Brooms, Buttons, & Busking: Memoir Of A Young Russian Immigrant In Philadelphia

March 27, 2018 | by Amy Cohen


The endless waves of shocking news that has been coming at us since Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017 is so overwhelming that many otherwise notable developments barely cause a ripple. For example, in late February this year the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service eliminated the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. In a country that is overwhelmingly populated by immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the Orwellian removal of “nation of immigrants” is one of many recent affronts to the idea of the United States as a land of opportunity for strivers from around the globe.

Nativism, the insidious notion that immigrants pose a threat to native-born residents, has reared its head throughout American history and the whole “build that wall” ethos is simply a recent and particularly ugly manifestation of this tradition.

Philadelphia, an old city with an eastern seaboard location, has a long history as an immigrant destination. Washington Avenue Immigration Station on the Delaware River was never as busy as New York’s Ellis Island, but it did serve as the entry point for over a million immigrants from its opening in 1873 to its demolition in 1915.

Imagine what it would have been like to arrive in Philadelphia in the late 19th century—an era of peak immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. How might a non-English speaking person with limited skills and education find their way in this bustling industrial city? My great grandfather, Saul Kaplan was such a person. Fortuitously, he took the time at some point late in his life to write about his experiences. What follows are excerpts from his account of arriving in Philadelphia alone from Russia at the age of 13.

From Russia with Love

Saul Kaplan by the seaside circa early 1900s. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

This story began in 1890. I was the youngest one out of four children. The brother who was about two years older than me left for America in 1889. I was at the age of thirteen and four months. I just graduated public school and there was no way for me to go to school further, so I went to look for work. I was small and thin and looked like a kid of twelve. No one would take me even without pay as I wanted to learn some kind of trade. I got discouraged and gave up on the idea of looking for work. So I wrote to my brother in America and asked him to write home that my parents should send me to America and he would take the best care of me and get work for me. I also asked him not to mention that I wrote to him.

It was about four weeks later I began each day to watch for the mailman to bring a letter from my brother, as I was afraid that my parents would not allow me to see the letter. At last the letter came. That was about six weeks after I sent mine. My brother has urged my parents to send me to America. He also said that he already engaged a job for me at the same place where he worked and that was in a shoe factory and he is making five dollars a week.

In those years back it took some time to get ready to go to America as it was necessary to get passports and go through the regular routine before you were able to go out of my country. The time came when my mother started to get me ready to leave, packing my clothes, baking cakes, and whatnot. In order to explain just what was going on at home would be impossible. All I can say is that it was dramatic and how, when the morning came, after everyone in the family including my grandmother, aunts, and cousins were up all night packing and crying and began to bid good-bye.

All I was doing is crying and was unable to say a word and finally we all went to the trains and mother and my sister went along with me on the train for seven Russian miles which would mean 49 American miles. All the way no one of us spoke a single word, just kept on crying. When the train stropped and my mother and sister had to part, I was unable to say anything, just shook my hand and we kissed and this was the last I ever saw my mother, my father, and some of the rest of my family.

I was left all alone going to a new world, new people, new language, no mother, no father, no sister, no relations, going to a brother who is but two years older than I. I renewed my crying and for while I was unable to control myself. I stopped crying and have enough sense to understand that I am no more than a little boy. I have a job before me and what a job: to make a man out of myself, fight my own battle, no one to take care of me, no one to advise me between right and wrong, no one to care for me in the event of sickness, no Mom, no Pop, no Grandma to say give me this or give me that. I was sitting like in a coma and all that ran through my mind faster than the train ran. I said to myself, “I am now on my way to do this job and do it alone in the right way only.” At this time or at any other time when I come to think about it, it makes me shiver. It is unbelievable, but yet it is the truth.

Saul then spent an unspecified amount of time at a boarding house in Memel (current day Lithuania) waiting for a New York-bound steamboat. The journey on the ship took between three to four weeks. Most of his memories of this time are filled with prodigious crying, especially once he realized that money had been stolen from his steamer trunk.

A day before we landed everyone was asked to whom they were going, to what city and relative. The boat landed in New York Harbor and this was on a Saturday during the day. I was supposed to go to Philadelphia and there were more that went to the same city as I did. We all had to wait for a certain train at night. They have taken my brother’s address and send him a telegram that I am to arrive in Philadelphia at a certain hour. But my brother was not at home and now one else was there, as my brother was misled by telling him that the boat was due in New York on Monday. When my train came in to Philadelphia on Saturday night, relatives of all kinds came to meet everyone else but me. I was the only one left that no one came to meet at the station. I was asked by some of the railroad men how it is that no one came to meet me. You can just imagine how I felt. Late at night I was taken into a big room. There was a cot there and I was told to go to bed.

When no one appeared by the morning, Saul set out to find his brother’s boarding house. His brother, not yet expecting his arrival, was not home. Saul was taken to Gloucester, New Jersey where the owners of the boarding house owned a restaurant next to a race track. He describes eating hot dogs, drinking lemonade, and even doing some sales before reuniting with his brother that evening.

After staying home a few days I had to get up early in the morning and go to work in the same shoe factory where my brother was working. I worked five days a week from seven in the morning til six at night, 30 minutes for dinner, Saturday until one o’clock. My pay was two dollars a week. My board was two dollars a week. The rest I spent for pleasure. You figure out how much I had left to spend. But I wasn’t grumbling. My brother had very little help if any. He really had nothing to help me with as he was only earning five dollars a week and did not have enough for himself. So I carried the burden myself and got along somehow, somewhere in this great America.

It did not take long for me to pick up American language and how to write and how to read. So I thought I’d look around and see if I can’t get a better job. One day going to work I saw a sign, “Boy Wanted.” I went to ask for the job. The boss liked me. He said he would give me three dollars to start. I took him up. Oh boy, I am going to have money left after paying my board.

I came to work at my new place, which happened to be a small shop where they made uniform caps. My work was as an errand boy, floor sweeper, and all-around man. Every place I was sent to I was asked do I know where it is. My answer was sure, and if I don’t I’ll get there just the same. Believe me I did not know one street from the other, but I never got lost. I’ll never forget when I was there a little over a week my boss gave me a small box and told me this goes to Spring Garden at U.S. Mint. You can imagine how much I knew about U.S. Mint, but I got there and delivered the box with two caps and got a tip.

Finding Strength on the Factory Floor

One day on a delivery Saul noticed a “Help Wanted” sign posted on a brush factory. Once he found out that this job would pay four dollars per week he left the cap shop.

The next morning I went to work in that brush factory and worked until the end of the week helping and doing whatever I was told. There was, and still is, in me that I always done as I was told as long as it was in my power to do. I always grasped things fast and my time was always my boss’s time. I never looked at the clock waiting to see if it was time to stop. I was always a poor union man. I am positively sure that no boss has ever lost money on me. By the way, there were no unions in those days. And when I done something, I always tried to do it right if it was in my power to do and this is absolutely the truth. When I was told to sweep a floor, clean a window, or even clean a toilet, which I swept many floors and cleaned many toilets for somebody else in my young days.

When I came in the following Monday to work, this foreman told me now he is going to teach me something else and he showed me a certain kind of work. It looked very simple, and I kept at it the biggest part of the day. During that time he came over to me several times to see how I was doing. He was very pleased with my work, but my fingers began to hurt me. They got real red and kept on hurting me more and more all the time until I notice that there were blisters forming on my fingers. By the time I was ready to stop my pain was so great that if I had to work any longer I think I would drop dead. That’s how severe the pain was. I came home and was unable to eat and went upstairs and laid down in bed and cried so much that I never cried before in all my life. My fingers were, and even are today, delicate.

The next morning I went back to the same place and told the foreman the whole story and explained to him how bad I needed work and asked him if he could give me something else to do as it was impossible for me to do the same thing. I’d rather die than do that work. He told me that at present he has nothing else, maybe later. So much for the brush factory. I went home and my boarding lady made me solutions and I bathed my hands all day. By the next morning my fingers were in fair shape.

Saul Kaplan left Philadelphia around 1894 for Brooklyn, New York. Six years later he married Etta Vershup. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

I went to look for work the next morning. I came across a sign where it read, “Boy Wanted 2nd Floor.” This was a button factory. I worked on pearl buttons that you use for men’s shirts or whatever. They gave me great big books of round pieces and my job was to drill holes in them. He showed me several times how to do it and said don’t worry about breakage and take your time. The idea was that you had to get used to putting the round ivory fast in the machine. When the holes were drilled you just used a foot paddle to release the buttons into the bag.

The whistle blew. We had 45 minutes for dinner. All I had with me was five cents. I bought 3 pretzels, 1 cent apple, 1 cent a cake, and what a meal. Maybe instead of cake I bought two cigarettes for a penny. Well, the time was up and back to work. I kept on working. Everything went along fine. At about four o’clock someone came over and got my name, age, address, and took away the box that I made and put back an empty box. Nothing was said.

Saul eventually came to understand that he was being paid by the pound. He worked at the button factory for a few weeks, earning six dollars a week or more with expectations of earning as much as nine dollars a week as his skill improved. Alas, as Saul wrote, It was too good to last.”

All of a sudden I started to cough. The longer I worked the more I coughed. Finally, I went to a doctor. After examining me he asked whether I was working and what kind of work I was doing. When I told him I work at a buttons factory and was drilling holes into ivory he said to me, “Boy, do you want to live or do you want to die?” Then I told the doctor that I had no one here and have to make my own living. He said, “My dear boy, your lungs are getting packed with ivory. All the powder that you drill out from the ivory settles at your lungs. If you’ll promise me that you’ll quit that work I’ll give you medicine. If you don’t quit later you will get sick and go the hospital and may die yet. As far as you have to make your own living, why don’t you look for a job in a store. Go on South Street and in all the stores until you get work.”

This doctor gave me an idea. He was a wonderful young man. He spoke to me like a father does to a child. He offered me a letter to the firm stating that I was not allowed to do that kind of work and if it was possible to give me some other job as I was a poor boy and had no one to support me.

Success on South Street

Although the foreman had been pleased with Saul’s work, there were no other positions available at the button factory.

The pills and not working at the buttons done me a lot of good. And more than anything else the wonderful talk and advice that this doctor gave me. In the meantime, my brother left for New York, and I was left in Philadelphia all alone, not a friend or relation, good or bad, alone in a great big new world. At this time it must to be pretty near one year gone, and I still lived with the same people that I landed the first day. They were poor people and had a large family of young kids, and I was one of their own like and we all struggled together.

I started to make a survey on South Street. It was the main business in downtown at that time. All the business was on South Street. I went from store to store, no results. Then I stopped for a while looking and I went back to look for factory work. I had no trouble to get work. I was never particular about the kind of work as long as it did not interfere with my health. Neither was I ever out for big money. I always managed to get along and I did, but the idea to work in a store in business that I could learn something was always on my mind. Once in a while I would stop again from a job and go back again on South Street to look for work.

Finally I landed one in a shoe store on South Street between 5th and 6th. In those days, you would put a big stand outside with shoes and pull the customers in. This was my job and I liked it. And after being there a while I was allowed to go in and sell, and believe me you had to be a salesman then. It was nothing to ask for $2.50 a pair of shoes and the customer would offer you $1.10 and for $1.35 you would make the sale. You could write a book on merchandising in the 1890s. I stayed there quite a while, and I was getting along very good. 

I worked there until my boss broke off with his wife and the business went to the dogs with them. Then I went to work for a party by the name Herman Brothers. I think it’s 1234 South Street. There I already went as an experienced barker outside and as a salesman on the inside. I was getting eight dollars a week then. I was in the money.

When I left Philadelphia was in 1893 or 1894. The reason for my leaving was my brother was getting married in Brooklyn, and I went to his wedding and remained there.

Thus ends Saul’s time in Philadelphia. In New York, he worked in the garment industry and eventually owned and sold both a sewing shop and then a shoe store. At 23, he married my great-grandmother, Etta Vershup Kaplan, a decade after his solo departure from Russia. In closing his memoir Saul writes, “These are only the highlights that I had accomplished in 10 years and they are absolutely facts, no fiction.”

I feel fortunate to have this very particular story of my family’s immigrant beginnings told with the Eastern European Jewish cadence and turns of phrase of an ancestor I never met. It is, however, also a universal immigrant tale: a dramatic and difficult departure, the challenge of adjusting to a new language and an unfamiliar landscape, dangerous, low paid, and low status work, eventually becoming a small business owner, and establishing a new family. Philadelphia today is home to people from nearly every corner of the globe trying to follow a similar trajectory.

Anti-immigration sentiment will continue to ebb and flow, but our city and our nation will continue to be enriched, both literally and figuratively, by the courageous souls who sacrifice so much to, as my great-grandfather said, “get along somehow, somewhere in this great America.”


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.


  1. Davis says:

    Wonderful story – and especially wonderful that it was passed down to you. So many hidden stories disappear in the mists of time.

  2. Lois Linden says:

    I am also a descendant of that great group of immigrants coming to America at that time. I am also a life-long Philadelphian living in Mt Airy. But I couldn’t disagree more with your speech about Trump and about today’s alleged”anti-immigration” . No one is against immigration. No one wants nativism. The issue is people coming here illegally. Your own story talks about having passports, having a job waiting, and a home. I couldn’t go farther in the story, because once I hear any article starting with that irrational bias, I can go no further.

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