Friday, October 31, 2014

Life in Tenements

I was thrilled to be able to stay in a real tenement in New York earlier this month.  However, I purchased the book, How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis, at the Tenement Museum, and found how sad life in these buildings really was.  I almost did not buy the book after glancing at the photos he took over 100 years ago to illustrate his points.  The filth and poverty is unimaginable.  The Blue Moon Hotel is built in a "newer" tenement, dating from 1879.  There had been reforms by then, the most important was providing air ducts into the bedrooms.  I realized my hotel room had two of these, one in the now shower.  Here is the other:

So my room would have had two small bedrooms and a living room/kitchen that looked out on Orchard Street.  The beam in the ceiling is likely the divider between these.  The "inside" windows may have let in a bit of stale air and virtually no light, but this was an improvement on the closets which served as bedrooms in the older buildings that had no air or light. 

History can be very sad, and thinking about the lives of immigrants who came to this country with high hopes of escaping poverty and starvation, only to live in these conditions is heartbreaking.  It is no wonder some turned to lives of crime, and it is no wonder children died at such a high rate.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Staying in a Tenement

Last weekend I was an exhibitor at The Genealogy Event in Lower Manhattan.  I needed a place to stay, and while searching for a hotel I ran across the Blue Moon Hotel in the Lower East Side.  Built in an old tenement building and directly across the street from the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, I knew this was the dream location for a genealogist (especially one whose ancestors were poor immigrants and surely stayed in a similar building)!  

The Blue Moon Hotel is a perfect blend of the good sides of both worlds- my stay there was like stepping back 125 years but with all the modern amenities.  My room probably housed a family of 12 in 1880, but was huge for just me!  In the evenings I could open the window and sit on the wide sill and watch the bustle on Orchard Street, yet the new windows were sound-proof at night.  Much of the old wood trim and tiles have been salvaged to decorate the hotel. 

The view from my window.
The neighborhood is filled with little restaurants and shops.  I was able to attend the Lower East Side Pickle Day, too, and sample all sorts of pickles including a pickle cupcake and a pickle ice cream sandwich! 

For any historian or genealogist, or just someone looking for a unique hotel, I would recommend a stay at the Blue Moon Hotel.  It is a little piece of history.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The War to End Wars

My family has had an ongoing interest in WWI.  Maybe it is watching so much BBC, starting with "Upstairs, Downstairs", then "Brideshead Revisited" and most recently "Downton Abbey".  The interest also extends to books.  We avidly read all the Charles Todd mysteries, and more recently, Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel.  This morning I read this article, and found the archives with the digitized journals- what a treasure trove for historians!

As a genealogist, I have found that one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI, but in the Italian army, even though he lived in the US.  We have a photo taken of him in Palermo, Sicily, in full uniform.  My grandmother remembered him going to war, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters.

More interesting is my great-grandfather-in-law, who was inadvertently key to the creation of Bletchley Park in WWII...  His story is told in David Kahn's Seizing the Enigma.  Because the story of his war service and adventures are not told beyond this even, I should record it to preserve it for posterity.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Family Recipes

Many families have recipes that have been handed down, and dishes that evoke childhood.  My family memories revolve around food too.  Grandma Nellie making chicken cacciatore (which as a child I was really disappointed in but now love), Grandpa Eddie's veal cutlet (no dish even in Austria comes close), Aunt Elinore cookies, Aunt Kathryn's vegetable soup... but one recipe my cousins, aunts, sister, mother and I still think about are Grandma Elsie's pickles.

Grandma's recipe box got lost at some point- she may have thrown it away herself accidentally, and my mother and aunts have most of the recipes anyway, but no one has the pickle one.  These pickles were a big production.  She got a big crock from a yard sale or something like that.  I don't know if she ever made them before she was retired or if it was a nostalgic food memory of her own, but I remember she had to hunt down little cucumbers at the farmers market, and I remember all the grandchildren looking at the scum-covered crock in horror.  We would go down in the basement and peek at it as a dare.  But most of all I remember the sharp spicy taste of those pickles.  Last summer a new friend mentioned making pickles, and I asked her about them.  She said that type is called "crock pickles" and she had never made them.  I did some research, and the longer they ferment, the spicier they become.  One of my aunts thought Grandma might have put horseradish in too.  So this morning, I bought some little cucumbers from a farm market and I made a batch of crock pickles.  I am using a big glass jar, and the cucumbers are bigger than the ones Grandma used, but it is an experiment.  Next summer I will grow little cucumbers in my garden, and if this batch comes even close, I will also buy a big crock to ferment them in. 
My crock pickles in the basement on the first day.

It would be fun to write a cookbook that gathers these family recipes along with the stories about the relative it came from.  We even have some cards still written by the original great-aunt or grandmother.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When I'm not in the office...

I work from home, or rather from wherever my laptop is.  One of my clients asked me what my office is like.  It actually doubles as a fiber art studio, but I have a window by my desk, so I can look outside in the winter and watch the birds at the feeder.  In the nice weather, I go out here and sit by my pond.  If you look closely, you can see a couple of my goldfish.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Where genealogy and sewing collide

I have been on a sewing binge.  I was inspired this spring to make a 1920's theme summer wardrobe, and I was adding a chambray dress today when I ran out of light blue thread.  I did not buy matching thread because I was sure I had several spools, but the full spool is buttonhole thread, so too thick for the sewing machine.  I looked in my thread basket and in the box of student supplies for a class I want to teach, and nothing...  Not wanting to trek back to the fabric store, I was ready to quit for the weekend when I remembered one other place.  I inherited my Grandma's sewing box. 

It isn't really a box; it is one of those 1950's cocktail boxes.  She didn't drink cocktails and she didn't sew, but there were two spools of cadet blue thread in there!  I remember when I was a little girl, and already sewing that she told me she took millinery instead of sewing in school, and regretted it.  So why did she have so much blue thread?  I realized it was for my Grandpa's uniforms- he was a bus driver for RTS his entire working life, and his father did the same before him on trolleys and then buses.  A couple of weeks ago I bought a commemorative set of RTS tokens in honor of them. 

Now I will also be wearing a piece of my heritage!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Dress, Part 2...

The poor dress was in such bad condition, but at least now it looks like a dress and not a dishrag.  There is a label inside that says "Oppenheim & Collins, Co."  This was a women's clothing store established in New York city in 1901, and in Buffalo, NY in 1905.  (

This is the front of the dress, I believe.  There is an underlayer of silk that has completely disintegrated, and the brown net trim is very fragile and is staining the cream color.  But the beading is fairly intact.

This is the dress from the back.  I don't know if the low V was possibly lined.  I am also guessing about the placement of the beaded belt around the waist.  There are several snaps and hook and eyes that I cannot match up.  But there was some mending done on the dress before I did any, so it is possible someone else moved things around.

The dress is really too fragile to hang up, let alone wear, and I think it will be placed back in the dresser at the museum for the next person to discover.