How common were horses at the beginning of the 20th century?

How common were horses at the beginning of the 20th century?

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From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in North America and Australia, how common were horses?

Was it easy for every man or boy to own a decent riding horse, or were they relatively expensive and valuable based on availability and quality?

It seems the average cowboy owned a very cheap, low quality horse, but how big was the market and availability for good horses, such as were deliberately bred well and not just mustered up and broken. How were horses sold?

I found an interesting paper that gives some numbers similar but slightly different from those in Pieter's source.

U.S. Equine Population During Mechanization of Agriculture and Transportation:

1900 21,531,635 1905 22,077,000 1910 24,042,882 1915 26,493,000 1920 25,199,552 1925 22,081,520 1930 18,885,856 1935 16,676,000 1940 13,931,531 1945 11,629,000 1950 7,604,000 1955 4,309,000 1960 3,089,000

But I also found a copy of 1900 Census information that shows the number of horses per 100,000 residents in the largest cities of the US (at that time). If I'm reading it correctly, cities with populations over 25,000 averaged 4,396 horses per 100,000 citizens.

As far as "how were horses sold," at least some were sold via newspaper advertising. In the Seattle Times, January 24, 1900:

18 HEAD of cheap mares and horses left, no work for them. One pair of 2,800 lb. horses, $200; one pair of $2,700 lb. horses, $160; one 1,000 lb. horse, $50; one pair of mares, 2,400, $225; one 1,100 lb. mare, $70; one 800 lb. horse, $25; one 1,200 lb. mare, $100. Cheap horses and buggies and wagons; trial allowed. Model Stables, 9th and Mercer.

Ladies' fancy gaited saddle horse; can take 5-foot hurdle; has won several races; took blue ribbon at state fair; with saddle and bridle, $250. Also tan riding boots, size 6. Mrs. Johnson, 3718 8th South.

$25 buys good work horse, weighs 1,350, age 8, guaranteed good worker every way; a prize for a man with little money. Bal. 1658. Phinney car to 8521 Dayton, Greenwood Stable.

The Seattle Horse Market, at 1737 1st Ave. S., holds regular auction sales every Tuesday at 1 p.m. All kinds of stock sold on commission. Main 3761. N.T. Jolliffe, prop.

WANTED--Sound, gentle driving horse, 8 or 10 years old, used to city life. Write 204 Marion Bldg.

There are a ton more ads in that day's paper, and they are fascinating, but I will stop with these. It really does seem similar to the way cars are sold today, doesn't it? And the cost of a horse could be relatively cheap, but like cars today, even an inexpensive horse was probably difficult for someone who was quite poor to afford to own and maintain.

I think, however, that people in cities and towns then were somewhat less likely to own a horse than a modern city dweller is to own a car today. And the reason for that is not so much the cost of the horse, but that our culture hadn't shifted to being car-centric yet. People did expect to walk more, but their lives were also more easily lived without personal transportation than ours are today. Back then groceries and prescriptions were commonly delivered, and every tiny area had its own shops. (In the early 20th century, there were six small groceries within 4 blocks of the house I live in today. Not to mention the hardware store, bakery, butcher, etc.) There were streetcars all over the place.

Now much of our environment is car-centric. We have big-box stores with giant parking lots where we can stop on our way home from work. We have areas that are very pedestrian-unfriendly. The streetcars are mostly gone, and buses rarely run as frequently as the older streetcars did. Not having a car in that kind of environment can be a hardship. But not having a horse in 1900, when the environment was far more friendly to getting around on your own feet, would have been far easier.

The Wiki-biography on George E. Waring Jr., Street Commissioner of New York City 1894-1898, is informative. At the time of his appointment to this post NYC was awash in (mostly) horse manure, shin-deep, with predictions that the city's first floors would soon be manured under. Outfitting his workers in sparkling-clean white uniforms, and instilling an entreprenurial spirit in them that encouraged innovate techniques and hard work, the citizens of New York granted the Street Commission workers a parade through the city in 1896 in recognition of their success.

This street filth is the origin of the traditions:

  • that a gentleman escorts his lady on the outside of the pavement or boardwalk, so that his black coat will block the spray from passing vehicles;

  • wears boots rather than shoes at most times; and

  • on occasion will even lay his jacket down over the muck for his lady-love to walk on.

To summarize:
Common enough to create shin-deep manure-muck throughout the streets of New York City despite a large full-time (albeit ill-motivated) street-cleaning staff, and to scare the residents into believing their city was actually being buried in the stuff. That seems really very common to me.

In New York City:
Every milkman had a wagon drawn by a nag.
Every tinker had a cart drawn by a small pony.
Every delivery vehicle was drawn by a team of four strong draught horses.
Every cab was drawn by one or two fast horses. Every gentleman kept a stable with at least two decent riding horses for himself, and a team of two to draw a small cart or four to draw a small sedan wagon.
Every ladder and pump truck in every fire house required two teams of 4 or six kept in harness and alternated. etc.

The only way to get anywhere (on land), faster than 3 mph walking pace or with baggage, was on horseback or in a horse-drawn vehicle.

From here:


1867 - 8,000,000
1915 - 21,500,000
1949 - 6,000,000
1950's (early) - 2,000,000
1957 - 750,000 (*unreliable source? See sources below)
1960 - 3 million


1971 - 17,000 (first census)

Late 1800's - Over 1,000,000 in Texas alone
End of 1800's - 2 million

As you don't state which country you are interested in (not sure how much specificity to take from your use of "cowboy"), I offer an answer for Norway, which has very good statistics. Similarly to the US (and differently from many European countries) it still had a large agricultural sector in the early 1900s.

A time series for the number of horses and other animals from 1835 to 1999 (!) is at the webpage of the Norwegian statistical agency (direct link). (Google translate correctly gets the headings but translates "domestic animals" as "pets".). Horses are in the first column.

Some numbers:

- 1835: Horses: 113,000 Population: 1.2 million Horses per 1000 people: 94 - 1855: Horses: 154,000 Population: 1.5 million Horses per 1000 people: 102 - 1891: Horses: 151,000 Population: 2.0 million Horses per 1000 people: 75 - 1930: Horses: 177,000 Population: 2.8 million Horses per 1000 people: 63 - 1960: Horses: 109,000 Population: 3.6 million Horses per 1000 people: 30 - 1990: Horses: 20,000 Population: 4.2 million Horses per 1000 people: 5

Note that there were a lot of children around in the nineteenth century, so the number per adult (or per family) is a lot higher.

It was much like cars are today. If a person has a car today, you can imagine that same basic type of person would have had a horse in 1900. To answer your next question, yes, a lot of people had really crappy horses. Much like most people today drive around in crappy old Civics and Corollas and F150s (although it may not seem this way to you if you are middle or upper class).

If you go back to 1850, a significant number of people rode around on mules, but by 1900 nearly everyone could either afford some kind of horse or be able to borrow a horse from a parent or relative if needed.

From some of the comments above, I think some people have the idea that a horse was some sort of luxury, which is not true at all. In 1900 you could get a good, solid horse for about $150 and an old nag for as little as $10. An unskilled laborer made about $20 a week and skilled laborer made double that. A professional, like a good lawyer would make a lot more. So, even a relatively low earning worker could make enough for quite a good horse in about 2 months. Even a person making almost nothing, a beggar, could probably scrounge up a worthless old nag if they wanted to, just like today you can get a junk car that runs for about $350, the cost of scrap. In 1900, the equivalent was the "glue" value of a horse, about $10.

Nowadays, an unskilled worker has a take home pay of about $12 an hour or about $500 per week. In 2 months, that is $4,000, enough to buy a decent car. For example, I drive an old Volvo 850 with leather seats, power everything and a sunroof which cost me $3,000 in cash.

Thus, you can see, things have not changed as much as you might think.

Przewalski's horse News

Przewalski's horses are often described as small and stocky. They are heavily built, with a large head, thick neck and short legs. They are dun-colored with a dark zebra-like erect mane and no forelock. A dark stripe continues from the mane along the backbone to a dark, plumed tail. They have a yellowish-white belly and dark lower legs and zebra-like stripes behind their knees.

Przewalski's horses are 4.3 to 5 feet (1.3 to 1.5 meters) tall at the withers, 7.25 to 8.5 feet (2.2 to 2.6 meters) long and weigh 550 to 800 pounds (250 to 360 kilograms).

Przewalski's horses once ranged throughout Europe and Asia. Competition with man and livestock, as well as changes in the environment, led to the horse moving east to Asia, and eventually becoming extinct in the wild. Today they can only be found in reintroduction sites in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.

Przewalski's horses are the only wild horses left in the world. The "wild" horses that abound in Australia and North America's western plains and East Coast barrier islands are actually feral domestic horses that escaped from ranches and farms and returned to the wild.

Przewalski's horses were last found on the Mongolian steppes of the Gobi Desert. The Gobi is different from the Sahara, as only a tiny part of it is sandy desert. It is extremely dry, but the region also has springs, steppes, forests, and high mountains, and supports a great diversity of animals. The steppe of Mongolia may represent the greatest expanse of largely unaltered grassland in the world. Mongolia is an Alaska-sized country sandwiched between China and the former Soviet Union. It is a land of extremes, as summer temperatures can soar to 104° Fahrenheit (40° C) while winter temperatures can plunge to 50 below zero (-28° C).

In the wild, Przewalski's horses graze on grass and leaves from shrubby trees. Like zebras and donkeys, they are hind-gut fermenters, meaning that they need to consume large amounts of water and low quality food.

Mares at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute graze on pasture a few hours a day.

This species often lives in groups that contain several mares, a dominant stallion, and their offspring. There may also be younger stallions on the periphery of the herd or in a bachelor herd. These young stallions will only be allowed to breed if they defeat the dominant stallion. Once offspring reach breeding age, they are chased out of the herd.

Domestic horses are seasonal breeders that cycle in the spring and summer. Very little is known about the reproductive physiology of Przewalski's horses a research program at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is looking into many aspects of female and male reproductive physiology. This has become very important as many zoos in North America are reporting infertility issues and, as a result, not many foals have been born in the last ten years.

Przewalski's horses may live up to 36 years of age.

Przewalski’s horses have long been considered the last surviving wild horse species, but a recent study has raised speculations. The new data highlights a close genetic relationship between Przewalski’s horses and Botai horses, the latter of which some scientists consider to be the first domesticated species. They point to this relationship as evidence that Przewalski’s horses may have been domesticated.

However, Botai horses form a clade (or group of organisms with a common ancestor) distinct from domestic horses, meaning it is possible that Botai horses were tamed but not domesticated. Asian elephants offer a modern illustration of this distinction, as they have been tamed for use as draft and war animals for thousands of years but are not domesticated animals.

There is no strong evidence that Przewalski’s horses are feral descendants of domestic ancestors. Rather, they are unique descendants of horses within the Botai/Borly clade and represent genetic diversity that is no longer found among horses. As such, Przewalski’s horses remain the “best of the rest” of the true wild horses.

These horses ranged freely in wild populations well into the 20th century and are integral to a healthy steppe ecosystem. Their restoration and conservation continues to be a significant goal for global conservation and for preserving what remains of the world’s ancient wild horses.

Prior to reintroduction programs, Przewalski's horses were last seen in the wild during the 1960s in the Gobi Desert, which accounts for roughly the southern third of Mongolia. The number of Przewalski's horses dwindled due to human interference, including cultural and political changes, as well as military presence, poaching and capture. Today, their primary threats include habitat degradation, climate change, low genetic diversity, hybridizing and disease transmission. The loss of habitat is mainly due to to illegal mining and military disturbances.

Through breeding programs, Zoos have been instrumental in preventing the Przewalski's horse from dying out altogether. Of the approximately 1,900 Przewalski's horses alive today, all are descended from 14 founders that were caught in the wild between 1910 and 1960. The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is heavily involved in saving Przewalski's horses, including through reproductive research, genetic management of the North American herd, global genetic management, reintroduction and capacity building.

Species that are reduced to such small populations can lose much of their genetic diversity, which in turn can make adults less fertile and young less likely to survive. The species went through a second round of bottlenecking during World War II. In 1945, there were once again less than 20 breeding Przewalski's horses in the world. An international studbook was established in 1959, which later became the Species Survival Plan.

Przewalski's horses are legally protected in Mongolia, where hunting has been prohibited since 1930. Three ongoing reintroduction sites are being monitored in Mongolia, including community integration and support. Despite the efforts already in place, there is still a need for better disease monitoring, separation between Przewalski's horses and domestic horses, streamlined population management, a better plan for Mongolia (home to the only wild population), genetic mapping of existing Przewalski's horses, addressing the concern of hybrids, training and education for those in the field.

The Beginnings of the Vilna Community

In 1901, Vilna had a Jewish population of some 76,000 – about half of the city's total population. Vilna was an important centre of Yiddish and Hebrew literature and media, including ultra-orthodox literature in Yiddish. Prominent writers in the press included the philosopher Hillel Zeitlin and the authors Isaac Dov Berkowitz and David Frishman. The daily newspaper Hazman (The Time) and a monthly journal of the same name became the platform for Shalom Rabinowitz (Shalom Aleichem), Zalman Shneur, and other writers. The city published apolitical Jewish newspapers, literary magazines, popular science journals and children's publications. Following the ban on Hebrew print houses in the Russian Empire, only two were allowed to continue operations: one of which was in Vilna. In 1915, all the Jewish newspapers in Vilna were closed down by a Russian military order.

In 1910, more than 100 synagogues and kloizes (study halls) existed in Vilna. In one of them, Koreli ("Holy Purity"), many guest speakers addressed the congregation, including the young activist Dr. Shmaryahu Levin and the historian Simon Dubnow.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vilna had hundreds of Jewish educational institutions, most of them cheders (torah school for young children), in which some 13,000 children studied. These included state schools for Jews, a Jewish vocational school, and a beit midrash for rabbis that became a teacher training institute. In 1915, the "Association to Disseminate Education" established three schools – one for boys, one for girls, and one mixed – whose language of instruction was Yiddish. That same year, Dr. Epstein established the Vilna Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), later renamed after its founder. The informal Jewish educational system included dozens of literature, drama, music, industrial arts, choir and other courses.

Charity and aid associations employed dozens of physicians and supported religious activities, the poor, the soup kitchen, recuperation activities for children, and burials. In 1908, the first children's home of the Jewish Organization for the Health Protection of Jews, the OZE (OSE), was founded in Vilna.

During the period of the "Storms in the Negev" pogroms in the south of Russia, tension increased in Vilna, but Jewish self-defence activists thwarted an attempt to attack the Jews and turned the rioters over to the police. In 1900, a Polish woman began a rumour that Jews had tried to murder her in order to use her blood to bake matzot (unleavened bread) for Passover. This blood libel led to the exacerbation of antisemitic tensions in the city which, together with the worsening economic situation, led to an increased rate of emigration from Vilna. Thousands of Jews left the city, most for the United States.

Jewish Bund members and Zionists were active during the 1905 revolution, including Simon Dubnow, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kantor, Shmaryahu Levin and others. When the revolution was suppressed, pogroms broke out across Russia, and the Zionists and Socialists organized self-defence units. The authorities disbanded these units, confiscated their weapons and arrested many activists. Some fled abroad and those left went underground.

The First World War
With the outbreak of WWI, over 1,600 Jews fled to Vilna from the surrounding areas, as well as from other parts of Poland and Lithuania. In the spring and summer of 1915, tens of thousands of refugees attempting to flee to Russia arrived in the city. Public soup kitchens and child daycare centres were opened and help was also provided to the families of Jews that had been conscripted to the Czar's army.

In September 1915, the Germans took Vilna from the hands of the Czar. They confiscated food and other merchandise, and abducted Jews for forced labour. The economic crisis and severe hunger doubled and tripled the death rate. Community leaders, aided by Jewish organizations in Germany and the US, managed to help the needy of the city, mostly with food. During the German occupation, Yiddish and Hebrew schools, cheders (Torah schools for young children) and Talmudei Torah (religious schools) opened in the city, as well as a vocational school.

At the end of 1918, the Germans retreated from Vilna. For the following two years, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian authorities took turns ruling over the city. In October 1920, the Poles occupied Vilna, and in April 1922 the Polish Sejm declared the city Polish. In this period, Vilna had a population of around 140,000, a third of which was Jewish.

According to Wikipedia, Christians were 20% of the population in the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th Century. Why did this number then decrease during the latter half of the 20th Century?

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The First World War

With the outbreak of war, Cossack brigades from the Russian army were stationed in Mir. In 1915, the Cossacks retreated from the Germans and harassed the Jews.

From the fall of 1915 until the end of 1918, Mir was under German occupation. The local economy was paralyzed. Residents suffered from shortages and hunger, and many of them were conscripted for forced labor. However, the Germans lightened the restrictions that Tzarist Russia had imposed on political and public activities. The Zionists and the "Bund" renewed their activities, and alongside the veteran "Poalei Zion" branch a division of "Tzeirei Zion" was established. During the hostilities, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the Head of the Mir Yeshiva, moved the yeshiva to Poltava, but it returned to Mir after the war.

The Jews of Mir celebrated the Russian Revolution of February 1917 with parades and gatherings, flying blue and white flags. At the front marched "Poalei Zion," "Tzeirei Zion" and members of the "Bund". But the expectations of the revolution were soon dashed immediately following the end of WWI, Bolshevik soldiers entered Mir, carried out pogroms against the Jews, murdered some of them and looted their property. The Polish ranks that drove the Bolsheviks out of Mir also abused the Jews, looted them, beat them and plucked out their beards.

Tzvia Packer describes her childhood wartime experiences:

The First World War, the Soviet-Polish War that immediately followed, and the military and national revolutions – all left the Jews of Mir depleted and impoverished. Many emigrated to western Europe and across the ocean to the US, South America, Eretz Israel, South Africa and other places. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mir had 3,319 Jews by 1921 only 2,074 Jews remained.


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The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed changes in almost every aspect of the day-today lives of women, from the domestic sphere to the public. The women's movement, with its emphasis on advocacy of equal rights, newly formed women's organizations, and the rise of a new generation of female artists, photographers, and professionals, transformed the traditional patriarchal social structure across the globe. Followed closely by the advent of World War I, these social shifts, which had been set in motion at the beginning of the century, developed further as women were propelled into the workforce, exposing them to previously male-dominated professional and political situations. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, women's activities and concerns had been recognized as a significant element of the literary, scientific, and cultural landscape of several countries, marking a revolutionary change in the social and domestic roles of women.

The end of the nineteenth century saw tremendous growth in the suffrage movement in England and the United States, with women struggling to attain political equality. The suffragists—who were often militant in their expressions of protest—presented a sometimes stark contrast to the feminine ideal of the era, which portrayed women as delicate, demure, and silent, confined to a domestic world that cocooned them from the harsh realities of the world. Despite many challenges English and American women eventually won the right to vote, in part due to the changed perception of women's abilities following World War I. As men were called to war, companies that had previously limited employment in better-paying jobs to white males found themselves opening their doors to white women and women and men of color. Racial and gender tensions escalated during this time, and many jobs were in fact permanently redefined as "women's work," including teaching, nursing, secretarial work, and telephone operations. As well as functioning in the workforce, women actively participated in the political and cultural life of England and the United States. The early decades of the twentieth century, often referred to as the Progressive Era, saw the emergence of a new image of women in society which had undergone a marked transformation from the demure, frail, female stereotype of the late Victorian Era. The women of the Progressive Era, according to Sarah Jane Deutsch, were portrayed as "women with short hair and short skirts … kicking up their legs and kicking off a century of social restrictions." Progressive women smoked, danced in public, held jobs, and generally did most things that nineteenth-century women were barred from doing. However, Deutsch asserts that this image of the 1920s "flapper" was restricted to certain portions of the population, namely white, young, and middle-class communities. Women elsewhere, particularly women from other ethnic backgrounds, such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics, lived much differently, struggling in their new roles as mothers and professionals. The number of women who worked outside the home in the 1920s rose almost 50 percent throughout the decade. While women still constituted a small number of the professional population, they were slowly increasing their participation in more significant occupations, including law, social work, engineering, and medicine.

The presence of a large class of young working women after World War I was reflected in what had become a major cultural force—the film industry. Nevertheless, films of the era continued to reinforce outdated stereotypes about women's place in society. While early cinematic storylines often featured poor women finding success and contentment through marriage to rich men, the films of the 1920s depicted young, feisty working women who, like their predecessors, could attain true happiness only by marrying their bosses. Such plotlines helped many to cope with the growing fear that the domestic and family structure of society was being eroded by the emergence of the new, independent woman. Rarely did depictions of women in mass media, including film, radio, and theater, convey the true circumstances of working women. Instead, audiences were presented with images of flappers or visions of glorified motherhood and marriage.

Women in the early twentieth century were perhaps most active and influential as writers and artists. The advent of the new century did witness a change in the style and content of women's writing, as well as an increase in the depiction of feminine images and themes in literature. Male authors such as D. H. Lawrence and W. D. Howells explored issues pertaining to sexuality and the newly redefined sexual politics between men and women. Women authors such as Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, and Katherine Mansfield focused on topics pertinent to women, bringing attention to the myriad difficulties they faced redefining their identities in a changing world. Other major women writers of the period included Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. In the arena of art, the early twentieth century provided growing opportunities for women to exhibit their work. In 1914, for example, the National Academy of Design first allowed women to attend anatomy lectures, thus providing them with a chance to study draftsmanship and develop drawing skills in a formal setting. Such artists as Emerson Baum and photographers like Alfred Steiglitz helped promote exhibitions of women's art, including the works of Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O'Keefe. Many female artists—among them Dorothea Lange and Claire Leighton—used their talents to highlight the social realities of their times, and some of the most powerful images of this period, including stirring portrayals of coal miners and farmers, were produced by these women.

By the mid-twentieth century, women throughout the Western world had completely redefined their roles in almost every social, political, and cultural sphere. While the fight for equal rights and recognition for women would continue into the 1950s and beyond, the first major steps towards such changes began at the advent of the twentieth century, with women writers, photographers, artists, activists, and workers blazing a new trail for generations of women to follow.

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The Middle East at the Beginning of the 20th Century - Introduction

This map is part of a series of 18 animated maps showing the history of The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Arab Middle East extended from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, including the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile Valley.

Arabic was the common language, apart from groups such as the Kurds in the north-east.

The region was host to a wide variety of religions. Most of the inhabitants were Sunnite Muslims but, even within the Islamic community, there were several schismatic groups, the largest being the Shiites found mostly in Iraq and Lebanon, the Wahhabites in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Alawites and the Druze found in the mountainous regions along the coast. Christian and Jewish communities had settled along the Mediterranean coast and in many urban areas.

Most of the Middle East was ruled by the Sultan of Istanbul, Protector of the Pilgrimage to Mecca with the construction of railway lines from Istanbul to Medina, his domain was extended as far as the Hejaz.

The Ottoman Empire was divided into administrative provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Bassora in Mesopotamia, Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut in Syria. These provinces were further divided into districts, known as Sandjaks.

The Sandjak of Jerusalem was a special case, since it was under direct rule from the Ottoman Government, the Sublime Porte.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, some regions were already shaking off their Ottoman rulers: the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was dominated by Ibn Saud, and Yemen was in permanent conflict with the Porte.

A similar situation existed in other regions, influenced by the presence of European powers for which the Middle East, straddling the crossroads of trade routes to Asia, was a very important strategic area.

Great Britain in particular wanted to maintain control of the route to India. Already dominant in Egypt, it established protectorates in Aden and the coastal emirates in the Gulf.

The other European powers, notably France, negotiated Capitulations which, together with their influence over minority communities and their trading posts along the Levantine coast, allowed them to establish their political, commercial and cultural dominance.

The impact of these European interests can be seen in the creation of an autonomous regime, known as the Mount Lebanon Governorate.

At the end of the 19th century, new ideas about the place of Arabs in the Empire and of Islam in a modern world were being discussed in Arab centres and from which emerged the first signs of Arabism and Islamism.

The Ottoman Sultan began to take greater interest in Arab affairs and in Pan-Islamism, but was soon opposed by a liberal movement in Anatolia, known as the &ldquoYoung Turks&rdquo, which became very influential in Istanbul from 1908.

Quickly, this movement imposed a Turkish and secular form of nationalism which excluded all other components of Ottoman society. At the same time, the rise of Zionism, the first groups of European Jews immigrating to Palestine and withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from Libya and the Balkans strengthened Arab calls for recognition of their separate identity.

Yiddish and Ukrainian at the beginning of the 20th Century

You are listening to Hromadske Radio. Today on the program Encounters we are discussing Gennady Estraikh’s book Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century. It is presented by Oleksandra Uralova, scholarly associate of the Judaica Center, who also works as a translator and a guide.

Іryna Slavinska: Let’s begin with the formulation. The book is called Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Dukh i Litera Publishers). Is it about Ukrainian culture?

Oleksandra Uralova: That’s a great question. What do we mean by Ukrainian culture? A culture created by citizens? Yes, of course. A culture created by the people who were living on these territories? Yes, without a doubt. A culture in the Ukrainian language? Let’s put it this way: that’s a bit complicated. But one has to consider that culture, history, literature, [and] the language of Eastern European Jewry are absolutely a full-fledged part of Ukrainian history and culture.

And the fact is that one of the purely historical and political reasons for this is the so-called Pale of Settlement, which is being studied in schools right now. The Pale of Settlement was comprised of the current territories of Ukraine and Belarus, where Jewish families were permitted to live, but—and this must be explained—not in large cities and they could not engage in, say, agriculture. It was in fact a kind of a [sic] ‘Ukrainian’ ghetto. And, as a rule, it was [home to] the crafts stratum of society and, partly, urbanites. And it was precisely this stratum that gave rise to an absolutely unique culture, with its own theatre, its own literature, and its own newspapers. And, in addition, this culture was political, with its own political movements, and its own means of communication. And all of this will prove interesting.

One should not wonder where this language originated. It existed here for quite a long time, and we must remember that during the period of the Universals, if you recall, on the 100-karbovantsi banknote of the Central Rada, the words “100 karbovantsi” were written in four languages, including Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska: By the way, there are other artefacts from the same period, for example, marriage certificates that also appear in several languages, at the very least in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. There are also Polish inscriptions. In short, this language appears in various combinations, and these examples are frequently cited to illustrate the multicultural character of large cities, like Kyiv or Lviv, in various periods of their development. If we speak about the tradition of the culture that was being created in the Yiddish language, that was being created in Ukraine, when does it begin? How deep does this horizon reach?

Oleksandra Uralova: I am not a culturologist, so I can’t offer a direct answer to this question. But the author of this book, Gennady Estraikh, can provide the answer. He is a linguist, literary specialist, a wonderful translator, incidentally, including from the Yiddish, and the author of one of the best textbooks on this language. He is actually a native of Zaporizhzhia. Right now he is teaching in the U.S. and the UK, and conducting intensive research on Yiddish.

In his book he talks about the twentieth century because the twentieth century is the age marked by the significant emergence of so-called small languages onto a certain stage. But before this period, of course, both literature and theatre had been developing for a very, very long time. In principle, we can speak of medieval Yiddish. We can speak of inscriptions on certain documents, some commentaries on spiritual literature in Hebrew, signed in Yiddish, probably just in order to explain some words, later to be interpreted and sung for the population.

For a very long time this language did not have a name. In our lands at least, in the European languages, it was called “jargon.” There are many Jewish languages. Yiddish and Hebrew are not the only two. There are considerably more of them. But the term “jargon” was popular almost until the First World War. And, according to the Soviet legacy, the most famous writer who wrote in Yiddish was Sholom Aleichem. He also called this language a type of “jargon.” He said that he was a jargonist.

Iryna Slavinska: Even those listeners who have never had a deep interest in Judaica or Yiddish culture, can, by analogy to the word “jargon,” recall the fact that quite a few slang words come from Yiddish. At least, they often love citing them in this capacity.

Oleksandra Uralova: I think that to a certain degree this kind of quotation—this also is a legacy—is not very sympathetic. This is a legacy of the consciousness of incarceration that we received thanks to the Soviet Union.

Iryna Slavinska: Together with Radio Chanson and all this culture in general.

Oleksandra Uralova: And there is a reason for this. Of course, this is the extraordinarily huge system of dispatching first criminal elements and then cultural figures to the camps, where people became acquainted with one another and formed multilingual families there and where, toward the end of the 1950s, a multilingual Volapuk [an artificial language devised in 1879 and proposed for international use by a German cleric named Johann M. Schleyer, which was based on extremely modified forms of words from English and Romance languages—Trans.] returned to the native lands. I think that there were quite a few anti-Semites in power in the Soviet Union, and they also introduced Yiddish as jargon, as a language of the lower class, as a language of unpleasant people, and they used it in this very vein. But, of course, this is my opinion.

I think that Estraikh will be talking about this in considerably more depth and even in a different way. Nevertheless, for us, for the average citizen, citizens, Yiddish is above all the language of songs, is it not? Perhaps it is truly a kind of argot and the language of small southwestern towns in the Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, and Odesa regions.

Iryna Slavinska: And some quarters in Kyiv, where many traces have been preserved…

Oleksandra Uralova: And the opposite. In Yiddish, words like “zhurav” instead of “zhuravel’ [crane—Trans.] is used quite easily, at least by natives of these Eastern European territories.

Yiddish was very much plundered and maimed, just like the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages during, say, the internationalization of languages during the Soviet period. If there was a Latin-based word used in the Russian language, then it would be implanted in other languages [in the USSR]. This was an Orwellian-style, artificial pauperization of language, that is, the elimination from Yiddish, in which great hopes were placed as the language of the proletariat, of some words and their replacement by other words, as well as the creation of bizarre loan translations. For example, we have the word “shabesnyk,” which means doing volunteer unpaid work on the holy day of Saturday. Such calques were plentiful. And, of course, Yiddish words have been retained in the Ukrainian language. Definitely, the first that comes to mind is when it’s really hot, people yell “gvalt,” both in Yiddish and in Ukrainian.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, both these borrowings and these contiguous germinations are leading us confidently once again to Yiddish-language culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Clearly, at issue here is the experience prior to the Holocaust, before Yiddish becomes, to a great extent, a dead language in Europe, not the language per se that died but whose carriers were killed.

Oleksandra Uralova: One has to consider that the annihilation of the Yiddish-speaking population did not end with the Holocaust. We should recall that, at the very least, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and its members were executed in 1948, not by the Nazi regime, but by the Soviet one. And the case of the Doctors’ Plot begins. And one of the most idiotic accusations made was accusing the members of the Anti-Fascist Committee of assisting the Fascists. These types of accusations were made, and this shows how brutal and cynical were the authorities at that time.

It is not correct to say that Yiddish perished together with a large number of its carriers. Many people remained. There were people who survived, who managed to save themselves in the eastern part of the Soviet Union, who simply survived. And in our country there were even Righteous Ukrainians who helped them.

Iryna Slavinska: Not “even.” They simply were. There are a great many of them in Ukraine.

Oleksandra Uralova: And one must consider that the last Yiddish theatre in Ukraine ceased to exist in 1950. It was in Chernivtsi. Chernivtsi is generally a very important city for Yiddish. For example, this is the place where a conference took place in the early twentieth century, during which the question of whether Yiddish is a main language or a language at all or a type of jargon was discussed. [The conference] concluded that it is indeed a language, and since that time more attention is being paid to this language. People try to write in [Yiddish] more, even those writers who earlier tried to write in Russian or Hebrew. We need to consider the following. At the beginning of the twentieth century both the Yiddish and the Ukrainian languages find themselves in approximately the same situation. They cannot be compared, but nonetheless the status of jargon is enshrined in both languages.

Iryna Slavinska: Could we briefly name the types and genres of art in which we can see the Yiddish language in Ukraine in the first half of the twentieth century. This is what is discussed in Gennady Estraikh’s book, the subject of our conversation.

Oleksandra Uralova: Yes, of course. Above all, this is theatre, literature, great prose and essays, journals, poetry, graphic art. Stroll through the streets of Lviv and you will see ancient Yiddish inscriptions on walls—shops had been there. For example, milk or bread or other kinds of foods were sold there, gas lamps, what have you.

Iryna Slavinska: Now let’s take a closer look at Yiddish in Ukraine before and after the arrival of Soviet power. Can this type of watershed moment be established?

Oleksandra Uralova: Not before and after, but before and during.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s talk about this in greater detail. We devoted a previous programme to the history of Jewish left-wing movements in Ukraine during the revolutionary period.

Oleksandra Uralova: And, to a certain extent, all this took place in Yiddish, of course.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, and that’s why I brought this up. Because our listeners may remember that a part of this pre-revolutionary leftist literature was in Yiddish.

Oleksandra Uralova: This is true, to a very great extent. In Europe during the nineteenth century the abandonment of Yiddish had a certain vogue, one might say, among supporters of Jewish enlightenment, who viewed it simply as a dialect of German, a distorted jargon, insisting that German or Russian had to be spoken, that Hebrew be retained, but [urging Jews] to become more secular. But toward the end of the nineteenth century a great need arises to convey ideas to people in their own languages. This sparked the need to return to school traditions, the Jewish school, in which the language of instruction is Yiddish. For a long time Yiddish was regarded as the language of women…

Iryna Slavinska: Why?

Oleksandra Uralova: This will not be very feminist. Because it is a vernacular, jargon. For example, from the age of three and a half little boys started attending school, where they began studying various scholarly and theological tracts, where they immerse[d] themselves in Jewish law. Meanwhile, women, if a family permits this to its daughters, study at home with private teachers. If they don’t allow this, then they don’t study. That is why there were separate books and spiritual histories written for women and unwise men.

Iryna Slavinska: Was it written like that on the cover?

Oleksandra Uralova: Well, it wasn’t written like that, but everyone said that. In other words, if a person doesn’t know Hebrew and that person is a man, then he, like a woman…. Let’s put it this way. I am convinced that absolutely all societies in nineteenth-century Europe, with rare and extraordinary exceptions, were absolutely patriarchal.

Iryna Slavinska: It would appear that Yiddish was more of an oral, people’s language, while Hebrew was a literary language?

Oleksandra Uralova: Hebrew wasn’t a literary language either. Russian, Polish, German were.

Iryna Slavinska: What was it then? A sacred language?

Oleksandra Uralova: Sacred, yes, of course. There is a term, “Lashon ha-Kodesh,” meaning holy language and “mame-loshn” [the term referring to Yiddish] was the mother tongue, the language spoken at home. A soft and pleasant term, the language of your native mother. And all of a sudden, around the end of the nineteenth century, the language of one’s mother becomes a language in which dime novels are being written. And at this moment enlightened, highly-educated Jewish writers and poets with a high level of intellect, who had been writing in Russian in the Russian Empire and in German in Austro-Hungary, realize that they are losing the electorate because the electorate is reading some kind of nonsense written in jargon. That is why they begin writing novels in Yiddish. Novels about rural life appear, written about the local population in the language of the local population. And suddenly, amidst the Jewish population of various states there appears the very language in which they can truly find common ground with each other. In the second half of the nineteenth century increasingly more theatre appears. Of course, translating the works of Shakespeare into Yiddish—now that’s interesting…

And it gets more interesting. It turns out that this population has its own voice. This is the beginning of the twentieth century, when Kyiv and Vilnius become, to a certain degree, territories marked by a great upsurge of revolutionary spirit. Increasingly more and diverse associations appear, which yearn not for migration to Palestine, not for the discovery of Zion, not for the revival of Hebrew, but for the creation of some sort of autonomy in the territories in which they reside, in the states in which they reside, with decent conditions for the working and crafts population. And, of course, the language of these circles becomes Yiddish.

Estraikh has written quite a lot about this, because he is an eminent specialist in the Yiddish language and its problems, on the one hand, and on the other, in problems concerning its treatment. In other words, this book raises not just questions about who wrote and how they wrote, but also who did not write and why they did not write. What was Yiddish like?

The Soviet leadership decided to Sovietize Yiddish. There were some Hebrew words in Yiddish, carried over from sacred texts and calendars. The Soviets removed them, and changed the spelling of all the Hebrew-isms. It became impossible to understand what you were reading. You open a dictionary from the Soviet era and close it, as you can’t understand anything. This was supposed to be a simplification, but it comes out otherwise.

The book also addresses attitudes to historical figures. For example, Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

First, the Order of Khmelnytsky. Secondly, the renaming of the city of Pereyaslav to Peryaslav-Khmelnytsky. Thirdly, the reaction of the state and the Jewish population to these events. Prior to the twentieth century, Khmelnytsky was not well known to most of the population of Europe, even the Ukrainian population. He was known by the Jewish population.

Iryna Slavinska: He is a controversial figure. In all these wars of liberation, as they are called, like in all wars, there was hatred against domestic minority populations in Ukraine, tied to ethnic-religious factors.

Oleksandra Urlova: Exactly. This is a major issue. A major question is how to view the statue to Khmelnytsky on Sophia Square in Kyiv. Estraikh addresses this issue very delicately, very correctly, in his book and this is very interesting. He explores, for example, why Khmelnytsky? Why not [Ivan] Mazepa? Why not [Petro Konashevych-] Sahaidachny? Why did Khmelnytsky become such a historical idol? Read about it, it’s very interesting to pay attention to this.

On the other hand, not everything is black and white. It’s more complex. Various cultural, political, literary, and artistic figures at different times and different places expressed anti-Semitic, philo-Semitic, or neutral views.

In reading this book, you understand, first of all, how closely and indissolubly the Ukrainian and Ashkenazi cultures are connected in the twentieth century, at least during the first half and secondly, the degree to which everything was truly complex. Everything was complicated, and this must be studied.

Iryna Slavinska: We have been discussing Gennady Estraikh’s book Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century with Oleksandra Uralova. The program Encounters is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You have been listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.