Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Heritage Civilization and the Jews
About the Series Historical Timeline Resources Lesson Plans Episodes
sidecurve1 The Power of the Word
Interactive Presentation
Interactive Atlas
Historical Documents
Video Resources
My First American Clothing

To the newly arrived Eastern European Jewish immigrant almost everything seemed strange and different. This disorientation was frightening but suggested possibilities -- in America, it seemed, one could reinvent oneself. Some immigrants immediately set about transforming themselves from greenhorns (newcomers) into Americans. For many, the first step was the purchase of a new suit of clothes.




A woman remembers what she did on her first day in America to symbolize the fresh start she was making in the New World:
My first day in America I went with my aunt to buy some American clothes. She bought me a shirtwaist, you know, a blouse and a skirt, a blue print with red buttons and a hat, such a hat I had never seen. I took my old brown dress and shawl and threw them away! I know it sounds foolish, we being so poor, but I didn't care. I had enough of the old country. When I looked in the mirror, I couldn't get over it. I said, boy, Sophie, look at you now. Just like an American.

  Hutchins Hapgood, was a non-Jewish journalist who frequented the Lower East Side. In 1902, he published a collection of his writings on Jewish immigrant life entitled, Spirit of the Ghetto. Here, he describes the rapidity with which many immigrants Americanized.
The man who has been only three weeks in this country hates few things so much as to be called a greenhorn. Under this fear he learns the small vocabulary to which in many years he adds very little. His dress receives rather greater modification than his language. In the old country he never appeared in a short coat; that would be enough to stamp him as a free thinker. But when he comes to New York and his coat is worn out, he is unable to find any garment long enough. The best he can do is to buy a cutaway, or a Prince Albert, which he often calls a Prince Isaac. As soon as he imbibes the fear of being called a greenhorn he assumes the Prince Isaac with less regret. Many of the old women, without diminution of piety, discard their wigs, which are strictly required by the Orthodox in Russia, and go even to the synagogue with nothing on their heads but their natural locks.