Friday, December 31, 2010

Thank You! Let's keep spinning stories together...

The blog team at the Tenement Museum wishes to thank you for reading, commenting, thinking, sharing, and enjoying our blog over the last year. We like to think we've grown up a little bit since our very first post on October 1, 2008 and thank you for growing with us.

We still believe that history is a valuable resource for understanding contemporary issues and that historical perspective can shed new light on what's going on in our world today. When we talk about the immigrant experience in America, we aren't just talking about Mrs. Gumpertz "getting by" in 1873. We're also talking about working-class immigrants who live, work, love, raise children, and "get by" in our country today. For all that New York changes, in some ways it stays very much the same.

Thank you for joining us on the journey to discuss and explore people, culture, housing, religion, family, labor, factories, stores, business, food and so much more. We raise a glass to good things to come in 2011!

[And, psst - it's not too late to donate to the Museum for tax year 2010. Just specify that your donation goes to online education to keep the blog rolling. You could support staff salaries, intern stipends, podcast hosting, video editing, or a new camera. Promise we won't spend it all on coffees for the writing staff. ;)]

- Posted by Kate with best wishes from our interns, volunteer writers, and the Tenement Museum's Social Media Committee

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: A look at forced emigration from Ireland

Curatorial Director Dave answers your a Museum educator's question.

A visitor told me that many of the Irish arrived on the coffin ships because the economy was switching from planting to grazing, and landowners wanted to get rid of the farmers. They would buy them ships passages to attempt to get rid of the farmers’ kids. The landlords didn't want to spend much money, so they bought the tickets on the worst ships. Is this true?

What this visitor has suggested is partly true. Many famine-era Irish immigrants arrived on what were called “coffin ships,” overcrowded and infested with disease. During the worst year of the Great Famine, 1847, 9% of all Irish emigrants bound for the United States died during the voyage.

The British government and many Irish landowners did view the Famine as an opportunity to remake Ireland in an image that conformed to their vision for the island society. This regeneration would be carried out through the transformation of Irish agrarian society using eviction and emigration to consolidate land holdings in the hands of a small number of strong land owners.

As the historian of Irish America, Kevin Kenny, has written: “Given the scale of the catastrophe, remarkably little assistance was offered to potential emigrants. Evictions were frequent, but only rarely were they accompanied by financial assistance to leave the country… The chief form of assistance available to them came not from landlords or the state, but from their own relatives in America.”

Indeed, very few Irish who were forcibly evicted received aid from landowners – approximately 50,000 out of a total 1.5 million that set sail for the United States.

It is possible that this particular visitor is thinking of two specific examples that appear to not have been indicative of the norm. During the Famine, Lord Palmerston forcibly evicted and assisted two thousand tenants from his Sligo estate to emigrate, and the Marquis of Lansdowne did the same for the 3,500 tenants of his estate in County Kerry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Back when "meter reading" meant "money collecting"...

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Who took the quarters out of the gas meters in 97 Orchard Street’s kitchens and how often were they collected?

97 Orchard Street's residents used gas for light, cooking, and heating water perhaps as early as the 1890s. Apartments contained gas meters, which were operated by dropping a quarter in the slot, which turned on the gas for a certain period of time.

While Museum researchers are continuing to investigate how the fees were collected, it is likely that representatives from the gas company came to empty the quarters from the meter. Although we're not certain, it's possible that this was done regularly throughout the year, perhaps on a quarterly basis.

Resident lore says that children sometimes created quarter-shaped disks of ice by shaping ice chips in their mouths and used these to fool the meter.

When 97 Orchard was rediscovered by Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson in 1988, none of the original gas meters remained, as the gas company had probably come to collect the meters after the building was condemned as unfit for human occupancy in 1935. Those on display in the Baldizzi, Rogarshevsky, and Confino family apartments have been sourced elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A History of Helping Each Other

 Abraham Rogarshevsky, A member of the Sons of Telsh

 You may have noticed a few or maybe dozens of appeals for money in your regular and digital mailboxes. The end of the year is a traditional time for such appeals because they offer one last opportunity to make some tax-advantaged donations before the end of the calendar year.

At the Tenement Museum, when we ask for your support we do it with a deep sense of historic perspective. Did you know that an early form of American philanthropy was created right here on the Lower East Side by immigrants? Recently arrived in a new country, they formed landsmanschaftn, or Mutual Aid Societies to support their members (often from the same European village or town) and provide financial assistance in times of crisis. Part insurance, part social service, contributions to such groups would mean that when help was needed, it would be available. Residents of 97 Orchard, including John Schneider, Julius Gumpertz, Harris Levine and Abraham Rogarshevsky contributed a part of their limited means to such organizations as the Joshua Lodge of the Fraternal Sons of Israel, the Sons of Italy, the Wisdom of Man Society, The Sons of Telsh, and more.

At the Tenement Museum, whether we are telling the stories of Italian, Jewish, Irish or German immigrants, very often we are telling the stories of people who helped each other in times of need. Immigrants dealt with financial panics and depressions, the ups and downs of running a small business and the difficulties of raising a new generation in a new environment. Support systems were essential.

If you are a member of the Tenement Museum, you provide critical support throughout the year and, in return, we provide some pretty great benefits, just like the landsmanschaftn. As 2010 winds down, we ask for your continued or additional support to ensure that our research and stories remain as relevant today as they were when the Tenement Museum opened 22 years ago. Ticket revenue and sales from our renowned Museum shop make up just 65% of our operating budget. We rely on the generous support of people like you who love and believe in what we do every day here at the Tenement Museum to make up the difference. We hope that you will give thoughtful consideration to making as generous a gift as you can. We promise to apply your gift just as thoughtfully to sustaining our innovative work and delivering the most enriching and engaging experience possible.

Leslie Milton, Director of Major Gifts 

Questions for Curatorial: Where's the Wallpaper?

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Why are the parlors of 97 Orchard Street’s apartments wallpapered, while the kitchens are not?

Collection of the Lower East Side
Tenement Museum, (c) 2010
While it is not certain when wallpaper made its debut at 97 Orchard Street, a rough estimate places its arrival in the early 1890s. Although evidence of wallpaper was found in the kitchen of apartment 11 on the fourth floor, extant layers of wallpaper were found only in the parlors of the remaining apartments at 97 Orchard Street.

While it is not known why the landlords of 97 Orchard Street chose to apply wallpaper only to the building’s parlors, a possible explanation may rest with room use. Despite the necessity of using space for multiple functions in cramped tenement apartments, historian Lizabeth Cohen has documented the prevalence of parlor-making among working-class immigrants, who defied the pleas of social reformers for simplicity by decorating their parlors with wallpaper, carpets, and a variety of Victorian knick-knacks. Papers designs to cover walls in a parlor featured patterns similar to those at higher-end retailers.

Interestingly, department store catalogs such as Montgomery Ward and Sears advertised a “granite” style paper that was “perfect for the kitchen.” According to the catalogs, the primary selling point for consumers was that the “granite” style paper would hide marks and stains. When advertising wallpaper with flower patterns, manufacturers claimed they were suited best for the bedroom.

Collection of the Lower East Side
Tenement Museum, (c) 2010
Judging by the number of vibrant patterns with colorful flowers used at 97 Orchard Street, tenement landlords seemed to have bought into advertisements with slogans claiming that wallpaper “brightens up a room with low light." But they also defied the advertising jargon by hanging these papers in the parlor, not the bedroom spaces.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ho Ho Ho

Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (c) 2010
Merry Christmas from the Tenement Museum!

In the old days (aka 2000 AD) we used to deck the Baldizzi family apartment out for Christmas. In 1934, the heart of the Great Depression, the family didn't have much money to splurge on a big tree or decorations. But we know through oral histories with the daughter Josephine, that their father Adolpho (a skilled carpenter) would have fashioned the home with a homemade Christmas tree made of some little branches, tinsel, and maybe a few shiny glass globes purchased from one of the pushcart vendors.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tenement Talks - Holiday Stories

Those of you who are regulars at Tenement Talks probably remember our storytelling series, which ran from 2007-2009. Curated by storyteller H.R. Britton, the series offered up-and-coming performers the chance to tell a New York-themed tale. Last December, we hosted a "Holidays in New York" show with Suzie Sims-Fletcher, DJ Hazard, Raj Varma, Martin Dockery, James Braly, and Rob Hollander. Today seems like a good day to revist it. Happy holidays, all!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lore Beyond the Tour: The Day the Swiss Took me to Tea

Today's post is by Elly Berke, Tenement Museum Educator.

One of the greatest joys of working at the Tenement Museum for me is getting to meet new people from all over the world. By the end of each tour, there are usually a few visitors who want to continue discussions about history, current events or share their family stories. Some just want to ask what brought me to New York and how I landed at the museum.

A pair of ladies from Switzerland took particular interest in me after a Getting By tour last week. I was surprised to see that Tamia and Joanne were waiting for me outside of 108 Orchard Street when I was about to head home. They told me they had many more questions and wondered if I would join them for tea at 88 Orchard, our local café. Although my voice was a bit shot after six hours of talking, sometimes in dialect (as Victoria Confino), I gratefully accepted, and we began to get to know each other over steaming mugs of peppermint tea.

In addition to asking me how I felt being both Jewish and Italian, if I felt American, if I'd ever been to Italy, if I felt at home there, and why Americans know so much about their family history, they had much to share with me.

When I first asked Tamia what brought her to New York she said “Well, to get back to my roots and see who I am.” It turns out Tamia’s mother was born and raised in New Jersey and her father was originally from Algeria. Most of Tamia’s extended family still resides in the New York area, although she didn’t get to know them very well, having been raised in Switzerland.

Upon hearing that both of Tamia’s parents were immigrants, I asked about the state of immigration in Switzerland. They told me the Swiss government has a very harsh policy toward immigrants, Gypsies in particular, and they could be deported for even a minor offense.

Tamia was an elementary school teacher back in Switzerland, and she moved to Harlem when her husband was accepted into the Jazz Studies program at The New School. Currently she is working as a French-speaking nanny on the Upper East Side. She told me she never truly knew what about her culture and mannerisms were Swiss until she set foot in New York. She asked me why Italian Americans are more proud of their heritage than Italians who live in Italy. I told her I thought she’d pretty much cracked it: I never feel more American than when I leave the country, and immigrants need identity and solidarity the most when they land in a new place.

Joanne was visiting Tamia for the week and seemed pleased to have a brief break from her pediatric practice. She explained to me that she doesn’t really feel needed as a doctor in Switzerland, a wealthy country where most children are fortunate enough to not need doctor visits. Joanne’s parents were both born in Trinidad, and she goes there every year to see her extended family.

She hopes to travel with Doctors Without Borders to Haiti to help with the cholera epidemic and told me about various trips she’d taken which inspired her to help people in need. In Malaysia, Joanne slunk down in her seat and closed her eyes on the tour bus that took them through villages where people lived in shacks on stilts. She said it felt so wrong looking into peoples’ homes for amusement: “We were treating them like animals in a zoo.”

It’s a good thing the Baldizzis weren’t home on our "Getting By" tour, I thought to myself. But after all, don’t experiences like Joanne’s inspire us to make a difference in the world? Most recently Joanne traveled to South Africa, and she pulled out her iPhone to show me pictures from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for eighteen years. She pointed out that the structures which housed the guards’ dogs were better equipped than the prisoners’ cells.

Joanne’s tour guide at the prison-turned-museum was himself a former prisoner. Joanne found her tour guide’s perspective to be the most interesting part of the experience. I see a parallel to out museum, where our diverse staff and our own unique immigrant heritages enrich the visitor’s experience.

After an hour and a half of stimulating conversation with these two well-informed Swiss-American-Algerian-Trinidadians, my mind was full and my tea-cup was empty. We exchanged information, and I told them to please keep in touch and that no visitor had ever reached out to me in such a heartfelt way. I felt warm through and through, and it wasn’t just the tea. I wondered how I would pass on the kindness they showed me. As I stepped out into the first snowfall and made my way through Chinatown, I felt, maybe for the first time, that I was a citizen of the world.

- Posted by Elly Berke

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Last-Minute Gifts from the Museum Shop

I love looking around at the Museum Shop, and I always find myself spending more time looking through the books than the rest of the gifts. The collection of history books about Brooklyn, cookbooks, atlases, novels, biographies, etc. is so extensive and interesting. Everyone who loves to read can find something they're excited about. Here are some that I think would make great gifts:

I Lego NY by Christoph Neiman $14.95

For I Lego NY, Christoph Neiman ignored all traditional Lego instructions and made beautifully simplistic lego sculptures to represent everything in New York City. The book consists of photos of his Lego depictions of cream cheese with scallions, taxis, The Met, Phantom of the Opera, seeing critters on the subway platform, and everything that makes up life in the City. Any Lego fan - or New York resident, for that matter - should have this for their coffee table or kid’s room.

Robert Crowther's Pop Up House of Inventions $17.99

This book is the perfect combination of two of the best types of books: pop up books and trivia collections. The Pop Up House of Invention goes through a house and the flip up panels reveal when objects like toasters and blenders were invented and stories behind everything from toilets to shoe sizes. A fun one for parents to read to their kids.

Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden and Mike Ashworth $25.00

For anyone who loves maps, this book is one of the most unique atlases around. It contains maps of every major city's transportation system, along with a short history. And "every city" is not an exaggeration: there are official maps from cities including Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Kuala Lumpur.

Fake Mustache Pack $6.50 for seven

If you're looking for silly gag gift, look no further than this pack of fake mustaches. There's one for each day of the week, with styles like "The Hero," The Square," and "The Weasel." Yeah, you’re gonna look great in those Christmas-morning photos. And hang onto them as props for the next photobooth you find.
- Posted by Kiley Edgley

Monday, December 20, 2010

And the Artifact is...

No, it's not an oil can or the Tin Man's hat. It's a sausage stuffer! Meat is packed into the larger opening of the tin tube using the big end of this smoothed wooden  plunger:

The ground meat is then forced through the tin tube and comes out in long thin lines of sausage. The meat can then be tapered off every few inches to create links.

Sausage was a popular food in Lower East Side butcher shops because it was an economical treat for the customer and an efficient way for the butcher to use many parts of the animal at once. A century ago, butchers would sometimes include the scraps and organs of the animal in the meat. 

Tin sausage stuffers with wooden plungers were the most practical way to make sausage before stuffers with cranks were made available. And you can still find antiques like this online for low prices if you ever feel like making dinner the old-fashioned way.

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Friday, December 17, 2010

Can You Guess the Artifact?

We came across another strange mystery object this week while preparing for our forthcoming exhibit.

This one looks a lot like something the Tin Man might've left behind here.

Hollow, with a small opening on top and a large opening on the bottom, this artifact is shaped like a wine bottle missing its base.

What could it be?

Leave your guesses in the comments and check back Monday for the answer!

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: A Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part V

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. Here is the final part in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

Tenement Museum Looking into Kitchen, 3rd Floor by Shawn Hoke
Crucifix in center frame, between bottle and books.
Photo by Shawn Hoke Photography.
The crucifix too would have had its place in the rounds of stories and relationships. Such crucifixes came to a young couple as a wedding present, often from one of their godparents. This seems an odd gift for such a happy occasion. But it was given so that the newlyweds (who were not thinking about such things on their wedding day) would have it in their new home for the when the time came—much later in their married lives, hopefully—that a family member, perhaps one of them, was close to death and the parish priest had to be called to the apartment for the Last Rites. Then this crucifix, flanked by candles on either side, was propped up in the sickroom to make a temporary altar for the only church sacrament performed in the home.

So the crucifix in the Baldizzi apartment spoke not only of Christ’s death and suffering but of human destiny itself, of the inevitability of pain, and of mortality, reminding the family that even the most joyful moments were not free of such realities (just as the joyful and glorious mysteries alternated with the sorrowful).

Sometimes the crucifix was buried with a family member or it was placed temporarily beside the coffin at home and then put back on the wall, now a reminder of the one who was gone. But because the crucifix, like the rosary, held stories and relationships, and its message was also that suffering and death both were set within these memories and ties.

Madonna can be seen on the wall, to the right of the Linit starch box.
Photo by Kathleen Kent.
Finally, the Madonna was central to southern Italian and to Italian American piety and everyday life, increasingly so as the 19th and 20th centuries proceeded and the Virgin Mary, whose cult was promoted by the church precisely for this reason, replaced local village saints as the focus of Italian American devotions. The Madonna’s preeminence in Italian piety resonated with the prominence of mothers in Italian American experience and memory (e.g, "my mother’s apartment," as Josephine refers to the home at 97 Orchard Street where she grew up with her mother, father, and brother). The Madonna exists under many names; one of the most popular among Italians was Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

The Blessed Mother was understood to be present in her images (a metaphysical assumption that American Protestants found alternately compelling and contemptible), so that as they went about their days, the Baldizzis touched the image, often first kissing their fingers before they brought them to the Madonna, or spoke to it, telling Our Lady of Perpetual Help their needs and fears. The Blessed Mother was called on to witness everyday events (think of the common Italian exclamation, “Madonna mia!!”) and to take sides in family disputes. Italian Americans imagined their lives in relation to the Madonna’s, so that their stories and histories and hers became entwined. The regular practice of the rosary deepened this imaginative everyday engagement with the Madonna, which in turn gave life to the rosary.

The devotional image of Our Lady of Perpetual in the Baldizzi apartment may have come from one of the feste about which Josephine was so ambivalent. Sharing her mother’s devotion to Mary (Josephine remembers going along with her mother to novenas on Wednesday nights) was one way for Josephine to honor her family and to be seen as a good southern Italian girl while taking her own steps into the world, in the company of the Blessed Mother.

One last word: Josephine did not practice her faith in the same way that her parents did. Catholicism is not a single, static entity, always the same over time and everywhere, but a fluid and available repertoire of possibilities and limitations that changes over time and space, is porous to other cultural influences, and is practiced differently amid varying life experiences and circumstances. Josephine was clearly well on the way as a young woman to becoming an American Catholic. She went to church regularly (not only on family occasions); she certainly wanted the interviewer to understand in 1989 that she had grown up a good Catholic; and in her memories there is not a trace of the alienation from the institutional church or ecclesiastical rebelliousness that southern Italians often carried with them to the new country. As she said in her oral history, “I didn’t mind the church part and the saints,” she said (my emphasis).

This is a reminder to us that the religious objects in the Baldizzi apartment live in time, even though they appear to be frozen now in one particular moment of the past. Their meanings and uses were both the same and different across the generations, as the immigrants first and then their children and grandchildren made their way from Italy to the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and perhaps later at some point out of New York City altogether. The life and the meanings of the rosary, the crucifix, and the image of the Blessed Mother as Our Lady of Perpetual Help are not in the objects themselves, which is why I cannot say, “this is what the rosary or the crucifix or the image mean.”

Josephine herself, in any case, makes any attempt at such definitions impossible by how she remembers her past on the Lower East Side. Life is not in the things but in the relationships in which the things are taken up, within the apartment, down on Orchard Street, in the neighborhoods and around the city. It was within relationships among people and between heaven and earth (she liked the saints, Josephine emphasizes, who were a regular part of her everyday life, like her neighbors and relatives), that the rosary, the crucifix, and the image of the Blessed Mother came alive and did their work for the Italians on the Lower East Side.

Many, many thanks to Robert Orsi for this wonderful essay and for last night's Tenement Talk.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: A Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part IV

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks tonight at 6:30 pm. Here is the fourth part in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

So what do the rosary, the crucifix and the devotional image of the Madonna tell us about the faith of the Baldizzi family? What did the religious objects in the apartment mean within Baldizzi family life?

The Baldizzis' rosary.
Photo by mister paul larosa, on Flickr.
The rosary is a way of praying that goes back to medieval Europe. The beads on the rosary are organized in five groups of ten (called decades) separated by spaces in which there is a single bead; the beads are attached in a circle to a crucifix which is immediately followed by a single bead, three beads, another single bead, and a small image of Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints. Moving the rosary through their fingers, Catholics begin with the Sign of the Cross at the crucifix; say an Our Father at the first single bead; a Hail Mary at each of the next three beads; another Our Father at the second single bead; the special prayer called the doxology at the image; and then moving counterclockwise, a Hail Mary at each bead in the decades, then the doxology again, and the Our Father at the single bead in between. Josephine’s family would have said the rosary in Latin or Italian.

They also would have known (more than most contemporary Catholics perhaps) that there were three different story lines for the rosary, depending on the church season or on the desires and needs of the person or persons praying the rosary.

Tenament 15
Photo by Daniel Molina
Each narrative was divided into five stories, called “mysteries,” taken from the gospels that sequentially unfurled like a newsreel the story of salvation as the rosary was said. There were the joyful mysteries, which recall the five happiest moments in the Blessed Mother’s life with Jesus (the first is the angel’s announcement to Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus); the sorrowful mysteries, which speak about the suffering of Jesus and of Mary’s grief; and the glorious mysteries, which commemorate the holiest and most transparently divine episodes in the lives of Jesus and Mary (these begin with the resurrection of Jesus and end with Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven).

Catholics were encouraged actively to see themselves as being present in these moments, making the rosary a powerful imaginative exercise and a medium for men and women to express and reflect on their own joys and sorrows and those of their families.

Rosaries were most often given as gifts: just as in some cultures, people do not fill their own wine glasses at dinner, so it was not so common for Catholics simply to acquire rosaries for themselves. The rosary in the Baldizzi apartment might have come from one of the children’s godparents—the godmother who lived across the street from Vincent’s?—from one their First Communion sponsors, from grandparents or other relatives. It may have made the journey from Italy to the Lower East Side in Signor Baldizzi’s pockets, serving in this case as a visible link to the old country.

Rosaries were said privately or in groups. The Baldizzis would have brought the rosary with them to Mass on Sundays, to funerals—it was common for a rosary to be said on the last night of a wake in front of the open coffin by all the people present together—and to the novenas that Josephine remembers going to with her mother. The rosary in the Baldizzi apartment in this way embodied the family’s stories and memories and the bonds of kin and neighbors so important to them, a material, blessed, and tactile counterpart to Josephine’s memories and stories.

[Part V will be posted tomorrow.]

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: A Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part III

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks tonight at 6:30 pm. Here is the third in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

This discrepancy in the quality of Josephine Baldizzi’s memory echoes what contemporary critics and later scholars said about the Catholicism of southern Italian immigrants and their children. Immigrants from southern Italy to the United States in the years of the “great migration,” from the 1880s to the 1920s—Josephine’s father slipped in after the gates had been closed in 1924 by federal legislation—had the reputation of being especially bad Catholics. They were “the Italian problem” in the American Catholic church, in the phrase of the times.

Southern Italians were bad Catholics, moreover, in a particular way: they went to church, it was said, only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals—in other words, only on occasions important to their families. Otherwise, the immigrants failed to support the building and maintenance of churches like other Catholics did; they left the practice of the faith to women and old people; and they refused to send their children to parochial schools as good Catholics were supposed to do. The saw nothing wrong with free public education, up the sixth grade, when enough was enough, and they took their children out of school and sent them to work to support the family. As Josephine remembers, “My mother used to say, what are you doing in high school? Go to work and you make a few dollars.”

Manhattan: Mulberry Street - C... Digital ID: 721803F. New York Public Library
Milstien Division, NewYork Public Library. San Genaro on Mulberry Street, 1929 and 1930.

All Italians cared about religiously, American Catholics complained, were their feste. These riotous public celebrations in honor of regional southern Italian saints were occasions for paisani to get together in the streets and in their homes to eat and drink, to talk and to play games of chance, much to the embarrassment of other, better established, more “American,” Catholics, who were mostly Irish. Priests and prelates protested that saints’ feasts wasted financial resources better spent on the church.

The bargaining and dealing that went on between the people and the saints on these days—if you heal my child, give me a husband, or find me a job, I will give you in return . . .—was evidence of a magical and immature religious consciousness out of step with the modern world. Sociologists accused southern Italians of being “amoral familists,” meaning that their sense of ethical responsibility extended no further than their own families. It was not until the 1970s that the Catholicism of the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants was thought to have caught up with that of other ethnic groups.

[Part IV will be posted later this afternoon.]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: A Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part II

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 6:30 pm. Here is the second in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

The vividness of Josephine’s memories of her family contrasts strikingly with what she has to say about her Catholicism. While her comments about the family’s religious practice are brief and perfunctory, at times even dismissive—“always praying,” she says, “you know, going to Mass, and all that”—her memories of 97 Orchard Street and of the Lower East Side are richly detailed and evocative. These stories are all about family. They recall in sensuous immediacy the experiences of everyday life and Josephine’s pleasure in sharing these cherished recollections is evident.

The first thing she says in the conversation is how thrilling it was for her to be back in the tenement building on Orchard Street and to remember “all the little things that we did together as a family.” The streets were messy, loud, and crowded, but the family’s apartment—which she always refers to as “my mother’s apartment”—was “immaculate.” Her beloved mother was “a hard-working woman,” a “supermom.”

Former 97 Orchard St resident Rosaria Baldizzi
Rosario Baldizzi on the roof of 97 Orchard Street.
Collection of the LESTM.
Signora Baldizzi was employed part time sewing the linings into coats, but she was primarily a homemaker. Josephine emphasizes over and over how clean her mother kept the apartment. “My mother was a fanatic,” she says early in the interview. “No matter what she had, it had to be clean . . . that was a big thing with her, being clean.” Josephine describes her mother teaching her and her brother how to wash in the apartment’s small bathtub. “I see her vividly,” Josephine says, “standing there and stripping and saying this is how you’ve got to wash. She would show us . . . and put the two of us in the tub.”

Her father, also much loved, contributed to the beauty of the apartment by planting flowers in empty cartons of government-surplus cheese. She and her brother looked out for each other in the streets and at school, Josephine says. She maps the spaces of her Lower East Side world with a web of family connections—her brother’s godfather lived next door; there were cousins upstairs; her godmother ‘s apartment was “diagonally across from this place called Vincent’s where everybody goes to have their fish now.” Josephine’s stories of her childhood Catholicism too come alive when her family enters them: the treat of cake after Sunday Mass with her mother, her father’s gift at the festa.

Reversing the expected hierarchy in the relationship between religion and everyday life, the apartment on Orchard Street is clearly what Josephine holds sacred; her Catholicism has the qualities of the profane, unmarked and unremarkable, not particularly special, “and all that.”

[Part III to come tomorrow morning.]

“Always Praying . . . Going to Mass, and All That”: The Religious World of the Baldizzi Family: Guest Post by Robert Orsi -- Part I

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Robert Orsi is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Baldizzi family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at 6:30 pm. Here is the first in a five-part essay looking at how Catholic artifacts have been used in the exhibit.

View from Baldizzi Family Kitchen

There are three things in the Baldizzi apartment associated with the family’s Catholicism—a crucifix, a rosary, and a devotional image of the Blessed Mother as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. These are the most common religious objects to be found in Italian American homes, and each of them has something to tell us about the religious practices of the people who lived in the apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

But I want to begin thinking about the Baldizzi family’s Catholicism by first carefully following what Josephine Baldizzi Esposito had to say about her childhood faith in the interview she did at the Tenement Museum on August 2, 1989—to begin, in other words, not with a clear expectation of what Catholicism is or entails, e.g., crucifixes, rosaries, and images of the Mother of God, or what these objects mean to Catholics generally, but with Josephine’s experience and memories.

In response to the interviewer’s query, “Was your family religious, or . . . ” (the alternative is not specified), Josephine replies, “Yes[!] My mother, every Wednesday we went to novenas, every Wednesday. Very religious. Always praying, you know, going to Mass, and all that.” Josephine means emphatically to reject here whatever was implied by the interviewer’s trailing and interrupted “or.”
Josephine Baldizzi Esposito and family at the LESTM Family Reunion
Josephine, right, with family, in 1992.
Collection of the LESTM.

Earlier in the conversation, talking about food and her mother’s cooking, Josephine recalled, “And when we used to go to church[,] once in a while [my mother] would stop, and there was a bakery” where they bought a small square of sheet cake.

Then, towards the end of the interview, Josephine addresses the question of what noises she recalled from her childhood on Orchard Street. The subject came up in an exchange about sexuality in the tenement and whether or not children heard ‘things.’ Josephine describes the sounds of the street coming in through the apartment windows. “Peddlers yelling . . .and of course, the organ grinder with the monkey we used to hear.” And it is here that she introduces the one other explicitly religious subject in the discussion, her family’s attendance at the local neighborhood’s saint’s street festa.
And they would take us to the feast once in a while. You know, the feast that they have? The—the saints? Saint Gen[n]aro and all that. They would take us to the feast . . . And I remember my brother had to carry a flag and I carried a candle, and I hated it, because you’re little and everybody’s crushing you, you know. The only thing I liked about it was my father would buy me that fancy doll. This was later on, when he was working. That was the only thing I got out of the feast, was a doll. And I remember that we had to march, and I hated it. I didn’t like it. Too messy, too many people, you know?”
Former 97 Orchard Street residents Johnny Baldizzi and Josephine Baldizzi
Josephine and her brother Johnny, circa 1935.
Collection of the LESTM.
She concludes by saying that the feast, talking about the festival in Little Italy in the 1970s, has gotten more crowded and messier over time, and she likes it even less now. Then Josephine moves on to talk about her godmother.

These are the only references to Catholic practice in the conversation: the stark and perhaps defensive assertion that her family was “very religious”; the brief mention of Sunday Mass, which brings to Josephine’s mind her mother’s company and the smells and tastes of a neighborhood bakery; and memories of being taken to the festa, which are associated with the discomfort of crowds as experienced by a little child, resentment at being compelled to march (“I hated it”), and with her father’s kindness to her. Josephine’s last words about Catholicism in the conversation come when she is complaining about the present-day San Gennaro feast: as a child, she says, “I didn’t mind the church part and the saints.”

There is not very much for us to go on here for thinking about the rosary, the crucifix, and the devotional image of the Madonna in the Baldizzi home. The sparseness of Josephine’s memories of her childhood faith deepens the silence of time that surrounds the religious objects in the apartment today. What did they mean to the family? How did they use them? What made these objects holy or special? Josephine does not seem to give us any help in answering these questions.

[Part II will be posted later this afternoon]

Monday, December 13, 2010

And the Artifact is...

It turns out this is actually an early food chopper. Yes, before food processors, we used this to mash our food into bits with one of these.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a food chopper like this one typically had a wood or metal handle and one or two sharp blades. As you can see in the picture above, our food chopper has a metal handle and the intersecting blades are rather dull, though age might have something to do with that. Here's another funky dual-blade design from approximately the same period, though I think ours looks sturdier.

Obviously, an artifact like this was used in the kitchen. It may even have been found in businesses like the family owned Lustgarten butcher shop that occupied the 97 Orchard Street storefront space, as re-imagined in our next exhibit.

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Friday, December 10, 2010

Can You Guess the Artifact?

We keep on scavenging for the new exhibit about historic Lower East Side businesses, and we need your help to figure out how to use all this stuff! 

Our mystery artifact this week looks like a bell from afar but a closer look reveals an "X" shaped, rounded base, nailed to a heavy, metal handle.

What is this thing? Cookie cutter? Dangerous weapon?

Take a guess and find out Monday!

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tenement Podcast: Businesses of the Lower East Side

At the Tenement Museum, we like to share what we know about the immigrant experience and the history of the Lower East Side any way we can. Whether by building tours, neighborhoods tours, Tenement Talks, or right here through the blog, we want people to engage and talk to us in any way that's convenient for them. That's why, starting today, we're launching the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Podcast.

We have a bunch of episodes lined up featuring interviews with our staff, sneak previews of what we're working on, and interesting tidbits about 97 Orchard Street and the LES. Plus, soon you'll be able to subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes so you never miss an episode.

Episode One features Part 1 of my interview with Curatorial Director and Research Manager Dave Favaloro discussing the history of LES businesses and how we're integrating it into our restored tenement building at 97 Orchard.

Check it out below and stay tuned for Part 2, plus a lot of other cool stuff to come.

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Photo of the Day

Photo by DoreenKlein

Monday, December 6, 2010

And the Artifact is...

On Friday, I asked if you recognized this wooden artifact:

Did you? It's actually a tap for a beer barrel, just like the kind that occupied John Schneider's 1870s saloon at 97 Orchard Street, as featured in our forthcoming exhibit.

Unlike today's aluminum and metal kegs, the wooden barrels that occupied saloons and pubs used these wooden taps to dispense beer. A beer barrel was placed on its side in those days and the thin end of the tap was inserted into a hole on the top of the barrel. As the handle was turned, the spout would open, beer would then enter through a hole in the wooden filter and finally pour out into a bartender's glass.

Beer barrels and wooden taps lost favor in the twentieth century as metals and plastics took hold of the market. Today, some of these wooden taps are connected to barrels that hold wine and other beverages, though most modern taps, even those connected to wooden barrels, are metal. The vintage kind can be found on Ebay, like this 1930s tap found in a Kentucky warehouse.

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Friday, December 3, 2010

Great Gifts: Anna's Picks

As Anna walks around on the Tenement Museum Shop floor, she stops briefly to watch two teenage girls giggling at a noisemaking animal keychain. But she barely breaks focus while she travels to each section of the store and points out her favorite books, calendars and jewelry.

"The shop is cultivated in a way that's easy to go through," Anna says. But if any visitor needs help, she and the rest of the shop staff are ready with suggestions. "We know the shop really well," she says.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman $25.99
Jane Ziegelman's book is a culinary history of the families who lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street. "You learn about the families through their food," Anna says. The book just came out this summer, and Anna says it has inspired many people to visit the Museum. It's a must read for anyone interested in food on a cultural level.
Ms. Food Face Plate $13.95

Ms. Food Face seems like a regular plate, except it's decorated with a bald-headed woman. The blank face is a canvas for kids to play with their food, creating luxurious locks of mashed potato hair, carrot stick eye brows, etc. "Maybe kids will actually eat their food," says Anna.
Computer Keyboard Bag $39.95

The Tenement Museum has a "Go Green" section with beautiful things made from recycled items, like jewelry boxes covered in recycled glass pieces, coasters made out of buttons, and picture frames adorned with typewriter keys. Anna says the entire section is a big hit with women, especially the messenger-style bags made out of computer keyboards.

Postcards from Penguin $25.00

These postcards are perfect for any reader or fan of words. Each card in this box of 100 is a different cover of a classic Penguin Paperback, with titles by Virginia Woolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, crime stories, and even a handbook about feeding poultry and rabbits. Anna says she saw these last year in England and was really excited when the Shop started carrying them.

All of these and more can be yours... pay us a visit (Mon-Sun, 10 am - 6 pm) or call to order, 212-982-8420. Support local business and your museum shops this holiday season!- Posted by Kiley Edgley

Can You Guess the Artifact?

Check out this artifact we bought while preparing for our new exhibit about the businesses of 97 Orchard Street:

This wooden item consists of two connected parts: its long dagger-shaped body and the revolving  handle built into its side. 

Some of you might be familiar with this one already. Almost any adult who lived on the Lower East Side a century ago would recognize it. A tremendous amount of businesses had one or several of these inside. So what is it?

Tell us and check back here Monday for the answer!

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Great Gifts: Carly's Picks

Looking around the Museum Shop, you wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking that employees cultivate items for the retail store just as intently as they do for the Museum’s exhibits.

"It's curated in a way that makes it a fun experience to browse," says Carly, the Shop’s gift buyer. "We have a fun assortment between the books and gifts – some are a bit kooky." As Carly sifts through the shelves of books, dishes, and bags, she points out interesting gifts with lightening speed. The Shop's stock is large, but Carly made no hesitations while making her top recommendations.

Italian Floral Wine Glasses $33 for a set of six

One of Carly's favorite items is a set of stemless wine glasses painted with simple, colorful flowers. "Rather than stem glassware, they're a bit more casual for dinner parties," she says. They're a beautiful gift for any foodie or wine lover.

Stuffed Animals $12.95 to $24.95

For the little ones on your gift list, the Tenement Museum Shop has an amazing selection of stuffed animals. There are baskets full of fuzzy penguins and elephants, cats with long, silly tails and farm animals that Carly describes as "outrageously soft." Every kid will be excited to hug these critters!

XYZ Blocks $29.95

Carly loves how these are an irreverent take on the classic ABC blocks. Instead of using familiar words like train, umbrella or cat, the XYZ Blocks teach the alphabet with words like trailer, uvula, and corn dog. The best part: they're fun (and funny) for both kids and grown ups.
Santa and Mrs. Claus Mugs $29.95 for set of two

For a touch of Christmas nostalgia, Carly loves these painted ceramic mugs. "I remember having these as a kid," she says. They're perfect for sipping cocoa or for holding candy canes. And they come in their own green gift box, so wrapping them up is a snap.

All of these and more can be yours... pay us a visit (Mon-Sun, 10 am - 6 pm) or call to order, 212-982-8420. Support local business and your museum shops this holiday season!

- Posted by Kiley Edgley

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Great Gifts: Karolina's Picks

As Karolina makes her way through the crowded Tenement Museum Shop, she stops to point out some of her favorite items. As she picks up a wall calendar, she changes her mind, puts it down abruptly, picking up a weekly calendar with tear-out postcards that she likes better.

As an employee, it's difficult for her to narrow down the shop's inventory to just a few stand-out items. She thinks it's a great store because it represents the themes of the Tenement Museum, but nothing resembles a silly souvenir.

"Our buyer has a great eye for fresh, hip things," says Karolina. "There's a selection for everyone."

NYC Storefront Calendar
This desk calender has a different photo of an NYC storefront for each week, including iconic locations like Russ and Daughters and CBGB. The photos are all from the lush Storefront: The Disappearing Face of New York coffee table book. The best part: each photo rips off and becomes a postcard, so you can plaster them on your walls or send them to your friends and family. It's the perfect for anyone who lives in New York City, loves New York City, or misses New York City. $22.95

Greek Diner Coffee Cups
Diners are a staple of the New York City restaurant scene, and these ceramic mugs take their inspiration from the classic blue paper coffee cup with Greek-inspired designs. Karolina says they're a great gift for anyone. "Everyone loves beverages," she says. And they're now a piece of history - designer Leslie Buck died this April. $12.95

Stylish Reusable Shopping Bags
The Museum Shop has an entire wall of reusable vinyl shopping bags decorated with everything from cowgirls to the NYC skyline to cakes and pies. Every eco-conscious lady will find a design she loves.$12.95

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
One of Karolina's favorite books is Low Life by Luc Sante. It's a crime history of New York City, but it's also about life out of the mainstream. "It shows how women fit in and what their lives were like," she says. "It's a sensational, fun read." She recommends the book for anyone who has a healthy appetite for knowledge. $17.00

 All of these and more can be yours... pay us a visit (Mon-Sun, 10 am - 6 pm) or call to order, 212-982-8420. Support local business and your museum shops this holiday season!

- Posted by Kiley Edgley