Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Postcards from the Past

I have been fascinated by every image I have seen of the Lower East Side in the early 1900's. But it's strange to think that the photos are, in some cases, less than 100 years old. Perhaps that's why there is something both familiar and intimate about them, as well as foreign and incomprehensible. Here are some postcard images shared with me by a friend's mom.


Delancey Street (btwn Suffolk & Rivington, 1908

If you look closely at the sign, it reads" Extra News! A Great Bankruptcy (Sale?)" and below "Come In and Convince Yourself!"

Orchard & Hester Streets, 1905.

I really need to print these out and get a magnifying glass. I wonder what the woman in the lower lefthand corner is carrying - a basket full of flowers? Or I suppose it could be live fowl! I also love the little girl playing in the street.

Thanks Jesse & mom!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Ebay Connection

It really is amazing what you can find on ebay. I was searching for items for potential props and set pieces and for the heck of it did a search for pushcarts and check out what I found. Click on the image and a new, larger image should appear so.

It's a whole article on pushcarts in NYC's Lower East Side. Most intriguingly, only the first three pages of this feature article is shown on the ebay listing and the third page ends with a classification of the pushcart community:

"The Americans sell lunches, the Greeks fruit and ice cream almost exclusively, while the Italians widen the list by adding vegetables. But the Jew-"

And there it ends! Doh!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Cost of Living

To understand this crisis, it is essential to put the numbers into context.

Scholar Dana Frank notes that the women involved in the riots were not the poorest (though they were surely still below the poverty line and those who were the poorest were certainly affected even more dramatically). Their husbands earned between $10 and $15/wk. A Mrs. Ida Markowitz told a reporter that she supported 5 children on $10/wk. Another woman, Elizabeth Broslin, said that she had only $4 a week on which to feed herself and her four children.

So, at the low end of the scale, a monthly income would be $40 and on the high end, it would be $60.

In cost of living surveys from the early 1900s, it was revealed that immigrant families broke down their income thusly:
30% rent
40% food
30% everything else (clothing, washing, materials, fuel, light, medical services, insurance, recreation)
And of course, this is just one estimate. Others place food costs at 40-60% of monthly income.

It is also important to remember that women shopped for food nearly every day. There was not place to store food aside from perhaps one small shelf -- refrigerators were a newfangled idea and far too expensive to actually own. So not only were these women on very tight budgets but they knew exactly how much each item on their grocery list cost and were acutely aware of any changes in price.

Consider that at one point, people were buying "loose" (or unbottled) milk $0.01 or $0.02 at a time!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Food for War

I found this image courtesy Flickr via the US Library of Congress. According to the author of the post, this is the translation:

Food will win the war - You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it - Wheat is needed for the allies - waste nothing.

Just a month after the immigrant housewives earned lower prices through riots and boycotts, the U.S. entered WWI, effectively raising prices again and, as this poster shows, making food even more of a commodity.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Power and The People

On Thanksgiving, I sat down to watch the film documentary, New York: A Documentary by Ric Burns. Originally broadcast on PBS it's a phenomenal series that I recommend to all. I watched Episode 4: The Power and The People, which explores 1898 to 1914. It stops just short of when the food riots took place but it puts into context the lives of the thousands of immigrants who streamed into the Lower East Side via Ellis Island. It also amazed me how much film footage there is of immigrants and NYC life that exists from the time period. Seeing moving images from the early 1900's is so thrilling - more-so than seeing video from the latter part of the century.

Here are several images and observations that stuck with me:

- The scores of families on board the ships with infant children (I can hardly imagine making the long trip in steerage alone, let alone trying to care for an infant as well)
- The sacks of belongings that the immigrants carried - all of their belongings tied up in a tablecloth and slung across their back
- The filth in the streets - refuse from pushcarts and people left behind - while children blithely played around it
- The condition of clothing, particularly of women and mothers. Several images showed women wearing dresses smeared with black. In times where families lived day to day, mothers forewent new dresses for years in order to provide food, clothing and shelter for their children. Access to water was also limited. Add to this long, difficult working days and it's no wonder that clean clothing was not a luxury. I had, of course, learned this from past research but it was jarring to see it on the screen before me.

This is a documentary to be watched again and again, in order to fully digest the images and facts. Tonight, I hope to watch the fifth episode, Cosmopolis (1914-1931), in the hopes that there be some mention of the food riots.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Snapshot from the Past

Found this great image online from Carrie Brown's book, Rosie's Mom. It is titled, simply, "Poor women's food riot in New York." The book focuses on the generation of women who came before the iconic "Rosie the Riveter," taking their place in the workforce and aiding both World War I and the women's movement. Thanks to the Women's Review of Books: A Feminist Guide to Good Reading for their review of this book online, along with the accompanying photo.

Images such as this one are crucial to understanding the impact that the rising food prices had on these women. From a dramaturgical standpoint, they also give us concrete tangible evidence of how the women dressed and what the crowd looked and felt like.

Think for a moment about these women. Many of them - most of them, perhaps - had never taken part in a protest. To attend this, they would have had to abandon their daily duties (cooking, cleaning, caring for children and boarders, working in the factories or at home). They might never before have found themselves in a large gathering of women, outside of religious services. These women were also of a lower economic class; in addition to being subservient members of the household, they were also expected to be subservient members of the community at large.

To complete the picture, here they were being encouraged to speak their mind and take a stand for themselves and their families -- an overwhelming prospect to say the least.

What must it have been like to walk down the street, accompanied by hundreds of women, to join together in an open square, surrounding by police officers on foot and horseback, to demand lower prices?

Any NYC geography buffs or landmarks sleuths out there who can help me identify where they are gathering?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Facts About Rice

After the riots began, the city started distributing pamphlets about the nutritional values of rice.  This was in an attempt to persuade immigrants to replace their regular staple of potatoes with rice.  This was partially because rice was cheaper, but also because, as Dr. Haven Emerson (head of the NYC Health Department) apparently said, to stop immigrants from intruding their "European habits into the United States).

The pamphlets were distributed to schoolchildren and contained the following:

- 18 recipes for rice dishes, "cheap & nutritious"
- claims that rice contained more "strength-giving" material than potatoes, because potatoes are 3/4 water, while rice has practically no water.  
- suggestions of adding cheese, peas, beans or lentils to the rice
- a cartoon character, "Miss Grab-It-All" who attempted to teach some tenement dwellers how to make soup out of bones
- the assurance that rice would give children "practically all the food they'd need

This was documented by William Freiburger in "War, Prosperity & Hunger: The New York Food Riots of 1917."  Antoinette W. Satterfield also talks about the leaflet in her Master's paper for her M.S. in Library Science where she documented public disseminations from the U.S. Government to American housewives in the 1900's.  She noted that the leaflet also gave the tip to cook the rice in skim milk instead of water for added nutrients and recipes for desserts and bread, using rice.

My next mission is to track down a copy of this, if one still exists! 

Petition to the President

A petition to the President:

"We housewives of the city of New York, mothers and wives of workmen, desire to call to your attention, Mr. President, to the fact that, in the midst of plenty, we and our families are facing starvation.  
The rise in the cost of living has been so great and uncalled for that even now we are compelled to deny ourselves and our children the necessities of life.
We pay for our needs out of the wages of our husbands, and the American standard of living cannot be maintained when potatoes are 7 cents a pound, bread 6 cents, cabbage 20 cents, and onions 18 cents, and so forth.  
We call to you, Mr. President, in this crisis that we are facing, to recommend to Congress or other authority, measures for relief. "

(Source: Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, Elizabeth Ewen)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First-Hand Voices

Marie Ganz immigrated to the United States with her family in 1896 when she was just five years old. They settled in the Lower East Side.  She was able to attend school but soon had to leave in order to help support her family.  From that point forward, her education came in the sweatshops of the LES and the radical socialist groups that thrived in that part of the city.  It was her association with the "radicals" that led to her identity of an anarchist, bearing the nickname "Sweet Marie."

In 1920, Marie wrote and published a fascinating memoir: Rebels: Into Anarchy -- And Out Again.  It's available online in its complete form and I highly recommend.  Not only does it provide a vibrant image of the LES in the early part of the 20th century but it's a strong female voice that deserves a wider audience.

In most of the articles that describe the events of February 20, 1917 - the day that a group of 400 women marched to City Hall to demand action from the Mayor - it is reported that the police asked Marie Ganz to tell the crowd to go home (they allowed her to speak in Yiddish) and that they could send representation the next day.  Instead, an angry crowd renewed its cries of "Give us bread!"  This apparent defiance of police orders led to her arrest (though hundreds of women protested immediately for her release - and it worked).  It paints of picture of Ms. Ganz as an antagonistic agitator.  (It is important to note, that at this point, she had already been arrested once.)  Nonetheless, when I read Rebels, in the chapter "Hunger," I was only mildly surprised to hear a different story:

"...from the steps I addressed the crowd in Yiddish, telling them to return to their homes and be patient for a day longer.  But they grew more and more excited as I spoke, and the officers must have thought I was trying to incite a riot, for a policeman stepped up to me, laid hold of my arm, and said quietly, "Miss Ganz, Captain Dwyer has ordered me to arrest you."

I wonder - is the very different story captured in the papers the "truth"?  Or was it distorted through language barrier?  Class barrier?  Gender barrier?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lessons from the Forward

I have been reading the book How We Lived by Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo, thanks to actor Katy Rubin who leant me her copy.  

What a treasure trove!

I have taken copious notes but wanted to share this particular gem from The Forward, July 25, 1915:

4 Rules for Women
1) Don't say "I have nothing to worry about" just because you've already got a husband.
2) If your husband likes gefilte fish, don't shove fried fish down his throat and say: "You dope; you don't know what good is."
3) Don't neglect the cleanliness of your house and clothes just because your nextdooreker does it.
4)  If you've been cursed with growths of hair on your throat, cheeks or upper lip...don't forget that makes a bad impression.  Go immediately to your druggist and for one dollar buy Wonderstone.

Sound advice!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Yesterday, we had our last rehearsal of our two week developmental residency at Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side.  We made some great discoveries in our time there and I look forward to having the images of the seven wonderful actresses who have been involved in this first phase of development percolating in my mind as I set forth to craft the script.  

As I was thinking about things today, I wanted to remind myself of why this tiny sliver of history, almost 100 years old, is so relevant today.  A search through current blogs, news sites and You Tube will answer that question. I'll be collecting modern sources over the coming weeks but in the meantime, I read this entry today on the blog Wonkette; it was posted back in April about the food crisis and trends of 2008.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Jennifer's Visit

These are Jennifer's wonderful words about her experience at the museum:

My first thought upon entering the tenements was how incredibly small they were. I've been living in New York for three years now, and I'm used to small living conditions - but I was quite astounded at how many people were living in those crammed apartments. I wondered how my sense of self would develop in those cramped conditions: never having privacy and constantly being seen and heard by those around me. Would I like the sense of community? Or would I be constantly exhausted because of it? It seems that the poorer you are, the more at the mercy of the elements you are - the more wealth, the more insulated and therefore the more removed. Being poor in those tenements meant being at the mercy of life and all its elements - you are forced to give up your boundaries: personal, spatial and emotional.

What worlds blossomed inside of them in reaction to the harsh working conditions, cramped living arrangements? I am sure it was a small sweet world hiding in the twenty layers of wallpaper, in the cracked floorboards and coal dusted windows, a world that when bent, when folded unto itself, meeting itself again in a warm embrace allows for possibility in the small places that bed and give permission.

The tour also made me realize how a riot could easily emerge from this cramped, tough existence - with over two thousand people living on a small city block, unrest would be commonplace and it probably wouldn't take much to incite people to action.

It also made me think about my great grandfather, Solomon Moses, who came to the States when he was 16 years old, completely alone and not speaking a word of English - how those tenements were populated by people just like him and how I am not that far removed from his story and ultimately all of those who lived in the tenements. I think it's important for all of us to remember that we are a country of immigrants and need to be more tolerant of those trying to seek a better life here in America.

This reminds me of the ending quote in Don Lee's wonderful book, Country of Origin:
As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Lisa imagined what her mother must have been feeling right then, seeing the United States for the very first time. A land where all was possible, where truth prevailed, goodness was rewarded, and beauty could be found in the meeting of outcasts. Oh, what a sight, Lisa marveled.

We are orphans, all of us, she thought. And this is our home.

- Jennifer Moses, Cast Member

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Katy's Visit

From Katy:

I felt that I was intruding on the homes of the characters in our play and on the characters in my family's stories, my not-so-distant ancestors, some of whom overlap with our fictitious characters.  As we've said in rehearsal, the hardest part of the project sometimes is to shed my 2008 sensibilities and imagine experiencing real hunger, to let go of my kvetching about my current housing crisis and picture myself in the housing crisis that was the LES in that era.  I felt connected by blood to the people in the pictures, Abe and Fanny and Jenny, not just because of my Eastern-European Jewish blood, but because we were breathing their air and we are now attempting to tell their story, which is a presumptuous undertaking.  I want to be as honest in their name as I possibly can.

- Katy Rubin, Cast Member

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Sonja's Visit

As a cast, we went to visit the amazing Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side on Sunday, Sept. 7.  It was an eye-opening experience.  I invited the cast to share their thoughts and experiences and I encourage you, my faithful reader, to both read their words and to visit the museum when you can!

The Tenement Museum was fascinating!  I'm really looking forward to checking out the other tours. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to stand in the reconstructed apartments and take a step back in time and really get a sense of what life, this hard, hard life, was like for these people.  The story about the three sons who slept with their heads on the sofa and their feet on chairs, seeing the living room that doubled as a sewing factory, the fact that these residents had no electricity or running water or toilets, that 2,000 people coexisted on one block! -- these images really stuck with me.  Also, one of the big lessons I took away was looking at the conditions then from the perspective of today.  While I may be aware that sweatshops still exist in the world today, I was shocked to learn that there are sweatshops still in that very neighborhood and that the majority of the clothes are shipped overseas.  And also, that the sweatshop conditions in other countries today could be just as bad as they were in the U.S. over a hundred years ago, that we have actually made very little progress.  This made a strong impression on me and the kind of consumer I want to be and the importance of really stopping to think just what went into making that shirt or that pair of pants that I get on sale.  It was less about statistics and more about the personal, that's what really made an impact on me.

- Sonja Sweeney, Cast Member

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Recipe for Food Riot

For the past week, my time has been more focused on writing and assembling the script, so research has slowed down a bit.  However, I did make time to read a great paper, "War Prosperity and Hunger: The New York Food Riots of 1917" by William Frieburger which gave a wide angle view of the food riots and also filled in some important details about the riots that occurred in Williamsburg and Brownsville, Brooklyn.  

His descriptions were notably more violent than other sources I've found.  It called attention to the fact that these were desperate women whose only goal was to feed their children.  In a discussion with the cast yesterday, we reminded ourselves that nearly 100 years ago, the word "housewife" had a markedly different definition and connotation.  Women used it with pride. The men were responsible for working and bringing in an income, but the women managed that money, turning it into food, clothing, shelter and if they could, savings.  It was their utmost responsibility that their families were fed.  So one can start to understand why in Brooklyn, women took to the street in droves, some wielding torches, to attack and loot pushcarts.

Yesterday, before I left rehearsal, I realized I needed to know a little bit more about Ida Harris, who was one of the spokespeople of these riots.  Not sure I would find anything, I googled "Ida Harris, nyc, food riots" and thanks to Google Books, found a brilliant book called "A Thousand Years Over A Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food Recipes and Remembrances" by Laura Schenone.  Much of what I read was information I already knew but there were still some details to be found, for example, Mrs. Ida Harris was married to a watchmaker.

But what was really so amazing was the discovery of new first-hand testimony.  Hearing the story through the words of these women has been the most emotional and fulfilling part of this journey.  It was in Brownsville, Brooklyn where a woman tried to negotiate with a peddler after rising prices left her without enough money for food.  

She pleaded with him:  
"I'll give you all I have, but I've got to have the onions."
He refused.

In anger, frustration and desperation, she put her shoulder to the cart and tipped it over.  Hundreds of women followed her lead.

Can you blame them?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Walking Tour

Yesterday was day one of rehearsal for the new project.  We started by going on a tour of the Lower East Side, led by yours truly.  I wanted to be able to see first-hand some of the locations mentioned in my research and I wanted to share my research with the actors in a meaningful and active way, vs. sitting around a table with me talking at them.

As you can see by this photo, the actors were well-prepared for this tour with shades & iced coffee.  I wonder what the equivalent would have been for a morning stroll nearly 100 years ago....a parasol?

The amazing and intriguing thing about New York City and particularly the Lower East Side is that there are so many layers of history and once you train your eye to see into the past, all sorts of things make themselves available.  We met at Grand and Essex St. and made our way over to Orchard Street where we could walk past Guss Pickles and The Tenement Museum.  Orchard Street is mentioned many times in the newspaper articles and scholarly papers that I've read.  We then turned onto Rivington which was known for its pushcarts back in 1917.  Today, both streets are dotted with sleek, expensive restaurants and chic boutiques.  It's a startling contrast with the architecture and feel of the neighborhood.  

Finally, we made our way up East Broadway, where many buildings are still labeled with signs in Hebrew and Yiddish.  We approached the Forward Building where, on February 20, 1917, fifty women gathered to discuss the impending crisis of food prices.  They moved across the street to Rutgers Square (now Straus Sq.) to make speeches, where the crowd grew to 1,000.  Someone suggested marching to City Hall to speak to the Mayor and, led by a Mrs. Ida Harris and the known anarchist Marie Gantz, 300 to 400 of the women marched down East Broadway
 and the Bowery to City Hall.

It was an unexpectedly thrilling feeling to be standing there in that very spot, imagining the lives, needs and wants of women in the early 20th century.  To think that, if born in another time, we could have been them.  To think that at that moment, were were sharing the same ground.
Standing in Rutgers Square

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Unexpected Findings

"Crowd of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Women's Vigilance League, at the city hall to protest the soaring cost of food. (Source: Independent, 12 March 1917; International Socialist Review, April 1917)"
Image courtesy US Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

I love google.  I am working on putting together a google map for the play which will show locations of places that existed during that time period and specific locations referenced in the text of the play.  I am also interested in using it for a walking tour with the cast during our first two weeks of rehearsal.  

I wanted to find the location of City Hall when the riots occurred, so I googled it with the date "1917" - in retrospect I should have googled City Hall alone to find out when it was built but this slightly roundabout way of finding that out led to the discovery of this fantastic photo!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Window Into Time

I found a great resource while searching online last night: The History Box, which has a trove of information on immigration and immigrant groups in NYC.

Most fascinating was a photo archive taken from Jacob Riis' book, "How The Other Half Lives," which focused on the "plight of the poor" in the Lower East Side.  It was a collection of photographs and drawings based on photographs, made possible "due to the recent invention of magnesium flash" which made it possible for him to "venture into the dimly lit areas of tenements and document the wretched conditions in which the 'other half' lived and worked."

This photo (above) is of a tenement apartment in 1910.  Imagine a whole family living out their lives in this one room.  It seems unfathomable, even by today's standards, with urban legends of people renting out closets in NYC (not so much an urban legend - I once went to look at a room for rent in the West Village and it was indeed a closet with a tri-fold door and no natural light....but that's another story.)

Apparently, the work "shocked most wealthy New Yorkers who had no idea such a world existed within a few miles of their own opulent neighborhoods."

This photo (to the right) is credited to Jessie Tarbox Beals photo (Community Service Society, 105 E 22nd St., NY, NY 10010). It is a mother and her children in a tenement kitchen in 1915, just two years before our play takes place. 

As I start crafting a script based on the research I've done (and knowing that there is far more still to do), it's amazing to be able to see into this world.

I have been to The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side (one of the best museums I've ever been to - check it out!) but it's not quite the same as actually being able to peer into that history, to see people going about their daily lives in the photographs.

It is a testament to what these families were willing to sacrifice, all for the sake of having hope in a better tomorrow, a better future.  

Are we willing to sacrifice this much?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Anti-Immigrant Policy

I just finished a compelling chapter in Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (right before getting kicked out the library at closing time - maybe I should just buy a copy of this book...).  The end of the chapter left a disappointing and sour taste in my mouth.  

After weeks of successful boycotting and rioting, the price of food started to fall.  And then the city took its first and only official action: they passed legislation that stipulated that NYC peddler's licenses could only be issued to citizens of the United States.  Two hundred older Jewish men protested to no avail.  The Commission felt there were too many peddlers and so used discrimination and xenophobia to try and eliminate immigrants from the marketplace.  It also meant that consumers were increasingly at the mercy of those who could afford storefronts, which many times meant corporations.  This legislation really set the stage for corporate control of the marketplace.

This outcome made me think of the global food market as it exists today.  Today's big players aren't the farms/farmers, it's the corporations who distribute food.  Today food is exported and imported across the world and all too often, even though there are farmers in New Jersey producing perfectly good tomatoes, you're probably eating ones shipped in from California.  


Because growing vegetables doesn't pay.  Shipping them does.  (For further reading on this topic, I recommend Stuffed and Starved; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

I found it interesting though, that nearly 100 years later, we seem to be coming full circle.  The local marketplace seems to be thriving again, made desirable and viable by the green movement.  

In regards to food and buying locally, I have recently joined a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically, you buy a share of vegetables (or in my case, vegetables, fruit and flowers) and pay for it in full at the beginning of the growing season.  Each week, the farmer who in exchange delivers fresh produce to our neighborhood.  It's an amazing way to get fresh food grown by people who are fairly compensated for their work.  Shout out to Windflower Farm!  

There's probably one in your neighborhood!  Here's the link for Just Food and CSA's in NYC.


I love when I find connections.  I swear I have the serendipity gene and I never tire of it.  

Or maybe I read too much into things.

At any rate, a year ago, we were doing research for our first full-length work, The Columbus Project, an exploration of the myth and the man, Christopher Columbus.   (This piece was inspired by a ten-minute play about potatoes).  

So I find it quite reassuring that these riots were born out of a boycott on (initially) potatoes.  But perhaps even more of a sign that I am on the right track is the following quote from Elizabeth Ewen's fabulous and meticulously written history of immigrant women in America, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars.  Here, Leonard Covello, who grew up on the LES in the early 1900's recalls his mother's kitchen table, which was "covered by an oilcloth with a picture of Columbus setting foot on American soil.  More than once my father glared at this oilcloth and poured a malediction on Columbus and his great discovery."

Only one more week until rehearsals begin for Phase 1 of this project's development and I have committed myself to reading only materials related to NYC in the early 1900's until then (other than the daily news).  I just want to immerse myself in all the details, a good soaking to flavor the writing....wish me luck! 

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Looking Forward to Go Back

Today I am blogging on-site at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research on 16th Street @ 5th Ave. It is housed in the beautiful Center for Jewish History.

I came here today to access the archives of the Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper.  Long known for its connection to the people, I thought that this would be a wonderful place to find detailed and first-hand accounts of the riots.

I was right.  However, the information still proves elusive for me.  The archives have not been translated from Yiddish to English.  In fact, if it were not for the obliging research librarian, Yeshaya Metal, I would not have much of anything to show for my trip here.  I do not speak Yiddish.  I certainly have Yiddish words that have found their way from my grandparents' and parents' limited vocabulary into my own, but these are probably the most banal of Yiddish words:  oy, get the point.

Since I knew the months and year I was looking for, even down to a few specific days, Mr. Metal was kind enough to sit at the Microform reader (the archives are all on microfilm) and scan through the paper looking for headlines.  He found several and I have printed the articles for later translation (brush up on that Yiddish, Katy Rubin!).  The first one - February 21 - was a huge success as it also included a photo of hundreds of protesting women surging towards the forefront of the photograph.  

It was an interesting experience, sitting beside him as he would read bits of Yiddish out loud and chuckle, occasionally translating for me.  

"crazy prices!"
"This happened in America"
"Don't buy potatoes!"
"The riots are going well!"

We printed up several articles from February 21 - 23.  After Mr. Metal returned to his desk, I stayed to look through the papers at the ads which were featured.  Many of them were in English.  D. Jones Furniture at 62 Orchard Street.....Luden's Cough Drops for 5 cents...Ridgeways India-Ceylon Tea....Narimova in War Brides at the Majestic Theatre on Second Avenue at 1st Street.

I am fascinated by these little bits and pieces - it's like opening up a time capsule.  I want to immerse myself in all the details of life in New York City at the early part of the 20th Century.  I want to visit these locations and squint my eyes and try to imagine what it was like 100 years ago. I want to connect with the memory of these women and these places.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pinching Pennies

We often use the phrase "pinching pennies" when describing a thrifty perspective.  Perhaps it's not such a popular turn of phrase these days but we still all recognize its meaning: finding ways to cut corners and hold on to our money.  

Strange that we identify with this when we hardly ever deal with pennies.  In fact, some people believe that we should do away with this near-obsolete currency; one group has a whole website devoted to it!

Today I've been reading a paper from Feminist Studies, "Housewives, Socialists and the Politics of Food: The 1917 New York Cost-of-Living Protests" by Dana Frank (1985).  It looks at the food riots and the connection to the Socialist party which had a stronghold in NYC at the time.  In the paper, Frank documents examples of increases in the cost of food: potatoes suddenly went from $0.05/lb to $0.10/lb, onions from $0.14/lb to $0.18.

It's hard to connect with what those four or five pennies mean.  I remember reading All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor about a family of five young jewish girls growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century (I should definitely re-read this book).  I remember the girls going to the cracker barrels to buy 1/2 cent crackers as a special treat!  I could never figure out how they actually paid for it - how could they possibly split a penny in half?  Did they give the shopkeeper the other half for future credit?  Adolescent misunderstanding aside, it's still hard to comprehend.  Nowadays, when prices go up, they seem more likely to increase by a quarter or a dollar so as to facilitate making change. Just look at the MTA - their fare increases to the single-ride fare jump by $0.50 at a time (we won't talk about the monthly card).

A huge difference today is that we can (most of us do) live on credit.  When the price of food goes up, we'll probably just put it on our credit card (or put something else on the credit card) to compensate.  That is, of course, my own perspective and I realize that I am very fortunate.  I know that millions of people around the world can't do that. In America, perhaps, we are living in a very warped world indeed.

There's one quote in the article that stuck out to me, from a woman protester explaining why it was necessary to boycott and riot:

"With $14 a week, we used to just make a living.  With prices as they are now, we could not even live on $2 a day.  We would just exist."

Let us not forget that almost one hundred years later, there are still people trying to exist on $2 a day.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Slice of Life

Yesterday I discovered a great book at the New York Public Library of Humanities & Social Sciences. It was a slim little text called Not So Long Ago: A Recollection by Emma Beckman, published in 1980. Ms. Beckman immigrated to NYC from Hanover, Germany as a young girl (5 or 6) at the beginning of the 20th century. Her brief and delightfully candid memoir is full of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Lower East Side in the early 1900's. The volume tantalizingly ends just before 1917 as Ms. Beckman gets hired and (and fired from!) her first job as a secretary.

Here are just a few of the details I found:
  • going to Orchard Street for bargains
  • buying fish at the end of the day, when they nearly gave it away
  • naptha soap which smelled like kerosene
  • pushcarts "piled high with slightly rotted fruits and vegetables"
  • attending the Hebrew Technical School for Girls to learn stenography, typing & bookkeeping
  • public baths for children on Hester Street
What I loved the most about this book is that I felt like Ms. Beckman was speaking directly to me, telling me stories from her childhood. The chapters were simple and straightforward and really conveyed the angst and heartbreak of leaving one country for another and what it meant to be an immigrant, a Jew and a young woman in New York City.
When the book was over, it simply ended. No prologue, no summation. I wondered if Ms. Beckman decided to end her stories there or if she simply couldn't write any more. I have the feeling that there were many other stories to tell and I would have loved to have seen more of New York through her eyes.

Here's an image of Hester Street around the time that Ms. Beckman and her family moved to the Lower East Side, courtesy Wired New York.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Journey Begins

Last week, I officially started research on the Food Riot Project.  (Official title forthcoming!) After a few google searches several weeks ago, which turned up few details, I decided to begin true academic research at the New York Historical Society Library.  The NYHS is housed in a beautiful, stately building on Central Park West.  On this particular day, I only had enough time to visit the library but I hope to return soon to visit some of the other exhibits available.  

Once inside the library, an extremely helpful librarian endeavored to find some more specific information for me.  The first book we consulted had no mention of the riots whatsoever, even though it was cataloguing a list of riots in NYC.  Other books about women in the 20th century did not appear to have the information I was looking for.  Finally, he rushed over to bring me a book, whispering excitedly, "I found something!"

The book was The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present by James Trager.  It's just what is sounds like: little bits and pieces of New York's history gathered together painstakingly.  I might just buy a copy of this to improve my NYC trivia skills!  Here is the gem that James Trager gave me:

In February, 1917, rising food prices led rioters to attac
k food shops and burn peddler's pushcarts on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn's Brownsville and Williamsburg sections, "rejecting suggestions that they substitute rice for potatoes and milk for eggs and meat.  6,000 Kosher poultry shops and 150 Kosher poultry slaughterhouses close down just before Passover to protest wholesalers accused of cornering the market."

Suddenly, the picture opened up with details of location, food and people.  

Initial thoughts:
  • There's a Brownsville in Brooklyn?  I've never heard of it!  (It is later confirmed to still be there by my friend, Father Joe Franco).
  • Interesting that rice was being promoted then, whereas now it's the subject of dramatic price increases.
  • This seems to be a largely Jewish movement, which confirms that this is going to be an immigrant's story.  This also opens up more specific places to look for information.  I wonder if the Yiddish Forward has first-hand accounts!
Amazing how just a few lines have helped to jumpstart this investigation.  This is definitely going to be a scavenger hunt, my friends.

I'll leave you with this great photo, courtesy History Matters, the U.S. Survey Course on the Web (great resource!).   

I'm continually amazed when I find photos from this early on.  Even though the camera had been around for quite some time, I think it's unusual to find photos of a journalistic nature vs. portraiture.  I hope I'll find more....