David Latchman

From shmattes to medical instruments: Jewish businesses in the 19th century

The letter signed by Woolf Aronsberg, alongside his picture
The letter signed by Woolf Aronsberg, alongside his picture

The most common image of the Jew in 18th and 19th-century England, like those from the pages of Israel Zangwill’s novels, is that of an itinerant peddler, cloaked in a black gabardine, selling old clothes and knickknacks from door to door. Certainly, this is part of the story, but Jews were also involved in much more up-market sales activities. I first discovered when I bought a letter signed in Hebrew and English by one Woolf Aronsberg (illustrated).

The letter signed by Woolf Aronsberg, alongside his picture (Source: Prof. D Latchman)

The curious letter is addressed to the famous Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant (1816-1909). It bears the date September 1879. The letter informs Rabbi Salant that a donation of £100 has been collected from Jewish and Christian friends and has been sent to the British Consul for distribution amongst the poor of all denominations in the holy city of Jerusalem. Clearly a large sum of money and a very open-minded attitude for those days.

So, who was this Woolf Aronsberg. He signs the letter “Justice of the peace for the City of Manchester.” Indeed, he was sufficiently well known to merit his picture (illustrated) and an accompanying article appearing in the Pictorial World in 1875. In this article, Woolf is described as a spectacle maker and philanthropist with his benefactions being “too long to tell.”

My research has revealed that Woolf was much more than just a spectacle maker. From his shop in Manchester, he made and sold a variety of scientific instruments as, did his brother Maurice Aronsberg who had a shop in Liverpool.

Of course, I started to collect their work and have now accumulated many different items, including a barometer (illustrated) and a set of instruments for engineering drawing (illustrated). Both highly technical objects requiring great skill to make. Perhaps the most exotic Aronsberg artifact I have is an instrument for the administration of electric shocks to people with “Nervous Diseases” (illustrated). Not recommended for use at home!

The barometer belonging to Woolf Aronsberg (Credit: Prof. D Latchman)
A close up of the barometer (Source: Prof. D Latchman)


Aronsberg’s set of instruments used for engineering drawing (Source: Prof. D Latchman)


An instrument for the administration of electric shocks to people with “Nervous Diseases” (Source: Prof. D Latchman)
The electric shock instrument label (Source: Prof. D Latchman)

Woolf and Maurice married two sisters, daughters of the Reverend Professor Joseph Prag, Minister of Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation and Professor of Hebrew at Queens College Liverpool, and both brothers were involved in the Jewish community.

Not all Jews were selling old clothes and, as we will see in future posts, the Aronsberg brothers were not alone in making and selling scientific instruments and being active members of the Jewish community, both in the UK and abroad.

About the Author
Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic, author, and philanthropist, and currently holds the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck University of London, having led the university since 2003. Latchman holds First-class Honours in Natural Sciences, a MA, and a PhD, and has completed a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Imperial College London. He also has a DSc (higher doctorate) from the University of London.
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