Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mizpah II: A Jewcentric Aside

My discovery of the Mizpah phenomenon has developed more detail since my original post of September 15 -- hence this Mizpah II post.

Having learned that Mizpah jewelry existed, I wanted to see what it looked like. This led me to one Jean Baker, who lives in the UK. She is a serious collector of Mizpah, not only jewelry, but also old postcards and other paper memorabilia. Some of her collection is pictured on her website, but it is not particularly well identified. So I found her email address and put some questions to her. As it turns out, most of the items in her collection range from about 1880 to 1920, as I suspected. Most of the items are British, which is not surprising since she herself has been collecting in Britain; but she does have some American items, too. In particular, she has some paper items, one of which she thought, after reading my original post pointing out that the whole Mizpah thing is based on a misreading of Biblical text, would interest me. She managed to use her new scanner to send it to me, and it is great fun (for me, at least....others' tastes may differ, admittedly).

She sent a two-page brochure on Mizpah from the Magnetic Comb Company of Pekin, Illinois. When I say two-page, I mean a single sheet printed on both side and folded vertically, so that four columns of text are created. You can see all four pages of the brochure, above. The page on the far right, headed "Mizpah", is page 1. Pages 2 and 3 are in the left image, and page 4, the back of the brochure, is the leftmost column on the right-side image. In other words, the image on the left above is printed on the reverse of the image on the right. Get it?

On the basis of the printing and fonts, this brochure looks to be from sometime between 1906 and 1914. I say that because I have found mention of the Magnetic Comb Co., in Pekin, Illinois, in official documents of the State of Illinois, which used to register and inspect businesses. One, in 1906, describes the Magnetic Comb Company as a printing business. The 1911 document mentions something called "magnetic concrete." I have no idea what that is, nor am I yet sure even what a magnetic comb is. I think it has to do with the idea that if you put magnets in your comb or hair brush, it does something healthy with your hair and head. There are Chinese versions of this product available today, and I take them to be successors to some earlier original. Rather dramatic health claims are in fact made for them. (The only other possible meaning I have been able to derive for a magnetic comb is a more modern one: the combs that barbers fit onto electric hair trimmers are sometimes called magnetic combs. You can find photos on the Internet. But did such electrical hair-trimming devices exist back in 1906, or 1914? I doubt it; I don't know when they were invented and came into use--any help from readers would be appreciated here.)

I am pretty sure that, whatever Magnetic Comb referred to, it was something on the outer edge of science and rationality. Just read the brochure, which can be enlarged if you click on it (I think and hope).

The Mizpah deal of the Magnetic Comb Company of Pekin, Illinois reminds me strongly of the Prayer of Jabez business, invented some years ago by the "Reverend Dr." Bruce Wilkinson. For those who don't remember or have been otherwise spared knowledge of this, Wilkinson picked an obscure verse out of the Hebrew Bible and suggested to people--not so subtly but still carefully enough so that he would not be legally libel--that if they recited this prayer they would become prosperous. The book he created, called The Prayer of Jabez, and several follow-up volumes (The Prayer of Jabez for Women, etc.) sold wildly. The Magnetic Comb Company, and no doubt many other hucksters of the English-speaking world, anticipated Wilkinson by more than a century, even if they were not as commercially successful as he was.

Any possibility, one might ask, that the proprietors of the Magnetic Comb Company actually believed this nonsense? Not a chance, folks. Any doubts? Just go view The Music Man once again, and you'll get the proper feel for the times. (Do avoid Buddy Hackett's rendition of "Shapoopie", however; it has been known to be lethal above 20 decibels.)

What interests me particularly about the brochure is its classic Jewcentric content. On the one hand, it exudes an aura of Jewish chosenness even as it indulges in the standard anti-Semitic stereotypes of the era. So, as you can read for yourself above, "For thousands of years the secret of the Mizpah has been confined to the Hebrew race. From poverty they have attained riches. Success has been theirs in love, as well--you hear of no Hebrew divorces. Health is theirs to a ripe old age." And yet: "Did you ever observe how a Jew could start out as a pack-peddler and in a few years have a store and later become a great banker, money-lender and millionaire?/Have you said to yourself? `It isn't intelligence--for he is dull; it isn't hustle--for he is slow; it isn't hard work--for he takes life easy.'"

After this, as you can see, there follow two quotes about the promise of wealth afforded by Mizpah. The first has no source implied; the second is attributed to "a wise old sage in Bible days. . . " Both are made up completely out of whole cloth.

But it seemed a common view -- else why use it to get on the good side of potential buyers of Mizpah rings -- that Jews were dull, slow and took life easy. How did that come about, since I think it is safe to say that neither Jew nor gentile today in America (or Britain) would think this an accurate general description of Jewish character?

Of course, I don't know, but I can venture a guess. Since American Midwesterners in those days had little contact with Jews other than immigrants who were indeed pack-peddlers to begin with, it is not hard to figure out how at least some of these stereotypes set root. Jews were reticent, since they feared prejudice on account of their "stranger" status. Most did not speak fluent or unaccented English, so typical Americans may well have taken that for "dull." They were slow, perhaps, because they were damned tired shleping all over the countryside with their wares, even those who eventually were able to buy a horse and wagon.

As for taking life easy, this is puzzling. What would made people think that Jews took life easy? Maybe compared to the life in Eastern Europe they fled, they smiled a lot in Illinois. Who knows? As for the idea that there were no Jewish divorces, clearly, non-Jews rarely knew Jews well enough, outside of business exchanges, to know whether they were happily married or not. And one suspects that marital matters would not readily come up in business-related conversations between Jews and others. This made it easy for the Mizpah hucksters to make such a enviable claim without fear of rebuttal. Message? Buy a Mizpah ring and your spouse will shape up and do you right.

I wonder how many rings they sold.

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