The Best of Mothers
May 9, 2013

When visitors come to the Museum, their first question is often “which tour should I take?” or “what’s the best tour?” The correct response is that they are all interesting (which they are) and that choosing a favorite tour would be like choosing a favorite child. But I have to admit: I do have a “favorite child” – our “Hard Times” tour, and especially the Gumpertz family story.  It’s a particularly fitting one for Mother’s Day.

“Hard Times” is about a lot of things: living through recessions, community, and changes to housing law over time, among other things. For me, one of the most enduring themes is how incredibly inspiring the mothers are as they guide their families through times of economic hardship. Particularly Nathalie Gumpertz, who suddenly found herself the single mother of four children under age seven in the midst of a major recession. Of course there were hundreds or even thousands of amazing moms who resided at 97 Orchard Street, but Nathalie’s story is particularly memorable.

Nathalie Gumpertz

Nathalie Gumpertz

The Panic of 1873 marked the beginning of the longest period of economic contraction the country had ever faced, over five years altogether. Nathalie had no job, no husband, and a sick infant child to care for. Her first course of action might have been a prolonged detour at Schneider’s Saloon

While the beer would have helped a bit, there were friends and neighbors at Schneider’s who also could have helped. Her landlord, cousins in the neighborhood, and friends in the building and beyond would likely have helped with food and rent in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s disappearance. Still, lesser mortals might not have survived under the pressure. Nathalie could have turned to prostitution, an unfortunately common (and relatively well paid) profession for women, or gone to the poorhouse and given up her children to the orphanage. Instead, she became a dressmaker, a highly skilled job at the time period and one that could earn her $8 per week (more than her husband made as a shoemaker).

A sewing machine in the Gumpertz apartment at 97 Orchard

A sewing machine in the Gumpertz apartment at 97 Orchard

She had to run her business out of the home, keep her apartment clean, and care for her young children all at the same time, without electricity, gas lighting, refrigeration, or even running water–no microwave dinners here! Her sickly infant son didn’t survive, but her three daughters all grew up and married. A sizeable inheritance from her deserting husband’s family eventually helped her move out of the neighborhood and settle in Germantown (now Yorkville) on the Upper East Side before her death in 1894.

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day!

So this Mother’s Day, after I call my own mom, I’ll be thinking about Nathalie and her incredible success story. She came to this country with nothing at age 22, seemed to create a stable life with her husband and children, only to watch it all fall apart, and still managed to work toward a better life for her children. None of it would have been easy –both housekeeping and dressmaking were heavy manual labor tasks and even getting that inheritance money took a battle in the courts. Nathalie never celebrated Mother’s Day in her life (it wasn’t celebrated until 1908), but I hope her girls brought her flowers at least once!

— Posted by Emily Mitzner