But where did it all begin?

Posted by    |    July 31st, 2010 at 11:40 am

Jewish immigrants at the port of Galveston

If we focus only on the history of Dallas retail from a Dallas perspective, we are blasting right past the fascinating roots of retail in Texas and, more broadly, the United States.

Many of the iconic pioneers of  Dallas retailing, after all, were not natives of Texas or even America. They were born in Europe to immigrant parents and only became part of the fabric of Dallas retail after years of living and working in different parts of the state and country.

It is interesting to note that some of the most well-known and influential Dallas retailing families were of Jewish descent.  The Marcus, Sanger, Hrris, Linz, Kahn and Volk families belonged to a group of Jewish merchants active in the cultural, economic, and political development of Dallas.

According to materials gathered and published in the Handbook of Texas Online (Handbook), “Jews have been part of the warp and woof of the Lone Star State since the period of Spanish Texas.”

Prior to 1821, Texas was a Spanish colony “where only Catholics could take up residence.”  If you were an openly practicing Jew, you could not legally live in the state.  But the earliest Jewish immigrants to Texas soon planted roots in places like the Brazos River (Samual Isaacks) and East Texas (N. Adolphus Sterne), and by 1838, outposts including Velasco, Bolivar, San Antonio, Galveston, Goliad and Nacogdoches were home to many early Texas Jews.

The Handbook explains that “the same broadsides that attracted their non-Jewish fellow immigrants from other countries and from other states attracted the Jews.  Texas was a land of promise with seemingly limitless potential.”

As anti-Semitism grew in Russia around the turn of the century, the Jewish population in Texas grew from 15,000 to 30,000 between 1900 and 1920, mostly in the major cities of Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

So, how did these Jewish immigrants to Texas begin influencing the state’s retail growth?  The Handbook describes the sparks that started the fire:

“Many of the Jewish immigrants who settled in the state began as backpack peddlers of goods they acquired by selling their possessions at the port of entry  If the community to which such a peddler traveled was hospitable, and if the potential for earning a livelihood was optimal, the new immigrant usually set down roots, opened a small store, and established a chain linking him toh is supplier at the port of entry.  In turn, as relatives arrived, they were sent out as peddlers from the new location to ewer areas, where they opened stores.”

Some of the earliest merchant families that became well-known inluded Zale Jewelry Corporation, Sanger Brothers, Neiman-Marcus, and Roger’s Texas State Optical.  Others that were more influential in their local areas, according to the Handbook, included Edwin Gale of Beaumont, Schwartz of El Paso, Avigael of Laredo, Smith of Waco, and many more.

How did Dallas’ iconic retail families get to our city and how did they start businesses and influence the social, economic and political aspects of the Metroplex?   Stay tuned…

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  1. Hal Rose says:

    Really interesting historical perspective including many things I did not know…thanks for the educational tour!

  2. Laura Stillo says:

    Wow I had no idea how segregated Texas used to be. Thanks for the info Janie!

  3. Elisabeth Jordan says:

    I love learning history like this!

  4. Justin Ransom says:


  5. Jeff Hinson says:

    Really great article. Back in the day, Galveston was one of the leading cities in Texas. So these merchants bypassed Galveston and Houston and settled in Dallas. It would be really interesting to understand “the why”.