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The Hendricks family of New York helped lay the foundation for the Industrial Revolution in America. Their pioneering production of copper was vital to the growth of the American economy and the nation’s military might. In business until the 1930s, Hendricks Brothers became the oldest continuously privately held Jewish family business in the history of the United States.
Uriah Hendricks, the patriarch of the family, was born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1737 and emigrated from London to New York City in 1755. In New York, he opened a dry goods store and became an active member, and eventually parnas, or president, of Shearith Israel, the city’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. The congregation served as the unifying institution of the New York Jewish community, which numbered about 200 people. In 1764, Hendricks established a metals business, importing copper and brass from England. Manufacture of these commodities in the American colonies was prohibited despite the presence of the natural resources required to produce them. On his death, Uriah’s only son Harmon took over the metals importing company, as well as the family role in leading Shearith Israel, where he too served as parnas from 1824 to 1827.
Recognizing that the United States could never attain true independence so long as it was dependent on overseas production of essential products such as copper, Harmon Hendricks helped transform the United States from a copper importer to manufacturer. In 1812, during the American war with England, Hendricks and his brother-in-law Solomon Isaacs built one of the nation’s first successful copper rolling mills in Soho, New Jersey. Historian Maxwell Whiteman observed that Hendricks became “his own metallurgist at a time when the secrets of the science of refining metals were jealously guarded by the English.” Because of his skill, Hendricks made possible the use of copper rather than iron in the manufacture of steam boilers, a development that allowed boilers to be heated to higher temperatures without cracking.
One of Hendricks’s most important copper customers was Paul Revere, the famous patriot and metalsmith who lived in Boston. The two became friends. Another good customer was the fledgling United States Navy. The Hendricks firm produced the copper used to sheath three Navy vessels in New York harbor at the same time that Revere was cladding a fourth, the Constitution, now inaccurately known as Old Ironsides, with copper probably supplied by Hendricks. These copper-clad ships helped the United States fight the British to a standstill in the War of 1812, allowing for victory on land. Hendricks made another contribution to the war effort by subscribing the then-considerable sum of $40,000 to purchase government-issued war bonds.
Robert Fulton, who is credited with inventing the steamship, was another frequent consumer of Harmon Hendricks’s copper. In the spring of 1807, Hendricks supplied the copper Fulton used to build the boiler for the Clermont, the first inland steam driven packet boat in the world. The shipping of goods and passengers by Fulton’s steamships and their successors dominated interstate travel and commerce until the invention of the railroad.
Harmon Hendricks died in 1838, having helped transform American industry. His advocacy of the use of copper in shipbuilding made America a naval power. His technical knowledge, engineering skill and willingness to invest in advanced techniques of copper manufacture set a standard for American industrial innovation. His three sons and four grandsons succeeded him in the business. The last member of the family to operate the business was Harmon Washington Hendricks, who died in 1928. Hendricks Brothers closed its last copper mill in 1938.
Just as Harmon Hendricks was able to build a business that his descendants maintained, he was able to continue a tradition of religious commitment that his father, Uriah, had bequeathed to him. Each of Harmon’s children found a spouse among the families at Shearith Israel. Son Henry joined his father-in-law, Tobias I. Tobias, as an officer of one of the earliest Jewish charities, the Society for the Education of Poor Children and Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion, which was founded in 1827. In 1833, Henry joined his brother-in-law, Benjamin Nathan, as a founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which was modeled after a similar organization established in Philadelphia by Rebecca Gratz. In 1852, Henry Hendricks and eight others founded Jews’ Hospital, now Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, the oldest Jewish medical institution in the United States.
Isaac Leeser, editor of The Occident, the leading American Jewish newspaper of the pre-Civil War era, was often critical of what he considered the aloof and uncharitable attitudes of the American Sephardic “grandees.” To quote Maxwell Whiteman, however, Leeser “singled out the liberality of the Hendricks family as an exception … Modesty and reserve continued to govern the family attitude in matters of philanthropy, and the practice of keeping such activity from the public eye, begun by Harmon Hendricks, was maintained by his descendants.”