Everything is eventually scrap,” began Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland since June 2012.
“All materials are eventually no longer useful in their original form,” he continued. “The business itself started off as ‘junk’ before being known as ‘scrap.’ Today’s ‘recycling’ is really the same model of our being able to reuse material and is a vital part of society.”
No matter the semantics, the notion of “scrap” as an industry is based around the commerce of deconstructing new or used materials — cars, bridges, boats, industrial detritus — into manageable, much smaller and organized pieces that can then be melted down at steel mills or other facilities that transform “junk” into something that can be used again to create, well, more bridges or cars or, inevitably, industrial materials that later become detritus themselves.
“As they say, ‘This one’s personal,’” Pinkert noted. “I grew up in the scrapyard business. This was a situation where, because I was sensitive to the idea that the scrapyard industry was an undervalued part of our economy and an undervalued part of the Jewish experience, I thought it would be great if I could do something on a national level.”
It’s a goal of Pinkert’s to develop the exhibit, which is set to open at the museum October 2018, as one that would travel around the country to promote “the vision and ingenuity required for the ‘un-making’ and reuse of our material culture,” as written in the project proposal.
Having grown up in Chicago where his family started and ran People’s Iron and Metal Co. before it was sold off two decades ago, Pinkert hopes the upcoming exhibit will “honor my parents and grandparents as well as others who were transformed by the industry and became a central part of the Jewish community.”
According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Scrap Recycling (ISRI) — scrap’s U.S.-based nonprofit trade association that advocates for its more than 1,500 companies in front of government bodies including Congress — the business has become a monumentally robust industry on par with those of data processing/hosting, automotive repair and dental, generating an annual $105.81 billion in national economic activity.
In the earliest days of the industry, when one would have scoffed at the very idea of calling it such, hearty souls were simply “junkmen,” detailed, in fact, by Pinkert’s census records of his grandfather.
“It was seen as an occupation someone would enter because there was no other choice due to language skills, lack of technical training or religious discrimination,” Pinkert said. “And then folks advanced bit by bit to become business people, then entrepreneurs.”
It’s an expansive story perhaps best illustrated by the central core of scrap as an industry itself: “You’re going from material that is considered worthless to material that is integral to the creation of this country,” Pinkert said.
Like Pinkert, lifelong Pikes-ville resident Neal Shapiro, 52, is a scion of the scrap that he referred to as “a colorful industry for a lot of years, full of a colorful array of characters, which made it fun and interesting.”
Shapiro is himself one of this “colorful array” and a proud member of what is a major dynasty of Baltimorean Jewish family members whose ancestral patriarchs were three brothers who came over in the earliest years of the 1900s, fleeing a section of Russia that today is the country Latvia, before establishing their individual businesses all revolving around scrap.
There was Shapiro’s grandfather, Isaac aka Ike, who founded Cambridge Iron & Metal, Jacob aka Jake with his United Iron & Metal and Morris Schapiro’s company, Boston Iron & Metal.
And, yes, that “Schapiro” surname is not a typo. The original family name back in the old country was Tomke, something that changed when Morris, the first to come over in 1902, met up with a distant cousin whose address he happened to have and who was named “Shapiro.”
Morris was far more than simply the first of the three brothers to seek his fortune in the United States. His multiple enterprises would later include whiskey distilling, owning and running a “near beer” brewery during Prohibition and — before it was sold off by his son John in 1984 — ownership of the Laurel Park Racetrack, among many other ventures. His scrapyard business would be the largest of the brothers and, as the legend goes, “the ones with the ‘c’ are the ones with the cash,” joked Jim Shapiro, grandson of Jacob.
“I can’t imagine that when they [the brothers] first started picking up scrap, they could ever imagine what it would turn into today,” said Neal, reflecting on Morris’ adventures through the industry as well as his own grandfather’s and, of course, his own.
“So many weird things happened over the years,” Neal said. “So many crazy things.”
A Vision for Value
Indeed, Schapiro’s story is a true shmata-to-riches series of adventures with echoes of John Steinbeck’s and Upton Sinclair’s work before turning into pure Horatio Alger.
A native of Czarist Russia, Schapiro started working menial jobs at the age of 11, before a frightening encounter with a large soldier asking if he was Jewish led him to leave the country.
It was 1902 when, after saving for nearly a decade to earn 100 rubles (approximately $50 at the time), Schapiro made his way through Europe to Hamburg, where he waited a week for the SS Pennsylvania to whisk him away to the States.
“I was sick as a dog,” Schapiro said in an oral history interview kept at the Jewish Museum. He was crammed in with 500 people in an area of the ship “worse than steerage … just like cattle. They wouldn’t permit that on any boat today.”
For his trouble, Schapiro would also lose all but 25 cents after being pickpocketed at some point along his voyage that took him to Boston by way of New York and Providence, R.I.
A series of odd jobs and even odder experiences including hustling and being hustled followed, leading Schapiro from his cousin’s Boston to Georgia, where, with $12.75 in his pocket, he boarded a boat for $12 that happened to take him to Baltimore.
“If the boat was going to Chicago,” Schapiro said, “I would’ve gone to Chicago.”
Arriving two weeks after the Great Baltimore Fire of February 1904, Schapiro — who taught himself English by reading newspapers and street signs — was able to find himself a job cleaning bricks just outside what would eventually become the famed Southern Hotel at the corner of Light and E. Redwood streets.
The job lasted four days, and Schapiro moved on to other vocations including working for a baker who specialized in matzoh. Running into some of his Boston relatives walking down Baltimore Street one day, he came to find they were engaged in a clever junk shop venture.
His cousins and uncle were buying up the basest material from the burned district and selling it as scrap. Infuriated by their not allowing him to join up for fear of competition, Schapiro decided to give the scrap game a shot himself.
“So I made up my mind to go into the junk business [and] went to the burn district,” Schapiro said. “[I] bargained for a whole day to buy a couple loads of iron for $7.50.”
With some help from a colleague who assisted his hauling the scrap around in a cart, Schapiro made $10 in one day, concreting his plan to be in the “junk business” forevermore.
By the end of his first week, Schapiro had $100 in his pocket. Buying up whatever he could from blacksmith shops, machine shops, chemical works and “everything where junk accumulated,” along with yet another series of unfortunate events involving a few of his family members and partners, Boston Metals was born and property of Morris Schapiro.
He soon would bring over his brother Isaac and Uncle Oscar to help him run the business that would allow him to eventually purchase his first “little house” with a $200 down payment on Woodbrook Avenue.
The shift from cutting up scrap by hand and basic tools to “oxygen” (torches) in the mid-1920s wasn’t the only major shift that later occurred in the life of Schapiro. By this time, the magnate was easily bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars every month and his empire was assured.
A humble and good-natured businessman throughout his life and multifaceted career, Schapiro’s greatest feat of vindication came down to a tale often told by his relatives involving the simple scrapping of a familiar boat.
Boston Metals would specialize in the junking of boats (at one time as many as 124 purchased from the federal government), and one day he came upon one that caught his attention.
“I was walking along and saw this great big ship,” Schapiro stated in his oral history.
“Well, it’s for sale and you can go over to Washington to buy her,” said his colleague, and that’s just what Schapiro did, eventually scrapping the SS Pennsylvania, the very boat that took him on his horrendous journey across the seas on his way to America only two decades earlier.
The professionally produced oral history was based on an interview Schapiro granted on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1953 — 16 years before he passed away — and donated to Pinkert’s Jewish Museum by Schapiro’s granddaughter, Barbara Katz, in March 1988.
Katz, an 83-year-old Pikesville resident, learned much about her grandfather, with whom she was extremely close growing up, from the oral history. It was the only time she heard her grand-father refer to himself as a “junkie.”
“He was a remarkable man,” Katz said. “He was very intelligent and was a great philanthropist. … But he was also very low key, very quiet.”
There was a kind of unspoken understanding in Katz’s family that “no one would ask him about his background. That was the thing about those of the first generation: You didn’t ask about it.”
“If you talk to all three families, you get three stories,” 76-year-old Pikesville resident Sandy Shapiro, scion of Ike’s Cambridge Iron & Metal, said, laughing about the notion that all they have is minor hearsay from grandfathers and uncles who mostly kept mum on the past.
Sandy had a simple reason why these men never spoke about their time back in Latvia: “Because it was rough.
“Jake once took his wife back to Latvia during the [Great] Depression just to visit where he came from,” Sandy continued, “and they went to the old house, and it had a dirt floor. Theirs was strictly a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ story.”
As had his brother before him, Sandy’s grandfather, Ike, labored away working menial jobs from country to country before having enough money to make it to England from where he was able to embark on a boat to America and join Morris. All while speaking only Russian and Yiddish.
“These were tough guys,” Sandy said, chronicling what it was like for Ike even after he arrived in America.
“My grandfather would rent a horse and wagon for $1 a day and would get scrap in the morning with his assistant,” Sandy said, “and then he and his helper would take hammers and chisels and break the scrap apart. They were real guys.”
Needless to say, the business would always be a rough-and-tough one for laborers in the years that would follow, as technology changed and entire bridge beams or automobiles would be scrapped through machines such as “shredders” that could break gargantuan pieces of metal down to its bare elements or, in the case of “balers,” pounded into smaller cubes to be sold off to smelting plants, steel mills and the like.
“It’s not like we were dirt bags; we just got dirty,” was how Michael Hettleman put it.
Another Pikesville resident from the industry, 80-year- old Hettleman is the son of Isadore “Izzie” Hettleman who, along with brother Emanuel “Mannie” Hettleman, ran K. Hettleman and Sons — founded by their father, Kalman, in 1904 — until it was sold in 1962.
K. Hettleman was less a competitor with the Shapiro- and Schapiro-run companies and more of a peripheral partner (as the Schapiro/Shapiro clans more or less operated, with Jake’s company junking a lot of cars, Ike’s focusing a great deal on industrial scrap and Morris’ on boats). Ike’s Cambridge Iron & Metal, for example, sold much of its brass and copper to Hettleman, which in turn would make ingots — manageable blocks of metal — that would later be sold off to appropriate dealers.
Send in the Jews
It’s likely the scrapyard industry flourished in Baltimore for three very important reasons.
First, as Pinkert pointed out, Baltimore at the time had its fair share of steel mills, a requirement of any successful scrap community.
Baltimore was also one of the few port towns in the United States where large boats — like those being scrapped by Morris’ Boston Metals — could be acquired. And, of course, the Baltimore fire of 1904 left a great deal of otherwise valueless material to be transformed into “junk” and “scrap” for a burgeoning field that would support the Schapiro, Shapiro and Hettleman families in the earliest days of their individual enterprises.
But then there’s the obvious question: Why were so many scrapyard families Jewish?
As it turns out, it’s a trend that resonated throughout the country. Historian and author Carl Zimring writes in his 2009 book “Cash For Your Trash” that in the mid-1930s, while the scrapyard industry was really on the rise throughout the United States, 70 to 90 percent of the business was Jewish owned and operated.
“It was considered an undesirable and filthy business,” Neal said. “Jews [at the time] were not allowed to do a lot of things, and this was relatively inexpensive to get into. As long as a person could get a horse and cart, he could start something.”
Jewish immigrants, or “refugees” as Sandy put it, speaking little or no English, having little or no education, money or resources, were able to discover something in “junk” that so many other communities at the time simply found untouchable.
“Some of it may have been the merchant mentality that came from Eastern Europe,” Neal continued in speculating. “Collecting, buying, selling, haggling.”
Ellen Kahan Zager, granddaughter of Mannie Hettleman and cousin to Michael, also believes that the Jewish dominance of the industry was greatly related to the community’s culture of communication.
“There is deal making in the scrap business, and that is a reflection of a communication process that is very embedded in the Jewish culture,” Zager said.
“[The scrap business is] not very straight forward, so there’s a lot of give and take, and this is a very Jewish way of communicating, from the very beginning to the very end,” Zager said. “It’s not about ‘retail.’ It’s built on relationships and trust … or at least it used to be.”
End of an Era
“When [Pinkert] reached out to me, I was a tad hesitant just because I was trying to break free of the industry and head in a new direction,” Neal said about what has become his retirement since the doors on Cambridge Iron & Metal closed in 2016.
“But then I thought this was a great way to honor our heritage and everything my grandfather did for me. He started something; he built it and passed the torch to my dad and uncle who passed it onto me.
“And while I never got the opportunity to physically meet him, in a way, I had a connection to him because I was able to continue something he started. That was something too that was really hard for me when I shut down the business; I felt I lost that connection.”
These original businesses no longer exist for reasons ranging from rapidly accelerating technological expenses to stricter environmental constraints, growing competition or the simple reason of owners feeling it was time to move on and sell (as in the case of United).
Such tales as those told here are responsible for making the scrap industry “part of who you are — you do it long enough and it gets in your blood,” according to Neal. And yet, he confessed that he doesn’t really think he wants his own children to go into the business.
“I had always been cognizant of trying to keep the business going long enough so they had that option,” Neal said, “but I don’t think either of them wanted to, and I’m OK with that.
“Friends of mine around the country, they’re not grooming their kids for the business because it’s changing too much.”
“I wouldn’t want my children to do it,” Sandy confirmed.
Sandy is satisfied that “we all did well, we were in a good business. We had nothing to be ashamed of, and all the families worked hard.”
He nevertheless recently began seeing “Jewish kids coming out of college becoming lawyers and doctors, saying [about going into scrap], ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ So the families didn’t see another generation and were selling their businesses.
“What was important about it?” he asked rhetorically. “It was about tracing a larger history, all that stuff about what it meant to be Jewish, how they were able to do all of this and become prominent, make their money and let their families take it to other places around the country to start furniture companies and department stores wherever their train would stop. … They were able to send their kids off to college …”
They were able to fund the lives of those who never had an interest going into the same business, be it Sandy’s own brother Burt Shapiro, who became such a renowned classical music and film critic in the area, the Charles Theater honored him by name on their marquee after he died in 2014.
Scrap helped lay the foundation of the education of the likes of Jill Vexler, the Jewish Museum curator involved in the upcoming exhibit and, of course, executive director Pinkert himself. The recipients of opportunities that came from ancestral tireless toil are those such as Pinkert’s cousin Mandy Patinkin, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor from such beloved films as “Yentl” and “The Princess Bride.”
These descendants of the scrap industry were able to achieve their dreams because of the “figurative and literal alchemy” that was their parents and grandparents “turning dross into gold,” Pinkert said.
“They created so much from things other people threw away.”