The following is part of the Fifth Avenue Project, an ongoing effort to document the world of wholesaling merchants who operated along Fifth Avenue in Uptown Pittsburgh from 1880 to 1980. This article explains the project. I’ll be giving a talk on the history of the Fifth Avenue wholesaling district at the Rauh Jewish Archives on Sunday, April 21.
Even when immigrants arrived on American shores highly-trained in specific skills, some turned to retailing because it was a way to make a living with a low-cost of entry.
Abraham Shenkan was trained as a diamond cutter in his native Amsterdam. “The Jews of Holland had been allowed to practice their religion freely since 1602,” Jacob Feldman wrote in The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania: A History, 1755-1945, “but emigrated during the mid-nineteenth century because they had been living in dire poverty, 53 percent of those in Amsterdam receiving doles from wealthier members of the synagogue in 1849.” At least ten families of Dutch Jews relocated to Pittsburgh between 1861 and 1865, many by way of New York or Philadelphia, according to Feldman. A good portion became pawnbrokers, he writes. After arriving on these shores in 1862, at the age of 25, Shenken continued practicing his trade in Pittsburgh, but he soon found clothing to be a more lucrative business than diamond cutting in a town such as this one. By the early-1870s, the city directories have him running a clothing store downtown.
From as early as 1883 until 1892, Shenkan operated a small clothing store two blocks down from the courthouse, at the old 215 Fifth Avenue. Today, the location where his shop once stood is roughly beneath the Crosstown Boulevard overpass. It was a practical shop, selling second-hand clothes and offering tailoring and repairing services as well.
The modest business helped Shenkan support a wife and seven children in the Hill District. Among his progeny were Samuel Shenkan (seen above), a hotel operator who represented the Seventh Ward on an early municipal body called the Common Council and later spent 30 years as a deputy coroner; Isaac Shenkan, a mailman chosen to represent Pittsburgh at the 1902 convention of the Letter Carriers Association of the United States; and Emanuel Shenkan, who operated a jewelry store in Chateau.
When Abraham Shenkan died in October 1904, after a brief and unexpected illness, the Seventh Ward Democratic Marching Band issued several eulogies in his honor, and his fellows at the Ibn Gabirol Lodge No. 114, a local B’nai Brith chapter, passed the following resolution and sent a copy to his widow and children: “Resolved, That in the death of Abraham Shenkan we have lost an upright, honest and worthy brother and member, and a true and faithful adherent to our cause and principles, and that the community in general has lost a good and honorable citizen worthy of its esteem and respect.”
UPDATE (April 24, 2013): added information from Feldman