Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Sam Slatkin

Sam SlatkinEdit

Sam Slatkin, a resident of North Carolina, was interviewed by John H. Abner for the Federal Writers Project on February 10th, 1939.


Early LifeEdit

Sam Slatkin, a Jew, was born in Russia in 1892. He was the son of an interior decorator. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese war broke out, Slatkin’s school shut down, and his father died (though not in the war, he was already a veteran). With this change of environment, Slatkin's mother pushed him to leave Russia. Along with the many other Russian-Jews facing persecution, Slatkin immigrated to America, where he was adopted by his Uncle. Slatkin’s Uncle was a successful butcher in North Carolina, but Tom did not want to join the business because he wished to become a tailor.

Adult LifeEdit

As a tailor, Slatkin went through various seasons of success and poverty. He was moderately successful in his town, Brooks, especially in the years following WW1, but Slatkin and his wife handled money poorly. Slatkin's wife often demanded the luxuries of life, despite their financial limitations. In 1929, and throughout the following few years of the depression, Slatkin struggled to make enough to pay for necessities such as housing, food, and his childrens’ expenses. This was largely due to his wife's excessive spending, but it was also reflective of his own inconsistent income. In 1936, Slatkin’s wife left him and moved with their children to Bowman. Slatkin would often try to see them, but his wife wouldn’t tolerate his visitations unless he brought them money. In August of 1937, Slatkin's wife and children moved back to Brooks. Once they had arrived, Slatkin and his wife worked together for two weeks. After this brief period, his wife grew tired of their budgeted lifestyle, had a fit in which she destroyed his tailoring equipment, and filed for a separation. Within the separation papers, there was a required family support of $20 per week. When Slatkin could not make the first payment, she charged him for non-support and had him sent to jail. In the trial, Slatkin was declared guilty, but upon a second appeal to the court, the Judge resolved a new deal in which Slatkin only paid $15 per week. In the end, Slatkin was able to see his children on occasion in town, and would give them spending money whenever he could.[1] There are no records regarding when, or how Slatkin died.

Anti-Semitism and Immigration: The Move From Russia to America in the 19th-20th CenturiesEdit

Anti-Semitism, a growing movement in the 19th-20th century (though it has always been present) extended throughout Russia. Following the death of the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Jews faced mass religious persecution and violence by groups largely permitted by the state.[2] Jews were forced out of their previously state-approved housing and districts, and these acts of oppression largely prompted the widespread immigration of Russians Jews to the United States.[3] This period of mass-immigration began in the 1880s, and lasted until the beginning of the first World War. It is estimated that during these years, approximately 3.2 million Russians immigrated to America.[4] About half of these immigrants were recorded as Russian-Jews fleeing religious persecution, and many were seeking opportunities denied to them in Russia.[5] Jewish Immigrants tended to congregate in the lower-class neighborhoods within larger cities, many of which were considered overcrowded and dirty.[6] The environment for newly immigrated Russians was one of hostility and little opportunity: immigrants faced many challenges in their settling, and they often received discrimination in housing and hiring.[7] Oftentimes, it took many years for Russian immigrants to earn the trust of the "Americans" they lived among, if they ever did.

The Great Depression in North Carolina: An Agricultural StateEdit

The Great Depression, a period of significant national economic downfall, hit North Carolina businesses particularly hard. The depression began in August of 1929 and didn't end until 1941: this transition was caused by the rise in economic movement during WW2.[8] With the creation of President Franklin's New Deal programs, government involvement in the lives of citizens significantly increased, and the relationship between government programs and the people is still largely affected by these changes.[9] "Between August 1929 and March 1933 industrial production had fallen by more than 50 percent"[10] North Carolina, a state that produced most of it's profit in agriculture, was harshly affected by the decrease in crop prices: the 1933 gross income of farms was only 46% of what it had been just four years earlier.[11] This hit on incomes and the rate of production meant fewer people were buying and producing goods, and this led to the significant increase in unemployment. In 1933, in North Carolina, 27 percent of the population was on relief.[12] This damage to the economy impacted all businesses, but it especially hurt ones that produced non-essentials, such as industries involving entertainment, or luxuries such as jewelry or tailored clothing. Between 1929 and 1933, the North Carolina textile and cotton industry wages had decreased by 25 percent.[13] These changes in economic movement carried the most significant impact on businesses in American history, and a national crisis of unemployment led to a financial struggle for millions of Americans, especially those in mountainous or coastal regions, such as North Carolina.[14]

Tailoring: A Profession Rooted In Jewish HistoryEdit

Tailoring has a deep-rooted history in Jewish communities.[15] Jewish towns developed the need for tailors for the production of specific types of clothing, especially those which were required for religious rituals.[16] Over time, this profession grew to also meet non-religious needs. Until 1948, in countries such as Yemen, there were entire Jewish villages that were dedicated solely to tailoring and weaving professions.[17] This mass-employment of Jews was not limited to western Europe; in 1931, 504,570 Jews comprised 44.1 percent of the Polish clothing industry.[18] The prevalence of Eastern European Jews in the clothing industry can be tied to the mass immigration of Jews, and the immediate need for work for many immigrants, much of whom already had experience in tailoring.[19] With the significant development in the clothing industry during the late 19th century, this was an ideal profession for Jewish immigrants looking for quick work.[20] Since the large industrial means of production in the clothing industry had not been developed yet, many of these jobs in the clothing industry took place in small shops, where the clothing was finished and tailored for customers.[21]


  1. "Folder 283: Abner and Massengill (interviewers): Tom Levine, Tailor." Federal Writers Project Papers. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/704/rec/1.
  2. Orr, Suzanne. "Russian Americans." In Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, edited by Carlos E. Cortés, 1855-1856. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2013. doi: 10.4135/9781452276274.n752.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Zollman, Joellyn. "Jewish Immigration to America: Three Waves." My Jewish Learning. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-immigration-to-america-three-waves/.
  7. Davis. "The Russians and Ruthenians in America; Bolsheviks or Brothers? by Jerome Davis. With an Introduction by Charles Hatch Sears." HathiTrust. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015027008062;view.
  8. Powell, William Stevens. "Great Depression." Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 527-28.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Wasserman, Henry, Vivian David Lipman, and Irwin Yellowitz. "Tailoring." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 435-439. Vol. 19. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed September 24, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2587519521/GVRL?u=unc_main&sid=GVRL&xid=f618b4e6.
  16. Ibid
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid