May 2024

Advertising Passover: the American Haggadah and the development of Jewish American life

Domino Sugar Haggadah cover

The Price Library of Judaica has a collection of over 700 Passover Haggadahs from around the world. About fifty of these were commercially produced and printed in New York during the early 20th century. Curious items such as these provide insights into the development of Jewish American communities in New York. The commercial Haggadahs were particularly aimed at consumers living in New York’s lower east side and Brooklyn: communities that evolved from largely Yiddish-speaking immigrants into local-born, English-speaking consumers and producers of commodities.

Dime Savings Bank Haggadah Cover

The American phenomenon of adding advertising to this Jewish ritual text began in the 1930s with the printing of the first Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah . The idea was to provide low-income Jewish families with a cheap or free copy of a Haggadah with every can of coffee purchased. From the outset, commercial Haggadahs included five-year calendars enabling the Jewish customer to determine when the major festivals would fall. This five year span also reveals that the Haggadah itself was considered a time-limited product. Given their throwaway nature, copies like the ones held in the Price Library of Judaica are now considered rare.

Other companies quickly adopted this marketing ploy. Among the earliest of the commercial Haggadahs was one printed by the Domino Sugar Company (pictured above). Like the Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah, the Domino Sugar Haggadah included a Jewish calendar from 1937-1942. However, Domino Sugar went one step further and included a week-to-week calendar in Yiddish for the current year, 1938.

While it made sense for coffee, sugar and wine companies to market their goods as Kosher for Passover, even companies such as the Dime Savings Bank caught on. Founded in Williamsburg in 1864, the Dime Savings Bank served the growing immigrant and low-income populations in the area. After the building of the Williamsburg bridge in 1903, Jewish families started to move from the crowded lower east side to Brooklyn. Reflecting its customer base, the inside copyright page of the Haggadah is issued in English and Yiddish. The text in Yiddish promises customers that the bank’s interest rates are calculated and paid every three months.

By the 1950s, Maxwell House outstripped the Haggadah competition with its “deluxe” version (pictured below). In illustrating these early American Haggadahs, the designers borrowed images from the engravings in the 1695 and 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah, and they also adapted famous paintings of biblical scenes.

Maxwell House Deluxe cover

In this deluxe edition, however, the illustrations were newly created with modern renditions of biblical scenes, as well as drawings showing middle-class Jewish Americans talking and singing around the Passover Seder table.

1950s depiction Jewish American familyMaxwell House Coffee Haggadah Deluxe image

Jewish food and wine manufacturers also realized the benefit of advertising their wares in Haggadahs. By mid-century, Streit’s Matzo company was one of many successful Jewish-owned businesses on Rivington Street in New York’s lower east side. Streit’s 1960s Haggadah utilized modern color-printing techniques to provide eye-catching advertisements.

Streits Matzo Haggadah, 1962

The Streit’s Haggadah also incorporated modern marketing language. Phrases such as “Nothing but the best is good enough” were used to entice new generations of discerning and economically better off Jewish American consumers to buy their products.