Modern Parenting from 1878

We know that being a mother is the hardest job in the world – moms are nurses, therapists, chefs, friends, and style-gurus on top of everything else. The job is certainly not for the faint of heart and deserves a lot of praise and appreciation. This Mother’s Day, the Tenement Museum has you completely covered…

Rest your tired feet, moms, because we’re going to take the reins here and raise the kids using these helpful 130-year old parenting tips.

Mothers and children in a New York City park on a hot day, 1900’s. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Don’ts for Mothers, published in London in 1878, is filled with useful tidbits and advice for how to raise a healthy, productive child. We’ll be using these hints and turning your sons or daughters into perfect gentlemen or ladies. Even if your children are already grown, it’s not too late to make a turn around.

Even before the child is born, we must already take care: “Don’t indulge in any species of excess. Endeavour to keep the mind in the greatest tranquility.” Sit quietly for nine months.

Women care for babies in a day nursery in the early 1900’s. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Something as simple as bathing a child is filled with danger:  “Don’t bathe your new-born babe in cold water. It frequently produces stuffing of the nose and looseness of the bowels. Don’t, however, run into an opposite extreme. Hot water weakens the babe, and thus would predispose him to disease. Lukewarm rain water is the best to wash him.” No advice on the collection of rainwater, however.

We always forget this one: “Don’t feel it necessary to wash your infant’s head with brandy.” It just feels so necessary!

Babies in a field – we assume that none of these children have had their heads washed with brandy. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

The rules are also quite stern when it comes to feeding a baby: “Don’t let your wet-nurse succumb to fretting. She ought strictly to avoid crowded rooms; her mind should kept calm and unruffled. Nothing disorders the milk so much as passion and other violent emotions of the mind.” I know my mother’s wet-nurse often suffered from passion, and it disordered everything!

A woman stands beside a bassinet and holds pasteurized but not passionate milk. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

We’ll keep your children well-fed and healthy too: “Don’t neglect to be sure that a child eats salt with his dinner. Let a mother see that this advice is followed, or evil consequences will inevitably ensure.” The evil consequences of normal blood pressure.

Keeping a youngster healthy can be quite difficult, but thankfully we have tips like this to follow: “Don’t purge an infant during teething or any other time. IF WE LOCK UP THE BOWELS, WE CONFINE THE ENEMY, AND THUS PRODUCE MISCHIEF.” The capitalization is original to the publication. Sounds serious.

Getting plenty of sodium at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

After a bath and a good meal, we’ll put your child down for a nap. “Don’t attempt to harden a young child by allowing him, in the winter time, to be in a bedroom without a fire, or by dipping him in cold water, or by keeping him with scant clothing on his bed. He ought to be kept comfortably warm.” It is tempting to make your baby sleep in a frigid room, but we must resist.

Women with their children in Central Park, 1909. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Of course, the trials don’t end once the child is no longer an infant; a child must grow up in a loving and incredibly rigid environment. We will encourage your small children to develop hobbies; “Don’t neglect the educative possibilities of the stamp collecting mania. A youth might become quite an authority on geography from this pastime.” We must remember that some hobbies, such as the brass or woodwind instruments, can be dangerous; “Don’t permit a youth to play the flute, blow the bugle or play any other wind instrument. It is injurious to the health; the lungs and windpipe are brought into unnatural action by them.”

A mother and children at a lodging house in New York. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

This last one is just common sense; “Don’t allow the child to be with persons who stutter, or have any extraordinary sort of ugliness.”

Raising children is not an easy task – even with these clear cut directions, moms of the world need to know how much we appreciate them.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen

Tenement Museum Gala 2018 Recap!

The Tenement Museum’s 3 Presidents: Ruth Abram, Morris J. Vogel & Kevin Jennings together at the 2018 Gala

What a night! The Tenement Museum’s 2018 Gala this week exceeded expectations, celebrating 30 years of the Tenement Museum and raising close to $1 million, which will be used to support the Museum’s ambitious new strategic direction.

The Ziegfeld Ballroom welcomed nearly 500 attendees on Tuesday, a crowd comprised of everyone from leading immigration advocates to New York City politicos.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, leading voice for the human rights of immigrants and one of our Gala honorees, gave an impassioned speech about the need for inclusivity and honesty in our national conversation on immigration and described the role the Tenement Museum must play in today’s debate:  “Our immigration past informs the present, which dictates the future.”

It was only fitting that during a celebration of Tenement Museum’s past, Ruth Abram, the founder of the Museum, would also be honored. She received the Founders Award and delivered a speech that looked both back and forward, expressing her pride that the Museum she established 30 years ago has such relevance today.

Other honorees included Paul J. Massey Jr, who previously served as Museum Board chair and The Boston Consulting Group, whose pro bono help was instrumental in developing the new strategic plan for the Museum.

Kevin with Gala honoree Jose Antonio Vargas

Kevin delivers his speech

In his speech outlining this new direction, Tenement Museum President Kevin Jennings stressed the importance of putting a human face on the immigrant experience and rejecting bigotry. Growing up with an uncle and grandfather who were active members of the Ku Klux Klan, he told attendees, “I know what bigotry and ignorance look like.”

“I also know how you overcome them,” he continued.

Kevin outlined the Museum’s plan moving forward to engage millions annually through a range of new initiatives. These initiatives include school curriculum development, Museum partnerships and digital media ventures, such as virtual reality and podcasting. The goal, Kevin says, is to deliver the Museum’s “superpower,” its trademark storytelling approach to educating about immigration, to the masses.

“We plan to educate America on how immigrants built – and continue to build – this nation,” he said.

It’s not too late to support the Gala! You may make a donation here

Kevin’s speech is available in full below:

I’d like to read you an email I got two weeks ago:

“I recently enjoyed the ‘Under One Roof’ tour. I work as a Nurse Practitioner and I couldn’t help but reflect on the lives of Chinese immigrants that we see in the hospital. I have met immigrants who live in illegal buildings with no water and heat. I also had another patient who at the young age of 91 lives with 4 families in an apartment and sometimes sleeps in the hallway due to lack of space. This makes me realize that the immigrant experience is not just one of the past but of the present. “

“The immigrant experience is not just one of the past but of the present. “ The writer’s words reminded me of those of my fellow southerner, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead: it isn’t even past.” Today’s headlines have echoes in the headlines of the past, echoes that remind us that America has often struggled to live up to its ideal of being a place where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses spoken of on the Statue of Liberty could indeed find refuge and build better futures for themselves and their families.

We live in one of those times now, a time in which our country is deeply divided over immigration and many feel we should close our doors to newcomers, some of whom come from unfamiliar lands and practice an unfamiliar religion.  The debate too often descends into the language of ignorance and bigotry, language which has no place in America…language I grew up with.

As you might be able to tell from this picture of my mother’s family, our roots are in Appalachia.  Not far from my hometown of Lewisville, North Carolina, there was a billboard that I remember well from my childhood.  My partner gave me a historic photo of that billboard a few years ago.  This is what it said.

My uncle was a member of the United Klans.

I know what ignorance and bigotry look like.

I also know how you overcome them.  President Lincoln once said, “I do not like that man: I must get to know him better.” Once you know someone, once you know their story – truly know them, as a fellow human being – it becomes nearly impossible to hate them.

That’s what makes this the perfect time for the Tenement Museum to launch a new phase in its own history.  In a time when ignorance pervades the public discourse, our superpower – our ability to tell stories, stories of real people who came to this country to build new lives and, in the process, built a new nation – is the antidote to fear and ignorance.

We know this works. For three decades people have walked the halls of 97 Orchard Street and learned the stories of the Moores, The Baldizzis, the Levines, and the other families that lived there and have left with a new appreciation of what immigrants have done for America.  As I often put it, nobody’s life was ever changed by a PowerPoint presentation: stories are what move hearts and minds, stories stir our spirit, stories change our lives.  And the Tenement Museum is really good at telling stories.

We now need to reach millions – not thousands – with those stories.

Our new strategic plan, developed with the pro bono help of tonight’s honoree the Boston Consulting Group, will help us take what we have perfected on Orchard Street to the rest of America.  We seek to both increase visitorship to our historic buildings on Orchard Street as well as to educate people who may never even visit New York.  We plan to use various channels to do so, including:

  • In New York State, for example, the study of immigration is required in 4th, 8th and 11th grades.  By developing and implementing comprehensive curriculum about immigration, we can potentially reach 400,000 young people in New York State alone each year.
  • OK, tell the truth: how many of you have been on your phones tonight?  Good.  We’re planning to meet you there.  Through virtual reality tours, augmented reality programs, podcasts and a host of other device-based interventions, we plan to take the tenement experience to your phone and enable you to learn from us no matter where you are logging on from.
  • Every place has its own history, and I believe people are hungry to know where they’ve come from.  By using our expertise at telling stories in partnership with museums and historical societies outside of New York, we can help build understanding for our immigrant forbearers in cities across America, just as we do every day here in New York City.

By these and other means we plan to dramatically increase our reach and impact over the next five years, so that we have meaningful interactions with a million people annuallyWe plan to educate America on how immigrants built – and continue to build – this nation.

To educate more people, we’ll need substantially more resources.  I know you’ve already been generous, but we’re hoping to raise an additional $200,000 to kick off some of the new initiatives I have spoken of tonight.  The Zegar Family Foundation is putting up the first $25,000 we need to reach that goal.  On your table there are pledge cards.  I hope you’ll consider making a special gift to help us educate even more Americans in the years to come.

I believe in the power of education.  Education took me from a trailer park on an unpaved dirt road in an unincorporated town in rural North Carolina to Harvard, where I became the first member of my family to graduate from college.  Education changed my world, and I know it can change lives.  Help us reach into the heart of America, and—through the use of education and the telling of stories — replace fear and ignorance with appreciation and respect.  Thank you.


Post by Jas Chana, Media & Communications Manager at the Tenement Museum

#NeverAgain and the Fighting Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire

Protest after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 4/5/1911. National Archives, General Records of the Department of Labor

This weekend, the whole world prepares to either watch or join in the March For Our Lives, with over 800 protests taking place over six continents. It also happens to be the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911.

On the surface, these two events have little in common. March For Our Lives is spurred by the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 started when a lit cigarette accidentally ignited a pile of rags at a garment factory, resulting in the deaths of 146 people, either from asphyxiation or from jumping from the 10-story building to escape the flames. Both horrifying, senseless tragedies, but without any common details.

The more I researched the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, however, the more I saw similarities.

When people discuss the 1911 fire these days, they might say something like, “Over a hundred people died in this really awful, preventable way, and people were so horrified it changed workplace safety laws forever.” As though the event happened in a vacuum, and was in itself the catalyst for change, when that is simply not true. And saying so does a disservice to all those, the workers still endangered and the families of those harmed, who organized themselves and fought for change.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwhich Village, March 25, 1911

On April 5,, 1911, just over a week after the fire, union organizers and workers held a march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Except they called it a funeral procession. Reports vary, but it’s estimated between 80,000-120,000 people marched for over six hours, with 300,000-400,000 people observing. Such a great number of people do not come out to mourn a single tragedy, no matter how large a tragedy it was. Something bigger was happening.

The people were protesting decades of workplace hazards and general disregard for the health and safety of workers, resulting in countless lives lost or permanently maimed. Now, in hindsight, we’re able to look at those lax laws and wonder how anyone could have allowed such things to occur. What little fire safety laws that existed were rarely enforced. Building owners could decide to save on cost by not installing fire escapes, fire sprinklers, or outward opening doors – and still were able to say the building was “fireproof.” Not to mention how unsanitary and hazardous most workplaces, often utilizing toxic chemicals or heavy machinery, were allowed to function free from enforced regulations.

Many lives were lost before March 25, 1911, due to corporate and government corruption waving away safety and health concerns. Part of the problem was many who were injured or killed in workplace accidents were young people – children – and immigrants who did not speak English and weren’t informed of the dangers of their job. They were people who did not know how to speak out in defense of their own lives. A majority of the people killed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were young Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, for example.

April 5th funeral procession, Kheel Center

On the day of the funeral procession, socialite and reformer Martha Bensley Bruere watched from her window. Of the display, she said:

“There have been no carriages, no imposing marshals on horseback; just thousands and thousands of working men and women carrying the banners of their trade through the long three-mile tramp in the rain. Never have I seen a military pageant or triumphant ovation so impressive; for it is not because 146 workers were killed in the Triangle shop – not altogether. It is because every year there are 50,000 working men and women killed in the United States – 136 a day; almost as many as happened to be killed together on the 25th of March; and because slowly, very slowly, it is dawning on these thousands on thousands that such things do not have to be!”

This sentiment reminds me of another quote, from legendary labor activist and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones: Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living. I’m also reminded of the succinct yet rallying cry of our new wave of gun control reformers, who know too well the similar statistics of gun deaths that occur in this country every day: #NeverAgain.”

But a single day’s protest, we all know, is not enough to exact change. It must be carried out at the highest levels of government. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The sorrow and anger of the community were too great… to be dissipated in a demonstration.” Prior to the funeral procession, civic leaders, religious figures, teachers, and reformers held a mass assembly to discuss what change needed to occur. “Out of that assembly emerged a Committee on Safety, which served as a clearinghouse of information on fire safety, and more importantly, because an effective political force.” The Committee was able to pass a bill in June 1911 creating the Factory Investigating Commission, whose sole purpose was “to investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on.”

Caption reads: “Who is responsible? Who is responsible for the murders of one hundred and forty-five young girls and men in the “fire proof” fire trap? On whose head rests the blame for the inadequate, antiquated, criminal stairs and single fire escape, made possible because the building was classed as “fireproof”? These dead girls cry aloud, not for revenge, but for justice. Their flame-racked bodies demand protection for the thousands of sister toilers who have not yet been sacrificed to fire. Their silent lips call, ‘Who is responsible?’” Detail of March 28, 1911 New York Evening Journal editorial cartoon.

The New York commission was the largest and most thorough study of workers’ safety done up to that point, compiled of a group of leaders and politicians fully dedicated to the cause. Between 1911 and 1912, the FIC held 59 public hearings around the state and interviewed 472 witnesses, compiling 7,000 pages of testimony. They investigated and visited workplaces ranging from meat packing plants to bakeries to printing shops, developing reports covering fire safety, building construction, machine guarding, ventilation, and more.

They uncovered numerous dangers prevalent in these workplaces, and in their 1912 report concluded that “Health is the principal asset of the working man and working woman,” and that the government “is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers.” While this seems like a fair, if somewhat obvious, declaration, the measures put forth by the FIC for a stricter code of factory safety and health laws were met with counter-attacks by the business owners who would be forced to implement these new rules.

One such attack involved accusing the commission of “making sensational and unfounded charges against industry and of using inexperienced investigators,” which sounds like the 1913 version “fake news.” They insisted the new labor code was unfair and impractical for employers, and the high costs would be taken out on the workers. Legislators who supported the industry tried introducing bills to weaken the safety and health laws in various ways, motivated, we can assume, not by any governmental obligation “to preserve the health of the workers.”

But the commission’s supporters were larger, and louder, and rallied in its defense. Eventually, the FIC’s achievements survived these attacks, with a total of 20 new laws providing stricter regulation of occupational safety and health conditions. Just as important, the commission sparked a new awareness of the health problems running rampant in the workplace, and authorities in other cities began their own investigations. Frances Perkins, an American hero, sociologist, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, called the FIC a “turning point” in American attitudes towards social responsibility.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Parkland shooting are not identical, but the aftermath of the fire is illustrative of how change cane come about: people come together, organize, speak out, and get the people in charge to support their cause.

At a memorial meeting a week after the fire, Rose Schneiderman, organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League, addressed the audience. “The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable,” she said. “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.” Replace “working people” with “students” — or even “Americans” — and you’ve got yourself a March For Our Lives protest sign.

Source: Getty Images News









Ode to a Plastic Covered Couch

Coney Island has its Cyclone, the American Museum of Natural History its dinosaurs, MoMA its Picassos. At the Tenement Museum, what elicits thrills these days is the 1960s plastic-covered sofa and armchair in our recreation of Ramonita Rivera Saez’s parlor. The furniture serves as a paean to this sociable Puerto Rican garment worker, who raised her children (and helped raise her grandchildren), embraced the Catholic community at St Teresa’s, and—as “matriarch of the building”—welcomed successive waves of immigrant families to 103 Orchard Street.

Visitors exploring our recently opened Under One Roof exhibit revel in the memories evoked by the shiny squeakiness of this plastic-covered furniture: “My great aunt had a sofa like this!”; “My grandmother covered her furniture too!”; “This brings back memories.” Plastic-covered furniture resonates for Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans, as it does for Americans of Chinese, Irish, and Italian origin. Those seat covers are a common denominator of 1960s and 1970s American family life and identity.

Many Americans who took seats on plastic covered furniture understood how migrations shaped their families. Some were the children and grandchildren of Eastern and Southern Europeans who came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before being stopped by the 1924 race-based immigration quotas. Some were among the refugees brought in by the Displaced Persons and Refugee Act of 1948. Some were those whose families had undertaken migrations from one region of the United States to another, from Puerto Rico to New York, from North Carolina to Brooklyn, from Mississippi to Milwaukee. In 1965 Congress passed the Hart Celler Immigration Reform Act, lifting race-based quotas and bringing Civil Rights Era ideals to immigration policy, expanding the idea of who could become American and enabling Asians, Africans and others to take seats on plastic-covered furniture.

Under One Roof focuses on how three families—the Epsteins, Saez-Velezes, and the Wongs—started over at 103 Orchard. They found work in the garment industry and raised their children on a Lower East Side that had become one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Their memories shed light on American identity and pluralism, its messiness and its beauty.

Individual homes allowed families to maintain their distinct traditions even as they gave them the space to learn how to negotiate the cultural and linguistic barriers their migrations exposed. The same record player in the Epstein home played cantorial music for Kalman and Rivka, and Paul Anka hits for Bella. Seated on their plastic-covered couch, Ramonita’s boys did their English homework, but by the 1960s also watched Spanish language stations 41 and 47. The Wong children had a desk where they worked on their public school and Chinese school assignments; they also devoured Marvel comic books and enjoyed The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels. In shared hallways families learned that being American was also about living with neighbors who came from other traditions. The three families experienced diversity daily through the cooking aromas emanating from airshafts, the foreign language conversations overheard in hallways, and the accented-English pleasantries they exchanged with neighbors in the stairway. Tenements schooled residents in shared living.

Conflicts, tensions and insensitivities inevitably arose as families adapted to their new lives. Coming home after a long day of factory work, Ramonita couldn’t decipher PS 42’s English-only notices. Her son, Andy Velez, remembers Italian boys chasing him when he crossed Chrystie Street. Bella Epstein recalls how her Catholic friend and neighbor, Rosetta, abruptly told Bella her parents weren’t invited to a party because they were Jewish. In the fifth grade, Yat Chung Wong became “Kevin” when his teacher distributed a list of “American” names and instructed Chinese students to adopt one before the bell rang. On a larger scale, neighborhood conflicts over control of the schools and housing resources fell out along ethnic lines, exacerbating tensions.

Despite the tensions and misunderstandings that separated them, people also overcame differences to form crucial ties on a daily basis. Andy and Jose Velez joined a Little Italy Boy Scout troop that made Andy a leader. Jose honed his carpentry skills under the tutelage of an Amish teacher, and turned on Sabbath lights at neighborhood synagogues. Rosetta’s abrupt declaration of family prejudices did not dent the hours of playtime that bonded her and Bella. Bella also befriended Barbara, the African-American girl she met at the park who became her favorite checkers partner. Kevin Wong speaks admiringly of Ramonita, who moved beyond her Spanish-language comfort zone to use English and made welcoming conversation in the halls with Chinese families. As well, the Velez brothers recall how neighbors brought them red envelopes and pastries on the Chinese New Year.

from left to right: the Wongs, the Epsteins, and the Saez-Velezes on Orchard Street. Photo by Julie Stapen Photography

As our country debates immigration, we still have much to learn from the tenements, and how our own daily experiences, and those of our ancestors, help shed light on an American identity that is dynamic and complex. Living under one roof and being part of a diverse country is not easy: its messiness and complexities demand constant discussion, negotiation and reflection. The Epstein, Velez and Wong children and grandchildren became nurses, doctors, soldiers, contractors, teachers, IT directors, lawyers, school administrators, and government employees, experiencing moderate economic mobility. Though they’ve left 103 Orchard, they’ve kept its lessons, cherishing an American identity that encompasses people of all backgrounds, religious and skin colors. They remind us that the American Dream has always been as much a spiritual as a material quest, a hope that our strength as a nation derives from the experience of people of all backgrounds living among one another.

We invite you to take a seat on Ramonita’s plastic covered sofa, and consider how your family stories contribute to our country’s ever evolving identity.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

7 Protests That Shook Lower Manhattan

New Yorkers have always known one idea to be true: there’s strength in numbers.

The history of this city is peppered with revolutions that reflect the issues of the neighborhood and the people populating them. The protests of Lower Manhattan reflect the people who lived here – immigrants, students, workers, and marginalized communities who made an effort to stand up for their beliefs, despite the risks in doing so.

Below is a timeline of seven uprisings and riots, stretching from the 19th century to the 21st century. Each story shows the unwavering courage of the protester, the importance of a unified community, and the timeless strength and spirit of the New Yorker. From low wages to no wages, from civil rights to overpriced meat – each cause, in the end, proved to be worth the fight.


Our American Holiday: Refugees and the Meaning of Hanukkah

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.” 

Bella Epstein (right) with her sister on Orchard Street

Every winter, Bella Epstein (Under One Roof) would gather with her family to light the Hanukkah candles. Her mother Rivka, a Holocaust survivor, always insisted that Bella’s childhood be filled with light and color and joy, so it’s likely the new American way of celebrating would have been adopted by them early on. For eight nights, their traditions would come to include catchy songs, lively games, and treasured presents. And their menorah would be one of many illuminating the windows of the tenements on Orchard Street.  

In the Jewish faith, every moment is a story. And from every story, comes an opportunity to learn, to interpret new meaning from centuries-old tales in order to make sense of modern-day hardships. The story of Hanukkah is one such tale – how can one relate to a two thousand-year-old victory by the Maccabees against the Syrian Greek army? 

While there is much to be appreciated from a military battle, it is the story of the aftermath, the survivors, the miracle of their continuation that early Rabbis chose to focus on. Hanukkah is the holiday of rededication, in remembrance of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem which had been sacked and destroyed during the fighting. “Very few remember when the Temple was first dedicated,” says Rabbi David Wolpe, “but almost all Jews remember when it was rededicated.” 

The Rabbi goes on to say how people who have experienced such unbelievable hardship, such as “Holocaust survivors, refugees who fled oppression, people plagued with illness and others to whom life has dealt cruel blows,” – how they might take this concept of rededication to heart. Given every reason to despair, to grow cold, to become hateful, a bright future is possible, if one is strong and determined enough to rededicate themselves to a better life. 

It is both easy to imagine and hard to contemplate the mixture of emotions felt by Holocaust refugees Regina and Kalman Epstein, when their ship arrived in New York Harbor on April 22, 1947. Trepidation, exhaustion, fear, hope. By the time their daughter Bella was born the following year, the Epsteins had begun adjusting to the American way of life. They had a home in New York City, were starting a family, and were taking part in their community.  

While we don’t know for sure how the Epsteins celebrated, there is evidence of Hanukkah celebrations taking place in the ghettos and camps throughout Europe during World War II. Both Regina and Kalman were religious, and during times of great persecution, the importance of these rituals increased, even if the rituals themselves had to be subdued. “Already in the Talmud,” says Rabbi Wolpe, “there are provisions for lighting secretly in times of persecution.”   

Jews in the Westerbork transit camp in Holland light candles for the seventh night of Chanukah.

We can surmise, though, the shock they must have felt, living in American in the years following World War II, and seeing the differences in the holiday celebration. By this period of time, Hanukkah had already started to become the Jews answer to Christmas. In the late 19th century, America was going through a lot of changes. Waves of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization created an attitude of upheaval. Emphasizing winter holidays became a way of boosting American morale. The sentimental home celebrations became even more important, with two major wars being fought overseas in the first half of the 20th century. And, by the time the Epsteins lived in New York in the 1950s, American manufacturers were making and selling goods at a higher volume than ever, and the middle class was born. People used the opportunity of the holidays to showcase their wealth, as well as providing delights for children that parents never received themselves. 

Hanukkah in America meant something extra, though, for Jews immigrating to the U.S. After decades of persecution – from the pogroms in the 19th century to the Holocaust in the 20th – here was a place they could celebrate their religion openly. Here, their holiday was mainstream. 

Giant Hanukkah candlelight ceremony at JCC, circa 1950 (Courtesy of the Center for Jewish History)

Bella describes the bravery of her parents as they put up a mezuzah in the doorway of their American home. The courage that took, after escaping such horror, to proudly proclaim their Judaism. For refugees and survivors of persecution, maintaining a custom becomes an act of valor. 

The Jewish tradition is the tradition of storytelling, and many of these stories are ones of struggle, oppression, and subjugation. In that sense, each Hanukkah candle becomes the hero of that story, glowing in the windows of tenements and houses over the decades and throughout the country. 

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!


Our American Holiday: Saint Nicholas Day

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.”

Children around a Christmas tree. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Today, on Saint Nicholas Day, we’re exploring the traditional American Christmas celebrations, many of which are actually a product of German immigrants – from spiced cookies and wine, to the ever-present, always-beautiful Christmas tree.

Imagine it’s evening on Orchard Street, December 1871, and though the streets, homes, and saloons of Kleindeutschland are crowded and noisy with people, the song that rings out into the cold is a newer German classic: “Stille Nacht.” Otherwise known as “Silent Night.”

We may not know exactly how John and Caroline Schneider, saloon owners discussed on our Shop Life tour, were celebrating that Christmas, but we can easily infer it was a festive night for them. The New York Times describes the revelries of Christmas Eve, 1871 as a joyous, busy affair, especially for business owners:

“Among the Germans Sunday was a busy day in making preparations for Christmas Eve, which is a German family and children’s festival. A feature of this is always the brilliantly illuminated Christmas tree, decorated with toys, confectionary, and holiday gifts for the young.  As the weather was delightful yesterday, the principal thoroughfares on the east side, the Bowery, Division, Grand and Houston Streets, were crowded with persons, patronizing the shops where Holiday goods were retailed, which yesterday were kept open for the occasion.  The places of amusement in the Bowery, the beer saloons and other public places, were decorated with Christmas trees, and many of these places were illuminated in the evening.”

Tenement Museum costumed interpreters portraying Caroline and John Schneider, on our Live! at the Tenement program “Last Call at Schneider’s Saloon.”

Christmas had only become a National Holiday the year before, but German immigrants like the Schneiders would have been celebrating every year, and their customs are now what we know as traditional Christmas features in America. Having a celebration on Christmas Eve in general was first part of the German festivities, as are holiday markets, letters to Santa, gingerbread houses, and, of course, the Christmas tree. Preparations for Christmas began even earlier than December 1 (so the next time someone tries to shame you for listening to Christmas music in November, inform them you are just partaking in a centuries-old German tradition.) The lead-up to Christmas is known as the Advent, which takes place throughout the month of December.

The most famous of these Advent days is St. Nicolas Day and is, as you might have guessed, the foundation for another Christmas tradition – Santa Claus. However, St. Nicolas visits the children of Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland on December 5th, not the 24th, and the holiday is seen as a preliminary to Christmas.

Still practiced in some areas today, children would place freshly polished boots in front of doors, under windows, or at the foot of their beds before heading to bed. Then, St. Nicolas would leave gifts – candy, nuts, and toys – inside the shoes to be found the next morning by well-behaved children. Unlike Santa Claus, though, St. Nicolas had a counterpart known as either Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, who teased the badly-behaved kids with a switch, or gave them goal instead of presents.

But while German children might have been more excited by St. Nicolas Day, Christmas Eve was the biggest of the celebrations. This is when families would exchange gifts (rather than on Christmas morning) and parents would reveal the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to the children. Outside the home, the religious would go sing carols and attend midnight Mass. Everyone else would go to the saloons.

The Schneiders most likely decorated their saloon with a Christmas tree, and John, a talented musician, would have filled the warm bar with music and songs. Yes, German immigrants were likely the first to start “rockin’ around the Christmas tree.”  John’s home region of Franconia is famous for its Lebkuchen, a tradition Christmas cookie that Caroline might have made for her customers to snack on year-round. And while the Schneiders typically just sold beer at their saloon, Caroline likely made Glühwein for the holidays. A delicious spiced wine served hot, Glühwein would have paired well with the Lebkuchen and all the other traditional German food that the Schneiders gave away for their free lunch.

Immigrating to a new country is always a trial, even when still surrounded by fellow countrymen like that in Little Germany. But with the holidays being a time to celebrate family, good will, and community, these cherished traditions are essential in making a new home feel like home. And likewise, over time, these rituals become adopted, and blended into their current landscape, creating what some might call “the new old-fashioned way.”

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!


The Tenement Museum has a wide array of books, housewares, gifts, knick-knacks, and memorabilia to make your holiday season one for the history books! Everyone likes getting gifts, but is there anything better than being known among your friends and family as the person who gets everyone the perfect present? We’re here to help your claim that title, my friend, with our unique collection of gifts for all the HOSTS, NEW YORKERS, TRAVELERS, and KIDS in your life!
For the HOST…

Whether you’re having friends and family over, or you want to thank a loved one for opening up their home, we have the perfect items to make hosting a breeze.

  • Click to purchase: Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, $18.95


Stuff you won’t find at an airport gift shop! We at the Tenement Museum know there’s no such thing as a singular type of New Yorker. You don’t have to be born here to love this city, or these gifts.

  • Click to purchase: Brownstone Candle, $34.99


Here are all the basic necessities to help your wanderlust-filled loved ones set out on new adventures and craft new memories in 2018.

  • Click to purchase: See The World 2018 Planner, $14.99


For the KIDS…

We don’t have Tenement Museum fidget spinners (though keep an eye out for the 2018 Holiday Gift Guide!) but hopefully this collection of books, toys, and activities will keep the kids entertained for at least 30 minutes.

  • Click to purchase: This Book is a Planetarium, $40


Happy shopping, and happy holidays from the Tenement Museum!


The Gunfight at Rivington Street

On a warm Tuesday night in 1903, the Levine family was most likely settling in for a much-needed night’s rest. If you’ve taken our “Sweatshop Workers” tour, you’ll know that Harris Levine ran a sweatshop out of his tiny apartment at 97 Orchard Street. His wife, Jenny, spent her long days cooking, cleaning, and caring for their five children, one of whom, Fay, had only just recently been born. This is a family that needed their sleep, but one can imagine that on the night of September 15, 1903, their dreams were interrupted by the thunderous sound of gunfire and destruction only a block away. 

For on Rivington Street and Allen Street, a bloody gang shootout was in full-swing between the Lower East Side’s Eastman Gang and the rival Five Points Gang. The battle lasted for hours, a culmination of conflict between the two gangs over territory and criminal opportunities. There’s no doubt that, if Harris and Jenny were jarred awake that night, they would have known exactly who was causing all that trouble. 

Edward “Monk” Eastman ran his Jewish-American gang beginning in the 1890s. The 1,200 or so “Eastmans” ran brothels, protection rackets, and drug rings on the Lower East Side, as well as murder-for-hire. They were associated with the corrupt politicians at Tammany Hall, who would turn a blind eye to their criminal activities in exchange for their services.  

The Five Points Gang was run by an Italian-American named Paul Kelly, formed out of the remnants of earlier 19th century gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Whyos. They were an army of about 1,500, entrenched in robberies, racketeering, prostitution rings, and also worked as strong-arm men for Tammany Hall. When they finally waned in 1910, they helped train the next generation of mob bosses, such as Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone. 

September 15th was a hot day, a busy day. It was Election Day, and a ceasefire had been issued across New York City. Both gangs had been instructed by Tammany Hall to help secure their votes, by whatever means necessary. This typically entailed intimidation and voter fraud – submitting voting slips for people who didn’t exist, or who weren’t able to vote.  

After fulfilling their “civic duty”, these Bowery toughs were looking to unwind. The first fight started when about 40 of Eastman’s men entered Livingston’s saloon on 1st Avenue and 1st Street. Immediately, they got into altercations with some men already inside, resulting in one man, Anton Bernhauer, being shot through both cheeks by an Eastman gang member. According to The Evening World paper which came out the following day, Bernhauer had been trying to leave when he’d caught the bullet, and had been “spitting out his teeth as he ran” all the way to the Bellevue Hospital. 

The fighting spilled out into the streets and over blocks, fueled by previous aggressions and probably a lot of liquor. The worst occurred just before midnight, when about six members of the Eastman gang stumbled upon an equal number of Five Pointers, getting ready to rob an Eastman-run card game beneath the elevated subway on Allen Street.  

Beneath the Allen St. subway, by Berenice Abbott

Nowadays, Allen Street is a flowery, sunny, wide street with winding bike and pedestrian paths, and benches and tables to stop and take it all in. But in 1903, Allen was known as “the street of perpetual shadow,” both because of the constant darkness beneath the elevated railroad tracks and for all the crime and prostitution that went on there.  

As soon as the gangs saw each other, weapons were drawn and the firefight began, shots firing indiscriminately. More gangsters hightailed it to the battle, so that by the time the first cops tried to intervene, there were roughly fifty men all shooting at each other (though they did take a quick break to shoot at the first two cops instead). The gangs had turned out the streetlamps, and in the shadows the only lights were the sparks of bullets ricocheting off the ironworks.  

By midnight, the number had raised to 100 gang members, firing at each other beneath the train tracks and stretching out over several blocks. At one point, Monk Eastman himself arrived and began directing the shooting like an army officer (some foreshadowing, as Monk would later enlist in the armed forces and become something of a war hero during WWI), and though Paul Kelly had not been recorded as being there, it’s unlikely that he’d miss such an event. Finally, reserves from several police stations arrived, banded together like an army themselves, and stormed Rivington Street. For a good fifteen minutes, there was nothing but the sound of shooting. Men were even reported on the rooftops, throwing bricks down at police officers.  

Eventually, the gang members dispersed and only a few were arrested, including Monk Eastman. He claimed he’d just been a bystander passing through, and with no one willing to bear witness to the event, he was set free, along with most of the other members of his gang. In the end, only two men died from the event, both Five Pointers: John Carroll, who was shot by a detective, and Michael Donovan, who had been shot in the stomach and refused to identify the man who shot him, saying, “I know who shot me, and when I get out, I’ll fix em.” Several more were injured, including one of Eastman’s chief lieutenants, George “Lolly” Meyers. Meyers had been one of the few arrested, and hadn’t said anything about the bullets lodged in both legs as he was moved around from place to place and examined by policemen and lawyers. His injuries were only discovered a full 24-hours later, when the pain was too much for him to bear silently any longer.  

The next morning, the residents of the Lower East Side, including the Levines, could see the evidence of the night’s previous battle. Many of the windows of nearby tenements had been broken, and there was clear damage to the ironworks of the subway track and to the trains that ran overhead as the fighting went on. Public outrage over the incident made it difficult for politicians to keep turning a blind eye to the goings-on of their criminal allies, and a city-wide crackdown was issued against all gang members, including the Eastmans and the Five Pointers. But crime never truly lessened because of it, and when the Levines finally moved out of 97 Orchard the following year, the safety of their family was likely one crucial factor to finding a new home.  

Rivington and Allen Streets in 2017

An Updated History of the Undocumented Immigrant

This is the small boat of the Immigration Service which carried aliens from the pier to Ellis Island. Sometimes the number of immigrants waiting was so great, that they waited for several days and nights before the little ferry boat could bring them to the island. Photo-study by Lewis W. Hine

by Lewis Hine

Immigration is very much on everyone’s mind this week with the announcement of the Trump Administration’s decision to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. It’s a decision that puts the future of 800,000 immigrants in jeopardy, as it affects their homes, their education, and their jobs. The threat of deportation is very real for these 800,000 young people, who have only ever known America as their home. Government policy has a longstanding history in the United States of both embracing and keeping out immigrants, of both reuniting families and tearing them apart. But an understanding of this history is the only way in which to learn from it, which is why we strive every day to tell this story.

When we talk about immigrants at the Tenement Museum, our intent is to find a common understanding of the American Dream, whether that dream was realized in 1874 or 2017. We seek to inform our visitors with the stories of everyday immigrants trying to make a life for themselves. We hope that by learning of their dreams and the trials they overcame, our visitors might come to a conclusion themselves for a question we often pose on our tours: What does it mean to be American?

A group of Slavic immigrants register many shades of emotion. The baby salutes his new home - quite a family group. Photo-study by Lewis W. Hine

by Lewis Hine

Because the families we talk about only lived at 97 Orchard from 1863 to1935, we typically reserve the legal facts to the immigration laws that might have affected them specifically. We might discuss how, before the late 1800s, the U.S. had few immigration policies. The American Immigration Council (AIC) points out that it is impossible to judge where someone’s ancestors who came here at that time did so “legally,” as there was a period when there were not many ways to immigrate here “illegally.” As the AIC notes, “most of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws.”

We talk about how the agents at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, were more concerned about immigrants arriving free of disease, and that they had enough cash so as not to be a “drain on the tax dollars.” We talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is the first time the government prohibited specific ethnic groups from entering. We talk about the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which strengthened restrictions on Chinese immigrants, as well as Southern and Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian peoples.

Rosaria Baldizzi, mother of two, who entered the U.S. in the 1930s as an undocumented immigrant from Italy

We also might talk about Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s, who worked on procedures to help those struggling against these tight immigration prohibitions. She would encourage undocumented immigrants to take a day-trip up to Canada, only to re-enter the United States as a legal permanent resident. We know Rosaria Baldizzi, one of the matriarchs on our Hard Times tour, likely took advantage of this loophole.

With the addition of our upcoming exhibit, Under One Roof, we are able to keep the history of American immigration moving. We’ll soon be able to discuss in context the Immigration Act of 1965. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) abolished the national-origins quota system of the Johnson-Reed Act, eliminating the discriminatory practice of denying immigration to the U.S. based on race, ancestry, or national origin. This Act resulted in a new wave of immigrants coming to our country from all over, but especially from China. One of our new families, the Wongs, were able to make it to the United States because of the Hart-Celler Act.

Mrs. Wong, who was able to immigrate to the United States after the passing of the Hart-Celler Act

We may even find a way to discuss the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). This law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, sanctioned and fined employers for “knowingly” hiring undocumented immigrants. But the Act also provided amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. Although in hindsight, the law is not considered a success, the amnesty is provided is seen today as one of the few benefits. A former Reagan speechwriter named Peter Robinson said, “It was in Ronald Reagan’s bones — it was part of his understanding of America — that the country was fundamentally open to those who wanted to join us here.”

We could also mention the Immigration Act of the 1990s, which raised the annual cap on immigration and revised the political ideological grounds for exclusion and deportation. It also allowed people coming from countries afflicted by natural disasters or armed conflict to be granted “temporary protected status.” By the turn of the century, immigration had become heavily linked to national security. Several programs and laws were passed singling out foreign-born Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, as well as mandated improvements and tamper-resistant documents for entry, the prevention of obtaining a driver’s license without proof of citizenship, and the building of an additional 850 miles of fences along the Mexico border.

Tenement Museum educator Raj Varma was naturalized in 2013 at a ceremony held at the Tenement Museum

By looking at the scope of our immigration history, we can see that it has moved like a pendulum, both for the benefit of and the disadvantage of immigrants. Our history is one of inclusion and exclusion. With all this knowledge, we then become better suited to answer the question: What does it mean to be an American, and who gets to make that decision for the nation? At one point does an immigrant truly become an American, the day of their naturalization ceremony or their first day of school? The day they arrived or the first day they start thinking of this country as “home”?

This is an updated version “A History of the Undocumented Immigrant” first posted on the Tenement Museum blog in 2013.