A SALUTE TO SA’S ITINERANT PEDDLERS – THE SMOUSES
Some walked, some rode, but they all played a vital role in developing SA’s economy.
Many of the Jews who came to South Africa in the 1800s became smouse (peddlers or hawkers). Itinerant commerce was the only way for these men, mostly from Lithuania (which was the epicentre of Jewish peddling), Latvia, Poland and Eastern European, to get on their feet and become independent. They had fled to escape economic hardships, religious persecution, anti-Jewish pogroms and rapidly spreading anti-Semitism. Lithuania, was under Russian rule, people were persecuted, their language was banned, and males were drafted into the Russian army for 12 years, thus depriving many of their youth and often their lives. Before 1861 Lithuanians were considered slaves, unpaid labourers, and the property of the nobility.
Peddling constitutes one of the longest and most consistent aspects of Jewish history and has perhaps functioned as the most common Jewish livelihood, says Hasia Diner. Peddling offered these Jewish immigrants, who were not the first nor the only people to traipse across South Africa, a new lease on life, self-employment and advancement. They men were not strangers to hardwork and hardship. They were skilled businessmen descended from long lines European traders and shopkeepers. The world of commerce was not foreign to them, so they became the prime beneficiaries of the expansion of rural markets.
From the end of the 18th century to the 1920s four-million Jews left Central and Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of them emigrated to the USA and to South Africa, where finds of diamonds, gold and copper were drawcards. Shortly after gold was discovered in 1886 about 40,000 Jews from Lithuania and nearby territories arrived in this country. These men had hoped to quickly send for their families, but mostly ten years passed before this happened. The new arrivals had no family or friends, and little more than the clothes on their backs. To make a living they walked from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth into the hinterland carrying items to trade on their backs. Because of this the Dutch called them bondeldraers – bundle carriers. Some used trays penswinkels (tummy shops) suspended from cords around their necks to display watches, jewellery and small items, and in some towns these Peddlers were called “weekly men”. They walked from place to place, farm to farm into a vast territory where there was no common language. Lexicons helped them translate Yiddish into English, Afrikaans and Zulu.
Note: the word smous comes from the Yiddish word schmuoth meaning bringer of tales
These men developed the hinterland economy by serving isolated communities. The smous helped bridge the narrowing gap between conservative rural civilization and a dynamic urban economy he was often the only link between the people of the interior and the outside world, says Mary Kopman. The range of items they carried was vast and rural housewives would have been lost without them. They sold all sorts of patent medicines; household items, such as cutlery, crockery, cooking pots, pans, mops, brooms and buckets; foods, grains, tinned meat, sardines, flour, tea, coffee beans, sugar, salt, pepper and syrup; herbs like cloves and coriander; household linen, sheets, sheeting, ticking, blankets, tablecloths; dress lengths of cotton, linen, black crepe (for funeral garb), prints, Japanese satin, silk and lace; sewing needles, scissors, buttons, thimbles, thread, pins and knitting needles; clothing, jackets, trousers, shoe uppers, soles and awls; tools, such as hammers, pliers, knives, saws, planes, nails, glue and sand paper; jewellery, rings, watches, watch chains, spectacles; curling irons, bracelets, hair combs, beauty products and cream. The farmers were self-sufficient. The purchased only items which they could not make. Purchased items were put to one side and when the amount was tallied up, it was time to barter.
The Peddlers traded for fresh produce such as vegetables, eggs, chickens, geese, feathers, small stock, hand spun wool and mealies. Mostly there was a pile of salted hides and skins in the wagon house ready to be exchanged to cover costs. The balance was then either paid in cash or instalments. Some smouses allowed this because it gave them good reason to return on a regular basis and do more business. Debt was mostly faithfully honoured. One benefit of barter was that it was not taxable. Most Peddlers meticulously recorded their transactions in their hawker’s books – some of which have become family heirlooms. Smous tours could be short, others last for six months.
Many people poked fun at the smouses calling them disheveled, bearded, Yiddish-speaking working-class Jews. They portrayed them as shady peddlers, pariahs, shirkers, undesirable and unassimilable outsiders. However, generally they were well-liked. Many became good friends with their clients. On the farms their horses were outspanned, stabled and fed. They were given fodder. They were also given food, and if observance of Jewish dietary laws prevented them from sharing the farmer’s meat, they were offered eggs, bread and coffee. Even if they used their own utensils, the “boerevrou” (farmer’s wife) took no objection. Thet also got a bed for the night and sometimes they even managed to get their washing done.
Their presence led to the development of a special architectural feature – the buitekamer (outside room). Some referred to these rooms as a Jodekamer (Jew’s Room). A Prince Albert historian, Helena Marincowitz said the smouses often stopped before arriving at their final destination to wash and spruce up. Some Jews formed a sub-culture within the Afrikaner environment of the small dorps and became known as Boerejode, (Afrikaner or farmer Jews). From humble beginnings many became prominent role players in their communities.
Peddling was an arduous and dangerous life. Of necessity these men had to carry money, and this led to them being stalked, attacked, robbed and even murdered. This happened to Philip Borkum of Britztown. He was a short, thick-set, muscular man of about 40. He was found dead, lying on his back, partly covered with ground and a sack, close to the level crossing of the De Aar / Britstown railway line. One hand was visible. When the sack was removed it revealed two ropes tightly tied around his neck. Born in Riga, Philip was a naturalised South African who had spent seven years in Kimberley and its surrounds. He was an affluent hawker. He owned eight donkeys and he carried “luxury” items Among the items on his cart were knives and forks, six silk handkerchiefs, field glasses, an alarm clock, a portmanteau, a saddle bag, table covers, a corset, two flutes, a cigarette holder and eight mirrors. There were also two goats and kids, eight lambs and ewes, states hie granddaughter, Lorna Levy.
The aim of these perambulating businessmen was to save sufficient funds to buy one or two mules or donkeys and a scotch cart and, after that, aspire to a small shop. “Many of the carts were made in Paarl which was the wagon-making centre of the Cape at that time,” states Pam Kolbe. The Paarl Jewish community rose out of this industry and several of the Peddlers who bought carts in Paarl made the village their base. (An original smous wagon is on display in the Ceres Togryers Museum.)
Many writers commented on the role these Peddlers played. In 1827 George Thomson wrote that they carried a brandy to which the Boers were particularly partial. The Grahamstown Journal in 1832 referred to them as a useful and industrious class of people “to whose spirit of enterprise the town is indebted for its rapid rise.” Hans Sauer in Ex Africa stated that the arrival of these travelling merchants, who went all over South Africa, mostly to outlying farms, always created excitement. In 1944, J Mockford claimed that they spread music through the interior because they carried concertinas, mouth-organs and other music-making items. Lawrence Green said these men often were the farmer’s only contact with the outside world.
Their demise gave rise to the commercial travelers. They were a different kind of travelling salesman. They flowed through the hinterland in motor vehicles. They almost never visited individual farms, but in time no country hotel was without a “sales room” where they could display their wares. As these men travelled from place-to-place rotating poker clubs, rummy schools and claberjas games became features of the hinterland – so much so, that a poker-playing ghost is often seen in one of the rooms at Prince Albert’s Swartberg Hotel.
The itinerant Peddlers are honoured in Graaff-Reinet, where a roadside memorial pays tribute to the role they played in helping to develop the economy of the hinterland. It honours them in English, Afrikaans and Hebrew. Under a Star of a David, the inscription reads: “In honour of the pioneer Jewish Peddlers known as smouse, who traded in outlying and remote country districts. They supplied their customers with many of the necessities of life. In the course of their trading, they made a contribution to the economic development of the country”.
The Mosenthal Brothers, Joseph, Adolph and Julius, from Hesse-Cassel, Germany, were pioneers of commerce in the Karoo. They established business with branches in several small towns. They employed many men to go out on the roads selling goods and nearly half of the Jews who immigrated to South Africa between 1845 and 1870 came as a result of the Mosenthals’s need for manpower. These brothers also helped several Peddlers set up independent businesses, granting them credit to get started. Their story is well known and has been widely told. This is a tribute to the lesser known kings of the road, among them were:
Henry Norden who came with the 1820 settlers began trading from Graaff-Reinet and Benjamin traded in the Albany district and also from Beaufort West. While living there he invented a pressure type of cooking pot which became very popular. He organised trips into the interior to collect ivory. He obtained a letter from Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, and he was able to open trade with Dingaan in Natal. Ikey Norden later came from Tikvath and operated as a smous from Somerset East in 1855.
Elias and Charlotte Gabriel arrived from Schivelbein in the 1860s and went Somerset East, where he trader in the district and she ran their store. After a while they returned to Germany and left the store in the hands of their son Adolph, but he was badly treated by the locals that he committed suicide in 1868. He is buried in Grahamstown.
Joel Myers, one of the first Jews to settle in Aberdeen, started out as a smous. shortly after arriving he married Aletta Charlote Adendorff and took to farming. Then, acccording to The S A Jewish Times of February 20, 1948, Joel began trading in ostrich feathers. He also had an enclosure on his farm into which he could round up ostriches for plucking them. Others followed his example, the slaughter of birds for plucking stopped, and the ostrich is said to be saved from extinction.
Nathan Dubowitz from Pasvetin in Lithuana, also worked as a smous from Aberdeen He married Johanna Susanna Magdalena Claassen, an Afrikaans girl who converted to Judaism and changed her name to Esther. They lived in Aberdeen until 1920 then moved to Beaufort West took to farming on Pitfontein. Other peddlers who operated out of Aberdeen. Were Philip Mark, who later became an ostrich feather buyer and Israel Segal who arrived in about 1898, but by then anti-Semitism had raised its head on the South African platteland and when he applied for a hawker’s license, his request was only granted after some unpleasant remarks and ridicule from the local magistrate and town councillors.
Diamonds drew Sammy Marks, a knife finisher from Sheffield, England, to South Africa in 1868. He plied the Boland roads around Paarl peddling jewels. He later went to Kimberley and, later still in 1881 to Pretoria. In the Old Transvaal he rose to become one of the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in South Africa.
After arriving in Cape Town in 1888, Eugen Robinski, 20, set off on foot for the hinterland, set himself up as a smous in the Williston area and re-invented himself by changing his name to Isaac (Izak). He was 20, a colourful, stocky, compact, robust, attractive, larger-than-life man, with penetrating eyes and good manners. He had a sophisticated style, was literate, reasonably well educated, and had a good knowledge of commerce. He rose to become a highly respected man in the village and district and also served as mayor.
Isaac Nurick arrived in Oudtshoorn from Shavel in Lithianian in the 1890s and he worked out of Ladismith as a “smous” in partnership with Max Rose, who virtually single-handedly saved the ostrich feather industry from total collapse at the end of WWI and became known as the Ostrich King. Behind the name Nurick is an interesting tale. story. On one severe winter’s day in Shavel the local church bell broke loose and fell into the river. The only person able or willing to jump into the icy water and save the bell was a young Jewish boy. The locals named him Nurick which means “bell saver”. Isaac’s family says his story is one of rag to riches and back to rags again. Smouse and feather buyers soon popped up across the Klein Karoo. Among those who settled in Montagu was Harry Abramowitz, and Aaron, Isaac and Barnett Buirski from Russia, N Bussells, N Sanders, M Saunders and Sigismund Gesundheit, from Warsaw
Abraham Jowell, from Plungyan arrived around 1880. He was not able to afford to bring his three sons Herman, Isaac and Feige with him and a decade was to pass before he saw them again. His delight, however, was short lived; he was killed on November 5, 1898. While travelling over rough terrain and attempting a steep descent on the Kammiesberg, his mules took fright and bolted. He was thrown from the cart and it ran over him. His injuries were so severe that he died. He was buried on the farm Olienfontein, where his body was taken after the accident. His eldest son, Herman followed in his footsteps, he bought land in Riebeek West, and set up a peddling business and a store. His son, Joseph, founded Jowell’s Transport and became known as “The Transport King of Namaqualand.”
According to an inventory of Abraham’s cart he was carrying 10 packs of cords, 15 packs of lace, shirt buttons, 10 pairs of scissors, 38 pairs of braces, 3 gross buttons, 30 thimbles, 70 packs of needles, 2 packs of hooks and eyes, 3 packs pins, 17 dozen reels of cotton, 6 scales, 30 pairs spectacles, 30 fine combs and 9 pocket combs, 16 nickel watch chains, 7 nickel watches, 2 silver watches, 12 gold rings, 10 watch keys, 22 brooches, 11 sets cuff links, 7 dozen collar studs, 21 pocket knives, 15 locks, 44 spoons, 36 forks, 24 knives and forks, 42 teaspoons and 22 flutes. In addition there were 16 pairs of trousers, 9 suits, 16 jackets, women’s stockings, men’s socks, cloths, towels, handkerchiefs, shawls, aprons, blankets, together with 30 yards drilling, 87 yards shirting, 143 yards print, linen, flannelette, lining blanket print, damask, tick and skirting. The total was value at £162.10s.11d.
Henry Hirsch Vilenski who came from Poland in the 1880s worked a smous to support himself and his wife, Sarah (nee Sprane), a Gentile, who later also converted to Juadism. (According to Jewish law at that time religion was considered to be passed down through the mother. This meant that if a Jewish man married a Gentile woman, their children would not be considered Jews.) David Gordon, a Jew from England set himself up as a smous in 1881 and operated out of Cape Town. Similarly Tuvye (Tobias) Kretzmer, started by selling eggs door to door in Cape Town in 1899. He then became a glazier and eventually in about 1903, was able to set up a general dealers’ store in Malmesbury. He then sent for his wife and four small children. Solomon Yamey came from Tsarist Lithuania and also worked as a wandering peddler at the Cape until he had gathered sufficient funds to open store.
Joseph Ryan came to Uniondale from Texel in the late 1880s. Soon after landing he borrowed a pound so that he could start selling supplies to far flung farmers wives. By 1900 his financial status had improved to such an extent that he was able to buy two small farms, Oupos and Vredepos. He was soon able to bring his father, Aaron Ben Eliyahu as we his wife and daughters to South Africa. Simon Noll arrived from Sadova in Lithuania in 1888. He went to Oudtshoorn where he managed to set himself up as a smous. In time he was able to open several stores – some of which were plundered during the Anglo-Boer War. Simon had a railway bus service named in his honour. He planted apple trees on his farm Diep Rivier between Uniondale and Oudtsdoorn. In time became the most successful apple farmer in the Langkloof Valley. A philanthropic man he donated funds for a school and a church. He served the area as a Justice of the Peace.
Jacob Wolf Blaaiberg from Crajevo in Poland married Gertrude Portnoi and moved to Uniondale where during the Anglo-Boer War he travelled along to Barabdas Road carrying goods to people along the railway line. He was later granted a contract to carry mail. His son Philip, a dentist at the age of 51 was the third person to receive a heart transplant performed by Professor Christiaan Barnard on January 2, 1968. He died in August 1969, after living 19 months with his new heart. He story is told in Looking at my Heart.
One Karoo tale states that in 1850 a wandering smous set up a trading store at Middelpost, a staging post for ox wagons and trekkers migrating out of the Cape Colony. It did reasonably well and in 1854 became a hotel. Thiswas Joel Sher, the uncle of the famous actor Sir Anthony Sher. Joel worked as a smous and a horse and mule speculator. During the Anglo-Boer War he followed the Boer commandoes supplying animals where he could. Joel was later joined by his brother-in-law, Herman Weinrich and Leon Helfet. Leon travelled from Chernush (now Chornukhy), in Poltava in the Ukraine to Calvinia in 1897. His father Jacob, a kosher butcher went to Manchester, in England and his brother and four sisters went to the USA. He never saw any of them again. Leon arrived with £26 in his pocket and with this was able to buy sufficient stock to trade. He worked as a smous until he could open a small shop. Seven years later he brought his fiancé Sarah Levin, from Kovno in Lithuania was able to join him. He later became a farmer and produce dealer. Leon sold out in 1908, but the business continued as Weinrich and Sher until 1975. (Sir Anthony Sher wrote a South Africa novel set at the turn of the century. the main character is a man simply named Smous, a Jewish peddler has fled the pogroms of his native Lithuania).
At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War Edward Leib left the Transvaal and set himself up as a smous in the Stellenbosch area after a while he decided to diversify and opened a grocery store. In the 1890s Aaron Lapiner made his way arrived from Esyern in Europe and to Jansenville. There he acquired a cart and two donkeys and began working as a smous. In time he persuaded his brother to join him and together they smousing a variety of goods and buying throughout the district and buying ivory and skins. In time he changed his name to Pienaar.
Moritz Berbstein, who was born in Piletsi in Romania, was smuggled to Bulgaria to avoid conscription when he was 15. After an adventurous journey through Europe, he reached Palestine, where he remained for five years. He was a founder of the town Petach Tivak and worked on the estate of Baron de Rothschild at Zichron Ya’akov. He travelled through Africa to Port Elizabeth where he married Anne Nurick from Latvia. To support them he set himself up as a smous working between Port Elizabeth and Graaff-Reinet where he in time managed to open a general store in 1893 and later another in Adendorp. He also traded is ostrich feathers. He was a member of the committee which received Joseph Chamberlain, British secretary for the Colonies, in Graaff-Reinet, in 1902.
Schmuel “Sam” Brenner and his brother Judel arrived from Goldingen in Latvia at the end of the 1800s to take up posts as travelling salesmen. On their heels were Morris “Mosche Lien and Abraham Henry. They found that it was not possible to travel into the interior as planned because of the Martial Law restrictions of the Anglo-Boer War. Moshe then took a job as a waiter at a boarding house and Abraham worked as baker until they could move to Kenhardt in 1902. Once there they set themselves up peddlers. Later they bought the local butchery.
The Harris brothers from Ospezin in Poland, worked as Peddlers in England, before coming to South Africa, in order to learn sufficient English to allow them trade in South Africa. They later set up woollen mills (which is said to have later become Waverley Blankets.) They employed Herman Mandelkorn, from Harrisburg to work as a smous for them.
The earliest Jewish settler in the Nieuwoudtville was Albert Fischer from Lithuania who disembarked in Cape Town in 1892. He worked as a smous until he could buy ground from the DRC and a build a house and store. He married Golda Leah Liebenson (Levinson) from Paarl. They had six children. She gave Hebrew lessons.
The man credited with being the founder of the Jewish Press in South Africa started out as an itinerant peddler. He was Nehemia Dov Hoffman who came to the Cape in 1890 from Kovno in Lithuania with the brother-in-law Nathan Millin. They worked as peddlers in the Cape for two years before moving to Johannesburg where Nehemia began publishing Der Afrikaner Israelita. His brother Solomon arrived in 1893 and with Nehemia opened two general dealer’s stores at Hottentotskloof. By 1895 the rest of the family had arrived and Nehemia had expaneded his publishing business to Cape Town where, with Isaac Stone, he published De Yiddisher Herald and later Der Afrikaner Telegraaf. He wrote 15 books most of which were locally published. In Hottentotskloof they were joined by David “Oom Dawie” Cohen, who had come to South Africa in 1890 as a smous and feather buyer. By 1897 he opened a shop and a hotel and rented a farm. He went on to develop some of the best farms in the country and became known as the Seed Potato King of the Western Province
Just before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War Philip Schultz, started out as a smous in Humansdorp in 1899. At about the same time a man called Tamaris, from Riga in Latvia, appears to have been the first Jew to settle in Steytlerville where he worked as a smous and later became a shopkeeper.
Towards the end of the war, around 1900, Benjamin Glatt came from Russia with his wife to settle in Murraysburg. With her support he set himself up as a smous. Both were very hard workers, and he was soon able to purchase the farm Poortjie West. He was a very popular man and the Dutch Reformed Church approached the government for land to establish a town named Glattville in his honour, but he refused permission. In 1915 he moved to Beaufort West and in 1919 to Williston. He and his wife had 12 children.
Twenty-five-year-old Frank (Epgriam) Levenstein came to Cradock from Ponevezh in Lithuania also in 1900 and began operating as a smous. The following year was joined by his brother Schneir and together they acquired a horse and cart and were able to serve a wider area. As life improved, they became livestock dealers and speculators. They later had a store and the model T agency.
After the war Henry Gluckman settled in Alicedale in 1902 and from there operated as smous and later a livetock and feather buyer. He later opened his first a shop in Alicedale and second one in Alexandria. Dordrecht had a smous named Elias Rosenberg. There was a canny Peddler at Norvalspont who known to all and sundry simply as “Sammy the Smous”. While his name has faded into history, some big businesses grew out of these humble smousing operations, one was started by Franz Ginzberg and the other by the Malcomess family. Franz became a highly respected industrialist in King Williams town where he made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches and soap. While the Malcomess family became widely known as suppliers of agricultural instruments.
Thousands of licenses were issued Jewish Peddlers states The Jewish Chronicle, however very little is known about the day to day lives and everyday experience of these men. The Kaplan Centre at the University of Cape Town in conducting a research project into this.
In addition to these travelling salesmen there were the transport riders like Percy Fitzpatrick (later Sir), transported goods, building materials and agricultural implements by wagon into the interior also selling and batering as they went. Theirs is another story to be told sometime later. The coming of the railways and motor transport put them out of business.
(NOTE: that term anti-Semitism – dislike of Jews as a religious or racial group – was coined in 1879 by the German agitator Wilhelm Marr to designate the anti-Jewish campaigns Central Europe at that time.)
The SA Jewish Times (Various issues);
S A Jewish Life – Various issues;
Lawrence Green – In the Land of the Afternoon, J Mockford – Here are South Africans, H Sauer – ex Africa;
George Thompson – Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa;
Paul Rockower, Jerusalem Post. December 12, 2006;
News 24 September, 2019;
Smous Finds a Home. Lorna levy, Hasia Diner;
University of New York – Wandering Jews: Peddlers, Immigrants and the discovery of new worlds;
Mary Kropman – The Contribution of The Pioneer Traders …;
The World of the South African Peddlers – Jewish Gen;
Smous – https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/kimberley/Articles_files/Smouse.pdf;