Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Sam Slatkin

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Sam Slatkin
BornSam Slatkin
Other namesTom Levine


Sam Slatkin (born 1892) was a Russian-American tailor in Gastonia, North Carolina. He was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.[1]


Russian Life[edit]

Sam Slatkin was born and raised in Russia. He is referred to as Tom Levine throughout his interview, and many of the places he mentions are fictitious. In his interview, Slatkin states his birth year as 1892,[2] whereas the 1930 U.S. Census states 1897.[3] Growing up, he spoke his “native tongue, Jewish” and Russian fluently.[4] The Jewish language he describes may have been Yiddish or Hebrew.[5]

Having completed primary school, Slatkin began to work as a kindergarten teacher at the age of 12. Due to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Slatkin’s kindergarten class was suspended, and Slatkin was left unemployed. Following his father’s death in 1906, Slatkin immigrated to America to live with his uncle.[6]

American Life[edit]

Slatkin often helped around his uncle’s butcher shop, though the location of the shop is unclear. Against his uncle’s wishes, Slatkin took a job at a clothing factory in New York City. Eventually, a relative of Slatkin’s uncle offered to take Slatkin to the town of Gastonia, North Carolina, and teach him about the tailoring trade.[7]

While in Gastonia, Slatkin obtained a series of jobs within the clothing industry and steadily earned higher wages. However, Slatkin soon discovered one of his bosses was stealing half of his weekly paycheck. Eventually, that boss had to shut down his shop, leaving Slatkin without a job. Though Slatkin considered leaving Gastonia altogether, he decided to open his own business as Gastonia’s principal tailor. Though his business was financially successful, his business practices were unsustainable because he spent instead of saved most of his money.[8]

Family Life[edit]

Slatkin married Mary Meyers in 1919, and they had four children. Slatkin had difficulty keeping up with Mary’s materialism. She constantly insisted on expensive bigger houses than they could afford, almost forcing Sam to close his tailoring business.[9]

Slatkin felt the effects of the Great Depression when he lost $1000 in the bank crisis. During the Depression, Slatkin lost almost all of his tailoring customers. To save money, he had to move his shop to a cheaper location. Slatkin sold almost all of his possessions, with the exception of his car.[10]

Due to the financial stress the family was facing, Slatkin’s wife and kids went to live with her parents in 1936. Angry that Slatkin didn’t have more money, Mary would only speak with Slatkin when he received a paycheck. Mary used this money to keep up her lavish lifestyle, buying material possessions despite their family’s financial crisis. Although Mary continually spent of all Slatkin’s money, she eventually charged him with non-support and filed for divorce.[11]

There are few records of Slatkin after his interview with the Federal Writers’ Project. His death date and place are unknown.

Social and Political Issues[edit]

Russian Immigration to America[edit]

Mass emigration of Russian Jews began in 1881 in response to Tsar Alexander III’s discriminatory laws and practices against the Jewish population.[12] One such practice was the pogrom,[13][14] which were violent attacks against the Russian Jews.[15] The semi-feudal system in Russia left the lower class with insufficient land to support their families, making emigration of peasant families common.[16]

France[17] and England[18] openly opposed pogroms and sought to organize humanitarian aid for Russian peasants. These countries saw emigration of the Russians to the United States as the most viable option, and it was ultimately achieved through family connections and humanitarian aid.[19]

The Alliance Israélite Universelle[20] was a principal proponent of aid to the Russian Jews. However, the Alliance was unable to provide aid on a large scale because it was against the emigration of Russian Jews for fear of upsetting the “Tsarist regime.”[21]

It is unclear how many Russians were residing in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century because the 1930 census recorded mother tongue, but not nationality.[22] Therefore, although the 1930 census states 315,721 native Russian speakers, the number of Russian nationals was likely much less.[23]

According the Barry R. Chiswick, “learning English is usually cited by Soviet Jews as the most difficult part of the adjustment process.”[24] Due to the language barrier, Russian immigrants often earned significantly less money than other immigrant groups.[25] Regardless of if they had received an education in Russia,[26] Russian immigrants typically took up menial industrial jobs in cities such as New York or Chicago.[27]

Divorce during the Great Depression[edit]

According to sociologist Andrew Cherlin, “divorce decined 25 percent” during the Great Depression.[28] However, divorce rates rose immediately following the Depression, proving that economic downturn only postpones divorce until families are more financially stable rather than preventing them altogether.[29] In fact, the stress and dissatisfaction commonly felt during the Depression often contributed to otherwise happy couples getting a divorce once the Depression was over.[30] Divorce during the Depression was a financial risk, as divorcees were faced with various fees such as lawyers, child support, and potentially thousands of dollars less in annual income.[31]


  1. Interview with Sam Slatkin, Feb. 10, 1939, Folder 283, Collection 03709, Federal Writers' Projects Papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ancestry.com, 1930 U.S. Census, Gastonia, Gaston, North Carolina, roll 1692, page 2B, Enumeration District 0030, FHC microfilm, 2341426, http://search.ancestryinstitution.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?_phsrc=jwx4&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&gss=angs-g&new=1&rank=1&msT=1&gsfn=Sam&gsfn_x=1&gsln=Slatkin&gsln_x=0&msypn__ftp=Gastonia,%20Gaston,%20North%20Carolina,%20USA&msypn=20561&msypn_PInfo=8-%7C0%7C1652393%7C0%7C2%7C0%7C36%7C0%7C1124%7C20561%7C0%7C0%7C&catbucket=rstp&MSAV=0&uidh=yn9&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=76891260&dbid=6224&indiv=1&ml_rpos=23, accessed 20 October 2017.
  4. Slatkin, Interview.
  5. Barry Davis. "Yiddish and the Jewish Identity." History Workshop, no. 23 (1987): 159-64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288755.
  6. Slatkin, Interview.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Chyz, Yaroslav J., and Joseph Slabey Roucek. "The Russians in the United States: I." The Slavonic and East European Review 17, no. 51 (1939): 638-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4203526.
  13. Chyz, “The Russians in the United States: I,” 643.
  14. Szajkowski, Zoza. "How the Mass Migration to America Began." Jewish Social Studies 4, no. 4 (1942): 291-310. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4615219.
  15. “Pogroms,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Museum, accessed October 25, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005183.
  16. Chyz, “The Russians in the United States: I,” 644.
  17. Szajkowski, “How the Mass Migration to America Began, 291.”
  18. Ibid, 293.
  19. Ibid, 300.
  20. Ibid, 291.
  21. Ibid, 296.
  22. Chyz, “The Russians in the United States: I,” 644-645.
  23. Ibid, 644.
  24. Chiswick, Barry R. "Soviet Jews in the United States: An Analysis of Their Linguistic and Economic Adjustment." The International Migration Review 27, no. 2 (1993): 260-85. doi:10.2307/2547125.
  25. Chiswick,"Soviet Jews in the United States: An Analysis of Their Linguistic and Economic Adjustment," 274.
  26. Chiswick,"Soviet Jews in the United States: An Analysis of Their Linguistic and Economic Adjustment," 280.
  27. Chyz, “The Russians in the United States: I,” 650.
  28. Ambrosino, Brandon, “Recent U.S. Divorce Rate Trenc has ‘Faint-Echo’ of Depression-Era Pattern,” Johns Hopkins University, last modified January 29, 2014, https://hub.jhu.edu/2014/01/29/divorce-in-time-of-recession/
  29. Ibid.
  30. Monahan, Thomas P. "The Changing Probability of Divorce." American Sociological Review 5, no. 4 (1940): 536-45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2084428.
  31. Ambrosino, “Recent U.S. Divorce Rate Trenc has ‘Faint-Echo’ of Depression-Era Pattern.”