Czech American Tradesmen – Masters of Their Profession

by Miloslav Rechcígl, Jr.

The industrial nature, skill, workmanship and precision were attributes that made the Czech tradesmen famous throughout Europe. To become a tradesman or craftsman required on the job training, schooling, as well as apprenticeship with a master tradesman or craftsman and usually several years of experience abroad. Until 1859 craftsmen and artisans in the Czechlands were organized in guilds (“cechy”) which enjoyed special privileges, especially in the earlier days (1).

It is therefore not surprising that Czech tradesmen found immediate employment after they immigrated to the US and some of them soon established themselves as independent proprietors of shops (2). It is of interest that one of the earliest Bohemian settlers, the legendary Augustine Herman, who settled in New York (then known as New Amsterdam) was trained as a surveyor and draftsman. While in New York he became a prosperous merchant who traded goods between the Dutch Colony and the old Europe. After moving to the Maryland Province, he was commissioned to draw the first accurate map of Maryland, which brought him notoriety and even praise a century later by George Washington, also a surveyor by vocation. His famous map brought him the title of  Lord and a huge estate in Cecil County, MD which he affectionately named Bohemia Manor in memory of his homeland (3).

His New Amsterdam contemporary Frederick Philipse, a descendant of Bohemian nobility, made his living in the first years of his stay in America as a carpenter, a trade in which he was trained in Europe. Later he attained great success as a merchant, becoming the wealthiest person in the entire Dutch Colony (4).

Moravian Brethren, who emigrated to America in the forties and fifties in the eighteenth century, had the foresight and trained themselves, before coming to this country, as skillful craftsmen of various kind, including carpenters, stone masons, tanners, coopers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, tinsmiths, gunsmiths, shoemakers, cloth weavers, watchmakers, foresters etc. Even such distinguished churchman as Daniel Nitschmann, the first Bishop of the renewed Unity of Brethren, was trained as a carpenter. The Demuth family, who settled in the Moravian settlement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania established a renown cigar shop there, which exists to date and which is considered the oldest shop of its kind in the US that is owned continuously by the same family. Another Moravian, by name of David Tanneberger, founded one of the earliest American organ manufacturing firms which produced organs to specifications for churches of various denominations throughout the eastern US (5, 6).

The mass migration of Czechs to the US following I848 brought to America, in addition to farmers, large numbers of tradesmen. According to the twelfth Census, 32 per cent of the first and 43 per cent of the second generation were engaged in farming, the balance were massed in towns, working at various trades. Retail merchants thrived everywhere and their number was steadily on the increase (7). As Thomas Capek observed, “seldom one finds Czechs doing unskilled outdoor labor, blasting, tunneling, road building; they prefer indoor jobs in the factory and the shop. Mining, likewise, does not seem to attract them; at least they are less in evidence than other Slavs in the Pennsylvania coal mines, coke regions, and steel mills. Musicians, professional and amateur, are numerous” (8).

A comparatively large proportion of Czech immigrants were employed as tailors, 6.9 per cent of the male breadwinners in the first generation and 3.7 per cent of those in the second. Czech tailors ranked high in terms of reputation, in comparison with other nationalities, many of them having learned their trade in large European cities, such as Prague, Vienna or Paris. A distinctive feature of the occupational distribution of immigrants was the relatively large percentage (3.2%) employed in the tobacco industry. This figure exceeded the corresponding percentage reported for any other of the seventeen classes of immigrants for which the occupation statistics have been computed. Of  the 2206 Czech male immigrants reported in this occupation more than three fourths were in the State of New York, constituting more than one fourth of the total number of Czech immigrant breadwinners in that State.

There is an interesting explanation why the Czechs picked this profession. In the town of Sedlec, near Kutna Hora, the former Austrian Government operated a large cigar factory, employing over two thousand men and women. In the sixties of the last century several of the Sedlec cigar makers emigrated to New York. They earned good wages of which they informed their friends and, as a consequence, more Czech cigar makers arrived. Editor L. J. Palda estimated that when he visited New York in 1873, fully 95 per cent of his countrymen were earning their living at this sort of work. Thomas Capek lamented that fifty years of cigar making are back of the New York community, yet how many manufacturers of Czech nationality are there: Wertheimer, Bondy, Lederer, Mendel, Schwarzkopf – not one Czech among them! Of course, Capek neglected to note that all these names are typical and common among Czech Jews.

Tobacco industry is an old trade, to be sure,  perhaps as immigration itself. Actually Augustine Herman, whom we mentioned earlier, might have had something to do with it, having been one of the oldest tobacco traders in America! Already in 1858, Wenceslaus Krechtler was the owner of a New York cigar store at 157 Canal Street, and in the rear of it he worked up the weed. This was clearly before the Sedlec immigrants arrived in New York. Many a pioneer Czech settler in New York started in this profession, including such individuals as Frank Korbel, Thomas Juranek, Frank R. Mrazek, and even Vojta Naprstek himself. Excellent showing has been made in that other distinctively Czech industry, the pearl button manufacture. Though neither as old as cigar making, the Zirovnice workers introduced the craft here and during the time Thomas Capek resided in New York, there were some seventy pearl button shops owned by Czechs, employing around 1,600 operatives. These were located as follows: CT (West Willington, Staffordville, Higganumi), 6;  NJ (North Bergen, Secaucus, Little Ferry, Cliffside, Guttenberg, New Durham), 20; Illinois (Chicago), 1.

Of the 40 plants in the Greater New York, 19 were situated in Manhattan, 12 in Winfield, 7 Astoria, I in Maspeth, 1 in Islip. According to B .Schwanda who owned the largest plant, the volume of business  in 1920 was between $3,000.000 and $3,500.000 and represented about half of the total value of ocean pearl buttons produced in the United States. Among other trades of Czechs in New York, one would find 500 metal workers, 300 journeymen tailors, 200 dressmakers. 250 butchers, 50 grocers, 500 carpenters and cabinet makers,. In times of prosperity, Czech piano makers were 700 strong, including cabinet makers, polishers and tuners. Czechs also excelled as furriers, having had some 300 operatives and 10 fur dealers. Two of the Czech dealers became quite wealthy, namely John H. Konvalinka, a member of the firm Konvalinka and Konvalinka on the Maiden Lane and Francis Vlasak, who later changed his name to Lassak, was considered in his time the wealthiest Czech in New York Metropolis. Czechs were also gainfully employed as marble and stone cutters, nine New York firms being wholly in their control. Although Chicago Czech immigrants prospered also in building trades, you would not have found them in New York. Special category formed Czech saloon keepers, who outnumbered Czech bakers, butchers, as well as grocers. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that saloon keepers did not require preliminary training and, in part, because small capital was not required to get started. Furthermore if one could count on the patronage of the fellow countrymen he could get along without the knowledge of English. Saloons also played an important role in the lives of the Czech immigrants, usually being the first stopping places of the newly arrived Czech settlers. Most, if not all, the lodges and clubs had reportedly their birth and beginnings under the saloon roof. To have traveled through New York and not to have stopped at August Hubacek’s tavern on the East Side would have been tantamount to a gross betrayal of the national cause. One could say the same thing about John SIavik’s on Clark Street in Chicago or Jacob Mottl’s saloon in St. Louis.

To get a further insight into the occupation of Czech New Yorkers, one can look at the advertising pages of the Newyorkske Listy of 1878. Here we find the following listings:

  • F. Brodsky, 26 Avenue C, steamship tickets, forwarding and foreign exchange
  • Adolph Hasek, 161 East Fourth Street, bookbinder
  • Karel Hlavac, 180 East Third Street, tobacco
  • Holub-Dusha Co., inventors and builders of machines used in the pearl button trade
  • Francis Keil & Son, lock makers and manufacturers of hardware
  • Joseph Krikava, 50 Avenue B, wine shop J. V. Linke, 236 East Fourth Street, hardware
  • Karel Machovsky, 209 East Fourth Street, undertaker
  • Manda Floral Co., South Orange, NJ, landscape architect
  • Joseph Oktavec, piano manufacturer K. Sladky, 349 Bowery, photographer
  • Franta Suchy, corner Avenue B and Fourth Street, baker
  • Karel Svoboda, 136 Stanton Street, druggist Waldes & Co., Queens Borough, makers of superior snap fasteners, known under the name “Kohinoor”
  • Frances Tichy,169 East Third Street, modiste
  • F. Vyborny & Son, 25 Avenue A, steamship tickets.

It is certain that every shop and factory in New York, manufacturing clocks, watches, musical instruments, art objects, gloves, sewing machines, furniture, carriages and automobiles, jewelry, machinery, employed Czech mechanics, who did not have equals. When one gleans in the 1900 Chicago Directory of Bohemian Merchants (9), one gets the idea of the business makeup of the Czech community there. Of the twenty-six different occupation categories, there were listed 322 contracting tailors, 321 saloon keepers, 266 grocers, 147 butchers, 107 shoe makers,97 milkmen, 84 confectioners and stationers, 60 insurance and real estate brokers, 60 midwives, 60 dressmakers, 5I cigar manufacturers, and 51 in wood and coal services. Then followed physicians (45), barbers (43), lawyers (40), custom tailors (40), bakers (39), builders (38), druggists (27), house painters (26), masons (25), undertakers (22), music conservatory owners (19), plumbers (19), blacksmiths (19) and bandmasters (19). An interesting facet of Czech American trade were individuals who rose from humble beginnings as tradesmen to the status of manufacturers, whose products became famous throughout the US. One such individual was the previously mentioned Frank Korbel (1830-1919) from Bechyne, Bohemia, who started as a struggling cigar maker in New York and then moved to California where he manufactured cigar boxes. He acquired large redwood timber interests in Humboldt County and subsequently established vineyards in Sonoma. Very few Czech Americans realize that the Korbel champagne was the product of his vineyards. In his time he had the reputation as the richest Czech in the country.

Another example of Czech entrepreneur was Josef Bulova(1851-1935) who emigrated to New York City from his native Louny in Bohemia. As a trained watchmaker he opened a small shop in New York which grew into an enormous Bulova Watch Company. There is no one in the US who would not be familiar with the Bulova watch. Frank J. Vlcek (1871-1947) of Budin, Bohemia started in the US as a blacksmith in Cleveland, OH, soon after he arrived there in 1889. In 1894 he opened his own shop which was the beginning of the future Vlchek Tool Company. The company specialized in making and assembling automobile tools and kits for cars, trucks and tractors. The business prospered to the point that it became to the automobile tool industry what Ford meant to the automobile trade industry.

Vaclav F. Severa (1853-1938) of Doubravice, Bohemia was trained as a saddle maker. In 1877 he decided to become a pharmacist. After three years of study, he opened in Cedar Rapids, IA  his own pharmacy and within a few years he began manufacturing his own drugs. Eventually he established the independent pharmaceutical firm W. F. Severa Co. which became known throughout the US. Matej Zika (1843-1911) of Strakonice, Bohemia learned harness making trade. After settling in Racine, WI, he opened a shop there. In 1862 he commenced manufacturing trunks and his business grew into immense trunk factories under the name M. M. Secor Trunk Co., the oldest manufacturer of trunks and traveling bags in the US. 

A different kind of entrepreneur was Frank J. Jirouch (1878-1970). As a young boy of thirteen he worked in a machine shop in Cleveland, OH. Simultaneously, however, he trained himself as  a wood carver and decorator. He soon established an independent company specializing  in decorative sculpture and art which was capable of  producing anything from the smallest and most delicate piece of wood carving to the massive and most intricate of decorations for the largest kind of dome. As if this were  not  enough, later  he also became an artist whose sculptures can be found in various parts of  the US.

Examples like these could go on ad infinitum …


1. For more information on Czech guilds, see Ottuv Slovnik Naucny Praha: J. Otto, 1892, vol. 5, pp. 260-63.
2. For information on the lives of early immigrants to America from the Czechlands, see my article, “In the Footprints of Czech  immigrants in America”, Czechoslovak and Central European Journal 9 (1990), pp. 75-90.
3. The story of Augustine Herman and his adventurous life in New Amsterdam and the Maryland Province is depicted in my article, “Augustine Herman Bohemiensis”, Kosmas 3 (Summer 1984), pp. 139-48.
4. On his family background, see Thomas Capek, Ancestry of  Frederick Philipse, First Lord and Founder of Philipse Manor at Yonkers, N.Y. New York: Paebar, 1939. 
5. For more  information on the emigration of Moravian Brethren from Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia and their beginnings in America, see the author’s articles,  “The Renewal and the Formation of the Moravian Church in America”, Czechoslovak and Central European Journal 9 (1990), pp. 12-26 and “Moravian Brethren from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia: Their Arrival and Settlement in America”, Bohemia 32, no. 1 (1990), pp. 152-65.
6. It should be noted that when, almost 100 years earlier, before Moravian Brethren put their foot on American shores, the Jesuit missionaries were sent to Latin America from the Bohemian Province, they included lay Jesuit Brethren who were trained in a variety of trades.
7. The Census figures and other statistics in this article are based on various writings of Thomas Capek, including The Cech (Bohemian) Community of New York. With introductory remarks on The Czechoslovaks in the United States. New York: Czechoslovak Section of America’s Making, 1921.
8. Cited from his The Cechs (Bohemians) in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, p. 70.
9. Directory of Bohemian Merchants, Traders, and Societies. Chicago, 1900.