Before internet shopping, malls, and supercenters, every town had its own dry goods store. And many of those store owners in rural South Carolina were Jewish.
The Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina is working to collect and archive photos, artifacts, and stories about those merchants.
“Jewish merchants have been here even back to Colonial days,” project manager Rachel Gordin Barnett said. ‘So by the 1800’s there were Jewish merchants in a lot of these small towns.”
Barnett herself is the daughter of a Jewish merchant. Her grandfather and his brother established a dry goods store in Summerton, where she worked as a child.
“It’s a part of the whole Jewish narrative,” she said.
By the late 1800s, merchants had set up shop on downtown streets in towns big and small. This continued to grow into the 20th century with Eastern European and Russian immigrants coming into the state
“A lot of them started out as peddlers, peddling their wares,” Barnett said. “And then from peddlers, of course, they established storefronts. They went into the smallest towns.”
The Jewish Historical Society partnered with Historic Columbia and College of Charleston on a statewide survey of Jewish merchants, past and present.
“We have been collecting these stories and we have them here and there but we don’t have them in one place,” Barnett said. “I know we’re missing a lot because I know there are towns, tiny little towns, some that don’t exist anymore where we know there were merchants.”
The Jewish Historical Society has been talking about the project for more than a year.
“It’s a big undertaking,” she said. “We have fantastic professional support going into this.”
So Barnett and her associates are reaching out to gather information.
“We encourage people to let us know what they have and if they are willing to either let us get photographs, bring it to us, let us come visit them, take a look at it,” she said.
Barnett said she’s been impressed with the people who have reached out to her already. She received an email from someone in Atlanta.