Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Questions for Curatorial: 19th Century Bilingualism

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Were any of 97 Orchard Street’s residents bilingual? Natalie Gumpertz—could she speak German and English?

According to US Census records, many of 97 Orchard Street’s foreign-born residents appear to have been able to read and write English, suggesting a fair degree of bilingualism among these immigrant tenement dwellers.

Although category was phrased in the negative (i.e., “cannot read,” and “cannot write”), the 1870 U.S. Census for 97 Orchard Street records that the overwhelming majority of German-born residents were able to read and write English. The census enumerator recorded both Natalie and Julius Gumpertz as able to read and write English.

The 1900 U.S. Census specifically asked if residents could “speak English.” Once again, the overwhelming majority of foreign-born residents answered yes and were recorded as being able to speak English. Included in this number were “Russian”-born Harris and Jennie Levine (they actually came from the city of Plonsk, in what is now Poland) who told the enumerator that they were able to speak English.

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