After sifting through the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census data from Alexandria, Virginia and discussing some trends as a class, I have decided to take a closer look at two German Jewish immigrant families: the Bendheims and the Strausses. In looking at these two families, I aim to focus on the relationship between them and how migration to Alexandria either created or maintained family ties.
Looking at “Germany” in 1870 is not a necessarily straightforward task, as the nation of as we know it today did not exist. Instead, the country was broken up into several kingdoms, which often centered around a particular city (see map 1).¹
(Map 1:The German Empire: 1871.)
However, a year later, Otto von Bismarck began the process of unification, a goal that many Germans had embraced in the nineteenth century. Like the majority of German immigrants, the Bendheim and Strauss families did not claim to be from a unified Germany in the U.S. Census. In 1870, the Strausses all claimed to be from Bavaria, the large region encompassing much of southeastern Germany today. Likewise, the Bendheims migrated from the region known as Baden, which borders Bavaria to the southwest. By claiming these regional identities, both families show that most Germans still held to the more local identifiers and did not claim to be from Germany. When the census taker came back in 1880, these same Old World identities were not used by all members of the family. Despite the unification of these former regions and city-states under one German government, the Bendheim and Strauss families still clung to their local identities. In 1870, Emma Strauss claimed to be from Bavaria, but in 1880 the census taker wrote that she hailed from the Darmstadt, a city located in the former territory of Hessen. Similarly, David Bendheim claimed to be from Baden in 1870, but his allegiance also switched to the city of Darmstadt. Fanny Bendheim also switched from claiming to be from Baden in 1870, to claiming to be Bavarian in 1880 (see Table 1). These changing ideas of identity and where exactly they were from tell a lot about the changing nature of ethnic identity among German immigrants, including German-Jewish ones, in this ten year window. A possible explanation for these changing identities could be that the census taker was not very thorough in the recording of his data in one or the other year. Another possible answer could be that these places are close geographically. And–another reason could be that, while Baden and Bavaria still existed as regions in Germany, their cultural, social, and political importance as ethnic identities was drastically lessened after the unification of Germany. The City of Darmstadt still certainly significance, but mostly on the local level.
Table 1: Nation of Origin among the Bendheim and Strauss Families, 1870 and 1880
|Name/Year of Census||Region of Germany||Ward in Alexandria||Occupation|
|Henry Strauss/1870||Bavaria||Ward 3||Dry Goods Merchant|
|Henry Strauss/1880||Bavaria||Ward 2||Dealer in shoes & clothing|
|Emma Strauss/1870||Bavaria||Ward 3||Keeping House|
|Emma Strauss/1880||Hesse Darmstadt||Ward 2||Keeping House|
|David Bendheim/1870||Baden||Ward 3||Dry Goods Merchant|
|David Bendheim/1880||Hesse Darmstadt||Ward 2||Dry Goods Merchant|
|Fanny Bendheim/1870||Baden||Ward 3||Keeping House|
|Fanny Bendheim/1880||Bavaria||Ward 2||Keeping House|
While looking at these two families and the table above, it is also interesting to note the ways in which the Strauss and Bendheim families moved within the City of Alexandria. The Strausses and Bendheims came from the same region–although different kingdoms–in Germany, and then settled in the same ward. In 1880, they then moved to the same ward again. Given all these factors, it would seem that the Strauss and Bendheim families either knew each other in Germany, or became fast friends once they arrived in Alexandria. Documents show that David Bendheim and Henry Strauss were members of the same congregation and served on its Board of Trustees.² They were also both members of the Hebrew Benevolent Society in Alexandria. Perhaps, it was these ties that led them to move together from Ward 3 to Ward 2?
(Map 2: Alexandria Country, Virginia: 1878. The area highlighted in green shows the City of Alexandria.)
Still other explanations do exist for the possible movement of the families within Alexandria. The above map of Alexandria in 1878 shows what was then the City of Alexandria in the bottom right corner, highlighted in green.³ The wards are numbered by splitting the City into four quadrants with Washington and King streets serving as the two axes. The bottom right quadrant is Ward 1, the top right is Ward 2, the top left is Ward 3, and the bottom left is Ward 4. The fact that both the Strauss and Bendheim families lived in Ward 3 in 1870 could very well be explained by the occupation of Henry Strauss and David Bendheim. As dry goods merchants, both men would have found a ready market of customers in Ward 3 due to its proximity to the train tracks. People would flow in and out of this part of town frequently, particularly earlier on in the Civil War, providing both men with a broad client base. This would also mean though, that housing in Ward 3 was likely poor, and while proximity to the rail road could be good for business, it is not the ideal spot for your home. The census taker in 1870 valued both David and Henry’s properties at $1,500, very respectable, but fairly poor compared to some of their fellow German Jews. As both families began to grow their businesses and earn more money, this could be one reason why both families picked up and moved to Ward 2 sometime between 1870 and 1880. Another reason could be that moving to Ward 2 and settling on King Street, one of the two major thoroughfares in the City and the hub of Alexandria’s central business district, was a better location for David Bendheim’s dry good business as well as Henry Strauss’s new occupation, selling shoes and clothes.
Whatever the reasons brought the Strauss and Bendheim families to Alexandria, it is clear that these two families were linked to each other somehow. By looking closely at patterns of geography and movement found in the 1870 and 1880 census tables, we are able to pick up on this friendship and the beginnings of a Jewish-German immigrant community in Alexandria.
- Anna Sluszkiewicz, “Index of German-Polish and Polish-German names of the localities in Poland & Russia.” Maps: German Empire 1870, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.atsnotes.com/other/germany-1870.JPG.
- 2. “American Jewish Yearbook.” American Jewish Committee Archives 1 (1899-1900): 264.
- 3. Census Finder. Virginia County Map: Alexandria County 1878 County Map, Accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.censusfinder.com/mapvirginia.html