Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween History: Pumpkins, Costumes, and Future Husbands Revealed

While Halloween has been celebrated in America since the days of colonial New England, the holiday didn't enjoy widespread popularity until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. As new waves of European immigrants began to arrive in the U.S., so did their traditions: Halloween disguises, pranks and trick-or-treating all have origins in Ireland and England.

American kids still expect costumes and candy on October 31st, but another more grown-up Halloween tradition has been forgotten. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, young women looked forward to annual romantic predictions on this day. As the New York Times described it in 1892, Halloween provided an opportunity to use "various devices for piercing the veil of futurity".

In 1929, the Times reported that "Many [Halloween] charms are still tried in the rural United States...a girl will go into the cellar backwards, carrying a candle, a mirror and an apple. While she combs her hair and eats the apple, the face of her future husband will appear beside her in the mirror"

Postcard c.1900-1909, Courtesy the NY Public Library

Though American women are more practical about finding husbands these days, this trick might be worth a try if fails you. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Tenement Museum Playlist: the Lower East Side in Song

The history, the food, the traffic, the people, the's no surprise that the Lower East Side has been inspiring music of every genre for decades. What other place on earth can count Rodgers and Hart and Joey Ramone among its admirers? For an audible trip through the neighborhood we love, check out our playlist and click the links to listen.

1929:  Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan" from the musical I'll Take Manhattan asks the unanswerable question, “...Tell me what street compares with Mott Street In July? Sweet pushcarts gently gli-ding by.”

1941: Hal Borne's "Tenement Symphony", performed by Tony Martin in the Marx Brothers film The Big Store, draws its decidedly schmaltzy inspiration from diverse, densely-packed tenements: "The Cohens and the Kellys/The Campbells and Vermicellis/All form a part of my tenement symphony".

1978: "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do" by the Ramones may not directly reference the Lower East Side, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention one of the many iconic punk bands who got their start at CBGB, a legendary club on the Bowery. An added bonus: this is probably the only song in history to rhyme "Second Avenue" with "chicken vindaloo".

The Ramones on stage at CBGB

1987: “Delancey St.” by Dana Dane, from the album Dana Dane With Fame, was on the vanguard of hip hop's love affair with designer labels, referencing both Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

2005: "The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side" by The Magnetic Fields is a "beauty and the beast song, from the perspective of the beast," from the album 69 Love Songs

2006: The instrumental jazz piece “Lower East Side Rock Jam”, from Christian Mcbride's Live at Tonic album adds an impressionistic element to our list.

2010: “Orchard Street” by Thurston Moore can be found on his solo album Demolished Thoughts. Moore is best known as one of the founding members of Sonic Youth--another influential band that played at CBGB in its early days.

Thurston Moore performing with Sonic Youth

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who's Who at the Tenement: Meet the Collections Manager

Collections Manager and Registrar Kathleen O’Hara is one of the newest additions to the Tenement team. Kathleen completed a Master’s in Museum Studies at George Washington University. She has worked at the National Archives and interned at Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, DC.

Most recently, she helped catalogue an impressive treasure trove at Museum Village in Orange County New York, which houses a collection of objects running the gamut from tractors and carriages to molding planes and archival documents.

Kathleen expertly creates order from chaos, cataloguing and identifying objects to determine their age, condition, and needs for preservation. With her diverse experience, Kathleen is well suited to work with the Tenement Museum’s collection, which includes everything from kitchen tools to clothing, wallpaper and furniture—and even a few snacks.

Working behind the scenes, Kathleen cares for the Museum's collection
So far, Kathleen has devoted most of her time to the biggest and most important object in our collection: the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street. She treats the building just as she does smaller objects, gauging its health and vitality and keeping track of its changes.

Currently, Kathleen's working on environmental monitoring to track the changing temperatures and humidity levels inside the building, which have a huge impact on its structural integrity. She'll also be monitoring traffic, both the trucks going by on Delancey Street, and the feet going up the stairs at 97 Orchard. Whether it’s human or mechanical, all traffic creates vibrations that affect the building’s health. By measuring the impact of these environmental factors, Kathleen can determine how to keep the building healthy for many years (and many thousands of visitors) to come.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Our New Face on Delancey Street

Things are busier than ever at the Tenement Museum this fall, so we're dressing up for company: early Monday morning, we put a finishing touch on our new Visitor Center at 103 Orchard Street.

This painted Tenement Museum logo is even legible from the windows of cabs rushing by on Delancey, which should help visitors find their way to us much more easily. It's the icing on the cake for our beautiful new home!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dated Dialect: Cowboy Style

We're venturing far afield from New York, all the way to the Wild West for this installment of "Dated Dialect" from the 19th century.

"I'm going to tell that blatherskite (blowhard) to go boil his shirt (take a hike). He's all beer and skittles (unpleasant) and it's making me all-overish (uncomfortable). "

Oklahoma Cowboys c.1905; Image Courtesy Library of Congress

There may not have been many cowboys in the tenements of the Lower East Side, but these colorful characters were icons of popular culture during the heyday of 97 Orchard Street. In 1886, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show opened at Madison Square Garden, capturing the imaginations of New Yorkers with trick riders and sharp-shooters.

Buffalo Bill c.1870; Image Courtesy Library of Congress

Thanks to the Legends of America for its extensive online dictionary of antiquated slang!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Meeting Bridget Moore

Emily Gallagher as Bridget Moore
On October 24, we'll launch "Meet Bridget" an exciting new program for school groups. On this tour, students will talk with a costumed interpreter portraying Bridget Moore, an Irish immigrant who lived at 97 Orchard Street with her family in the 1860's. If you've taken our tour about the Moore family, you know a bit about Bridget's life already. Here, Educator Emily Gallagher answers a few questions from Bridget's perspective.

You were only 17 when you immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Were you frightened? What were your first impressions of New York City?

I was quite troubled to leave Ireland. I feel my heart could have broken for thinking of my family on that ship and in the early days in New York. Yet it was clear our situation was root, hog, or die.*  Leaving for America was the only way I could spare my family the fortune that it might cost to find me a husband. I come from outside Dublin, where my family and I could barely care for ourselves. When I first arrived off the boat, I was so tired! Yet straightaway I headed to the intelligence office to look for a situation as a domestic. My first years in New York were lived out tired and lonesome in the back of a lady's home, where I learned to cook and clean and be on tap all night and day if the missus needed anything, seven days a week.

Your apartment is so well kept! How do you keep it so clean, living in the city with three children?

It's much easier to keep a home in Kleindeutschland than it was in our previous home, in Five Points. In Five Points our tenement was dilapidated and overcrowded, making it near impossible to be tidy. Here at 97 Orchard Street, Joseph (my husband) and I are feeling blessed to live alone with just our family, in a new and sturdy building. Still, it's quite an effort of sweeping and scrubbing, quite tiresome to haul water and coal up the central stairs with my daughters in tow. When I was a wee lass in Ireland, there was no climbing of stairs or coal dust to sweep, and the wee ones could run outside without risk. Here, Joseph and I are learning to keep our daughters close-- the city is full of dangers for them.

What does your husband do for a living? Was it hard for him to find work when he arrived here from Ireland?

I am quite blessed to have our Joseph, who works as a barkeep back in our old neighborhood. During the season when strong families come to holiday in the City, he also works as a waiter in a popular restaurant. He arrived in New York from Dublin, able to read and write, and was determined to work in a pub. Many of the situations he wanted specified "No Irish" in their want ads, so he had to rely on the community to help him find his position. He is a charming one, and good looking, so eventually a bar owner wanted him to be a part of his business. His situation is quite enviable, he makes a decent wage and works indoors and can eat from the larder there, so I understand that we must do whatever he is asked to keep his relations with his employer. It saddens me that we get so little time together, but I am glad to be the wife of someone of such importance.

I see you have some ingredients for dinner here on the table. What kinds of foods do you and your family eat?

While I'm pleased to live in this new building, it has stretched our budget quite thin. When I worked as a domestic I learned to cook many fine dishes, but because of our expenses here what I can provide for my daughters and Joseph is quite meager. Sometimes Joseph brings me a loaf of bread from the pub, which is a nice treat since we can't quite bake it in these cast iron  stoves. Tonight I am making a stew with a tiny bit of meat I got from a pushcart, carrots and potatoes. We'll drink whatever Joseph brings home in the growler this evening, except for our wee one Agnes, who will drink the milk I purchased from a pushcart this afternoon. Sometimes she fusses so when I feed her, I can't understand it.

 *(1860s phrase meaning to be self-reliant, see here)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Victoria's Big Day Out!

A few weeks ago, Tenement Educator Elly Berke took our Confino tour on the road, all the way to the East Village, where she performed at the "Between the Seas" festival. Elly usually portrays the teenaged Victoria Confino at 97 Orchard Street, teaching visitors about life for a Greek Immigrant girl in 1916.

Elly wrote and performed this spirited off-site version, nicely capturing Victoria's excitement and vivid imagination. For a snapshot of her performance via YouTube, check out the video below:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Searching for History Online

A Census Taker at Work in 1890
Visitors often ask how we know so much about the families who lived at 97 Orchard Street. It's a great question! If you've ever done genealogical research about your own family history, you know that there's a surprising amount of information on public record. The United States Census is of course an important resource for learning about population density, employment, and the ages and nationalities of specific families.

The first United States Census was taken in 1790. Before the contemporary practice of submitting census forms by mail, enumerators (or census takers) went door to door visiting families and collecting data.

Tenement Museum researchers draw information from a variety of resources: oral histories, libraries, and of course, the internet. Some of these resources are surprisingly accessible. is an online resource for genealogy with a massive number of documents, newspaper clippings, and even photographs available to the public. We recently found an 1880 census record for the Gumpertz family on this site. This is an interesting snapshot of the family during the time they lived 97 Orchard Street.

An 1880 Census
If you've taken our "Getting By" tour, you know that Nathalie Gumpertz raised her children alone after the dissapearance of her husband Julius in 1874. While her husband wasn't declared legally dead until much later, Nathalie already refers to herself as a widow in this census.

Detail of the Gumpertz Family Information

You might notice something else amiss: Nathalie's daughters, Olga and Nannie, are listed as "Ulka" and "Nancy", and the family's last name is spelled as "Gumbertz". Between language barriers and chaotic environments, information was often lost (or mixed-up) in translation, particularly for early censuses. Nonetheless, it's still an interesting glimpse of the Gumpertz family--check out your own family's history online. You might be surprised at what you find!