in the New York business world (Belmont also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee).  The founding of Jewish financial institutions was partially in reaction to denials of investment capital and access from established Gentile firms.  In 1866, for example, seven insurance companies in New York City agreed to stop doing business with Jews.  When word leaked out, so many Jewish clients cancelled their policies that the insurance companies retracted the restrictive covenant.

The real tourist depicted in this cartoon is Joseph Seligman, a prominent New Yorker of German-Jewish descent.  He founded a clothing firm that supplied Union troops with uniforms during the Civil War, and worked in his family's banking institution, J. and W. Seligman and Company.  An opponent of Tammany Hall and friend of President U. S. Grant, Seligman turned down two offers by the Republicans to run for mayor of New York City.  He later helped finance the city's elevated railroad and supported numerous charities.  In the early summer of 1877, Seligman was denied a room at Saratoga's Grand Union Hotel, owned by Judge Henry Hilton, a former associate of the corrupt Tammany Hall boss, William Tweed.

In a Harper's Weekly editorial entitled "Race Prejudice," George William Curtis rejected Hilton's claim that Seligman was not rebuffed because of his religion.  Since only Jews were denied admittance to the hotel, "the action illustrates and confirms a prejudice which is simply monstrous."  The editor noted that while Hilton might not be prejudiced himself, he was acting on the belief that most of his hotel guests were and, therefore, would not want to associate with Jews.  

Although Curtis does not mention the Civil Rights Act of 1875, he argues that a person cannot legally be denied such accommodations based on his race.  The editor suggested that Seligman seek legal redress to "test the principle in the courts for the general benefit."  The following week, Curtis expressed satisfaction at the "universal protest" against the exclusion of Jewish guests from the Saratoga hotel, and then took the opportunity to remind readers that racial prejudice against black Americans was just as bad and pervasive.

Other Jews experienced discrimination similar to what Seligman endured.  In 1867, Oscar Straus was denied admittance to a college literary society, and in the late 1880s, Bernard Baruch was blackballed from college fraternities, in both cases simply because they were Jewish.  Nevertheless, they persevered; Straus was later appointed secretary of commerce by President Theodore Roosevelt, and Baruch became a leading industrialist and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.  

In 1879, two years after the Saratoga incident, Austin Corbin barred Jews from his hotels at Coney Island.  "We do not like Jews as a class," he told the New York Herald.  That same year, Corbin and Hilton joined about 100 other members to form the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews.  Encapsulating the group's illogical thinking, Corbin asked, "If this is a free country, why can't we be free of the Jews?"  The organization was thankfully short-lived.

The largest influx of Jews to New York and the United States in general came in the years after this cartoon appeared, from 1880 to 1910, during which nearly 1.5 million Jews fled pogroms, discrimination, and violence in Russia and other Eastern European countries.  Less than one percent of the immigrants to the United States in 1881 were Jewish, but by 1887, that figure had risen to 6.5 percent.  The large number of Eastern European immigrants prompted the founding of the American Protective Association, a nativist organization that spoke out harshly against Jews and Catholics and promoted restrictive immigration laws.

Discrimination against Jewish Americans continued well into the twentieth century, but the ethnic community as a whole was successful, despite such roadblocks.  In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, and by 2000, the religious faith and policy positions of Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, were more important to the vast majority of Americans than his Jewish heritage.

Robert C. Kennedy

October 24, 2021

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