For many Jewish immigrants, the “mom and pop” business was vehicle for upward economic and social mobility. The dream of Jewish immigrants was to see their children become doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen.
Sheldon S. Cohen certainly fulfilled this dream. His father, Herman, a Lithuanian immigrant, bought a business the year Cohen was born. Cohen grew up helping his father in the family business, Potomac Butter and Egg Co., which sold dairy products and eggs to grocery stores and small restaurants. Here are his recollections of working with his father:
[Dad’s] warehouse was directly behind our house on Morse Street. It was an old stable. My mother kept the books. She had a little office in the basement of our house. I used to help her. My dad’s business was just across the alley from our backyard, in this old hay warehouse. There were two or three other warehouses. And, in fact, the Sunshine Bakery was down the street in another old warehouse building behind another home on that street.
[Dad] would have the eggs delivered from the farms or from wholesalers down in Shenandoah Valley, who would gather and deliver them to him. He would process them, clean them up…I used to grade them for size. I could pick up an egg and tell you whether it was a small, medium, or large and, if you weighed it, you’d find out I was right 99% of time. Cracked eggs went to the bakers.
To tell if an egg was good, you would candle the egg… If you hold the egg up to a light close by, you can see the yolk. You can see whether the yolk is formed properly, or broken, or if there’s blood or albumin in the egg. [You need to do this to every egg.] I got so that as a teenager I could do almost as fast as the professionals would do it.
I was the cleanup man or I was an egg candler, when I had to be… [This was] a regular part of my existence… I would help with the cheese or I would help with the smaller things that didn’t take up a lot of time and weren’t too big to carry around.
Eleven years after graduating first in his class at GW Law School, Cohen became chief counsel for the Internal Revenue Service. A year later, at age 37, he was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson for the position of IRS Commissioner, making him the youngest to hold this post.
In the week after the nomination, Cohen’s childhood work with his father at Potomac Butter and Egg appeared twice in Washington Post stories, showing everyone’s love of a good “American Dream” story.
Videotaped oral history of the Honorable Sheldon S. Cohen featuring stories of growing up in Jewish Washington, his career in the federal government and his leadership in the local Jewish community. Accession No.: 2012.36. Courtesy of Sheldon S. Cohen.
Top photo: Cohen (left) with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, 1968. Courtesy of Sheldon S. Cohen.