Saturday, January 31, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Garment Shops on the LES

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Where did Harris Levine get the pattern and fabric he needed to sew the dresses produced in his garment shop at 97 Orchard Street at the turn of the century? Who supplied all of the necessary materials?

During the late 19th century, manufacturers in New York’s burgeoning garment industry were responsible for designing, cutting, and marketing garments. One manufacturer on the Lower East Side was Jacob Vogelmann. During the 1890s, he operated a shop at 264 Broome, between Allen and Orchard Street, where there is a tailor shop today. In 1904, Vogelmann served as a witness to Harris Levine’s naturalization petition. He might have designed the garments, cut the cloth, and subcontracted the pieces out to be assembled by subcontractors like Harris Levine of 97 Orchard Street.

Both manufacturers and subcontractors working in the Lower East Side’s the turn-of-the twentieth century garment industry were likely to be immigrants and tenement dwellers. Subcontractors like Harris Levine lived in tenement apartments and competed for the contracts that Vogelmann and other manufacturers offered. Without money to rent a separate space for their businesses, they transformed their kitchens and living rooms into small garment shops. Many hired their neighbors and/or family members to help with the sewing. The contracts usually went to the shops that could sew quickly, cheaply, and without making mistakes.

(The Levine family story is told on the Piecing it Together tour; read more here.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Facts and Findings - Greek American Experiences Between Two Cultures

Greek American Experiences Between Two Cultures is an online oral history project for Greek Americans to record and access stories, anecdotes, and personal histories. Site visitors can post stories about their families' experiences as Greek Americans and also read about the experiences of others.

The site provides historical and cultural information about the Greek-American experience, a bibliography of books to try, and a list of on-line resources for students of 20th century American history and culture.

Look at a timeline of Greek immigration to the United States, read about Greek customs and traditions, and tell your own story, to be added to the historical record.

Visit Greek American Experiences Between Two Cultures at

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Facts and Findings - Tainted Milk

Yesterday we mentioned the baby Agnes Moore, who died of malnutrition on April 20, 1869, probably from drinking watery, contaminated milk.

Last year a milk contamination scandle shook China. Today a court has deemed the milk producers resonsible.

Bee Wilson, author of “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee,” wrote an enlightening NYT op-ed piece last September about historical food contamination in America, which uses past events to shed light on what's happening today:

THE milk was marketed as pure and wholesome, and it looked fine to the naked eye. How were the mothers to know they were poisoning their babies? They had paid good money for it on the open market. It would take thousands of sick children before lawmakers did anything to stop it.

China in 2008? No, New York City in 1858. Missing from the coverage of the current Chinese baby formula poisoning, in which more than 53,000 babies have been sickened and at least four have died, is how often it has happened before.

The disaster unfolding now in China — and spreading inevitably to its trading partners — is eerily similar to the “swill milk” scandal that rumbled on in New York for several decades of the 19th century.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Facts and Findings - Milk and the urban food supply chain

On our newest program, The Moores: An Irish Family in America, we talk a lot about the consequences of poor milk production in the 19th century. Children drank milk that was spoiled or adulturated with ammonia, chalk, and water. Many died from bacterial infections or simply malnutrition, including Agnes Moore, a baby who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869.

Our friends at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market know a lot about milk production, as befits cheese mongers. Their latest newsletter included this interesting round-up of milk production and dissemination in New York in the mid-20th century:

From the late eighteen hundreds to the 1930's and 1940's, milk trains were the commonest way of supplying urban populations with milk. As cities grew, and farmland in and around them diminished, urbanites began depending more and more on milk from the country. Milk trains were so important and vital to the urban food supply that they often took precedence over passenger trains and frequently caused backups and delays on various lines entering the city from upstate and Connecticut. It is rumored that milk by ferry was tried, and abandoned, for the simple reason that milk lacks sea legs... the jostling of the boat would churn it into butter.

So where did our milk trains come from? Milk was shipped to New York City from the far reaches of New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont, averaging a distance of about 250 miles by train, but sometimes nearing distances of up to 400 miles away. Before dawn in small towns all across New England, farmers would bring their fresh milk (in milk cans) to their local train station or depot. In some special cases, if the farm was far from a town but near to a rail line, the farmer would leave the milk at a 'milk stand' which was an elevated building next to the train tracks where the milk cans could be easily schlepped into the boxcar. Milk trains were cooled by large chunks of pond ice (harvested in the winter and kept in thickly insulated buildings for use in the summer) and kept the fragile delicacy intact for its journey to the city.

In New York, the 'milk yard' was located at 60th Street on the West Side, and the creameries (responsible for pasteurizing and bottling the milk) were located as close as possible to the rail yards. There were creameries in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well, but the largest and most impressive operation was a company called Sheffield's, who set up shop literally alongside the rail lines at 60th St. The milk would arrive in the city around 11:00 pm, be pasteurized and bottled by 2:00 am and sent out for delivery either to dairy stores or on local milk routes.

Tenement Museum records show that a milkman living on Orchard Street was responsible for delivering milk to 97 Orchard in the 1930s, the last decade people lived in the tenement.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fatcs and Findings - The Tenement Diet

Talk about dedication: New York-based artist Sarah Lohman is spending this week eating as though she was an 1870s tenement dweller.

Lohman was inspired by an 1877 pamphlet titled Fifteen Cent Dinners, which includes a meal plan to feed a family of six for $3 dollars a week, or $57 in today's money.

Lohman's tenement diet has included Boiled Rice with Scalded Milk and Broth and Bread. MMMM! Future treats will include an apple, which Sarah will eat because she "would like to poop sometime this week."

You can follow her culinary journey at Good luck!