Escaping religious persecution in Romania, Jewish merchants settled in Ybor City and opened dry goods stores in the late 1800’s. Described by historians as the “Princes of Seventh Avenue,” these merchants became successful by selling dry goods such as clothing, hats, shoes, jewelry, textiles, laces, millinery, embroideries, trunks, and valises. One of these successful businesses was Steinberg’s Dry Goods Store, located on 1611 East Seventh Avenue, which became a popular destination for shoppers in the community.
Besides being a successful merchant, Edward H. Steinberg, founder of Steinberg’s Dry Goods, became politically involved with the cause of the Cuban Revolution and donated money to José Martí. Later on, Martí held a reception in honor of Steinberg and his contributions.
Romanian Jews sympathized with Cuban workers because they understood what it was like to live under an oppressive government. Historian Yael Greenberg-Pritzker notes that “some individuals took actions in other ways by volunteering to fight in the war with Spain.” Ybor City merchant Albert Saar expressed his support of Cuban independence: “Being from Europe and running away from army conscription by tyrants, kings, and communists made us sympathetic to a country where we were free. You should support anything you wanted, especially freedom seeking Cubans.” Like the Cubans, Jews were forced to be economically and culturally independent and had to rely on their own skills and abilities to support one another. Other Jewish immigrants heard stories of a “golden medina,” a place where people were “free to live, work, and pray without being persecuted.”
Just a couple of blocks down from Steinberg’s, another Romanian Jewish merchant by the name of Isadore Kaunitz founded El Sombrero Blanco (The White Hat). The dry goods store was named after Kaunitz’s signature white fedora and the store became the very first brick building in all of Ybor City. Kaunitz first sailed from Hamburg to New York City but later on moved down to Tampa in search of a warmer climate to aid his tuberculosis. Like Steinberg, Kaunitz was a well-respected merchant and was often approached by other Jewish immigrants for financial advice.
The Maas Brothers, the Argintar family, the Buchman family, and the Rippa family were also among other Romanian Jews that had businesses in Ybor City. By 1910, the city directory listed 15 Jewish-owned dry goods stores which contributed to the commercial success of Ybor City and provided merchandise for all of the community, ranging from textiles to auto-parts.