Jewish peddlers plied their wares through Monmouth County as early as 1716, but back then, none of them stayed in the region longer than it took to sell their goods. It wasn’t until the influx of German-speaking Jewish immigrants before and after the Civil War that the first Jewish communities were established in Monmouth County.
One prominent member of the communities that grew and flourished was Sigmund Eisner, an immigrant from Bohemia who settled in Red Bank in 1881 with little more than the clothes on his back. Starting off with a single sewing machine, he eventually founded a major manufacturing concern that specialized in uniforms for the Spanish Civil War and for the U.S. military and its World War I allies.
In addition to the Red Bank factory, the Sigmund Eisner Company soon had branches in Long Branch, South Amboy, and Freehold, and by World War I, employed 5,000 workers. It was for a time the exclusive maker of uniforms for the Boy Scouts and the largest manufacturer of uniforms in the United States.
The contributions of the Eisner family and other Jewish immigrants will be the focus of a presentation by historian Jean Klerman on Wednesday afternoon, June 27, at the Red Bank Public Library — a fitting site, since its building was once home to the Eisner family. Situated on the Navesink River, the West Front Street property was bequeathed to the borough in 1937 by Eisner family descendants for use as a library. The program is part of the library’s yearlong 75th anniversary celebration.
Klerman, cofounder of the Jewish Heritage Museum in Freehold and coauthor of Peddler to Suburbanite: The History of the Jews of Monmouth County, said Sigmund Eisner was a prime example of those itinerant peddlers “who came to the United States with very little and achieved so much economically and politically.” Her talk is under the auspices of the museum’s Speakers’ Bureau.
Eisner was also a prominent civic leader and philanthropist, aiding and serving local churches and hospitals, the State Home for Boys, and the Red Cross. As a Jewish community supporter, he was a member of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Zionist Committee of America.
Eisner was also a generous employer and left money in his will to factory workers, said local history librarian Elizabeth McDermott of the Red Bank library. He and his wife, Bertha Weis Eisner, were deeply involved with Temple Beth Miriam, a Reform temple that originated in Red Bank and eventually relocated to Long Branch. Bertha’s family, also from Bohemia, owned the Red Bank Temple of Fashion millinery store, which, although the building still stands today, is no longer in operation.
“Sigmund was a role model for his sons, who carried on working as executives in the factory, and also gave of their fortune and their time to better the community,” McDermott said
Eisner family members who attended an April 14 anniversary celebration at the library included Sigmund’s grandson Gerry, who lives in Westchester, NY, and great-granddaughter Jan, a resident of Atlantic Highlands. The library is planning additional anniversary events, including celebrations of Sigmund and Bertha’s birthdays, and a big band concert on July 21 in Riverside Park. The library is also embarking on a fund-raising campaign to restore a miniature replica of the Eisner home, which was made in the 1970s.
“Sigmund Eisner had a reputation as a good, honest industrialist who produced first-quality, well-priced work on time, and this was part of his success,” said Klerman, who will deliver a similar presentation at Temple Beth Miriam in October. “My interest is to place the Eisners in context with their ethnic immigrant group and highlight the wonderful advancements they made.”