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Joseph Miller and David Miller

Joseph Miller (1887-1972) and David Miller (about 1883-1943) were born in Chotinetch, a small village in western Russia, near Minsk, two brothers in a family of seven children of poor tenant farmers. David, born about 1883, was the eldest, and he was sent as a young boy to apprentice with his uncle, who owned a small knife-making factory. Joseph followed suit a few years later. At age 19, Joseph fled Russia to avoid military conscription. He stopped first in Liverpool, England, where another uncle, also a cutler, lived. But he decided that America was the "land of opportunity," and he made his way to the United States, arriving in 1905. In 1908, Joseph helped his brother David, who had served in the Russian Army, to join him in America.

Joseph opened his first shop on Canal Street on New York's Lower East Side in 1909, and the brothers became partners about 1916. The area was crowded with immigrants from eastern Europe, many of whom worked in the needle trade (either in sweatshops or in their own crowded tenement apartments) and who consequently had a tremendous need for adequate tools for cutting fur, felt, leather, and cloth. In addition, the Millers became well known for the manufacture of Jewish ritual knives. As did other members of this upwardly mobile immigrant generation, they later moved their factory to the Bronx.

The brothers' reputation grew because of the fine quality and extraordinary durability of their products. Each item they made bore the trademark "J. & D. Miller N.Y. Guaranteed," and they built their business on their practice of standing behind their products when the items needed sharpening, repair, or replacement. They later became known for their innovations in specialty blades used by the military during World War II, for surgical instruments, and for knives used to cut a variety of materials, from heavy wool to linoleum. David Miller was known for being particularly meticulous, especially in procedures that required extraordinary skill, such as manufacturing curved blades. David Miller retired in 1943, but Joseph Miller carried on the business into the late 1960s. When he died, at age 85, he had worked nearly to the very end. The Miller brothers saw themselves as examples of the fulfillment of the American dream--poor immigrants with little formal schooling who were given the opportunity and freedom to use their special talents to achieve success.

[This family history is based on the recollections of Irene Miller Galdston, daughter of Joseph Miller, which were recorded on February 15, 1980. The firm's business records were donated to the Smithsonian in 1992.]

 


Jewish Immigration

At the beginning of the American Revolution, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies. Just about 1,000 of these were Jewish. During the 1880s and 1890s, Jews from Russia and southern and eastern Europe began to migrate to the United States in significant numbers. Most settled in major cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Boston. However, others became peddlers and preferred to venture into smaller communities across the country.

 


"Wedding Dance Song"

"Wedding Dance Song" from the recording entitled Yiddish Folksongs, Folkways FW 8720, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1978 Used by permission.

Partial Yiddish Lyrics:
"…Hot zikh mir di sip tzezipt,
Un hot zikh mir tzebrokhn.
Hot zikh mir di shikh tserisn
Tonts ikh in di hoyle zokn.

Tots, tonts, antkegn mir,
Un ikh antkegn dir,
Du vest nemen dem eydim,
Un ikh vel nemen di shnir... "

Partial English Lyrics:
"… My sieve is all worn out,
And broke altogether,
My old shoes are torn,
So I dance in my stocking feet.

Dance, dance opposite me,
And I will dance to you--
You will take the son-in-law,
And I will take the daughter-in-law…"

 



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