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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Peep in parcel of traveling Jewish salesman

 

Here the possible content of the parcel of a traveling Jewish salesman is described. The description is based mainly on the information found in the book "Zaļā grāmata" of Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš and in the book "Bigauņciema un apkārtnes zvejnieki" of Jēkabs Stūlis. Both these books dealt with the childhood impressions of the authors including the traveling Jews they recalled. You could read a bit more about the authors and the books in the page about Jewish traveling salesmen you are welcome to visit.

I hope you agree that this actual Page might be interesting for readers who have Jewish ancestors to learn what was their business and as well for those who have Latvian ancestors to get informed about the needs of Latvians at the end of the 19th century.

The parcel of a traveling Jew was a sack like a rucksack but longer (or higher?). Quite frequently some boxes were put in the parcel for small items. The parcel could not be light. The more goods the salesman took with, the better was his business and the heavier was the parcel. So the market research was very important for this type of commerce. I imagine that a salesman elaborated his route quite carefully and estimated possible trade opportunities in each one of the farms he was going to visit. He knew quite well the people, their buying power and their needs, beginning from the needs of newborn babies and ending with funeral needs.

As J.Stūlis described, a traveling Jewish salesman, when entered a farm house, took his parcel off his shoulders, put it on the floor, breathed out and in a loud voice recited the list of the goods in the parcel. This was a very simple kind of sale tactic, you see. He did not ask - what you wished, ladies and gentlemen, he informed about his offers straightforwardly in order everybody could hear and exclaim - oh, that is just I thought I needed! Obviously this tactic was the reason that the authors of the above mentioned books remembered rather well what was in the parcels. Another reason was that the authors were kids who visited a shop in rare occasions and for them the things in the parcel were of extreme interest.

 

It could be learned from a small citation that was found in the memoirs of miller's daughter Adele Stubendorff: "Especially a Parcel-Jew Markus knew a lot of legends and tales. Even more interesting was his parcel that contained many useful articles as: cotton, buttons, needles, thread and bands as well as odorous soap. We had odorous soap only for guests who could visit us and then lived in two rooms little used for other purposes. For our family needs we had self-made soap what my mother could produce very skillfully. The great amount of soap was spent in our home, because our employees and apprentices also washed themselves equally with us. At that time palm-soap was very popular, and it was also used in our home, but we, the kids, did not like it, because it was sharp and bite eyes." Full text of the memoirs is available on this site (in German) (263 kB).

 

Parcel of a Jew described by J.Stūlis

Jēkabs Stūlis remembered the list of the goods offered by a traveling salesman. The Jews had not excellent pronunciation in Latvian, and J.Stūlis recorded salesman's text as follows:
«Oi, mīle saimniecīt, pērcet kemes, adatines, spiegeles, grifeles, bleifederes, krēles, bantes, tējkarotes, krinolines, lakes, kuveres, smiņķes, driveldrike, buldurjanes, zevelkocines, bārzde naze, kabatnaze, pīpus ar Bismarka galviņām, zītareļe, dzērves ace, ace drape, biese sekles, burkansekles u. t. t

Now I am trying to explain each one of the items and to estimate the demand for and the prices of them.

 

No. The names of
the goods as
pronounced by
the salesman
The names of
the goods in
21th century
Latvian
Explanations and comments
1. kemes ķemmes combs. As far as I know, the most widely used combs were made of wood. Their teeth were lost quite easily, so there was always some need in new combs. Women used brushes made of bristles to brush their long hair. The combs of copper or other metal were also available but evidently were more expensive.
2. adatines adatiņas needles. There was constant need in needles, because they could be easily broken. The needles of different sizes were to be offered for different jobs including the work with skins and leathers. J.Jaunsudrabiņš in one of his sketches described a barter deal between a Jewish salesman (Zuskis) and a poor peasant women, who got 2 needles of different size for handful of pig bristles.
3. spiegeles spoguļi mirrors. These were small and sometimes very small pocket mirrors. I imagine that one mirror could serve a family for a long time, thus the mirror market was not very intensive.
4. grifeles grifeles slate-pencils. They were the most popular writing tool in the schools. The pupils wrote with slate-pencils on slate plates and, after the teacher had checked the results of writing, it was easy to wipe off the text and to write again and again. Actually the slate pencils were the pieces of slate made in form of pencil. I know the approximate price of them - for 2 Kopecks one could get 3 or may be even 4 slate-pencils (in 1864). What I do not know is how many slate-pencils were needed for a school-year. The slate plates could be used for years and came from older children to younger ones.
5. bleifederes zīmuļi pencils. The meaning of the German word Bleifeder for the item - lead pen reminds the time when the pencils were really made of lead. At the end of the 18th century J.Hartmuth invented technology for the manufacture of graphite pencils. So in the 19th century modern pencils were offered.
J.Jaunsudrabiņš said in his memoirs that a parcel Jew (Zuskis) once presented him a pencil. It wrote in red from one end and in blue from the other end! You, the computerized people, can never imagine what a marvelous thing was this pencil!
6. krēles krelles beads. The beads could be quite various in their fashion and in price.
7. bantes lentas fillets, bands. Various kinds of bands could find market in the farms. They were needed for hair dressing or for fastening of stockings or for other purposes.
8. tējkarotes tējkarotes teaspoons. Usually people used wooden (birch) spoons made by men with appropriate skills. By the way, it is not that easy to make a good well-balanced wooden spoon. Quite obvious that the teaspoons were needed only in relatively rich houses that had tea and especially sugar to stir in it. From other sources it is known that parcel Jews distributed Chinese tea also.
9. krinolines krinolīns crinolines. No doubt, the crinolines (hoop-skirts) were not worn in farms but could be put on only for some social events. J.Štūlis asserts that in his place the crinolines were very fashionable. He wrote about his own small business: on demand of young ladies he gathered thin long flexible roots of pine-trees, took the rind off and sold the product for the frames of crinolines. He got 3 kopecks for one crinoline frame. The money was enough to buy a bun in the nearest town. A traveling salesman could offer not only the frames but also the coverings that was not that easy to sew, I think.
10. lakes   The first word for the translation that comes in mind is lakas - lacquers. Unfortunately, I can not imagine what needed to be lacquered in a farm. Then I can suppose that the word stands for lakati - kerchiefs, but it seems to be linguistically rather far shot, though in fact kerchiefs were sold by traveling salesmen and could have a good market.
11. kuveres aploksnes envelopes. The word kuvere (compare with cover) definitely should mean envelope. But what is of use to offer envelopes and not to offer paper for letters?
12. smiņķes krēmi creams. Here the creams for make-up are meant. For example, cheeks should have been painted rose, if a lady went to any festivity.
13. driveldrike drīveldriķis I do not think I have ever heard of the word, but A.Skuja lead me in the right direction, and I gathered a lot of useless information on the Internet. In German the item is called Teufelsdreck what means devil's dung, but in Norwegian dyvels drekk, that sounds very close to the Latvian word, so I conclude the word has come to Latvia from Northern Germany or Scandinavia. By the way, the Latvians knew the meaning of this word, because sometimes it was translated to velna sūds that sounds not very aesthetically.
Devil's dung is a spice asafetida from India, but in the region of Latvia it was used only as a medicine for nervous diseases. More information is available in Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages. I wonder how the Jews transported it, because it should stink strongly like garlic.
14. buldurjanes baldriāņi valerian. The tincture of valerian is still used for regulation of heart functioning.
15. zevelkocines sērkociņi matches. The production of safety matches began in the middle of the 1850s in Sweden. See the history page of matches. In Daugavpils [Dünaburg, Dvinsk] several manufactures of matches were organized by Jewish entrepreneurs in the 1880s. See for names in another Page. The matchboxes of that time were of cylindrical form.
I think that matches in farms were usually considered as a luxury, because the farm women kept fire or smoulder coal all the day and night along. The smokers had fire strikers and helped women, if they were not careful and lost the fire in the oven, otherwise somebody was to run to the nearest neighbors and to borrow there some fire or smoulder coal.
16. bārzde naze bārdas naži razors. The razors were not needed in a big quantity. One razor was enough to shave all the men of a farm in Saturday evening, if the blade was good and somebody had the necessary skill to sharpen it.
17. kabatnaze kabatas naži pocket knives. The most valued pocket knives were made by Swedish company Fiskars (now the company and the works are situated in Finland). This word even was borrowed in the Latvian language and a good knife was called fiskars. J.Jaunsudrabiņš wrote piskars and mentioned that a good one cost 25 kopecks. In a story of another author (J.Poruks) I found information that an excellent fiskars with two blades and a corkscrew was bought very cheaply for 75 kopecks by the end of the 19th century.
18. pīpus ar Bismarka galviņām pīpes ar Bismarka galviņām pipes with Bismarck's heads. This kind of pipe was fashionable for rather long time. I do not realize why the images of Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian politician, were chosen for the decoration of pipes.
19. zītareļe dzintareļļa amber oil. Really, it is a product of distillation of amber. Regardless of its bad smell, it was used as a medicine for outward application.
20. dzērves ace dzērves acs

The meaning of the word - crane's eye does not allow to say what it really was. I could propose two possibilities.
1. a slightly different word dzērvacs was used for gladiolus (the modern Latvian word is gladiola). One can easily imagine that the traveling Jews distributed the bulbs of gladioli in springtime when they should be planted. It was important not to mix up bulbs of flowers of different colors, I guess. And I do not think that a lot of people were ready to spend money for flower bulbs, but possibly some of them did. If you have a look on a cleaned bulb of gladioli, then with a bit of fantasy you discover that it really resembles an eye.
2. a medicine called dzērves acs was distributed in form of cookie. The patients cut off a small piece of this cookie and ate it with bread, if the problems with heart should be treated and in other cases as well. I do not know, what the ingredients of this medicine were.

21. ace drape acu pilieni eye-drops. I do not know what the ingredients of this medicine were in reality.
22. biese sekles biešu sēklas beet seeds. It is possible to harvest these seeds in Latvia, but some additional agricultural expertise is needed and the results are guaranteed only in relatively warm years. There are various kinds of beet - red beets, sugar-beets cultivated in the region of Latvia, but, as far as I know, the peasants here became informed about these plants in 1870's-1880's
23. burkansekles burkānu sēklas seeds of carrots. The situation with carrot seeds was quite similar to that with beets, but carrots were know in the region of Latvia for longer period.

 

 

The parcel of Zuskis.

According to the author, Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš, it contained:
"Poges, dieges, kemmes, adates, adames adatines, mute ziepes, spickes, pulveres, peipes, tabakes, nazes, stalpederes, bleipederes, cakes, cilenes, drapes, spiegeles." In the following table only the items not mentioned in the previous parcel are considered.

 

24. poges pogas buttons. I do not think the traditional buttons with two or four holes were very common in the countryside. For everyday clothes one could made short wooden cylinders that were fastened to the clothes in place of buttons. But the representative clothes had buttons and some fashions had even extra buttons for decorative purposes.
25. dieges diegi threads. No demand for woolen or flax threads because they were spun in farms. Some sale could be met for cotton or silk threads. The best idea would be to sell colored threads for embroidering.
26. adames adatines adāmadatas knitting needles. One usually used 5 steel needles to knit a stocking or mittens. Knitting was exercised in the country side very widely, but the demand for needles could not be high, because 1 set of needles for a woman is enough for all her life and even longer.
27. mute ziepes tualetes ziepes toilet soap. The demand for toilet soap can be understood from the fragment of A.Stubendorff, see above.
28. pulveres pulveri powders. There could be various kinds of powder. I think, here it goes about a medicine in form of powder.
29. peipes pīpes pipes. It is not very difficult to make a pipe. But, of course, the smokers with factory made pipes looked much more stylish. The smokers prefer not to throw away their old favorite pipes, so a new pipe is wanted, only if the old one is crashed by an accident.
30. tabakes tabaka tobacco. This was imported tobacco for well-situated smokers or for stylish young men. An ordinary man smoked self-grown tobacco. To the end of summer, when the new harvest of tobacco was not available yet, and the old harvest had already been consumed, it was a good idea to put some more tobacco in the parcel.
31. stalpederes tērauda spalvas steel pens. The transition from slate-pencils to steel pens took place in schools in the 1870s. The steel pens were began to be offered in the market at the end of the 1850s. Nevertheless, even in the state offices the people frequently wrote on paper by skillfully prepared geese feathers up to 1890s. By the way, the factory of steel pens for the Russia Empire was situated in Rīga.
32. cakes mežģīnes lace. Yes, the women in farms also wanted to trim their clothing with lace.
33. cilenes   I do not know what this item was. The only idea comes from the verb cilāt i.e to bring up that probably was used to create the word. May be this was a sort of baking powder used for baking some bakery items of wheat flour? It could be sold in some farms, I think.
34. drapes zāles drops. Liquid medicine without specification. The most popular liquid medicine was the tincture of valerian, I suppose.

 

Additional interesting information I found in the memories of Bernhard Bielenstein. He informed that traveling Jews sold chocolate in the middle of 1890s. J.Lautenbachs-Jūsmiņš wrote in his memories that he purchased a harmonica (mouth-organ) at a traveling Jew about the end of 1850s.

 

Conclusions

As you see, no expensive items that could bring good income was found in the parcel of a parcel Jew. Some kopecks was the normal profit to count for a deal. Let us suppose that on average 2 kopecks were gained by a deal and 5 deals were completed during the business day, then the profit was 10 kopecks per day or 50 kopecks for a week or 25 roubles per year. You can compare with the salary of a worker in a manor who in 1870-1880s could earn about 20-40 kopecks per day, but, I am afraid, only during the work season. And the salary of this kind of worker was very different depending on the manors and on the decade of the century. Additional information to understand the real value of the money could be the amount that the father of an illegitimate child paid for subsistence of the child. It was 10 roubles per year for Vidzeme peasants to whom most agricultural products were available without additional charge.

Of course, if a salesman visited great farms or manors with a lot of people of good buying power, then the business was more successful. The business was going on much better in the fairs that were regularly organized in various settlements and traveling salesmen obligatory took part in them.

To make success and to become a salesman traveling by horse, a Jew should have had saved up to 50-70 Roubles for a horse, then additional money for a cart and some investment for goods to sell. Having a horse and making more intensive business, he could dream about possessing once a stationary shop in a town. Not a task for one or two generations, was it?

 

 

© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002