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Complicating the Lebanese Peddler Myth

 |  Dr. Akram Khater, Zoe Avery

This article is co-authored by Dr. Akram Khater, Director of the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies and Khayrallah Distinguished Professor of Lebanese Diaspora Studies, and Professor of History at NC State, and Zoe Avery who is studying Art History, French, and Chemistry at NC State. She also works on extracting and analyzing relevant census data that has been used in Mapping the Mahjar and Questioning Assumptions: Gender & Lebanese Immigration. Dr. Khater’s latest article focused on the concept of progress as seen in The Syrian World.

In almost every narrative about early Lebanese immigration (1880-1930) to the US (or South America and Australia for that matter) the peddler–an itinerant salesman or woman–occupies a central role. As the story goes–whether told in scholarly works, community history, or by individuals recounting their family history–immigrants arrived with nary a word of the local language or coin of the local currency and began their lives and livelihoods as hawkers of wares. Carrying qashés or jizdan (satchels or suitcases) filled with needles, thread, shaving blades and host of other objects, they walked long miles and days along country roads or city streets selling their wares to farmers and townspeople. Very quickly, the tale continues, they accumulated enough wealth to buy a small store–mostly selling dry goods–and in few years many amassed even more capital to buy larger stores. With minor variations on the same theme, these stories celebrate unblemished success where men and women make their own fortunes using their wits, work ethics and family for support.

Such unadulterated “Horatio Alger” tales (the quintessential American self-made rags to riches story) are in part a product of the antagonism these early immigrants faced. From the 1880s through the 1930s nativist Americans, bent on stopping the “flood” of foreigners into the US, portrayed “Syrians” (and other ethnic communities) as slothful, immoral, unhealthy, mentally deficient and uncultured people who will quickly become wards of the state living off welfare, and dilute the “race.” With (unsurprisingly) hardly a shred of evidence, such characterizations were based on racist views and nativist fears that America is changing too rapidly by the mass arrivals of immigrants. (We can readily hear the echoes of these fears and bigotries in today’s diatribes against immigration). Within this context, the narrative of the peddler emerged as the antithesis of racist portraits. Stories of hard work, self-reliance, quick wits, strong families and an ancient Phoenician culture (that long predates the American nation and even “surpasses” it in its accomplishments like “inventing the alphabet”) were at the core of the defense that Lebanese immigrants mounted against nativist rejection. In other words, the “Peddler” stood as the living and narrated story, which postulated that Lebanese immigrants embodied the very American ideals of entrepreneurship and self-reliance (even before the establishment of the Republic!), and have earned the right to be Americans-see Akram Khater’s article for more. (Pressure to succeed or appear successful within the community also helped erase the many stories of business failures-see Linda Jacobs’ article for more).

Regardless of its utility in countering racist attacks and maintaining the right to immigrate to the US, our research into US Census records from 1900 through 1940 shows the story of peddling as only half true at best. In its celebratory homogeneity it ignores a larger percentage of Lebanese immigrants who worked in factories, offices, on farms and even in Hollywood. It ignores failures and bankruptcies, the modest accomplishments and the circuitous careers that span multiple places and jobs; all stories that deserve as much limelight as that of the ubiquitous peddler if we are to arrive at the rich history of the immigrant community rather than a pastiche of the past. Now, with this newly unearthed data we can start to paint a far more nuanced image of the type of work that early immigrants engaged in, and of their uncertain and certainly non-linear journeys.

As a starting point, the two charts below provide an example of the diversity of occupations and how it only increased over time.  

What is notable–and in many ways predictable–is that diversification increases with each census year. In 1900, the majority of records were limited to two occupations (merchants and labor), but by 1930/1940 the population branches out and is involved in many types of work. For example, the number of merchants (brown color) is greatly diminished while professionals, skilled workers and agriculture grow significantly. This reflects, of course, a growing understanding of, and access to, diverse types of work available to Lebanese immigrants as they become more educated and fluent in English and American culture, and establish more connections with their host communities. It also reflects disenchantment with peddling for its long grueling hours, hazardous conditions, and at times humiliating (and even dangerous) encounters selling to communities that were not always welcoming of strangers, to say the least. It also is driven by the failure of many to make a living as peddlers, for not all were cut out for hawking wares to very reluctant and often poor communities.

As a reflection of these realities, and perhaps more pertinently to our discussion of the “Peddler” narrative, is the fact that the number of peddlers decreased exponentially from 1900 to 1910 and continued to decrease in each year. For example, in 1900 40.63% of the working Lebanese immigrant population in the US declared their profession as peddlers in the census. In 1910, that percentage dropped by nearly two-thirds to 16.67% and in the following census of 1920 it was a mere 8.29%. While this is due partially to an older generation settling down, the fact is that the majority of immigrants came after 1900 and most did not choose peddling as a profession. Equally telling is that among the minority who peddled most did so for a year or two after immigrating before shifting to new type of work. For example, of the 42 immigrants who came to the US in 1899 and who listed their occupation as peddling only 3 remained in that line of work two years later. In other words, while the stories of immigrants make it seem as if practically every one peddled, the data–at least for the US–shows that it was the minority who did so, and even they practiced this profession for a relatively short period of time.

What is most intriguing–and missing from the story of Lebanese immigration–is that the number of workers–as opposed to peddlers–is steadily high throughout the five decennials of the US Census, with a noticeable increase after 1910. For example, when we add skilled craftsmen, agricultural workers and those who worked in entertainment industry we find that anywhere from 40% (in 1900) to 50% (1930) of all working immigrants employed in these sectors.  

Told another way, over two-thirds of Lebanese immigrants were not involved in mercantile activities. The chart below shows that only about one-third of all immigrants owned their business (store, restaurant, etc.) while a steady two-thirds worked in factories, offices or stores.

This clear divergence from the peddler story becomes even more nuanced once we take into account regional variations.

While a large percentage (90% in some years) of the immigrant population in the South worked in mercantile activity of various types, the Northeast and Midwest always maintained a significant percentage of workers, with the first region boasting anywhere from 30% to 40% of immigrants working in factories. This is, of course, not surprising since these were the two regions that fueled the American industrial revolution and attracted large numbers of immigrants into their factories. Conversely, the Jim Crow South had few factories to speak of, in comparison to other areas of the US, as well as deeply racialized workplaces that made it very difficult for immigrants like the Lebanese to gain industrial work.

These numbers force us to depart from the Peddler myth and raise some new questions. First, rather than assume that most Lebanese immigrants were independent individuals who struck out on their “own,” we now have to recognize that they took jobs wherever they were most readily available. In the Northeast, factories provided as many–if not more–opportunities to make a living, while the circumstances of the South pushed many toward mercantile work. In other words, we now must place the factory worker and craftsman right next to the peddler and merchant in number and importance. More to the point we need to ask new questions about the role and experiences of Lebanese immigrants as members of the working class. For instance, amidst the volatile US labor history of the 1910s and 1920s did Lebanese immigrants participate in labor strikes, in union activities, in progressive and socialist politics? How did they regard their fellow immigrants who were factory owners? How did they understand the relationship between being Lebanese and being an American worker? How did this differ from the experiences of Lebanese American merchants? Were there class tensions within the community?

At this point we do not have answers to these questions, but they point us in new directions that will enrich the history of Lebanese migration and provide us with far more textured stories than we have had hitherto. These are exciting directions that we will pursue at the Khayrallah Center, and will then share our discoveries of new stories with you.

7 responses on “Complicating the Lebanese Peddler Myth

  1. Ibrahim Khazzaka says:

    I enjoyed reading the article and debunking the myth.
    Has there been studies on the psychology of the Lebanese immigrant or immigrant families (past and present)? As a new immigrant and a psychology student, i would be interested in getting some insight there

    1. Akram says:

      I have not seen any studies about the psychology of early immigrants but we are starting a project about the “history of emotions” among immigrants between 1880 and 1930 to better understand the stresses they faced and how they responded to them.

      1. cecile yazbek says:

        I believe that psychology has been long neglected in studies of Lebanese migration and culture. It may be that religion occupied a large part of that space in earlier times. The USA has a longer history of psychological awareness than Australia but we do seem to be catching up. I have alerted a couple of Lebanese psychologists to this thread. In previous conversations with them, they have lamented the shame in the community surrounding discussion of psychological or emotional issues.

  2. Elizabeth Zirkle says:

    Hmm. My great grandparents came to the US at the turn of the century. They owned a store/restaurant in Niagara Falls, NY and lived above it. Never “peddlers” to my knowledge. My grandmother, born here in 1914, is still alive and well at 97 and could tell you all about it if you are willing to listen for at least 3 hours! I love hearing all her stories. Apparently they had money when they came here. My great grandmother always made sure everyone knew she did not come over in steerage. 😉

  3. Barbara Kahdy Estes says:

    Akram, I read Alixa Naff’s book years ago and still have it and talked to her many times about the Peddling. Sometimes even after they had a store, Mom said they would go out for a day of peddling and see folks they had gotten to know along the way. Many of the kids of that generation became very involved with N.C. and were professionals- teachers, lawyers, doctors, builders, engineers, etc.
    Someone might go talk to my Dad who came here about 1922 as a baby. I have a great photo of him sleeping in his Dad’s arms on Ellis Island. His family had a harder time(moved around a lot) trying to get established. Mom’s family who came earlier eventually settled in N.C. where she was actually born, but they had some starts and stops along the way to success. Many, many stories that I was told or that Dad can tell you if you call him.

  4. Anne Monsour says:

    When I examined the secondary sources on this issue for my thesis this (see below) was my conclusion bases on the sources I could locate at the time. It is good to see Eric J. Hooglund’s conclusion being confirmed by more detailed analysis of the available information.
    In his pioneering work, Philip Hitti described Syrians as ‘incurable emigrants and traders’. 1 According to Hitti, the Syrian was a trader ‘wherever and whenever’ he could be, a labourer only ‘where he must be’, and, in either case, ‘almost always economically independent’. 2 While acknowledging many Syrians had been attracted to employment in factories and mills during the war, Hitti concluded that commerce was the ‘regular sphere’ of the majority of Syrians in the United States. 3
    Hitti’s image of the Syrian trader has been accepted and reinforced by later studies. For Edward Wakin, the trader was the key to the Syrian/Lebanese immigrant story.4 Alixa Naff, whose research was based primarily on in-depth interviews with first and second generation Arab-Americans, described Syrian immigrants to the United States as ‘success-oriented free-enterprisers’ who preferred peddling to ‘the drudgery of the factory and the isolation of the farm’.5 However, the image of Syrian/Lebanese as self-employed traders is challenged when an attempt is made to quantify their occupations. Figures based on a 1908 survey of Syrian businesses, for example, led Eric J. Hooglund to the conclusion that less than 20 per cent of the total number of Syrian immigrants estimated to be in the USA at the time were involved in business.6 According to Hooglund, by 1920, the period in which Hitti was writing his book, the majority of the immigrants were working as labourers, and a minority of perhaps 15 per cent were involved directly or indirectly in entrepreneurial activities.7 If these estimates are correct, it appears that the general image regarding the occupational choices of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the United States was based on an impression created by only 15 to 20 per cent of the immigrants.
    1. Philip Hitti, The Syrians in America (New York: George Doran Company, 1924), p. 56.
    2. Ibid., p. 69.
    3. Ibid., p. 74.
    4. Edward Wakin, The Lebanese and Syrians in America (Chicago: Claretan Publications, 1974), p. 6.
    5. Alixa Naff, ‘Arabs in America: An Historical Overview’, in Sameer Y. Abraham & Nabeel Abraham, eds., Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities (Detroit: Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, 1983), pp. 9-29.
    6. Eric J. Hooglund, ‘Introduction’, in Eric J. Hooglund, ed., Crossing the Waters: Arabic-speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), pp. 10-11.
    7. Ibid., p. 11.
    Anne Monsour, Negotiating a Place in a White Australia: Syrian/Lebanese in Australia, 1880 to 1947, a Queensland Case study, (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2004), pp. 207-208.

  5. Karim Rishani says:

    The Americas Both North and Latin America gave immigrants including Lebanese an opportunity to obtain work permits, legal residency and eventually citizenship. On the other hand,the Lebanese laws do not allow Lebanese mothers to give citizenship to their children! Racism against people of color working in Lebanon as domestic workers is embarrassing! We still call black people “3abed” and our labor laws for domestics is embarassing

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