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LEVINSON, SOLOMON, merchant and men’s-clothing manufacturer; b. 15 July 1851 in Mariampol (Marijampolė, Lithuania), son of Judah Loeb Levinson; m. September 1874 Jochabed Rachel Klishinsky in New York City, and they had two sons and four daughters; d. 17 Nov. 1931 in Montreal.
Solomon Levinson left his native Lithuania, then a province of Russia, at age 17 and arrived in Canada in 1869. He first settled in Lancaster, Ont. Though he did not stay long in the small Jewish community there, he made social and professional contacts that would last a lifetime. Many of the prominent Jewish families in Lancaster would move to Montreal in the 1870s and 1880s and become part of the city’s Jewish social and financial elite.
After a year in New York City, Levinson returned to Canada in 1874. Large waves of immigration from eastern Europe would begin in the next decade, but at the time of Levinson’s arrival in Montreal the Jewish community there numbered well under 1,000 individuals. He opened a retail clothing store, but, dissatisfied with the quality of the products he sold, he started to subcontract the manufacture of garments to local seamstresses. Eventually, he was able to hire his own pattern makers and tailors and he established a wholesale firm. In the 1880s he and other Jews broke new ground as they began to enter the textile-manufacturing business; the sector had previously been dominated by large non-Jewish firms, such as that of Hollis Shorey*. By 1887 Levinson’s business was estimated as being worth from $2,000 to $5,000. His son Joseph Jr joined it around 1894 and on 8 Nov. 1901 they established S. Levinson, Son and Company with Solomon’s brother Joseph. It was already one of the largest wholesale manufacturers of men’s clothing in Canada and in 1917 its net worth would be assessed at between $300,000 and $500,000. Seven years later the company would be incorporated as a limited liability firm.
Levinson’s company was at the centre of two prominent strikes that marked the history of union organization in Montreal. In 1907 the tailors struck in an effort to ameliorate their working conditions; they sought wages rather than payment for piecework, cleaner factories, and union recognition. Although some businesses offered minimal concessions, others such as Levinson’s did not. Generally, historians have not considered this strike a success for the labourers. By 1912, however, the tailors’ unions, locals of the United Garment Workers of America, were much better organized. That year, under labour organizer Hannaniah Meir Caiserman*, the tailors struck again, targeting members of the Montreal Clothing Manufacturers’ Association, which included Levinson’s firm. This strike was more successful, although the unions did not obtain all the concessions they had demanded. They did not, for example, win recognition and were only able to reduce the working week from 59 hours to 49 (rather than the desired 44), but they emerged from the strike strengthened, united, and well organized. Levinson’s firm would also be affected by a strike in 1917.
Interested in Jewish community concerns and charities, Levinson was especially associated with Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, one of Montreal’s oldest and most prestigious Jewish synagogues, and he served on its board of trustees. His choice of synagogue can be attributed to his social status as well as to the contacts he had made in Ontario. Among the Jews who had come from Lancaster, several had become members and financial supporters of the congregation. In 1921 the cornerstone for its new building was laid in Westmount, where Levinson lived. During the dedication in 1922, a handing-over ceremony was held; members of the older generation passed the synagogue’s Torah scrolls into the hands of younger men. Solomon Levinson was among those who passed on the scrolls to a group which included his own son, Joseph Jr. In 1928, as a result of the concern he had manifested for the aged, he was chosen to lay the cornerstone for the Hebrew Old People’s and Sheltering Home. These events underlined his involvement in the community and the Levinsons’ importance in the history of Montreal Jewry.
The centrality of the garment trade to Canadian Jewish life cannot be overestimated. Its factories, its unions, and their battles spurred Jewish economic, intellectual, and communal development in Montreal and Canada. Levinson’s position, as an industrialist and as a community leader, secured for him a prominent place in the history of the Jews of Montreal.
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