Wednesday, January 05, 2011

living history

Happy 2011! I hope you enjoyed the holidays. We took some much-needed time off last week while S was on school break, and it was wonderful to hang out, see some friends, and relax for a while. That giant snowstorm threw off our plans a bit, but I like a good snow day or two every once in a while.


Do you remember reading All-of-A-Kind Family as a kid? I loved those books, maybe in part because they were about another family of five girls. (Although, in truth, I think I read them before my two youngest sisters were born, so that theory may not hold). Anyway, we've been reading them to S, who really enjoys them too. The stories and history are so much more meaningful to me now because the books are set in our neighborhood and capture some of the history of the area. They tell the story of a Jewish family living on the lower east side of Manhattan in the early 1900's. Many Jewish traditions are explained, and you get a real sense of what life was like in our city 100 years ago. I was fascinated to discover that the stories are based on the author's childhood.

Since it fit so nicely with the All-of-A-Kind books, we took a little tour of the Tenement Museum during our vacation. We had a little time between buying our tickets and the start of the tour, so we also squeezed in a quick visit to the Museum at Eldridge Street, which is located nearby. The museum was originally a synagogue that was built in 1887, so it fits into the same time period as the books and might resemble the synagogue in the story. The building fell into terrible disrepair but recently completely a 20-year restoration that left it looking extraordinary. Every surface is covered with pattern and decoration in a very elegant manner that was carefully researched from the original decor. I was particularly amazed by the grooves that had been worn into the floors from thousands of worshippers rocking back and forth over the years and which were left intact during the restoration. Since the original stained glass window at the front was destroyed, the replacement was designed by artist Kiki Smith. Can you see what a beautiful space it is? I'd like to return for a tour when we have a little more time.






Touring the Tenement Museum is an eye-opening experience. The apartments are so tiny! It's difficult to imagine a family of seven people living together in such a tiny space. And yet the tour guide told extraordinary tales of the real families who lived and raised their many children in these minute spaces. All without indoor plumbing or electricity, and often running a garment-making business in the same small space. (The neighborhood was at the heart of the garment center at the time.)

photo by Steve Cadman


photo from the Tenement Museum

We picked up a children's book, If You Lived 100 Years Ago, at the gift shop, and S has been intrigued by all the approachable facts and clever illustrations inside. I've learned a lot from it, too. For my own reading, I've reserved a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire from the library.


We stopped at the Essex Street Market to get a little more lower east side history (and a little dinner) on our way home.

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about All-of-A-Kind Family, here is an online reader's companion with a lot of additional information about the author, the books, and the history.

17 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorite children's series of all time! I can't wait to share it with my own daughter. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. I loved those books! My daughters might enjoy them too. Maybe we'll visit our library to find them. :) Thanks for the post. I would love to visit all the places you mentioned here. Perhaps on our next visit to New York...

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  3. I wanted to thank you for a very enlightening, instructive post, but especially for mentioning All of a Kind Family, which was a favorite childhood read that I had forgotten. I can't wait to find a copy to read to my children!

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  4. May I also recommend Katharine Weber's "Triangle" as further background on the fire?

    Both of my daughters also greatly enjoyed "All-of-a-Kind Family".

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  5. What a fun day! I've never really thought about what people on the East Coast were doing 125 years ago. Out here people were still homesteading. Now you've got me interested in learning more. :)
    And the window in the synagogue is gorgeous!

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  6. I loved this series when I was a kid, and I think it helped this Catholic girl from the South get a sense of other religious/ethnic groups, plus I also had 2 little sisters and loved to go to the library. I've since given these books to my own nieces.

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  7. The Tenement Museum was a (surprise) highlight of one of our NY trips, the young woman guide adding hugely to the experience. As you say, hard to imagine the lives of those who lived there.

    We haven't visited the Eldridge St museum but it's on the list for next time!

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  8. Growing up an only child in the Midwest, I loved reading the All of A Kind Family books too, precisely because they seemed so very different from my own (boring, white bread) life. Thanks for reminding me of them now that my kid is of a good age to revisit NYC and this time in history.

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  9. I am always amazed at how our forefathers lived. I wonder what they would say at the McMansions?

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  10. Just a quick note to let you know that a link to this post will be placed on CraftCrave today [07 Jan 01:00am GMT]. Thanks, Maria

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  11. I haven't heard of those books. So thanks for sharing them. I came from 4 girls, so I would love to share them with my girl too! And the synagogue sounds gorgeous!

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  12. Hi! I came across your blog recently and read your inspiring posts about NY.
    I'm portuguese and soon i'll be living in NY for a few months with my husband and our 2 months old baby girl. Can you give any tips about how we can make the most of our stay and really enjoy our time there?

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  13. The synagogue is gorgeous and is now on my list (as well as the Tenement Museum) for places to visit the next time I get to the city. My husband and I were in NYC the first of December and I went to the Whitney and saw the Charles LeDray show. Thank you for posting about it. By strange coincidence, we had dinner with Mr. LeDray the same evening!

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  14. Absolutely captivating! This (the books and the museum) look incredible.

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  15. Anonymous2:14 AM

    I loved those books. One of my favorites scenes was when one sister borrows her sibling's white dress, spills tea on it, and then had to dye the dress in tea to cover the stain.

    Another memory: The clean up chores when the mother would occasionally hide a penny under the furniture to be found by an assiduous little cleaner.

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  16. I would love to visit that museum - looks fascinating! Another great book on this topic (for adults) is: We Shall Not Be Moved: The Women's factory strike of 1909. By Joan Dash

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  17. What's amazing to me is how much your snap from the Tenement Museum looks like Tenement House in Glasgow (Scotland)- so much so that I had to scroll back up to the top of the post and check that I'd read the city right! Clearly at the time the UK and the US weren't so far apart.

    Tenement is still a well known word in Scotland-I live in a tenement flat- and we tend to think that people elsewhere don't know it. If i ever make it to New York I shall be sure to check this out!

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