Drop that Word

Dear Word Detective: The spelling may be incorrect, but the term is pronounced “sheeny man.” I believe it refers to a person who buys and sells junk; a rag and bone man. I am interested to know the derivation of this term and its correct spelling. — Mary Mulhern.

I must say that your question took me slightly aback, and before I answer it, I’ll explain why. It reminded me of a day I remember quite clearly, although I was only about 11 or 12 years old at the time. I came marching into my parents’ living room that afternoon, absentmindedly singing a little jingle I’d picked up somewhere, probably at school, as children often do. I was utterly unprepared for my mother’s shocked reaction to my little song, but after she explained that one of the words in the jingle (it was “jigaboo”) was a virulent slur against Black people, I was appropriately shocked myself.

So I am certain that you are as innocent in asking your question as I was in repeating that little jingle, which means that “sheeny” survives somewhere as acceptable conversational vocabulary, which is depressing, to put it mildly. “Sheeny” is a very old and extremely derogatory term for a Jewish person. It first appeared in the 19th century and its origin is uncertain, but it may be based on the German word “schon,” meaning “beautiful.” The theory is that Yiddish-speaking Jewish merchants pronounced “schon” as “sheen” when advertising their wares, and the word was then picked up as slang for Jews in general. While “sheeny” was at first not especially negative in connotation (and was used by Jews themselves in a joking sense in the mid-19th century), in the 20th century it has become an unambiguously anti-Semitic slur, on a par with “kike.”

91 comments on this post.
  1. Don Ballantyne:

    Actually, the origin goes back to the fifth book of Moses: Deu 28:37 And thou shalt become an astonishment 8047, a proverb 4912, and a BYWORD 8148, among all nations 5971 whither the LORD 3068 shall lead 5090 thee. Byword is translated “sheeny”.

    It was a prophetic verse telling the Israelites that they would be called Sheenies in the days to come, a slang for the Hebrew shen·?·nä’ and certainly used in a a derogatory sense. It has always been used negatively outside Jewish culture just as the n-word has been used in a negative sense toward black people.

  2. Judy:

    I believe Mary is refering to the garbage pickers who pulled their wagons through the streets of Detroit back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I don’t think she meant it in a derogatory way.

  3. Yael:

    Having just seen Don’s comment, above, and being a native Hebrew speaker (and having studies some Hebrew and Semitic linguistics as well), I feel the need to add a correction here. The word ‘Shenina’ is not ‘Sheeny’ and does not refer to a derogatory term – it basically means ‘scorn, mockery, taunt’ (from the root SH-N-N, same root as ‘tooth’, which can relate either to the word either in the sense of something sharp and cutting, or in the sense of something that is repeated often, ‘chewed over’, in the same way that the verb for ‘memorise by heart’ comes from the same root). It works well with the rest of the verse: the meaning is that ‘you’ (the people spoken to in the verse) shall become a proverbial fool, something that people of the future will make fun of for generations.
    Any etymological connection between this verse and the term ‘sheeny’ seems incredibly far-fetched to me, unless you can find actual proof that this really is the source.

  4. Ally:

    I agree with “Judy” (especially since she used the definition herself) meant only the old term for a person who deals in junk. This person usually hauled a wagon down the streets collecting “junk”. This junk could be truly junk or perhaps someone along the way would want to buy it. I believe the time would have been closer to the 40’s or 50’s, however.
    Although I have lived in Detroit, I first heard the term as a child on Ohio. Parents would sometimes threaten badly behaved children with ” giving them to the sheeny”, meaning the junk man.
    I am not sure, but possibly some junk men were Jewish, thus the term evolving into an ethnic slur. Or, perhaps it was an ethnic slur in the first place, not necessarily understood by children.

  5. Ally:

    Correction: my above comment should have read: after the parenthesis “that Mary meant..,
    Please correct or forgive misleading typo.

  6. Lynn:

    The Sheeny man was the rag and bone collector for my family. If he was Jewish we sure didn’t know. He mended pots and pans and recycled things. Sure there was the threat if you were not well behaved you would be sold to the sheeny man. The Sheeny man provided an essential service in the Great Depression. I am sad that it meant something bad. If I had not looked this up I would have had no idea I was saying something wrong. For us he was part of the neighborhood like the grocer or the milkman.
    How sad.

  7. Lynn:

    So are we insulting Jewish people by speaking of the rag and bone man as a sheeny man? I want to remove this word from my vocabulary if I aam wrong in saying this

  8. Maryk:

    Perhaps the Midwest – including Detroit – is the source for this term. Sheeny man, milkman postman egg man. All were visitors to the old neighborhood.

  9. sarah:

    language evolves and if the intent was not derogatory don’t feel bad nor delete it from your vocabulary repurposing is fashionable and apparently always has been

  10. grace:

    I also grew up in Detroit in the 50’s – 70’s. My parents grew up there also from the 20’s. My parents used ragman and sheenyman interchangeably. I never heard a derogatory connotation associated with it.And believe me, my dad was a product of his time and he expressed ethnic slurs freely.

  11. Jack Hallam:

    In the 1930s the sheenie came by in the late spring and early fall (I was away at the cottage for July and August) Our sheenie had an open cart pulled by an emaciated horse that I always felt sad for. I don’t remember whether he wore anything on his head. he looked old with a thin scraggly beard. This was in a middle class neighbourhood in Toronto. Our sheenie was only after scrap metal. I learned that he was Jewish but this term only applied to the guy in the cart who had a small whip for the horse. I remember asking my mother how do you tell someone is a Jew. The reply was unsatisfactory. This was in the years when Kristal Nacht occurred but I never learned about it till in University

  12. Linda:

    I first heard the term 30 years ago when my then mom-in-law compared my well dressed daughters to their cousins who were “dressed as little sheenies”. I had no idea where it came from but knew she meant is badly. FYI that was in Illinois. One of my daughters is now raising her 3 sons who are Jewish like their father. I’m glad I read this as I didn’t understand the racial slur.

  13. Shaun Taylor:

    We had both a Sheeny Man and a milk man who used horse drawn carts. We would feed the milk man horses Nabisco shredded wheat. Sheeny was never used in a derogatory way. Though, he used to scare the hell out of us. I’d go running into the house when he was a block away. He had a horn that he blew and tattered clothes and a beard. The whole look wasn’t far off of Dracula in the old movies. This was in the late 1940’s, early 50’s in Detroit. My paarents were post WW1 German and didn’t tollerate race descrimination of any kind. To this day I can’t use the term Jewish Rye for bread without feeling like it is inappropriate.

  14. Patricia:

    I remember when the Sheenie Man came through our neighborhood in the late 40’s, early 50’s in Ann Arbor, MI. He had a partially open tall cart with a covered roof, drawn by a very weary looking horse. If I remember correctly, he bought and sold old metal pots and pans, and he also sharpened (and sold?) knives. He dressed in rags and had shaggy salt and pepper hair, and (at my young age) I thought he was ancient. My grandmother regularly threatened she was going to “sell you to the Sheenie,” so I never got very close to him out of fear. She had such disgust in her voice when she said it that I’ve always avoided using the term because it felt so derogatory.

    It’s really interesting and enlightening to read all these comments!

  15. Julie Matuszak:

    My mother used to threaten us with the Sheeny Man, but we never new what it meant. Years later my mother went to visit her son and grandchildren in California. The grandchildren were carrying a big poster with “Grandma did you bring the Sheeny Man” right thru LAX….

  16. Ross:

    Sheeny as a slur for Jew originated in 19th century London. Definitely not the Midwest.

  17. gail:

    My mother used to tell me that one of her bigoted neighbors used to yell “beware of the sheenies” out the window to her kids every time the Jewish kids went out to play. It was in the 1920’s in Scranton, Pa. It was most definitely a derogatory term for Jews. According to my mother, the term originally may have simply meant ragman, most of whom were poor Jewish immigrants, but by the 1920’s in the U.S. it had evolved into an ethnic slur and was primarily intended as such. You may not have known that as a child, but your parents surely did. Sorry to have to tell you that.

  18. stevie:

    Enlightening to find this site and reading all the posts. I too, wasn’t sure what sheeny meant, where it came from or how to spell it. It was used by a comical story telling man who used it in a string of adjectives to describe one of the characters in his story, of which he had some business dealings with. That sheeny ass, mf, was the way I heard it and somehow I interpreted that it may be a way of saying the character was cheap or possibly, the character buffed his ass to shine, like some bird preening. Regardless,that is why I was happy to find this site discussing this word. Not afraid of words, but dislike the hate. The story teller bastardized many words, it was how they spoke in that area. I never sensed any hate in his story.

  19. william:


  20. Ellen Bishop:

    My mother who wad not born in MI but her mother was,my mother told the story of the Sheeney and the threat of selling children to him she know it had to do with him being Jewish, her mother was from Lennawee County MI I think it must go back well beyond the 1930 and even the 1920’s in that part of the world, and maybe even originated in New York which is where the family lived before Michigan.

  21. Richard Katz:

    My father said it was from the alphabet letter sheen!

  22. Jim:

    I grew up in Detroit in the 50’s and 60’s (east side) and the Sheeny was anyone who traveled the alleys picking up junk. Race or ethnicity or religion was not the issue.

  23. joel:

    It’s remarkable how many parents, in the midwest it seems, have threatened children with the “sheeny”. I recall mother saying “if you don’t behave, we’ll give you to the sheeny” in the 1940’s in Minneapolis. He came through the ally in a horse and wagon collecting whatever, also referred to as the ragpicker and/or junkman.

  24. Bradley:

    I was born in Windsor (across the river from Detroit) in 1960. As Jim stated, neither race, ethnicity nor religion was the issue. I mistakenly equated the word “sheeny” with “junk”. The “sheeny man” was the “junk man” who would drive down the alley in an old pick up truck and lean out the window and blow a horn to let you know he was coming. The “sheeny man” was never used as a threat by my parents. Speaking to a Jewish colleague in the 80s I happened to use the word “sheeny”. I must have been relating the story about the guy who drove down the alley as that was the only context that I knew. My colleague very pointedly said that I should never use that expression again but didn’t explain why. Last night I put some garbage at the curb for pickup and my wife used the expression term “sheeny man”. I guarantee that she does not realize that the expression has its origins in a pejorative.

  25. Richard G. Burns, M.D.:

    My friend Linda’s father was named Buel Fernando, not too bad but half a mouthful at least. To friends, family and friends of family he was called Sheeny. The family said it meant jew and was derogatory when applied to a random man, not Buel Fernando.Excellent coverage of the type of word that needs to be covered; the article my help prevent unintended slurs by the uninitiated. RGB, King

  26. David Edwards:

    I grew up not knowing anti-anything in a very tolerant neighbourhood. The only people we hated were Nazis for we were still at war, though I don’t think we hated them (or the Japanese) as much as they were just the enemy. The German and Italian families that lived on my street were neighbours and were not to be confused with those people on the other side of the world we were fighting. We even had a couple of gentlemen that lived together, but that was okay because they were ‘brothers’ and that is how they were referred to even though they didn’t look the least bit alike. We had Catholics and Protestants among the Green and Orange Irish and, just two doors away from my parents’ house, there were three young women who didn’t seem to have jobs but no one seemed to worry about any of it. And so my first encounter with hatred came as quite a shock. We had bread and milk deliveries by horse and wagon and the rag-and-bone men shouted out something that sounded like, ‘Auuuu-dic Bone’ that I never actually understood. However, I never understood the occasional farmer who plied our street calling out, “riiii-pe berr-ies’ either. We called the rag-and-bone men, “sheeney men” amongst my contemporaries. I always thought that had something to do with American Indians because I had a book on Indians and one tribe was called Cheyenne. I learned to read when I was four (because my brother got tired of reading cartoons to me) and when I sounded out the word, I got “She” from the first syllable and “ennee” from the second, hence Sheeney. I couldn’t figure out the connection and it was at least several more years before I learned the actual pronunciation of, Cheyenne. These Sheeney men were all very sad and seemingly ancient men who were as emaciated as the poor horses they drove. They all wore either army great coats or long black overcoats and they looked as if they never had a haircut under the black wide-brimmed hats adorning their heads. They looked untidy but, from the hindsight of adulthood, that may have been because of the prayer shawls most of them wore. Whenever one of these rag-and-bone men passed by, we children took delight in running alongside, holding up three fingers as we ran. One afternoon, at the bottom of my street as we were heading home from kindergarten, a rag-and-bone man passed us in his horse and wagon. There were several of us and so we delightedly ran after him holding up three fingers while he, as usual, ignored us. He was soon enough well past us and my delight turned to curiosity. “What does holding up three fingers mean”, I asked. I was told by the biggest kid as he counted out each finger that it meant, “Jews killed Jesus”. I cannot express the various emotions and revulsion that washed through and over me. I can still feel it. I can still feel the warmth of the afternoon and the heat reflecting from the pavement and the terribly cold feeling that was residing in my gut. Christian celebrations were a big thing in those days and so the story of the nativity and the crucifixion were well known to me. I had never heard anything as stupid as ‘Jews killed Jesus’. Jesus was a Jew, I protested, and it was the Romans that killed him. I never had known shame before that moment and I wanted to run after that poor man and apologise to him. I would not have caught him anyway but, from memory, I never played with those kids again and I never made gestures to anyone from that point on. I have never understood hatred and I particularly do not understand anti-Semitism. Perhaps being Jewish is different than being of the Jewish faith, I wouldn’t know, but since the Christian god, Jehovah, and Yahweh, the god of the Jews, are one and the same (for that matter so is Allah of the followers of Islam) I fail to see what the argument is. Anyway, I will never understand hatred and I will never forget that warm mid-week afternoon when I was five.

  27. John Zoch:

    I am nearing 85 years. I knew the shinny of my time but never knew the derrivitory of the word until now. I grew up knowing our shinny when I learned to walk. We kids would be calling out the window whwn we saw him coming. Were we outside we would follow his wagon as far as we allowed to go. He always had a gang of kids behind him. Thanks for the memories.

  28. M Lou:

    I was born in 1951 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I remember the ‘sheeny’ riding through the alleys looking for rags and scrap metals. There was also a huckster who sold fruits and vegetables.

  29. Ron Valentine:

    I recall our Sheeny, and old black man who drove his horse cart through the alleys of Detroit but in the 40’s. As this was as close as a kid got to horses in Detroit his work fascinated me and I befriended him. He let me “drive” the horse as he picked through rubbish. On day, home alone I sold him rugs from my Aunt’s floors for a few quarters. It took the rest of the day to find and recover them. Still one of my best memories from city living.

  30. mcvee:

    Back in the early 50s in Shamokin, PA the sheeny man would ride thru our street in his horse drawn wagon crying out “shee-eeny mannn, shee-eeny mannn” to let us know he was there. I can’t imagine that he would use a word on himself that was considered derogatory. I was 5 at the time.

  31. Betty Brodkin:

    The actor Kirk Douglas (Issur Davidovich-sp.) wrote a book about himself and his father, who was a “rag man.” I did not know the derivation of the word “sheenie;” hence, my reading this website. I had heard the word from my father when I was little, but I never knew the meaning, nor did I ever ask. I am appalled by any ethnic and racial slurs of any kind. People who do not know the meanings of words use many ethnic slurs, and I see and hear it more and more on radio and TV. Wake up, people, this is what starts racial and ethnic tensions!!!

  32. Bea:

    I believe Kirk Douglas’ last name was Danielovich, not Davidovich. I have not read his book, so I do not know whether he was proud of his father for what he did, just to keep food on the table. I will have to read his book.

  33. lea:

    I grew up in northeast PA in the 70’s (near Scranton), and the sheeny was the old guy in the even older truck that pulled a huge wagon and collected metal and other junk from the sidewalks every couple of weeks. Period. The neighborhood knew when he was coming and would put out whatever they wanted to get rid of for him to take away. He was a nice enough man, waved to people that were out (and they waved back). Never was there any ethnic slur attached. In fact, we were in a mostly Eastern European neighborhood and I always thought the word sheeny must be Hungarian or Slovak, or something along that order. Never did any Jewish reference come up.

  34. Maureen:

    Your description is exactly as I remember the Sheeny Man. I wonder if they all looked like this, or did we know the same man? I never thought of this term as derogatory, that’s just what he was called. Interestingly, our west side Detroit neighborhood was mixed with Jewish, black, white, Italian, etc., and my mother was friendly with everyone. Curious that I never heard anyone object to the name Sheeny Man.

  35. El etyinger:

    I am old, 87 years old. I recall the strawberry man, the cantaloupe man and the Sheeney, who collected or bought whatever neighbors wanted to be shed of. Somehow I knew to never use that word, Sheeney, any other time. Somehow it did not feel right, and I was only 6 or 7 at the time.

  36. Tom:

    I was just researching this word and came across this website. I also remember it being used to describe recyclers (junk men) who drove horse-drawn wagons through the alleys of St. Paul Minnesota when I was a child, collecting discarded items including rags. (They would call out “raaags” (no typo) as they rode through the alleys.) Presumably, the rags were sold to paper companies, who used cloth fibers in the production of high-quality paper ( % rag constant was printed on the packages). I am not surprised to here that it was a derogatory term for Jews, as my grandparents emigrated from Poland and had a low opinion of Jews that they brought with them. So the use of the term appears to have been widespread. As far as I know, it’s use in St. Paul died out with the disappearance of the horse drawn junk wagons.

  37. Maureen:

    When we were kids (in Chicago), my mom (who grew up during the Great Depression) would tell us “you sound like a rag sheeny” whenever we were yelling or hollering. Didn’t realize it was negative, until I was around 25 years old. I was relating a story to a Jewish girl and I said…I was yelling like a rag sheeny…Well, her face was disgusted and she quickly excused herself from our conversation. I kept racking my brains, as to why she suddenly took off. Realized it was immediately after I said “rag sheeny”. Figured it had to be something derogatory and wanted to kick myself because…having come from my mother, it should have been no surprise to me.

  38. J North:

    Another Detroit kid here. Southwest Detroit; Delray community. (I guess this “sheeny many” thing is very much regionalism.) Many years ago, in the days of AOL, I piped in on some discussion forum, probably for Ex-Detroiters or something, with a memory of “the sheeny man” from the 1950’s. I did not expect the comments of how insensitive I was for using that hateful term.

    I had no idea it was hateful. In fact, I explained, it was definitely not ever intended that way by me or anyone I knew who used it. It was just the thing we called the guy who’d ride through our alleys collecting unwanted items, junk or otherwise. The guy wasn’t Jewish, he was black. As other have described, he blew a horn and called out “she-ee-ee-ny-man!” I don’t think he came by weekly…maybe monthly?

    I never thought about this back then, but where did this guy keep his horse?

    Although I did not live in the exact same neighborhood in the ’60’s, but I don’t think the sheeny man thing was still happening during that time.

  39. Renee:

    I live in Minnesota and when I was small and my mother felt I had misbehaved she threatened to sell me to the sheeny. I always wondered what it meant. I assumed it wasn’t very good.

  40. Sharon Voiland:

    Thanks for your article. I moved from Detroit to Phoenix in the 70s, and no one had ever heard of a sheeny man and thought that I was making it up.

  41. Phyllis:

    My husband and I grew up in Detroit in the 1940’s and remember the sheeny man with a wagon and horse coming through the alleys picking up rags and junk. We didn’t know it had anything to do with Jews as we did not know or live near any Jews or Negroes back then

  42. elaine:

    As Jim did, I grew up on the east side of Detroit in the 50’s/60’s. The sheeny man was the alley riding junk man that would let us know he was doing our alley by laying on his horn and yelling out “sheeny man coming”. (He usually had a beat up pickup and more often than not a partner helping out). Then if we had anything in our garage or yard that we needed to get rid of that was probably too large for the cans we could haul it out and leave it for him. He could be black, white, dark, light, it didn’t matter. Religion, origin nationality never entered the picture as far as I knew. My friends and I loved the sheeny man. We followed him and hoped to see what he had gotten. We all wanted to be the sheeny man–it looked like great fun. And it is!!! My entire life I enjoyed being a garbage picker–sheeny man–and at 61 I still am. I am a rural carrier and I consider it one of my perks–to be able to find treasure in others trash. And I have done quite well being the local sheeny girl.
    And yes my mom would occasionally tell me that if I didn’t shape up she would leave me for the sheeny man to pick up. Little did she know that that never was a scary threat to me–in fact it sounded like a pretty good deal!!
    My friends and I still talk about the sheeny man and were amazed to find out that some people didn’t have a sheeny man or even know what it was. I am amazed to find out that some people use the term in a negative way. I refuse to stop using “sheeny man” and will always correct anyone who tries to tell me it is an unfair or derogatory thing. Actually I think this world could use a lot more of us sheeny men out and about!!

  43. Delta Pete:

    Interesting comments to say the least. I have two recollections of the term “sheenie”. The second was when I saw the movie “The Pawnbroker” starring Rod Steiger. He delivers a powerful answer when asked by a young assistant, “So how come you people come to business so natural?” Steiger’s character, Sol Nazerman, is a Jewish Pawnbroker. At the end of his lengthy answer which goes back to Moses and wandering in the desert and ends with a system of how to make money, all was summed up with following statement: You just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries, over and over, and suddenly you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage! You are a merchant. You are known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a makie and a k*ke!
    I had an uncle, my father’s brother, that had a way with words. He was the first person I ever heard using the term sheenie. Explained to me that it was a comment on how if you wear a pair of pants for an extended period of time the material in the seat and the knees become shiny. Made sense sort of, but then he went on to add that you see a lot of sheenies in the small businesses on the east side of Worcester MA. That area along Water St. In the 1950’s was populated by many Jewish businesses, bakeries, hardware stores, markets and fresh fruit and vegetable sellers.

  44. Fred:

    Wow I didn’t know that, I too was just a little boy when I heard the term used so often. Every time somebody with a vehicle came by carrying refuse/your junk they were referred to as the sheeny man. Thank you for the definition, I think they carry this political correctness a little too far.

  45. Greg Atkin:

    I was born in Windsor in 1956 and the sheenyman came thru our alleys once a month or sow with his horse-drawn wagon. The horse would defecate all over our alley which doubled as a diamond in the summer and a rink in the winter.

  46. Chris D.:

    I called my boyfriend a sheeny when he was eyeing a light that was left by my apartment’s trash dumpster. He had never heard the word and I told him that my Mom used to use it for anyone who was picking up junk and collecting it. Our family has used it throughout our lives. It’s been great fun to read the comments of this word and I would definitely say that the word must have come from Detroit, MI. My Grandmother grew up in Detroit in the early 1900’s. I think I always thought there was some Jewish relevancy, but not as a slur or never thought of the term as scary.

  47. Chris D.:

    My Mom used to use the word and to me it was anyone picking up junk and who were collecting it. Her Mother grew up in Detroit, MI in the early 1900’s, so find it interesting that this is a common thread throughout the above comments. This has been an interesting read!

  48. Julane:

    I would not be surprised if it came from the Hebrew letter shin, the one that looks like a W. Most mezuzahs on Jewish doorposts have a shin, or shin dalet yud. It means Shomer Daltot Yisrael, or “He who watches over the doors of Israel. The acronym “Shaddai” is one of the names of G-d.

  49. iOS:

    Heard the expression used in this TBS or TNT series The Alienist; describes Theodore Roosevelt’s assignment of two intellectuals to fight corruption in the police department.

  50. Ken:

    I’m a Jew. I was born in 1950 and grew up in Chicago–the city, not the suburbs. My Jewish mother was also born in Chicago and grew up dirt poor in the “old (immigrant) neighborhood” in the Depression. Her father–my grandfather–owned a small auto junkyard, basically one step above a “rag man”. Thus, my grandfather would have been the perfect person to call a Sheeny if all it meant was a junk man. Believe me, my mother would have slapped me across the face, washed my mouth out with soap and torn my backside to shreds with the belt if I ever used that term to refer to my grandfather. I learned from an early age that the term Sheeny was used exclusively by Gentiles to refer to Jews in the most derogatory terms they possibly could. Kike, Yid, Hebe, Hymie were all pale cousins to the term Sheeny. Sheeny has NEVER been used by Jews to refer to each other, and is the ultimate insult–and fighting word– to any Jew. For many years I never heard that term used anymore. Recently, I have heard it used in some crime dramas, and such, on TV and by some white anti-Semites on TV. It is disappointing that this ultimate slur word for a Jew is once again being used and is one more piece of evidence of the deepining divisions in American society.

  51. Jackie:

    Wow, David! That is a great account! I hope journalism is somewhere in your life/career! I so enjoyed reading your description of a very important moment in your childhood! I can feel your emotion as you said “the terrible cold feeling residing in my gut”
    I grew up on the east side of Detroit in the ‘50’s, and had all the same ethnic diversity in our neighborhood which you described. Never was there any animosity for a a different nationality or social standing. The wealthy French woman in the big brick house who made fresh croissants every Saturday morning was treated with the same respect an the family with 10 kids who lived in a tiny sort of “run down” house. Looking back, to say we were middle class was sort of stretching the word middle. We were pretty poor actually, but just didn’t know it!
    Anyway, my sheeney man experience sometimes haunts me to this day because my family was always nice to the man. My dad said he was just a man trying to make a living, and would bring stuff home sometimes he thought the sheeney could use to sell. One time he saved a bunch of old tin roofing for him, and the next time the sheeney came he gave my Dad a big old metal watering can cuz he knew my Dad liked gardening.(we used to even plant flowers in the
    alley). I have that watering can to this day! Anyway, one day my Mom was making lunch and I asked her if I could give a sandwich to the sheeney man when he got to our house, I don’t think she was crazy about the idea and came out with me to give him the P&J. He said no thank you, he didn’t need it but would it be o.k. If we could give something to his horse? So we fed the horse some vegetables. At the time there were a bunch of kids playing in the empty lot on the other side of the alley, so it must have been a Saturday) when they saw me feeding the horse I guess it was fodder for ridicule. When I got to school the next time, the kids were making fun of me for being friends with the sheeney man, saying rude things and calling him a dirty N word. I can honestly say I had that horrible cold feeling in my gut. I couldn’t understand how and why they could be so cruel. Actually, their ire was aimed at me, but I felt bad for the man. I, too, think that was the first time I saw and felt hatred. I don’t remember telling my parents about it, and I think I kept away from sheeney man because of it-which is a shame because shortly after that he stopped coming and I never saw him again. But I have that watering can to remind me of what can become of treating people fairly and not with disdain and hate!

  52. Phyllis Dale:

    Our sheeny was 1940 Minneapolis. My Mom wasn’t going to sell but rather give us to the sheeny. Also dragonflies would come in the night as we slept and sew our mouths shut if we lied or said a bad word. No wonder I’m so messed up.

  53. Ruth Maginnis:

    I found a book called “gems of the universe”
    It was published in the 1930’s whichb contains a song called “Solomon Levi” which has the line “poor sheeny Levi” who has a store on Hester St. This collection of “world famous songs” contains only European tunes except for the inclusion of two Hebrew songs that are very sacred songs sung at the High Holidays. There is also a decent selection of spirituals. Very interesting.

  54. Barbara J. Goldberg:

    I grew up in a Downriver suburb of Detroit. When we were young, in the 1940’s and ’50’s, our Mom would threaten to throw us out to the “sheenie man” when we were bad. Only after I married my Jewish Husband and became Jewish, did I learn that it was a VERY derogatory name for a Jewish man. It makes me cringe to hear or, even write the word.

  55. Trish Bailey:

    In my early years, my grandparents, who were Irish, used the term for an oddly dressed person, and I use it in that context still…’s a word used in our family for nothing derogatory, that’s for sure….just a messy person….

  56. Paul:

    Shenny always meant “Trash Picker” or “Junk Collector”, (i.e Mr. Haney on Green Acres), it was a job title, no different than saying butcher, baker, or milkman. I also grew up in Detroit and everyone in my family called my grandfather a shenny because he was always bringing home stuff he picked up off the street or in an alley. I remember him bringing home everything from the old metal 35 mm film ‘cans’ with the screw lids to a huge china cabinet that my grandmother made him smash up and burn (in an old 55 gallon drum that he always seemed to be burning behind his garage).

    Times were so different then, and as one of the other posters noted, we never used shenny as a slur, there were plenty of slurs back then, I was a “mick”…

  57. Marc Wilson:

    In Chicago, the Irish customers at my grandfather’s store called “Jewish” rye bread “sheenie bread.” My mom, et al, took it as an antisemitic epithet of Irish origin. Apparently not.

  58. George Taylor:

    Also lived in Windsor, late 50s early 60s. Same experience – the sheeny man was just the guy with a horse and cart who drove through the alley, blew his horn, and collected scrap metal. Never knew the term “sheeny man” was derogatory. Surely my parents heard us use this term, or used it themselves. If it was derogatory to them they certainly would have forbidden its use, as they were very correct about such things, and raised us to be as well.

  59. WolfPack:

    When my Father’s (Italian) Great Aunt passed away, she left $800 in her will (which was a lot of money in the early 70’s). The check was made out to Louis Sheeny (last name). Knowing Sheeny was not his middle name, I asked why? I was told that the Aunt called him Sheeny because he held on to everything, ie: nuts, bolt, springs, etc. and put them in coffe cans in the basement in case something broke he had parts to fix it. They then told me “like the old man with his bike and cart who rode by once a month.” They called him the sheeny man, he carried pot, pans, knives, rags, etc. He even would sharpen your knives on a stone mounted to his back tire, that he would prop the bike up and move the peddle with one hand and sharpen the knife with his other. By the mid-1970s, he stopped coming around. So on my little street in Ohio, Sheeny was the “rag man”.

  60. Faye Marrocca:

    I was putting on paper some of my memories of growing up in Detroit in the 40s and 50s and wondered about the name “Sheeny Man”. This is what the neighborhood kids called the elderly black man who collected scrap metal, and bought rags and newspapers. I never heard the name from my parents. If they’d heard me call a hard working adult a name considered derogatory I’m sure I’d have received a lecture. We had a very diverse neighborhood and my mother tried to give the man first chance at my outgrown coats in case his family could use them. At the time I thought no one was poorer than we were. Certainly Sheeney didn’t seem to us derogatory at the time and I had no idea it could be a slur against Jewish people.

  61. Thomas:

    I grew up in the Rouge Park area of Detroit back in the 50’s. The horse-drawn wagon made regular rounds, not only through the alleys, but the streets too. Make no mistake, the driver was always referred to as a “sheeny”. As I recall, there never was any reference to his ethnicity, and the sheeny man could be of any race or creed.

  62. John:

    I grew up in southwest Detroit during the late 40s and early 50s just off Woodmere between Fort St. and Vernor.
    Great neighborhood with Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, German and Irish folks. Everyone was happy even though many had relatives enslaved behind the Iron Curtain after WWII. The first sheeny I recall had a hand-drawn cart he pushed up and down the alleys of the area. He then moved to a horse-drawn cart and blew a small shrill horn. I can still hear it. Finally he used a beat-up ’48 Chevy truck with extension boards to accommodate his findings. I always thought “sheeny” was a purely benign Detroit thing, like Vernor’s Ginger Ale. I never encountered anyone outside the area who had heard the term.

  63. Tom Warling:

    Tom, as I was reading your post I was thinking “Did I write this?” We must have known the same rag man (I have seen Sheeny but we used the word Shinny). I lived in Lowetown on 7th and Wacouta. How about you?

  64. Dan McGinn:

    I recall a rag sheeny in St. Paul, MN back in the mid to late 1950’s. I was about 5 at the time. He rode in a horse-drawn wagon collecting rags. The last time I saw him his horse had collapsed on the south end of downtown St.Paul. I never saw him again. I was sad, but I’m sure the street cleaning crew were extremely happy.

  65. Lucy:

    A few minutes ago the word sheeny came to mind. I told my cat she was a little sheeny for misbehaving. I grew up in Detroit in the 50s. My mother would use the term when my brother and I would behave like a little imps, so that’s what I thought it meant. She is the only one who ever used it. Although we are Irish Catholics, she attended an all Jewish high school. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not. It wasn’t until I read all the information about the word and what people had to say about it. I appreciate all the comments. They were quite informative.

  66. Margaret Waggoner Lake:

    In the 50’s in Hamtramck, MI when i was five we would visit my Dzia Dzia. Every house had a back yard that had an alley. There was an old man with a horse and wagon who would come down the alley picking things out of trash cans or piled in the alley. He was called a Sheeny Man or a rag man. He was a nice guy. My mother said that during WWII it was a patriotic thing. They would pick up things that could be recycled for the war effort. She said they were looking for rags (hence the term “rag man”) and they collected metal cans and cardboard and newspaper. We would often go “alley picking”. We often found other stuff that we could play with. This ended when one of my cousins thought he found a doll but it turned out that it was a dead baby. After that none of us would go in the alley. Yes the police were called. How it ended I never knew.

  67. Bryan Trottier:

    I grew up in Windsor, Ont. (across from Detroit) in the 70s. I clearly remember both my Mom and her parents using the word to describe the seemingly itinerant knife-sharpener- cum-ragman who would come through the neighbourhood. My Grandpa would also use the word interchangeably with “shabby” when we were dirty from playing outside, etc. I figure now (and did then) that it was a direct comparison to the bedraggled appearance of one who relies on scavenging for an occupation. Haven’t heard the word in years until stumbling upon this post while researching Irish Travellers. When I was young, we’d often be told we’d be “given to the sheenyman” when we misbehaved. While I’m certainly the farthest thing from a proponent of politically correct speech-policing, and abhor the modern tendency to find ethnic grievance around every corner, it occurs to me that the concept of “being sold to the sheenyman” probably has its roots in the Blood Libel, whereupon the canard that Jews killed Christian children to make Passover matzoh was used to justify all manner of pogroms and atrocities. While I highly doubt the vast majority of people who used this seemingly regional word meant any offence or hate in using it, and were rather unaware of its being a slur, I’m thinking that’s probably what it started out as.

  68. Diane:

    My parents grew up in a small Pennsylvania coal mining town in the 30’s and 40’s. My mother has mentioned the sheeny and his wagon selling ribbons, pots and pans, and collecting rags. She had mentioned that he was Jewish, but never told the story as derogatory. She mentioned many different people in the neighborhood.

  69. Doug:

    I grew up in Northeast Pa in a coal mining town. The sheeny man was just another of the many vendors that made a living by driving all over town. We had grocers selling produce, the milkman, the beerman, sodaman, and the sheeny man. It was never spoken with contempt so I reject the notion of it being derogatory in common usage, although its origin I never knew. This died out in the late 60’s or early 70’s, along with the corner grocery store.

  70. Merri Jo Gallant:

    My father’s side called the metal scrap man a sheeny. My grandparents were of German descent so even though I personally didn’t know the derogatory meaning it’s very possible they did.

  71. Chad:

    How can a term be extremely offensive if the origin is unknown and “may be based on the German word meaning beautiful”?

  72. David Malbuff:

    The only possible way for a word to be taken as offensive is its deliberate usage as a word of offense. Its origin or original meaning make no difference.


    We had a ragman who came around crying “Rags, paper, rags!” We never referred to him as a sheeny man. I heard some people using the word as a derogatory way to refer to Jews. Our town had very few Jewish people, and they were generally involved in business, music or medicine. Names can be interesting. My dad was known as ‘Shiggy’ to his friends, a moniker he got after mispronouncing ‘Chicago’ when reading aloud a sports article to his friends.


    I remember the Sheeny man, the ice man, the knife sharpening man, and the coal man all with fondness for the simple way of life in the 1950’s. There was no racism in my life that I was aware of as a child. All if these men had a purpose. And who can forget the photographer with his pony?

  75. Dorothy Santa-Maria:

    Having grown up on Cleveland’s Westside in the 1940’s, one of my earliest memories is the horse drawn ice man’s long cart and the man who called out. “ Paper – Rags “ as he drove down our street. Everyone called him the “ the Sheeny “ and during WW ll we would alert my Mom, so she could give him our cooking grease in jars for the war effort. As kids on a hot summer day we would pick up any chips of ice that landed in the street and treat it like a popsicle, after wiping it off on our clothes. As we had both a Refrigerator and a wooden icebox.
    Mom would put the card in the window with the amount wanted showing at the top of the card.
    Each corner of the card had a different weight, so the iceman knew how much to deliver. The choices were 25 – 50 – 75 – 100 pounds depending on how large the icebox was. F E Walker Dairy was still home delivering dairy products by a horse drawn Cab style cart. Bread, poultry and eggs, and produce was also home delivered, and each of the major Department stores in
    Cleveland would home deliver or send your purchase gift wrapped to a bride or anyone else you chose. Those were The Days of my Life. I never knew what happened to all of that cooking grease, that was collected.

  76. Marion Scott:

    How interesting! I was born in 1931 and grew up in Detroit. Until I read these posts I only knew of a sheeny man who was a poor black man (Negro) who used an old horsedrawn wagon to pick up junk. I had never heard the term used any other way. I didn’t understand it to be discriminatory but rather just a title. When you use the term now most people don’t know what you’re referring to so you have to explain. My husband told a story of when he was a little boy. He came running in crying and when his Dad asked him why he was afraid of the sheeny man he replied, “I’m not afraid of the sheeny man, I’m afraid of the sheeny man’s little boy.”

  77. Linda:

    The offensiveness of a word is not dependent on its origin. The English meant Yankee as in insult and the colonists made it a point of pride. Prima Donna is the lead female singer, but can be an insult.

  78. Linda:

    I agree that the original meaning might not make a difference, but a word can be offensive to the hearer even if it was not meant as such. You type your name as David; suppose there is a nickname you hate, for example Davey. Another person might loved to be called Davey, but not you. If a new acquaintance called you Davey, you could politely ask them to stick to the David you prefer. If they persisted in using Davey, you might be uncomfortable, and feel they were being insensitive or even deliberately rude.
    The same holds for groups of people. If even some of a group of people find a word offensive, the rest of us have to respect them and not use that word.

  79. Marvin:

    Great web site. I grew up in St. Louis pre- and during WW 2. As a kid in North St. Louis we dealt with more than one “rag sheeny”, most were friendly with local children. Ethnic locals were Italian, Irish, German, Polish and adjacent to a black neighborhood. The city was segrated then. Never considered the term racist and we knew many terms that were (Mick was mine, other friends were called by other ethnic slurs, usually only in jest). We never knew the nationality of the “collectors” and just thought of them as we did the milkman, garbage man, meter reader,etc. They usually had a weight scale on their wagon (accuracy unknown); we would sell them rags, lead, iron, steel, paper for a few pennies. Other tradesmen sold ice or coal depending on time of year, and fruit and vegetables. There was little charity then and it was not uncommon for handicapped people to sell door to door. Even street musicians would walk the streets playing an instrument using a tin cup for donations. Those were Depression years before the war started, and most people were just trying to make ends meet, including our “collectors”. I am in my nineties now and believe it or not, still look on those times as “the good ole days”.

  80. Leanne:

    My Dad (born 1923) would tell me that when he misbehaved, he was told “I’ll give you to the sheen.” He said it was the ragman.

  81. Leanne:

    His parents were Italian immigrants, hence a different version of the word perhaps.

  82. Bob Glancy:

    I just found your great website when I searched my browser for “rag man sheeny”. It was the first hit. I was recently thinking of the word (don’t ask me why) and got curious as to its history. I first heard the word when I was about 8 in the mid ’40s. The “sheeny”, as my parents called him, was the old guy who came through our alley in St. Paul, MN about once a month, mainly in the summer. I can still hear him calling out, “Any rags? Any bottles?”, and I can still envision him as he passed through in his horse-drawn wagon.

  83. Donna:

    I was born in Southern Ontario, Canada and we always referred to the man who collected odds and ends in our neighbourhood as the Sheeny. I don’t recall knowing whether he was Jewish or not (although his grandson became the owner of one of the biggest steel works in Hamilton). My grandmother who lived next door referred to him in this manner, and it stuck. I think, as do many who have commented here, that this term is from Britain originally.

  84. Peters:

    I’m 88 years old. In the late 30s I remember the “Sheeny Man” coming down the ally there in Detroit. He either sang or jingled a bell, I don’t remember which.

  85. Stacy:

    I read this word today for the first time in Leon Uris’ Exodus, Doubleday & Co 1958 p109 from a British officer stationed on Cyprus in this historical fiction story. The officer is speaking of the Jewish refugees held in camps on Cyprus in 1946: “I say we kill a few of these sheenies and show them just who is running the show.” I came here to learn about the origin of the term. Coincidentally, perhaps, I am 4th generation Detroit and old enough to remember the milkman, but not the “sheeny man” as others have described. I have, however, encountered the other anti-Semitic terms to which this term is likened. My kids also (thankfully) did not know this term.

  86. Janice Stockman:

    I remember the ragman in Toledo, Ohio, who with his horse and wagon, came regularly thru the alley collecting old matresses for their metal and other recyclables. When he got off the wagon he would throw an iron stopper on the ground. The horse would not move forward until it was back in the wagon. 1940’s and 50’s.

  87. Judith Prachar:

    As a young child I vividly remember an old man who came up our alley driving a medium-sized wooden wagon pulled by a horse and filled with what looked like junk to me. Mother called him the “rag sheeny.” I remember being very fearful of this man who wanted our junk, but I also wanted him to come back often because I loved his horse.
    I never did find out how that old man with his horse and wagon showed up in my alley deep into the middle of St Paul,MN,in the late 40’s to early 50’s. There were no farms near where I lived for over a dozen or more miles nor any place to keep a horse in town.
    Believe me, if I thought it were possible, I would have begged my parents mercilessly to buy a horse and let us keep it in the vacant lot across the street from our house. Actually, I only remember seeing the rag sheeny two or three times, and he never came back again.
    Somewhere there must be some history about rag sheenies more than just knowing they existed and people saw them. Where can this information be found?

  88. Peter:

    A few words re: ethnic slurs. My mother was from a German/Luxembourgian Roman Catholic family from St. Cloud, Minn, who relocated to NC after marrying my father. At the time, both were serving in the US Navy before the Korean War began, so they both grew up during The Depression. When we were children, she would threaten to sell us to the sheeny, who she explained was an old man who drove a horse drawn cart & collected junk for resale. She imitated his call for ‘rags…bone…bottles’, explaining that bones were ground for fertilizer. No ethnicity was implied, nor did we perceive that he was looked down upon, assuming that it was just another name for the junk collector.

    We never saw a ‘sheeny’, so being sold off to the sheeny wasn’t much of a threat to us, though it may have been for her in her own childhood. The only horse- or mule-drawn carts we saw were driven by farmers bringing their produce into town on occasion. I never heard another person use the word ‘sheeny’. My parents were college-educated military veterans, and despite growing up in a small, racially segregated southern town, I never heard an ethnic slur of any kind in our home (though my Catholic mother had no qualms about labeling divorcees as ‘whores’).

    Our church was always integrated, though not the public schools until the late ’60’s, which was where I first heard the ‘N word’. The KKK has had a longstanding presence in the county, and they demonized not only blacks, but communists, Catholics, and Jews, and I was aware that several members of the Klan lived in our neighborhood. When I was 12, a cross was burned in the yard of my best friend, who lived two blocks away, after his dad rented a home to an African-American family (who were at the time referred to as ‘Negros’ or ‘colored people’). The two Jewish families in our town were well-respected in the the community; their children were our friends & popular in school. I never heard an ethnic slur directed at them. I was in my mid-teens before I realized that I attended the only church in town that was integrated.

  89. Daren Hastings:

    My father in law used to talk about taking some scrap metal “to the sheeny”. For him, it was certainly just a nickname for the salvage yard or the junk dealer. It surely wasn’t a derogatory racial term for him, but more of a street term for a particular job, or specialty.

  90. Carolyn:

    So glad to read all these memories!
    We had a Sheeney Man in the east side Detroit in 40’s.
    We were talking about the phrase and it brought so
    many good memories!
    Thanks to all!

  91. Kirk Jones:

    Back in the 70’s my old Finnish Nana that grew up in Detroit would occasionally call me a Sheeny man for fixing up things to sell. I always wondered where the expression originated and this forum is informative…haha

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