The Custom of the Country

Today we have a guest post from Mr. Joseph Meyer, of Meyer’s Drygoods in Savannah, a notable member of the Savannah Jewish community.

I was born in Germany, but I came to Savannah as a boy when my father settled here in 1838. We were in drygoods in Hamburg and we set up a drygoods business in our new home. My father prospered. We became known for the quality of our goods. The well-to-do merchants of Savannah and the wealthy planters of the Low Country came to be our customers.

My father has always impressed me with the need to be discreet. We know when a man buys a length of silk, and because we send it to the dressmaker, we usually know who the dress is for. That length of silk doesn’t always adorn a wife or a daughter. We also know who pays slowly and who can’t pay at all. Like the cotton factors on nearby Factors Row, we know who is financially embarrassed and who is ruined, and like the factors, we keep that knowledge to ourselves.

Our clerks are fellow Jews, relatives or friends of the family, and they never stay with us long. They get the disease of ambition in America, just like they get malaria, and they leave us to open their own businesses elsewhere. One is a successful drygoods merchant in Charleston; two flourish in New Orleans; one settled in Natchez, where his fortunes rise and fall with the cotton harvest; and one despaired of the South to settle with the German Jews of Cincinnati.

Heinrich came to us a year ago. He’s a distant cousin from a drygoods family. He’s good with the customers, and he knows the quality of a length of cloth. He reads poetry, and he’s full of regret that the Revolution of 1848 failed to bring freedom to Germany. But he has the malaria, like the rest of them. He’s quickly learned English, and he insists that we call him Henry, gently correcting us when we forget. He wants to be rich someday, and he is restless behind our counter.

One day, he and I were sitting at the table as our servant, Dinah, cleared the dishes. Heinrich looked at me and said in English, “We were slaves in Egypt. And here we own slaves ourselves.”

I warned him by replying in German. “Heinrich, the servant.”

He asked, “Does it bother you?”

“It’s the custom of the country,” I said. “I can’t let it bother me.”

He looked at Dinah, who kept her eyes down, and at me. He shook his head, and I thought, This is worse than the malaria of ambition. For a Southerner, this is trouble.