I had started with nothing, and if I now found myself with nothing, I was at least even. Actually, I was much better than even; I had had a wonderful time.
– Sol Bloom
The 19th Century in the United States was a challenging time to be a child. On the one hand, social, political, and industrial change could make your head reel. Nature, war, and economics created enormous hardships. On the other hand, unlike many other parts of the planet at the time, North America also presented what just about everyone in those days touted as 'opportunities'. In practical terms, this meant that children growing up in that place and time could, if they were lucky and worked their tails off, 'make something of themselves'.
We stop for a moment to remember that many didn't make it. Lots failed, lots died. Others ended up in hospital or jail or in the river. The ones who did make it often became famous, and some of those tried to be useful and smooth the way for the ones who weren't as clever or lucky as they were. Andrew Carnegie was like that. So were Mark Twain and PT Barnum. All three of these household names had things in common: as kids, they were dirt poor. They had to go to work at a young age. They were bright and outgoing and knew how to use those 'opportunities'. When they grew up and became famous, they felt an obligation to their fellow humans.
The subject of our story today is another such rags-to-riches benefactor. You may not have heard of Sol Bloom (1870-1949), but you may have heard the 'snake charmer song'. Also known as the 'Arabian riff', or 'There's a place in France where the alligators dance/ladies wear no pants', etc, this song was made popular at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Sol Bloom was responsible for it. The sheet music looks like this:
Sol Bloom was also responsible for putting the United Nations' US headquarters where it is, and for helping write its charter. Quite a journey. Let's pick up the story on a railway train crossing the prairie in 1875.
San Francisco, Paris, Chicago
Railway travel in 1875 America was an adventure. It took the Bloom family 14 days to get from Peoria, Illinois, to San Francisco. It beat the wagon train, but still had its discomforts. The Orthodox Jewish family (the parents came from Poland) couldn't find much in the way of suitable food on the journey. They lived on fruit and eggs cooked on the pot-bellied stove in the middle of their compartment. They sat, ate and slept on the hard wooden benches, and were really glad to get to San Francisco. Unfortunately, that was the day the banks failed. It really didn't matter: the Blooms had no money, anyway. Five-year-old Sol went right to work.
Sol later said he didn't have a 'real job' until he was seven. That's when he started at the brush factory, pushing the treadle that operated their only machinery. He couldn't go to school because they had no money to buy books, so his mother taught him to read and write (English and Hebrew) in their free time. When not working at the factory, learning, or attending synagogue, Sol did other odd jobs such as helping his father sell brushes door-to-door. Sol soon learned that if he didn't act stoical, but grunted and groaned a little, housewives would take pity on him and give him a snack. They also might buy more brushes. Every bit helped for Sol, his parents, and his siblings. Some of those hard-earned pennies went into his mother's pushka, or charity box. They gave to the 'less fortunate', even when they themselves suffered food insecurity.
When Sol was ten, the factory owners discovered that he not only knew the inventory off by heart, but could perform elaborate financial calculations in his head. They promoted the self-taught maths wizard to the accounting department. Sol rejoiced: the few extra dollars a week helped the family move to better quarters.
When not working at the factory, Sol often worked as an usher in San Francisco's very active theatre world. He found ways to augment this income, too, such as selling 'souvenirs'. A very popular play portrayed an Irish blacksmith. The actor, who had practised long and hard, produced a horseshoe on a real forge during the course of every performance. Sol bought some horseshoes cheap from a local blacksmith and sold them to sentimental but solvent Irish emigres.
By the time he was 19, Sol Bloom had amassed a considerable amount of money with these and other Ferengi-style tactics. His family suggested he'd earned a break: he should travel, expand his mind. He got as far as Paris.
It was 1889. The Paris Exposition was in full swing. Sol was entranced – by the commercial opportunities. Besides, he loved show business. He stayed for months and negotiated a contract with the Algerian Village performers to represent them in the US. Then he headed back to Chicago to talk to the people in charge of the upcoming Columbian Exposition, supposed to take place in 1892, the 400th anniversary of something Christopher Columbus did. The exposition, like Columbus, was behind schedule. They told Sol to come back later. Still, he had his contract.
Sol went back to San Francisco, arranged his affairs, and moved his family to Chicago in time for the Exposition of 1893. The organisers had a problem – and it was a real opportunity for Sol. It seems they'd put a university ethnologist in charge of the Midway. The poor academic was at a total loss about what to do with all the elephants, etc, not to mention the Ferris Wheel, that innovation from Pittsburgh. So, at the age of 21, Sol Bloom was put in charge, not only of the Algerian Village, but of all the excitement that made the White City such an epochal event.
That, of course, is where the 'snake-charmer song' comes in. Sol Bloom banged it out on the piano to show the musicians what to play. It became a best-selling song under the title 'The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid'. Sol neglected to copyright the tune, and regretted this: he could have made thousands. He never made that mistake again, as his history with the copyright office shows.
In spite of his indelible association with a feature of the Algerian Village known as the danse du ventre, which the vulgar Americans called 'belly dancing', Sol always hotly denied having had anything to do with any of the hootchy-kootchy dancers who billed themselves as 'Little Egypt'. He didn't do vulgar, he protested. His running of the Midway was a satisfaction to all. Sol earned good money and made valuable contacts among Chicago businessmen and politicians. He was a good Democrat, if not too particular about the level of honesty in local politics. It was, after all, Chicago.
Sol's contacts stood him in good stead in 1894. That's when he nearly went broke and had to start over again. Interestingly, this period marked the second career of Sol Bloom: as a music publisher.
Sol Bloom, the Music Man
In 1894, the boom the Exposition had brought to Chicago was over. One sector of the economy that felt this keenly was the railroad industry: George Pullman had hired a lot of new workers and even built them a company town. Now, the workers were suffering from cutbacks in their wages, but their company rents and prices in the company stores weren't going down. Eugene V Debs, the union leader, called them out on strike. There were several results of this strike: Debs went to prison for a year (where he spent his time reading Marx), produce rotted, Chicago experienced a food shortage, and Sol Bloom, who was in the food supply business, lost all his money.
Sol privately thought it was very inconsiderate of Eugene V Debs, but publicly, he kept up a brave front. Still well-dressed, coiffed and manicured as always, he let it be known that he was 'looking for opportunities.' When he was down to his last $23, he was offered a job managing a sheet music business. When he opened his own publishing house a year or so later, he chose a logo incorporating his initials, the year 1894, and the number 23. If you knew, you knew.
Sol never let copyright get away from him again. He even had one of his people sit in front of the copyright office in Washington on New Year's Eve, 1899, so that Sol Bloom Publishers could boast that they had the first music copyright of the new century. And boast he did.
You will note that Sol was careful to reserve rights for mechanical reproduction. This would include records and also those ubiquitous banjo machines. Sol made another fortune. He was the biggest supplier of sheet music by mail in the country. He also sold musical instruments nationwide.
The best part of Sol's sheet music career, though, was probably the day he met aspiring composer Evelyn Hechheimer. He sat enrapt as she played song after song. He promised to publish anything she wrote. A few months later, he married her. She was the love of his life. Mama Bloom was a bit worried at first because Evelyn, who grew up in San Francisco, had attended a Reform synagogue. But the family were enchanted by Evelyn, and Sol happily supported two households. The couple had a daughter, Vera. Sol lavished on his baby girl all the luxuries that had been missing from his own childhood: toys (only the best!), education (he signed her up for singing lessons while she was in her crib), and even fur coats, over his wife's protests.
New York, Mussolini, the World
In 1905, Sol moved with his wife and daughter to New York City. For a while he continued to sell music and musical instruments. Then he ventured into real estate, arranging deals that reshaped early 20th-Century Manhattan. He also became involved, albeit peripherally, in New York Democratic politics. Eventually, he decided that he'd made enough money. It was time to travel again and look around for a new way of making himself useful.
The first thing he did was to take his wife and young adult daughter to Europe in 1919. The first thing Vera did was to involve her parents in a search for famous people to interview for her magazine articles. In addition to the aged Empress Eugenie of France, Vera wangled a much-sought-after interview with Gabriele d'Annunzio, the Italian journalist/freedom fighter who had just seized the city of Fiume in Croatia, forcing out the peacekeeping force. Even more surprising was who it was who helped the Blooms get to Fiume: a then-little-known newspaper editor by the name of Benito Mussolini. Sol liked Mussolini at first: later, he changed his mind.
Getting involved in international affairs appealed to Sol Bloom. So he wasn't entirely reluctant when the Democrats asked him to run in the special congressional election in 1923. The previous seatholder, Samuel Marx1 died suddenly, and they wanted a Jew to run because the constituency was heavily Jewish. Besides, the other party officials were prone to saying unfortunate things to the voters, such as 'Sol Bloom will bring home the bacon!' Sol winced and became a congressman.
He served from 1923 until his death in 1949. Sol organised the George Washington Bicentennial in 1932, making sure everybody knew all about the first President – and the commemoration turned a profit, during the worst year of the Great Depression. He served on the copyright committee (he was an expert by now). As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he advocated for refugees during and after the Second World War. He was involved in the formation of the United Nations and is credited with suggesting the opening phrase of the charter, 'We, the Peoples of the United Nations...' Sol was very proud of that.
To Learn More
Those rags-to-riches, self-made children of the 19th Century weren't the norm. They didn't prove that 'anyone can make it.' Millions didn't. But the ones who did are worth studying. Not because they should be emulated: those exact circumstances will never happen again. But their stories provide us with unusual insights into the times they lived through. The Autobiography of Sol Bloom (1948) is well worth a read for this reason: it's a wild ride, featuring characters like Gentleman Jim Corbett, Buffalo Bill, Henry Ford, and Calvin Coolidge (Vera made him laugh). It's fascinating to see the world through his eyes – and hear it, too.