Friday, April 27, 2012

What the Other Half Paid: Part One

This is the first of two posts by author Thai Jones exploring the history of how working New Yorkers have struggled--and fought--to make ends meet. Thai will join us for a Tenement Talk on May 3 to discuss his book "More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy"

In 1907, the New York Times reported that “Much is heard in a general way…of the greatly increased cost of living in New York, especially among workingmen.”

The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were marked by financial panics, business collapses, and widespread unemployment. Earning enough money to pay for food and rent presented a perpetual crisis of survival during this time period. And it was a full time job – usually for every member of an entire extended family – to make ends meet. While journalists and social reformers scrambled to quantify the problem and consider solutions, the everyday people of New York accomplished a great deal on their own behalf. They devised a protest for every grievance: organizing boycotts, pickets, and strikes to secure their demands and ensure that their voices would be heard in all matters affecting the life of the city.

Protesting prices at a butcher shop c.1910; Image courtesy Library of Congress

“How Poor People Live”: One Man’s Testimony

A remarkable interview that appeared in the New York Times in 1872, under the headline, “How Poor People Live,” tallied the wages and expenditures of a printing-press machinist living on the Lower East Side. With an income of $24 a week, this unnamed informant earned more than the general mass of laborers.

Nevertheless, he found his wages wholly consumed by necessary expenses. For $12.50 a month he and his family rented a three-room flat on the second floor of “rather a respectable” tenement house. Apartments on upper stories were two dollars cheaper, but, he explained, “The lodgers higher up are always changing, and inclined to be noisy.”

“It ain’t the rent, $150 a year, that troubles me,” he continued, “it is the price of food.” His appetites were moderate. “I don’t hanker after canvas-back ducks and fruit-cake,” he said, “but I want good meat and bread,” and “an extra kind of a spread on a Sunday.” For this, he spent $45 each month on food. A few more dollars went for ale and pipe tobacco, and then there were “clothes, and shoes, and coals, and doctor’s bills, and the cost of a newspaper, and some other luxuries.” At the final reckoning he had precious little left over. “Yes, it is hard,” he concluded, “that, working day in and day out all the year round, and living carefully, I can’t put up anything for a rainy day.”

Hager's Grocery in New York City, c.1865-1885; Image courtesy NY Public Library

“But We Must Have Meat Every Day”: The Food Market

The year 1863 – which witnessed the Civil War Draft Riots, as well as the construction of the tenement house at 97 Orchard Street – was as bad as any the city has known. Wartime conditions had led to an “enormous addition to the cost of living.” Eggs sold for as much as 40 cents a dozen, flour – and even cornmeal – became luxury goods, and meat was but a memory. “When the struggle between North and South was in full swing,” a survivor recalled, “there were several hundred thousand housewives here in New York who sat up nights wondering how they were ever going to feed their children.”

Although the year 1881 is not recalled as a time of recession, in the moment it seemed catastrophic. “Poor folks can have no luxuries this year!” a mechanic complained, as he paid $10 for a barrel of flour that had cost only eight the previous autumn. “We can get along very well without other things,” a housewife declared, “but we must have meat every day.” Sirloin steak was selling for 20 cents a pound and veal had risen to the outrageous figure of 35 cents. Prices for cheese, butter, potatoes, apples, and turnips were all grossly inflated.

A butcher and his customer c.1871; Image courtesy NY Public Library

By the early twentieth century, these costs had not changed drastically – and neither had the anxiety they caused to consumers. From 1893 to 1906, food prices had increased seven percent, so that a family with an income of $835 per year was dedicating $362 to groceries.

This modest increase had serious consequences, and the people took action. Lower East Side women formed boycott committees and accosted offending butchers. “Armed with sticks, vocabularies, and well sharpened nails,” a reporter for the Tribune noted, they “made life miserable” for those who refused to lower prices. This activism often spread beyond a single class. In 1911, the Housewives’ League – a group of middle-class homemakers – started making tours of the city’s markets in order to scrutinize sanitary conditions and enforce price limits. Violators would be boycotted. “We want every woman,” a spokesperson explained, “to be her own inspector.”

-- Posted by Thai Jones

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More Urban Archaeology at 97 Orchard Street

A couple of weeks ago we revealed some surprising finds from the recent excavation of a fireplace at 97 Orchard Street. As construction for our new exhibit, Shop Life, continues, we've opened the second sealed fireplace located in the same space.

Examining the fireplace contents

Collections Manager Kathleen O'Hara led the "dig", sorting through pounds of grit and debris to identify evidence of the building's past.

Most of the material from the first fireplace related to William Sher’s jobbing house, located at 97 from about 1924 to 1935. We don't know precisely when this second fireplace was sealed, but most of its content relates to an earlier business called Claman Stove repair, located at 97 Orchard from about 1909 to 1917. 

Unlike its neighbor, which was sealed in a rather haphazard fashion, this fireplace was covered with carefully fitted beaded board (recycled wainscot material) with a wood-grained finish beneath coats of paint.

Fireplace #2 contained a cache of older, and in some cases less immediately recognizable objects, including a toy ball, a small metal pitcher, a cloth cap (the flattened object in the middle of the picture above), and a small metal axe head (see below).

We also came across several scraps of newspaper printed in German. We haven't yet been able to date all of these, but one fragment is dated to the 1870's. German language newspapers were very common in the Lower East Side during the late 19th century, when this neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.

We'll keep you posted as work continues on our Shop Life exhibit!

-- Posted by Public Relations Manager Kira Garcia

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 1940 Census: Reading Between the Lines

As you may have heard, the 1940 United States census records were released to the public earlier this month. It probably isn’t surprising that this new information is exciting for historians, but lots of other people are curious too: two million users tried to access the census records on the first day they were available, crashing the National Archives web site.

Although our historic tenement at 97 Orchard Street was closed to residents in 1935, the release of the 1940 census still means a lot to us, since it reveals so much about the history of 103 Orchard Street, the site of our new Visitor and Education Center. The upper floors of 103 Orchard have been continuously occupied by residential tenants since the building was completed in 1888. We have a lot to learn about the people who have lived there: What did they do? How big were their families? What languages did they speak?

In 1940, Americans were still feeling the impact of the Great Depression, with national unemployment at 16.8 percent. Given this, it makes sense that there were more questions about employment in this census than in those of previous years. Anyone over the age of 14 was asked whether they worked, and specifically whether they were employed by one of three government-sponsored programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Projects Administration, or the National Youth Administration.

A "Test Census" Enumerator at work in 1939; Image courtesy Life Magazine

At 103 Orchard Street, almost half of the heads of household reported that they were employed as proprietors of businesses – things like retail men’s hats, retail men’s clothing, and printing. We know that two of these businesses--Feltly Hats and The Orchard Street Printing Company--were located at 97 Orchard Street in 1940. They were owned by the Hafter and Solomon Families, respectively.

There are other connections between our two buildings: two families residing at 103 Orchard, the Hafters and the Rosenthals, were former residents of 97 Orchard who moved down the block when the building was condemned in 1935. Samuel Rosenthal was once known as Samuel Rogarshevsky; we tell his family’s story on our “Sweatshop Workers” tour.

Sam Rogarshevsky (Rosenthal) in the backyard at 97 Orchard Street
on his wedding day in 1919.

Though he was once an aspiring boxer who nicknamed himself Rocky, by 1940 Samuel Rosenthal reported that we was working as a chauffeur for a mortician, which probably meant he drove a hearse. His wife, Lillian, worked as a “squad leader” for the Dept of Commerce. Their 20 year old son Albert worked as a clerk in a candy store.

We’ve just begun to delve into the amazing wealth of information in the 1940 census, so we’ll have a lot more to share in the months to come!

-- Posted by Director of Curatorial Affairs David Favaloro and Public Relations Manager Kira Garcia

Friday, April 13, 2012

We Are New York!

In 2010, the New York Times reported that there may be as many as 800 languages spoken in New York City. Regardless of their native language, New Yorkers who want to practice their English can now participate in the City's "We Are New York" (WANY) Program, which includes a television series, practice exercises available online and free workshops around the City.

That's where we come in--for the last 6 weeks, the Tenement Museum has been hosting weekly WANY workshops in our upstairs classrooms.  Program participants are a diverse group, hailing from China, Russia and El Salvador.

Most participants are already at intermediate English speakers who need help getting to the next level. They enjoy practicing their conversation skills in a comfortable setting that's convenient to work or home.

WANY Participants working collaboratively at a recent workshop
WANY is a great example of the Tenement Museum's mission to connect history with the experiences of present-day immigrants.  The WANY television segments depict the everyday stories of immigrants in New York, teaching English through familiar scenarios dealing with work, children. and relationships. These are of course universal issues we talk about all the time inside our museum.

The WANY program has been a perfect opportunity for us to expand on Shared Journeys, our  longstanding program for English language learners. To read more about WANY and Shared Journeys, visit our web site here.

--Posted by Education Associate Pedro Garcia

Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Beasts of Burden to Pure Baloney: Notes on the History of Mortadella

This is the fifth in a series of six articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" walking and tasting tour.

In the 1971 film, "La Mortadella," Sophia Loren plays an Italian immigrant coming into New York with a 20-pound mortadella, a wedding present from her coworkers at the mortadella factory. However, she is stopped by customs officials.

“You can’t bring salami into the country,” they say.

“It’s not salami. It’s mortadella,” she replies.

This doesn’t help, and she is arrested for causing a fuss—and for breaking the law against bringing pork products into the United States. While various government agencies are arguing about who is going to pay for her ticket back to Italy, she has to stay at the airport, where she and some of the customs employees eat the delicious mortadella before her return flight can be arranged.

Loren as a factory worker in "La Mortadella"; Image courtesy

So what is this stuff that’s delicious enough to get arrested for? Mortadella’s origins go back at least to the 14th century and possibly to ancient Rome. In its modern form, which has Protected Geographical Indication status (as Proscuitto di Parma does, or champagne), Mortadella di Bologna is made of finely ground and emulsified pork. Added to the mix are cubes of fat, spices, and sometimes pistachios. Finally, it’s cooked. This makes its texture very different from dry-cured or smoked meat products. It is soft, moist, and perishable.

Mortadella; Image courtesy

Because mortadella is ancient and venerable, it has gathered the usual collection of disagreements and imitations. Disagreements begin with its name, which may come from the myrtle once used to flavor it or from the mortar (Italian, mortaio) used to pound the meat fine.

Sal Di Palo is a 4th generation proprietor of the 87-year-old New York institution that is Di Palo’s Fine Foods, purveyor of mortadella and many other Italian delicacies. Sal says mortadella means “the death of the beast of burden” (morta della, “the death of it”) and that it was a thrifty way to make use of donkeys and horses that pulled the plow. The meat was ground fine and fat was added to counteract its tough, dry consistency. Sal’s brother Lou believes that the "mortar" etymology was invented so as not to scare off the Americans, who’d rather not be reminded of the connection between death and meat.

There’s evidence to suggest that mortadella was once made of donkey meat, wild boar, and possibly even horses. “Morta della” may be a folk etymology, yet it speaks to something important in the food’s history: It is indeed made of meat ground very finely, and thus it does use bits of the animals that could not be made into more coarsely ground sausages.

DiPalo's Fine Foods in New York; Image courtesy

Our American bologna—and English polony—were created at different times in homage to the greatly admired Mortadella di Bologna, which was exported to France, England, and other parts of Europe by the 17th century. Recipes for polony go back to the 17th century in English cookbooks. Belony appears in the 1747 Hannah Glasse’s classic English cookbook. In America, German immigrants were known for making bologna, which is, after all, made by the same process by which one makes frankfurters. Lebanon bologna is a slightly smoked and aged product from the Pennsylvania “Dutch.” American bologna can be made of chicken, beef, pork, turkey, or venison.

American law dictates that bologna can’t contain the cubes of fat that characterize Italian mortadella, but the two distant cousins still share a common lineage. So the American bologna that kids bring to school on Wonder Bread has its roots in what one scholar calls “mystery meat minced by medieval monks,” possibly in England and Germany even before the Italians got around to it.

Though of course it’s a matter of opinion, many say that American bologna doesn’t taste as good as its European predecessor. According to the head of one of the Italian pork factories, “Mortadella makers look upon American-made bologna the way French champagne producers view Ripple—with disgusted pity.” Which is why so many people make their way to Di Palo’s in what remains of Manhattan’s Little Italy, for a taste of Italian history.

--Posted by Educator Judy Levin

For more reading on the subject, check out:

S. Irene Virbila , “No Baloney: Mortadella Sausage, Made With Italian Finesse And Care, Is A Bolognese Specialty”, The Chicago Tribune, January 04, 1990

Justin Demetri, “Salumi: Italian Cured Meats”, Life in Italy

The Di Palo Fine Foods Web Site:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cache of Relics Revealed During "Shop Life" Construction

It's been just over a month since we gave you an update on the construction of our "Shop Life" exhibit. Last week, our intrepid staff opened up the first of two boarded up fireplaces in the basement level of 97 Orchard Street. This is where we'll be re-creating the kitchen of John and Caroline Schneider's 19th century German beer saloon.

As Collections Manager and Registrar Kathleen O'Hara sorted through the dirt, soot and plaster debris that had accumulated behind the boarded-over opening, she encountered a number of finds. Some were pretty mundane: lumps of coal, clothespins here and there, and scraps of paper.

Kathleen at work on the fireplace

Others were a little more surprising – like the front of a cigarette vending machine, and a couple of ceramic doll heads.

Spooky! Our Facebook friends suggested some creative names for this little darling...

We also hadn’t expected to find so many cosmetics! Our discoveries included nail polish, musk oil, several cases labeled in French that looked like they once held makeup, and close to a dozen labels for “Exquisite Cold Cream.” Strangely, each blue and white label was perfectly clean, as if it hadn’t just spent decades in a sooty fireplace.

A strange assortment of artifacts

The evidence was mounting that someone had once used 97 to make or sell cosmetics, but we didn’t know who until we found a receipt from Scher’s Jobbing House (a wholesale merchandise business). On March 24, 1933,  Scher's sold merchandise that included nail polish and cold creams by the dozen. The receipt lists 12 different items, all being sold in bulk.

Scher’s Jobbing House was run by Willie Scher and employed Max Marcus for many years. In the 1930s, Willie Scher turned the business over to Marcus, who then ran an auction house in the same location until he moved to Essex Street Market in the late ‘30s.

Check back for more updates soon. We have a lot more to do, and no doubt more stories to uncover, in the weeks to come!