You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Emma Goldman’s Ice Cream Shop

Zachary Solomon
February 28, 2018

by Zachary Solomon


IT WAS JOHANN MOST, the anarchist who popularized the phrase “propaganda of the deed” to describe leftwing terrorism, who helped inspire Emma Goldman and Alexander (“Sasha”) Berkman in their attempt to assassinate steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Yet by the time the attack would become news (and Berkman would spend fourteen years in prison for it), Most was its outspoken critic, dumping on both Goldman and Berkman (in the German-language newspaper Most edited, Freiheit) for allegedly cultivating public sympathy for Frick. “Who is not with me is against me,” Most had warned Goldman earlier that year, when she had left his orbit and followed Berkman and his cousin, Modest “Fedya” Stein to Springfield, Massachusetts.

Earlier, in New York, she and Sasha had been working 18-hour days sewing boys’ sweatshirts in the “one light room of [their] flat” to make ends meet, Goldman wrote in her 1931 autobiography, Living My Life. There was the cleaning and housekeeping to contend with, too. When Fedya offered them work with a photographer he knew in Western Massachusetts, they jumped at the chance — unaware that soon, of all things, ice cream would tempt them toward capitalism itself.

Fedya suggested they open their own studio, so they moved to Worcester, rented an office, put up a sign, and waited for costumers. Their trade was crayon enlargement, a process of improving and enlarging poor-quality photographs with bromide, making large portraits affordable to the lower class. But no one cared. They hired a horse-and-buggy to visit local farms and entice farmers to make orders. Sasha steered; they bumped into trees. They made no money, but the opportunity let Sasha expound on the differences between New England farmers and Russian peasants. The Russian peasant, said Sasha, rarely had enough to eat, but would never fail to offer a visitor bread or a glass of kvass (cider). American peasants, though, had acres of land, cattle, enough to eat — but you’d be lucky if you got a glass of water out of them. The American farmer, he believed, lacked sympathy because had never known want. “He is really a small capitalist,” Sasha said. But Russian peasants: “They are proletarians. That is why they are warm-hearted and hospitable.”

Goldman disagreed; she’d worked with proletarians who were rude and disingenuous. But Sasha’s enthusiasm swayed her.


FAILING TO SECURE enough orders to be solvent, they nearly quit several times. But the family they rented their flat from had a better idea: They should open a luncheonette or ice-cream parlor. Goldman, Berkman, and Stein couldn’t stomach the notion. They didn’t have the money or desire, and besides, “It was against [their] principles to engage in business.”

Around this time, “the radical press was again aroused by new atrocities in Russia,” Goldman wrote, “[and] the old yearning took hold of us to return to our native country.” It’s unclear exactly which atrocities Goldman is referring to, but it’s no stretch to imagine Goldman’s sympathies falling with the often-violent repression of tsarist political opposition of the late 19th century. Ever helpless to the SOS calls of civil unrest, she calculated that opening an ice-cream parlor would prove the “means to [their] end,” providing them with the money they needed to return to the struggle in Russia.

They had fifty bucks in savings; their landlord loaned them $150 more.

Their foray into business would be a certain kind of test. In her 1910 essay, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” Goldman wrote that “the only demand that property recognizes is its own gluttonous appetite for greater wealth.” Would ice cream prove sirenic, making them prey to the nihilist riches of capitalism?

Of course not — though they cleaned up pretty nicely.

They rented a storefront at 86 Winter Street in Worcester. Thanks to Sasha’s skill with a hammer and saw, Fedya’s painting, and Goldman’s “own good German housekeeping training,” they had a lovely lunchroom in no time. Their coffee, sandwiches, and “dainty dishes” were quickly appreciated, and with their loan paid off, and a prudent investment in a soda-water fountain, they were well on their way to the “realization of their long-cherished dream.”


MEANWHILE, there was trouble afoot in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Tension erupted between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, sending Andrew Carnegie fleeing to his castle in Scotland, and Henry Clay Frick, a man known for his “enmity to labor,” to take over for the steel magnate -- to do the dirty work of union-busting.

“To us, it sounded like the awakening of the American worker, the long-awaited day of his resurrection,” Goldman wrote. “The native toiler had risen, he was beginning to feel his mighty strength, he was determined to break the chains that had held him in bondage so long.”

Though Emma, Sasha, and Fedya continued the day-in, day-out of the lunchroom, “waiting on customers, frying pancakes, serving tea and ice cream,” they nevertheless greedily devoured the Homestead developments.

One day, a man laid a paper on the counter, and Goldman espied the headline: LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN HOMESTEAD – FAMILIES OF STRIKERS EVICTED FROM THE COMPANY HOUSES – WOMAN IN CONFINEMENT CARRIED OUT INTO STREET BY SHERIFFS. That was all it took. The man glanced at Goldman’s grief-stricken face and asked, “Are you sick, young lady?” She told him she’d trade him free ice cream for the paper, then demanded he leave — she had to close up shop.

Goldman sprinted three blocks back to their flat. “It was Homestead, not Russia; I knew it now. We belonged in Homestead.” Sasha agreed. Russia would have to wait.

They wasted little time, telling the landlord they no longer needed the flat or the business. Naturally, he thought they were mad. They were doing so well, were well on their way to a small fortune. He said if they kept at it, they would clear well over $1,000. But it was never about the money. They invented a story about a dying relative, and handed him the keys to the store. All they asked for was that day’s earnings: $75. Nothing more. They packed up, and caught an early train to Homestead the next morning.

The rest is history, with or without Johann Most’s approval.


Zachary Solomon is a Brooklyn-based writer.