Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fourth of July on the Lower East Side

The Fourth of July is this Sunday, and you're probably excited to relax by the pool, be with family and friends, and watch fireworks light up the night sky. I, on the other hand, have been immersed in Tenement Museum World for the last month. I couldn't help but wonder how nineteenth and early twentieth century tenement dwellers and recent immigrants would have celebrated the country’s Independence Day. Everyday life was tough for the working class, from working long hours to overcoming diseases. Would these obstacles have stymied a celebration of our nation’s holiday?

Union Square, New York, July 4... Digital ID: 800810. New York Public Library 

New York's Union Square on July 4, 1876. Collection of the New York Public Library.

After careful research, I found documents that explained how the tenement dwellers may have celebrated the Fourth of July.

One intriguing artifact was the “Souvenir Program, July 4, 1912, East Side Celebration, City of New York” by the East Side General Committee. The introduction to the souvenir program says that in 1911 (when over 10,000 marched in the parade) Mayor Gaynor first invited the East Side, through the Central Committee, to take part in the celebration of the Fourth of July. According to the pamphlet, “the East Side was aflame with patriotism.”

From a New York Times article on July 5, 1912, I gathered that the East Side General Committee might have received direction from “the Mayor’s Fourth of July Committee for the patriotic expression of New York” when drafting their ceremonies. Apparently the mayor had written one essay about having a safe and sane Fourth of July that was supposed to be read at all the ceremonies occurring all over the city.

The pamphlet also reflected on the difficulties of tenement and immigrant life. It read, “We to-day are proud to point to the large and powerful labor movement of the East Side, consisting of brave men and women who have suffered and starved for an American standard of living.” Even though they probably felt conflicting emotions, between missing the old country and trying to create a better life in the new, they took the Fourth of July as a day to celebrate their hard work.

From the activities listed on the itinerary, there appears to have been a strong sense of pride on the Lower East Side. There were morning, afternoon and evening celebrations at several different locations in the area. Beginning at “9:30 am sharp” there were celebrations at both Seward Park (at Essex Street and East Broadway) and Hamilton Fish Park (at Stanton and Pitt Streets). The afternoon celebrations took place at various New York public schools on the Lower East Side, and the evening festivities ended at the morning locales.

I wondered about the likelihood of tenement dwellers participating if the activities were in English and they were not fluent speakers. East Siders solved this problem by making many aspects bilingual. At PS 91 at Stanton and Forsyth Streets, the Declaration of Independence was recited in both English and Yiddish. Similarly, at the People’s Theatre at Bowery and Rivington Streets, participants read essays in both Hebrew and English. Included in the program was the Jewish community’s unique pledge to the American flag, written in English and Hebrew. It was a reflection on their ancestors’ oppressed past and a promise to uphold the United States’ ideals of freedom and liberty.

The winning boat passing the j... Digital ID: G91F193_006F. New York Public Library
A boat race in New York City on July 4, 1860

Patriotic activities were plentiful on the Lower East Side. At various public schools, presentations included “Meaning of Our Flag,” “Boy’s and Girl’s Civic Creed,” “Who Patriots Are,” a “dramatization of Betsy Ross and the Flag,” a “morality play,” and many readings of the Declaration of Independence. They were also proud of their heritage, as indicated by a “Russian dance” performed at PS 12. At the night celebration in Hamilton Fish Park, there was music and a “moving picture show,” with “Fighting the Iroquois in Canada” as the feature film. At no point in the program was price of admission indicated, so we can surmise that all of these events were free to the public. There was also no mention of fireworks.

The New York Times reported on July 5, 1912 about the celebrations on the Lower East Side. One reporter wrote, “It was evident that it was an event in the lives of the dwellers in the crowded tenement districts and in Rutgers and Mulberry Bend Parks on the lower east side…it was hardly possible to move about at all. But perhaps the prettiest display of all was given right in front of the Settlement House. There Arthur Williams of the New York Edison Company had, at its own expense, erected strings of lights from side to side of the street and the Settlement workers had provided a programme of folk dancing by the girls of the neighborhood. Part of the street had been roped off for the event, and every window of the tenement houses on each side of the street was used as a grand stand to see the dances.” The Henry Street Settlement was established in 1893 as a provider of social services and arts programming.

Two years prior, the New York Times reported on the quietness and lack of casualties and injuries on July 4, 1910 and focused on the success of the city’s parade. (Read tomorrow about the dangers of fireworks in New York City!) The parade route wound from 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue down to City Hall Park. According to, the walking would have taken 42 minutes. As the map shows, at least the end portion of the parade would have been accessible for Lower East Siders.

Be sure to read tomorrow’s blog about the history of fireworks in New York City!

-posted by Devin, with thanks to Mary Brown, Dave Favaloro, the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library and the New York Public Library Digital Gallery

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Mortgages

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions. To submit a question, leave it in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Did mortgages exist during the 1860s when 97 Orchard Street was built and was it possible that Lucas Glockner, the building's original landlord, had one?

Yes, mortgages did exist, but they were not forthcoming from established mainstream banks and businessmen. And while no record of a mortgage on 97 Orchard Street exists for Lukas Glockner, it is entirely possible that he and Adam Stumm and Jacob Walter -- who all invested in property on Orchard Street together -- were extended credit by an unlicensed loan operator.

According to contemporary observers, rates of failure were extremely high and investment in local tenement property was tantamount to gambling. As these institutional lenders in most cases refused to advance credit to small-scale tenement builders, they turned elsewhere to access credit and other pools of capital.

Indeed, in New York City and elsewhere, banks provided loans to borrowers with tangible, secure assets. What is more, established banks and credit agencies made no efforts to overcome barriers of language or culture -- they placed no branches in immigrant neighborhoods. Lastly, building and loan associations, as well as life insurance companies, avoided investing in tenement property until the 1890s.

Instead, small-scale investors in tenement property, like Glockner, turned to unlicensed lenders or operators of so-called "immigrant banks." Frequently serving much broader roles within their communities, un-chartered immigrant banks often acted as notary publics, rudimentary postmen, lawyers, employment and steamship agents, and real estate brokers. Indeed, as historians Fredrick Binders and David Reimers have noted, they “emerged as central actors in the social networks that coordinated the process of immigrants’ relocation to the new world.”

-posted by Devin

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lost Shoe Found in 103 Orchard

On Thursday, the Tenement Museum’s collection acquired a new object: a worn leather boot found inside of 103 Orchard Street.

The boot was found in the basement by workmen who are renovating the space for our new Visitors & Education Center. The boot, a leftie, is leather and features a zipper on the inside of the shoe.

Shoemakers began to introduce zippers on their products after the technology was patented in 1917. The shoe’s owner could have been involved in one of the commercial businesses located in the first and/or ground floors of the building after that year. (After 1913, no residential units existed on the first or ground floors of 103 Orchard Street.)

While an exciting acquisition for the Museum’s collection, I continue to wonder ‘what happened to the right boot?’

- Posted by Alana

Friday, June 25, 2010

Visitor of the Week: Thomas Killeen

Over the summer, look out for this new feature - Visitor of the Week! Each week we'll profile a different person who's been to the Tenement Museum. If you're coming to visit and would like to be profiled on the blog, send us an email.

Here is Thomas Killeen, a recent visitor of the Tenement Museum. He is pictured here with his son, eight year old Connor, who really enjoyed coming to the Museum. Thomas lives with his family in Severna Park, Maryland where he works as a union sheet metal worker. When we interviewed him he was on vacation with his family here in New York City.

When asked why he came to the Tenement Museum, Thomas replied, “I have always wanted to see the Museum. I’m very much interested in genealogy.”

Thomas, whose background is mostly Irish, has been researching his own family’s genealogy. He discovered he has New York City ties, as his grandmother was born on the Upper East Side. He was also able to trace back to when the first member of the Killeens came to the United States (1855 ), and he found the first mention of his great-great grandparent in an 1868 city directory of Troy, New York.

After taking the Moores Tour, Thomas was really taken aback by how difficult it must have been to cook in the late nineteenth century.

“The cooking conditions must have been awful,” he said. “There was very little light to see what you were doing. And imagine on a hot August day, having to cook with coal.”

(The tenement dwellers used coal stoves because that was what was available. Cooking with coal inside a tiny tenement kitchen was less than ideal because it made the walls and floors constantly dirty with soot. The heat would also be pretty unbearable in the summertime, as there was ineffective ventilation in the window-less kitchen and of course no fans or air conditioning.) [Read more.]

-posted by Devin

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sitting down with Live! at the Tenement staff

I recently got the opportunity to sit down with Sarah Litvin, coordinator of Live! At the Tenement, and Jeffrey Marsh, one of the Museum’s educators, who had a lot to say about the program that runs from June 24th to July 29th.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Live! At the Tenement program and your role in it?

SL: Sure. Live! at the Tenement is basically a new way of looking at the spaces that we as a staff have talked about in third person. What happens when we look at it in first person? What are all the tiny little details that come up?

JM: A million details.

SL: A million details about what life was like for these people. Generally, this program is an opportunity to visit three different apartments in the building, to see more of the recreated homes that we offer, and to interact with the actors playing the part of these characters who really lived in the building. It’s a chance to get inside of their heads, interact with them, find out what their lives were really like and how they created a home, oftentimes their first in America.

JM: It’s a human way, a very touching way to encounter them.

SL: It’s about learning emotionally. With a lot of our tours, it’s so much about the history, and people are very interested in specific details of architecture and so on. But it’s also really important to look at these spaces with an emotional eye and say, “What was this like? How can I relate to this? What does my life have to do with the people who lived here?”

JM: And that’s the real bridge to the present, the contemporary mission of the program.

Sarah, did you take the brunt of the work putting this program together?

JM: She did. I can answer that.

SL: [Laughs] It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a really big challenge to think through all the millions of details but also to create a big cohesive thing. It’s six different characters, eight different actors playing the parts, and educators who have to make the framework to bring everyone through it. And then all the details on the administrative side of how to make all the ticketing work, how to promote it, how to get marketing and education on the same page…

JM: Timing for the tours…

SL: Timing for the tours, timing for scheduling, and there are all the different educators with lives outside of this place. It’s been a lot of logistics, but also a lot of content and a lot of research which is really fun.

How long has all of that taken? When did you start?

SL: The first thing we did was throw together a program in a couple of weeks [in October 2009]. It started out as a Halloween family day and we realized this wasn’t just for kids. Lots of people who showed up weren’t kids and they loved it. So we said, “Let’s just make this into an interpretive program suited for any audience.” Then, really since December, we’ve been working on creating [Live! at the Tenement].

How did you choose which real-life people should be portrayed by the actors?

SL: The short answer is that there are thousands of people who lived in this building, but we only have the set pieces for four different families. Our staff determined who, of those families, we decided to interpret. We wanted to get different types of people involved in costumed interpreting – right now the only program we have is for women who can pass as fourteen years old [on the Confino Family Living History tour]. There are a whole lot of other people who are excellent costumed interpreters so we started out with Bridget Moore, Fannie Rogarshevsky, Harris Levine, and Al Baldizzi. Then we just went from there and said, “Well, let’s bring in Al’s wife Sadie and Harris’ wife Jennie and go with that.”

How are these historical men and women similar and different from one another?

SL: That’s what I think is so fun. We didn’t really know at the beginning. We were just focusing on each character individually. As we thought more and more about who these people were, we thought, well, for Harris Levine who had a sweatshop in his home, home was very much work. For Al Baldizzi, as a carpenter who wandered the streets trying to find work, coming home was most decidedly not work. He was doing his work in other homes, seeing a lot more of the city. So we had to think about how to bring out that contrast.

For the women, for instance Bridget Moore, when she worked as a domestic in somebody’s home uptown, it was not her own kitchen, she was cooking their food, she was being told what to do, there were serving bells there that were driving her crazy, and now here she is at 97 Orchard Street and she has her own kitchen, the biggest space she’s ever had for herself. Compare that to Jennie Levine who’s sharing this tiny space with a presser [from her husband’s garment shop]. They have no space and they can’t get their work done because they’re in each other’s way all of the time.

JM: So it’s not just a contrast of time periods or countries of origin. It is a contrast of attitudes toward home and what that concept means.

What resources did the actors use to try to nail their parts?

JM: Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

SL: The first thing we did was use the information in tour content, and then we started going to the oral histories, to the archival records, all the prior resources, thinking, “Who was on Harris Levine’s naturalization papers? Jacob Vogelman. Great! That’s a name we can use in the program. We know they knew each other.” So that’s helped us. If we don’t know exactly what soap opera Sadie Baldizzi listened to, we know what soap operas were playing generally, at the time.

JM: You need to be trained on a specific level with information and day-to-day stuff but also on this meta-level on how to craft that into something that fulfills the mission of the program.

Is it fair to say that it’s about half the real-life person and about half a composite character of that community?

SL: For Fannie Rogarshevsky, we have two different oral histories and all different kinds of documents. She lived in the building for a long time. She had a big family. So it makes it really hard because that constricts our options in some ways: we know so much that we have to be true to those facts. It’s easier when we have specific guidelines but we can interpret the rest of it.

Another interesting resource we have is a furnishings plan. Pamela Keech, the furnishings curator, researches what [these immigrant families’] homes would have looked like, so we have a perfect basis to interpret why they bought these things. She used a lot of historic context.

JM: In addition to all that homework stuff, we’ve also received dialect training, stuff to fuel us as actors in this space, crafting a dramatic story that connects with the visitor.

And you have an acting background?

JM: Correct, as do most of us in the program.

This program seems unique because it’s so immersive. What role do visitors to the museum play in the reenactment and what do you encourage them to do when they experience Live! at the Tenement?

JM: When you interact with an interpreter, you will be a reporter from The New York Times, which is just a certain way of looking at the world, a certain attitude to take into that space. An attitude of inquisitiveness, of being engaged.

SL: Inquiry, observation.

JM: And it all comes back to that curation that Pam did, the spaces, the physical aspects of what they’re looking at, which we thought would be a great and easy tool for folks to use in order to jump to larger issues.

So you fully encourage all your visitors to ask as many questions as possible?

SL: Oh yeah! That’s what makes it fun as an interpreter. Sometimes visitors ask you things that you just don’t know so you have to be on your toes.

- Interview by Joe Klarl

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Online Photo Database Launches TODAY!

Today we are excited to announce the launch of our online photo database, accessible at This project has been over four years in the making. Wow! And hooray!

The database features images of the neighborhood, historic and contemporary photographs of 97 Orchard Street, and historic portraits of those who lived and worked there. All images are part of the Museum’s permanent collection, which features over 5,000 objects and 130 linear feet of archival records. For the first time, researchers from around the world can access the photographic archive online, making our historic resources available to a wider audience.

We imagine that if you are a teacher or researcher, you'll find a lot of useful information on the database. But if you're a history nut, an artist, or a Museum visitor, you'll also find something to love here. Either way, we hope you will dig in and explore. You can even create a log-in and save your favorite images.

Some of our favorite parts of the database include:
  • Photographs of former 97 Orchard Street residents and their descendants, 1860s-2000s. Families whose stories are told on Museum tours are represented, as well as many others.
  • The last days at Sidney Undergarment Co., a photo essay taken on closing day of this business at 97 Orchard Street, 1979
  • The WPA photographs of Arnold Eagle, taken on the Lower East Side in the 1930s and early 1940s.
  • Lower East Side images taken by photographer Donald Sheppard in the 1940s.
  • Edmund Gillon’s photographs of Lower East Side street scenes during the 1970s
  • Images of the Tenement Museum’s restored apartments, as well as the building pre- and during restoration, from 1988 to the present day
So, what are you waiting for... head over to and check it out!

Many thanks to our collaborators, staff and sponsors:
Software: PastPerfect
Database production: MWeb System by Systems Planning
Consultant: Picture Projects
Designer: Jeff Tancil
Curatorial Staff at the Tenement Museum along with interns and volunteers.

This project is made possible, in part, by the David Berg Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Sites Fund.

All images Courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum, (c) 2010. Tenement rear yard photo by Arnold Eagle. Orchard & Delancey photo by Edmund Gillon.

- Posted by Kate

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

NYC Milk Laws to Change

It's been almost one hundred years since New York City made it mandatory to pasteurize all milk, and the government is still debating what qualifies as safe to consume. For New Yorkers, it has been puzzling to see two sell-by dates on cartons of milk—one determined by the manufacturer and another (up to six days earlier) decided by the city.

Soon there will be only one sell-by date, and it will be the manufacturer’s date. Current NYC rules mandate that a dairy fluid is deemed unsafe for sale nine days after it was pasteurized, quite a bit shorter than the 14-15 day period set by the manufacturer. It appears that New York City's milk has had specialized sell-by dates since 1911. According to a New York Times article, in that year the selling period of milk was 36 hours. Over the years the NYC selling period has been extended and soon will be gotten rid of completely.

A lot of New Yorkers aren't sure why there are two dates on milk cartons. The "in NYC" date resulted from now antiquated issues—milk used to take a few days to get to stores and often sat outside on stoops. In both cases lack of refrigeration would cause the milk to spoil sooner. But now milk gets to stores quickly and home delivery of milk is rare. [Read more about the delivery of milk in the late nineteenth century.] Often New York residents throw out apparently unspoiled milk, simply because of the New York sell-by date.

Debate over the safety of milk has definitely run the entire gamut in New York City, from the swill milk discussed in the Moore Family tour here at the Museum to the overly cautious “in NYC” date to recent promotions among the health food community about the benefits of drinking "raw," unpasteurized milk. Even though this commotion over the safety of milk may seem over the top, tenement dwellers of the late nineteenth century definitely would have appreciated the concern. The Moores lived at 97 Orchard in 1869, long before the pasteurization laws of 1912. Women living in the tenements often had to feed their babies unpasteurized, bacteria-ridden, watered-down cow milk because wet nurses were not always available or accessible, and breast feeding was seen as unhealthy. But for families like the Moores, it was either drinking that milk or nothing at all. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that scientists began working to solve this problem here in New York, and it wasn't until the first day of the year 1912 that it became illegal to sell unpasteurized milk without labeling it so. [Read more.]

Below are images of a milk bottle and milk caps found at 97 Orchard. The milk cap on the left is Grade B while the one on the right is Grade A. Read here for the differences in the grading of milk.

Remember, June is National Dairy Month! We're thankful for the measures taken to ensure the milk we consume is safe, because it was not always this way.

-posted by Devin

Monday, June 21, 2010

Featured Shop Items: Subway Map Items

The brightly-colored subway map we see in the stations around New York City and in pamphlets distributed to visitors will soon be vintage. The MTA recently announced that it plans to publish a new subway map design sometime later this month. The new map will include various color changes (including shadow lines to make the subway lines stand out better), the widening of Manhattan for easier reading, and the minimization of Staten Island, among other changes.

This is not the first time the subway map has undergone a new design, which may make you wonder if you’ll remember what the current design looks like once the new one comes out. At our Museum Shop we have many classic subway items for sale, including umbrellas and shower curtains featuring a subway map pattern, so you can remember what our design looks like far into the future.

Our number one best-selling subway map item is the umbrella ($20, see picture above). Although you don’t need an umbrella when you’re riding the subway, you will need it when you get off! 

Coming in second is the subway design watch ($35). We have it in black or clear (although currently clear is out of stock). You may wonder why someone would even need a watch these days, as cell phones and other electronic devices also tell us the time. Besides being stylish, this watch is great for finding out the time without digging your iPhone out of your bag. Hey, it's how grandpa did it! Plus, these watches have a certain Swatch flair that fits with current retro-80s trends in fashion.

The item coming in third is the subway puzzle ($15.95), which makes a great gift for map lovers. You'll learn the different lines as well as a native New Yorker as you piece the puzzle together.

Another popular item is the subway shower curtain ($30). It's a new way to multitask - take a shower and plan out your daily travels simultaneously!

We also have the Mighty Wallet ($12.50) by Dynomighty Design. This eco-friendly pocketbook is made from Tyvek and is recyclable. Its sturdy, interlocking fibers are the reason why it's so "mighty" - it will last years. It's also waterproof!

We have smaller items available, including the subway and MetroCard decks of playing cards ($4.95 each) and the subway paper cube ($5.95).

There are even items for the little ones. We have a range of children’s books that teach them about the subway. New York City Subway Trains ($19.99) by the New York Transit Museum is a book of punch-out subway trains from different eras. Subway ($6.99) is a cute book that teaches children how to ride the subway and how fun it can be. A larger edition is available for $15.99.

Hurry to own a piece of historic NYC subway map design memorabilia before a new design comes out! Come stop by the Shop at 108 Orchard Street at Delancey or give us a call at 212-982-8420 to order any of the items you’ve seen on this blog.

-posted by Devin

Friday, June 18, 2010

Our Construction Shed Is Up...

You may have noticed a bulky new addition to the corner of Orchard and Delancey Street. Having begun work on our new visitor center, we recently installed a construction shed around the lower floor of the building, which allows work to be completed safely.

But blue plywood is awfully boring. We thought we'd spruce it up a bit. Below - photos from our collection, images of the Lower East Side, and other colorful graphics. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tenement Talks: The Thing Around Your Neck

Join us tonight for an evening of stories about romance and exile, class and privilege, assimilation and the immigrant experience. The acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will read selections from her latest work, The Thing Around Your Neck.

This collection of evocative short stories highlights the differences and universalities between Nigeria and America. With compelling portraits of life in Nigeria, Adichie offers a look into her nation that challenges mainstream media representations of Africa.

Her writing provides revealing insights into the hearts and minds of characters as they navigate cultural collisions and craft new lives in foreign lands. Expect her reading at Tenement Talks to explore both the benefits and heartbreaks of immigration to America.

- posted by Bridget

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Visitor of the Week: Jill Montgomery

Over the summer, look out for this new feature - Visitor of the Week! Each week we'll profile a different person who's been to the Tenement Museum. If you're coming to visit and would like to be profiled on the blog, send us an email.

Meet Jill Montgomery, a recent visitor of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She resides in Las Vegas, Nevada and works as an administrative assistant. Jill, along with her parents, included a visit to the Tenement Museum as part of their New York City trip because they had heard great recommendations from friends.

The Montgomerys took the Moores tour, which was pertinent to them since Jill’s father’s side of the family emigrated from Ireland to the United States. After taking the tour, Jill was very moved by the difficulties of tenement life in the nineteenth century.

“We’re so used to our daily lives,” Jill reflected. “We know what we’ll eat and drink. For them, it was a concern figuring out what was safe. It was a daily struggle.”

Jill was also interested to learn about the lack of healthy food options for infants. Most people in the mid-19th century knew that certain foods were dangerous or could even cause fatalities but often had to consume whatever was available.

“The swill milk reminded me of a part in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Jill commented. “I had never heard of it before then. It’s interesting how it became a term. Back then people referred to it as ‘swill,’ but they still had to drink it.”

(Swill milk came from cows fed distillery waste. It was often adulterated with substances like chalk or ammonia. Unfortunately, this was the milk product that was most often sold in the working-class districts of Manhattan. [Read more.] Not much changed until the late 19th century.)

As they left the Museum Shop, Jill and her family were planning on visiting the famous Katz’s Deli. In addition to their Irish heritage, the family also has Eastern-European connections, and they wanted to try some pierogies and borscht. They were also looking forward to visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art before heading home to the Midwest.

-posted by Devin

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Suzanne Wasserman Previews “Sweatshop Cinderella”

On Tuesday, June 8, noted filmmaker and historian Suzanne Wasserman stood in front of a packed crowd at the Museum Shop to tell Anzia Yezierska’s amazing history. An eclectic mix of visitors both young and old sat to watch Sweatshop Cinderella, Wasserman’s documentary about this Polish-born immigrant, a child of the Lower East Side tenements who fought against prejudice and poverty to become a stubbornly honest, gifted writer. Afterward, Wasserman spoke directly to the audience about her film, its subject’s challenging personality, and how she felt personally connected to Yezierska’s prevailing nostalgia.

The film follows the writer from her youth in a sweatshop and her early career to a romance with famous thinker John Dewey, her brief stint in Hollywood where she was courted by Samuel Goldwyn, and finally her return to New York, where she wrote her most famous novel, Bread Givers, a semi-biographical account of life in the tenements.

Wasserman splices together the major events of the Yezierska’s life with the author’s own wisdom, providing a glimpse into the her enduring outlook on life (“Nothing is real to me but the past”) and her rebellious determination to overcome the simple expectations for a young Jewish woman at the time (“All that I could ever be… was in myself”).

Using archival footage culled from Wasserman’s extensive research, the film is a collage of historic photos, silent films, interviews with friends and fellow historians - Alice Kessler Harris, American history professor at Columbia University, and author Vivian Gornick, who proclaims Yezierska a “literary genius” - and even the sole recording of Yezierska, from a reel-to-reel tape housed at Boston University. These clips, of recycled brown paper bag upon which she would write, of the notebook in which she scribbled at ten years old, espouse many of the same profound ideas and frustrations she held all her life and provide an unprecedented look at Yezierska’s humble genius, even as she was misunderstood by readers and critics alike.

As Harris notes in the film, Yezierska “could write English perfectly well” yet hid this mastery behind a “Yiddish idiom,” for the sake of authenticity and respect for her subjects. This talent, of course, was overlooked – she was labeled an inexplicably successful “Sweatshop Cinderella” by the press and undermined by Hollywood, where her painful, honest characterization of immigrant life was reduced to a simple, raving caricature in 1922’s film adaptation of Hungry Hearts.

Wasserman's biographical film is also deeply personal. She first discovered Yezierska’s work as a grad student in the ‘80s and couldn’t believe the “grittiness of description” that she employed to “bring the Lower East Side to life.” Wasserman immediately felt a connection between her nostalgic memories of childhood in Chicago, represented by home movies scattered throughout the film, and Yezierska’s own yearning for a sense of home in New York, even if it was less than ideal.

In the 1930s, after the Depression hit and people grew disinterested in her stories of hardship, Yezierska was happy to be poor again. When the audience asked Wasserman if Yezierska was a downbeat person, she described her only as “compelling” and “magnetic” even in her troubles.

Appropriately, her film concludes with the great German author W.G. Sebald’s words, “Memory blinds us to life and yet, what would we be without memory… without the faintest trace of the past?” Yezierska gave her life to history, so where would we be without discovering it ourselves?

See the wonderful Sweatshop Cinderella at its next public screening, July 11th at the Yiddish Book Center. And make sure to stop by at another installment of the Tenement Talks series tonight and Thursday.

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Monday, June 14, 2010

Featured Shop Items: Decorative Trays by Ben's Garden

Are you in love with antique images of New York City? Here at the Museum Shop we have many items that show us what New York looked like in the old days. Among our more artistic items are decorative trays and paperweights by Ben’s Garden. Ben’s Garden was opened in Oyster Bay, Long Island in 2004 and offers high-quality, hand-crafted decoupage trays and other decorative items. His carefully detailed work has been coveted by Oprah and featured in InStyle and InStyle Wedding magazines.

We have several different types of Ben's trays and paperweights in stock right now that are perfect as table decorations or even to hold small items like keys.

This first item is a decorative tray showing a vintage map of Brooklyn. (left, $75)

There are also two different street map trays for sale ($80 and $125). You can see the changes between the two designs in terms of color, size and shape as well as the changes of New York itself.

On both maps Roosevelt Island is called Blackwell's Island (this piece of land has gone through many name changes). On the older map (the one with lots of pink) the Brooklyn Bridge is referred to as Suspension Bridge and the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges have not yet been constructed.

By the time the greener map was made, the Brooklyn Bridge had its modern name and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges are included. Even so, they still look very different from the map we use today! We're used to seeing all the subway and bus lines that lead to and from the other boroughs and throughout Manhattan. It's amazing to think there was a time when there were no buses or underground trains.

If you are in love with the New York skyline, take a look at this paperweight below. It features an old version of the city skyline, before most of the city's skyscrapers we know today were constructed ($35).

Come stop by the Shop at 108 Orchard Street at Delancey or give us a call at 212-982-8420 to order any of the items you’ve seen on this blog.

-posted by Devin

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Join us for Live! at the Tenement

Join us on summer Thursdays for a new program:

Live! At the Tenement

Thursdays, June 24 – July 29, 2010
6:00, 6:30, and 7:00 PM

Talk to characters who once lived at 97 Orchard Street and see how they made a home in our historic tenement house. You'll meet three interpreted individuals from the Levine (1897), Rogarshevsky (1915), Moore (1869) and Baldizzi (1935) families.

Explore how working-class apartments differ from what you might imagine, and learn how culture and community affected how people lived. How did immigrants make a comfortable home for themselves and their families?

You'll love exploring multiple apartments in the building and interacting with our costumed interpreters, who are talented performers and educators. You'll be amazed at how they transform.

This is a great program for families or anyone whose attention span is too short for a traditional tour (you know who you are!).

Tickets are available through the usual channels: call (866) 606-7232 or visit Admission is $20/adults, $15 children/students/seniors (children under 5 are free but need a ticket). You can also buy tickets on the day of the event at our Visitors Center, 108 Orchard Street.

And, stay tuned for details about our Summer Bash on Thursday, July 29, sponsored by Whole Foods!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gifts from the Museum Shop for Father's Day

(Come in or call and mention this blog post for 10% off your Father’s Day gifts!!)

Father’s Day is fast approaching, but sometimes it can be challenging to find that perfect gift for your dad. Here at the Tenement Museum we’ve got some great ideas for presents that will please any father, from a die-hard sports fan to a history fanatic to a music lover.

A lot of dads are huge baseball fans, and as the season is in full swing, the timing is perfect to get him a baseball. We sell two different styles here at the Shop. The first highlights famous American ballparks, while the second features a map of New York City’s major monuments. Pick up either design for just $20.

For the father who spends his day watching the History Channel, this gift is the pinnacle of New York food history. The famous Greek “we are happy to serve you” cup, found in delicatessens all over the city, is now available as a ceramic mug. The designer of the cup, Leslie Buck, was a Holocaust survivor and immigrated to the United States with his brother. After its initial release in the 1960s, the cup was an instant hit and has become the icon of the New York deli. The ceramic version still feels like the original cup because it doesn’t have a handle, like most mugs do. There is another benefit, too—you can help you dad go green because unlike the real cup, this one's reusable. You can have this mug for $12.95.

Maybe your dad loves sports and history. We’ve got something for him as well! We have a variety of compilation historical newspapers that celebrate different sports groups, including the greatest moments in history for the Superbowl, the Jets, the Mets, and the New York Giants. Also available are newspaper compilations featuring President John F. Kennedy, Elvis, and Woodstock. These are available at $12.95 each.

If your dad would rather groove to some jazz music than play baseball in the backyard, might I recommend a CD? We have three different CDs compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that feature artists such as Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Count Basie, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Liza Minelli, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. Each CD costs $17.95.

Come swing by our shop, located at 108 Orchard Street at Delancey, or call 212-982-8420 to place an order for these or any of our other items. We can ship nationwide. Remember to mention this blog to receive 10% off your order!

- Posted by Devin

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tenement Talks: Sweatshop Cinderella

While women of the 21st century have more choices and more control over their destinies than ever before, some  societal pressures remain. Immigrant women in particular must struggle to assimilate into American society while continuing to respect the traditions of their home countries. Feminist writer Anzia Yezierska was influential in spurring dialogue during the early 20th century about this very issue

Yezierska was born in Poland; her family emigrated at the turn of the 20th century, settling on the Lower East Side. She, her mother, and her siblings worked while Mr. Yezierska, a Talmudic scholar, studied day and night.

Yezierska envisioned a life different than the one traditionally arranged for young Jewish women during that time. While most women married, then stayed home to have and raise children, she attended Teacher’s College at Columbia University and majored in domestic sciences. She felt a passion for writing and published her first story in 1915.

Bread Givers, her most famous novel, was published in 1925. While the work is fictional, there are many parallels to the author's own life. This coming-of-age story follows Sara Smolinsky, who lives with her family on the Lower East Side in a tenement building. Sara struggles with her father’s domination over her family, her assimilation to American culture, and her fight to be an independent woman.

Suzanne Wasserman recognizes Yezierska’s literary influence on American society. In her new documentary, Sweatshop Cinderella, Wasserman explores Yezierska’s life, literary career, and the way her work still resonates today.

Tonight Tenement Talks is excited to present an advanced screening of the film, followed by a discussion with with the director. Join us! RSVPs are requested to

- Posted by Alana

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fantastic Event Alert: On June 10, an immigration story told through food and song

‘You won’t believe this. My father brought this from Europe, and it has been kept ever since. It’s a cheese.’
- Josephine Burson, May 2007

Long before becoming an educator at the museum and learning about the raspberries, bagels, and jars of kasha left behind at 97 Orchard Street, I knew about the enduring strength of certain foodstuffs when left untouched over time.

Back in the spring of 1997, I went to Memphis, TN, my hometown, to see my paternal grandmother, Josephine Burson. She was in a nostalgic mood, recounting stories about her childhood and showing me photographs of her parents. When we had finished looking at photos, she brought out something that I had never seen before – something wrapped in aluminum foil that looked kind of like a pumice stone. She said it was a desiccated wedge of cheese, brought to this country by my great-grandfather in the early 20th century.

Apparently, sometime around 1895, my great-great-grandmother gave a wedge of cheese to her14-year-old son when he left his shtetl in Lithuania so as to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s army. My great-grandfather never ate the cheese, nor did he throw it away. He took it with him to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he went to live with his uncles for a time before striking out on his own.

Eventually, he moved yet another world away – not to the Lower East Side of NYC, but to Memphis, TN, where he married and had four daughters.

Strangely still in possession of the cheese when he died, my great-grandfather passed it down to my grandmother. When my grandmother passed away last June, I inherited the now 115-year-old wedge of cheese.

On June 10th, 2010, the cheese (now hermetically sealed in a glass jar) will sit in a place of honor at a unique dinner event at Henry Street Settlement. This intimate event, presented by fellow Museum educator Sarah Lohman and me, will feature a performance of my upcoming Rounder Records release, Silver and Ash. The album is a collection of songs that imagine my maternal grandmother's life in Germany through her immigration to the United States in 1938, while also exploring my own struggles with rupture, silence, guilt, and continuity.

The performance itself will be divided into four "chapters," each of which will be accompanied by a food course. The dishes, prepared by Sarah -- an historic gastronomist -- will progress from the late 19th century Eastern European origins of my story through Weimar Germany and 1950s Tennessee, ending with the dessert my grandmother always made for me as I was growing up: pound cake.

The recipes come from period sources, including The Settlement Cookbook, an early 20th century American cookbook that catalogs ethnic Jewish and German cuisines.

For tickets ($60) and more information, including Sarah’s delicious menu, go to

We look forward to singing and cooking for you on June 10th!

- Posted by Clare Burson

[Editor's Note: Clare first visited the Tenement Museum to take photos for her album art. She was so moved by the exhibits and stories of 97 Orchard Street that she decided to work here. Sarah was first featured on the Tenement Museum blog in January 2009, when she spent a week eating like an 1877 tenement housewife. She also found herself magnetically drawn to the Lower East Side and started working here last year. Don't miss this incredible chance to explore what we never get to inside the museum - immigration and family stories told through taste, smell and sound.]

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Visitor of the Week: Jasmine Tanasy

Over the summer, look out for this new feature - Visitor of the Week! Each week we'll profile a different person who's been to the Tenement Museum. If you're coming to visit and would like to be profiled on the blog, send us as email.

Meet Jasmine Tanasy, who visited the week of May 24. Jasmine, a New Jersey resident who is in branding, came to New York for school but also to learn about some of her ancestors.

Jasmine, like many of our visitors, has immigrant and tenement ties. Half of her mother’s side of the family came through New York City and eventually settled in Brooklyn. On her father’s side, her grandfather and his father immigrated from Ireland and came to live in Jersey City.

“I remember my grandfather telling stories of how he and his father lived in one room apartments, which is very similar to tenement living,” recalled Jasmine.

We were very pleased to find out that Jasmine has done all the tours the Tenement Museum has to offer. After she took her first tour, she was so intrigued that she felt compelled to come back and do them all.

“I’ve been recommending it like crazy!” she said.

Her favorite was the Getting By tour featuring the Gumpertz and Baldizzi families. When asked what was most resonant about the tour, Jasmine mentioned two parts.

“With the Gumpertz family, it was really great to see the story come to the present,” Jasmine explained, referring to the way family members helped piece together the story of their ancestors. She was also moved by the connection between the Gumpertz' 19th century tragedy (Mr. Gumpertz' disappearance) and their 21st century one (Frank Riesman, a Gumpertz descendant, was killed in the World Trade Center attacks).

Jasmine also found that listening to the daughter of the Baldizzi family reminisce on tape about her time at 97 Orchard Street was very poignant.

“To hear Josephine talk was one of the best pieces of the tour,” Jasmine said.

-posted by Devin

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Have an Immigration Story? We'd Like to Hear It!

Here at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, we know there are tons of stories out there, just waiting to be told. We often hear from Museum visitors about their own fascinating immigration, Lower East Side, and tenement stories, but unfortunately there's usually not enough time to discuss them at length during the tours.

If you are one of these people, we want to hear from you! We are looking to interview people about their stories, which will be posted here on our blog.

If you are interested and want to learn more, please contact Devin at

-posted by Devin

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's Dinner Time! Author Jane Ziegelman at Tenement Talks

Do you know when sauerkraut, knishes and other popular ethnic specialties made their debuts in America? Have you ever wondered what the passengers on immigrant ships to the United States ate during their journey? What was a nineteenth century urban grocery store like?

Join us for our latest Tenement Talk, featuring Jane Ziegelman and her newest book 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and you can discover the answers to your immigrant culinary questions. In her book, Ziegelman weaves surprising historical data and various ethnic recipes as she tells the stories of five families who called the tenement at 97 Orchard home between 1863 and 1935.

Is there a better lens to tell the story of immigrants through than food? Prior to the immigration explosion of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnic cuisines were largely isolated by geography. Although Americans today eat a wide variety of food, to understand our culinary history we have to imagine a time when potato salad was a foreign delicacy.

The author writes that for immigrants, cooking their native foods was (and often remains!) one of the best (and last) options they had to preserve their homeland’s culture, as they felt the pressure to become assimilated into their new nation.

Ziegelman is very descriptive in her writing and explains culinary aspects that had never even crossed my mind. She writes how the tenements must have smelled during different seasons, explaining that the smells would have been worse in the winter months, seeing as the few windows in the apartments would have been kept shut to keep the cold out. If you were living on the Lower East Side in the late nineteenth century, you would likely have smelled cabbage cooking, various meats roasting, and wood or coal smoke drifting through the air (depending on the type of stove being used).

Her book is very relevant today, as large numbers of immigrants continue to help us define American cuisine. As Ziegelman writes, “though the actors have changed, the culinary revolution that began in the nineteenth century continues today among immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who have brought their food traditions to this country and continue to transform the way America eats.”

This Tenement Talk is happening tonight, June 1 at 6:30 pm at the Museum Shop, 108 Orchard Street at Delancey. Call 212-982-8420 for questions or to pre-order a copy of the book.

-posted by Devin