The Happiest Man

Louis Borgenicht

Borgenicht, Louis. (1942).  The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht, as told to Harold Friedman. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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This book has been intriguing me since I first began reading it . . . so let me tell you about it.

In late January this year, two weeks into teaching an online Cultural Geography class, I read a New York Times article entitled “Historic Dirt Preserved,” (Martin 2012), noting that a 740-acre New Jersey farm was being sold to two different buyers, a doctor creating a vegan agritourism farm, and a British investor planning cider-apple orchards.

The property, a historical landmark, had been sold to New Jersey’s Agricultural Development Board by  “New York garment business millionaire Jack Bordenicht [sic]” and then by the Board to the State of New Jersey, with the proviso that it never be used for non-farm development.

Jack Borgenicht on Mt. Rainer, age 81

I was curious about the connection of this farming land to a Manhattan garment district millionaire.  Some remembered Jack Borgenicht as an eccentric nudist, a “greedy” self-centered capitalist and real-estate developer, and resented that he left his wealth to Virginia research institutes, rather than to the states of New York and New Jersey, where he accumulated his wealth.

An article in NJ.com, an online source for New Jersey local news, called him “an eccentric millionaire . . . who amassed three Rolls-Royces, four wives, 10 children, thousands of acres, and a garment-industry fortune” (Goldberg 2010).

Jack, the youngest of Louis and Regina Borgenicht’s 14 children, says that he took over management of his father’s garment business during the Great Depression at age 19, disparaging two older brothers who preceded him as “untalented idiots.”  He also referred to a sister as an “ugly duckling” and to her husband as “another idiot.” Jack saw himself as the savior of the failing family business. “It took me six months,” he said, “to turn it around” (Freehling 1996).

Jack’s father Louis was one of many immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs who built Manhattan’s famed garment industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1888, 234 of New York City’s 241 clothing factories were owned by Jews with production worth $55 million annually.  By 1900, the industry grossed over $100 million a year, and employed 45,000 people. By 1913, there were over 16,000 factories (most with 10 or fewer sewing machines and workers) and over 300,000 employees. One estimate is that  85% of garment industry workers were Jewish immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe. The repetitive cutting and sewing did not require skills, education, or a new language (Jewish Virtual Library 2012).

Garment shop, 1900

While some factories provided familiar meals, language, and family-like homeland ties for young immigrants, as well as economic opportunities, others became the infamous squalid sweatshops that reformer Jacob Riis described in his renowned photojournalist study, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890).

I was excited to see that Louis Borgenicht had written his memoir, published in 1942, the year he died, titled The Happiest Man.

This I had to read!

How could a man who must have amassed a fortune from the misery of thousands of sweatshop laborers consider himself “happy”?

His memoir revealed several surprises. For one, Louis barely mentions his youngest son Jack, and never by name. Far from crediting Jack with saving the family business, Louis credits God, his wife, five friends who extended  credit, and Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act of 1932.

Most astounding, I discovered that Louis, far from appearing as a greedy capitalist benefiting from the neglect and purposeful impoverishment of his laborers, was himself a hard-working laborer.

Zacliczyn, southeastern Poland

He began his own life as an often-hungry boy in the village of Zaklicztn, in Polish Galicia, growing up in persistent poverty.  “There,” he says, “I lived the life of a peasant. I wore the same tattered clothes. I had only a shirt, trousers and boots.The shirt I slept in, winding myself in its long tails for a little added warmth. The boots I reserved for Sabbaths and holidays.”

During the suammers, everyone worked in the potato fields, “kneeling for hours on end and hunching along the furrows from plant to plant. The work began at daylight and ended after sunset.” For lunches, they had two slices of black bread and cool water from the nearby spring. For a time, he and his brother Moische collected the abandoned bones of dead animals, dried them in their yard, and then ground up and sold them as fertilizer.

Hasids with  sideburn curls and bekishe young Louis coveted

Louis had a strict Jewish education in the 1860s–paid for in chickens! Louis envied the fine long black coats (bekishe) worn by Jewish men, and saved his pennies to buy one. When his father’s brewery failed, he took one apprenticeship after another, working from sunup until late at night, paid only in room and board. Over the years, he moved from town to town, and from Galicia to Hungary, building his knowledge and skills in the cloth trade. Finally, in 1888, he moved with his new young wife to New York.

To pay rent on their tiny tenement room, Louis tramped all day through cold streets, by turns selling herrings, then towels, tablecloths, notebooks, bananas, socks, and dishes.

Girls in aprons, 1890s

Finally, he and his wife began cutting and stitching girls’ aprons by hand, working fifteen hours a day, and slowly building up a business in manufacturing clothing, primarily girls’ and women’s dresses.

“Since those aprons had to be turned out as quickly as possible,” he tells us, “there were no union hours for us. We worked late into the night, and stopped only when we could no longer see the cloth in front of us.”

Louis prided himself on his strict honesty and concern for his workers, paying them three or four times the usual rate. “I paid ten and twelve dollars a week,” he says. “In those days we paid by the week, so that there was no speed-up like that of piecework, where the worker is paid by the amount he turns in.”

Louis tells us that other employers, “taking advantage of the constant flood of immigrants and the resultant unorganized, cheap labor, took in learners, at two and three dollars a week. They kept them as ‘learners’ long after they had grown skilled.  I found, on the other hand, that able girls, decently paid according to the level of the times, gave better work and friendlier work.”

He and his wife often shared dinner with their workers, and included them on weekend outings with their own children. Even years later, Louis tells us, when they lived in a large house, he often came home to find that house brimming with needy strangers whom Regina had invited to eat or sleep.

By 1892, he and his wife employed 20 girls, making and selling dresses from their retail shop. He maintained an unstinting love, care, and labor for his ever-growing family and the Jewish community. Through ups and downs, by 1913, he had built a huge wholesale business, and truly become “the happiest man.” In 1938, the United Infants’ and Children’s Wear Association honored  him for 50 years of “leadership, guidance, and ethical business conduct.”

With the great Depression of the 1930s, however, when Louis was in his 70s, he began to see his own business, as well as his hopes for a perfect American society, with opportunity for all, slipping away. It pained him to realize that modern technology in the industry had robbed workers of the opportunity to build their own businesses.

For me, in 2012, it was a joy to read the simple tales of a young man’s daily toils and thoughts, and to glimpse one man’s vision of life in an American city a hundred years ago.

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Freehling, Alison.  (1996, January 1).  High Profile: Jack Borgenicht . Hampton Roads, Virginia: Daily Press: http://articles.dailypress.com/1996-01-01/news/9601010056_1_peace-studies-william-and-mary-mount-rainier

Goldberg, Dan. (2010, December 7) N.J. to Purchase, Preserve Millionaire’s Long Valley Land as Open Space. NJ.com:   http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/12/nj_to_purchase_preserve_eccent.html

Jewish Virtual Library  (2012). New York City. Jewish Virtual Library (from Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008, Gale Research Group): http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_14806.html

Martin, Antoinette. (2012, January 26). Historic Dirt Preserved. The New York Times Online.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/realestate/new-jersey-in-the-region-historic-long-branch-farm-sold.html 

Riis, Jacob. (1890). How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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About Karen F. Dimanche Davis

Associate Professor and Director, Humanities Program, Marygrove College

Posted on June 4, 2012, in Book Review, Geography, History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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