The American Immigrant Experience: The Brotman Story

I’ve been looking over the data I have for all the people on our family tree, starting with Joseph through the children born in the 21st century.  By looking at the various ways our family members have supported themselves, we can see a snapshot of the American immigrant story.

On Gussie’s birth certificate in 1895, Joseph’s employment is listed as a wood and coal dealer. According to the 1900 US census, Joseph worked as a coal agent in the Lower East Side. His death certificate also listed his employment as coal agent; on Sam’s birth certificate he is described as a coal carrier.  As you can imagine, this was hard and dirty work. In an article on the coal industry in Michigan, a son recalled how is father would look after working at a coal yard in Michigan: “Dad would use twine to tie his pants and cuffs so not so much coal would get on his skin. He looked like a clown with his pants blowing out, neckerchief around his neck….The dust would crawl up his pant legs—he’d soak his feet up to his knees every night.”  Another son of a man who delivered coal recalled how black the water would be in the tub after his father took a bath.

In a website devoted to the history of a coal company based in Camden, New Jersey, there is the following description of the type of work Joseph did:

“The man would arrive in a wagon with sacks of coal neatly stacked on top. He would climb onto the wagon and move the sacks to the edge ready for unloading. His face and hands would be completely black from coal dust and he wore a cap or head cloth, which hung down his back. He would grab hold of a sack at the top, turn round, bend forward and pull it onto his back. He then had to walk quite a few yards to the coal cellar, maybe down some steps and then ‘pour’ the coal out of the bag.”

At that same time, Joseph’s older children were also working.  In the 1900 census, Hyman is listed as working as a buttonhole maker and Tilly as a flower maker, obviously both working in the sweatshops described in Streets.  They were both just teenagers at the time.  (That same census reported that neither Joseph nor Hyman could read, write or speak English at that time.)

Joseph’s children, however, were able to free themselves from these oppressive and backbreaking forms of employment.

Hyman was still working as a buttonhole maker in 1917 according to his draft registration papers and his naturalization papers, but soon thereafter left the sweatshops. In 1920 he was working as a chauffeur.  In 1925 he was working in Jersey City as a confectioner, and in 1930 he was working as a storekeeper in a cigar store (perhaps for Max?) and apparently supporting not only his wife and children, but also his father-in-law and his brother-in-law and his wife.  In 1940 his occupation is listed as a bookseller in a bookshop, and in 1942 he simply listed himself as self-employed on his draft registration card.  We know from his grandchildren and from my mother that at some point he owned a liquor store in Hoboken.  So Hyman went from being a poor boy on the Lower East Side, working in a sweatshop and not speaking or reading English, to an independent business owner over the course of his adult life.

Max, a conductor on the railroad in 1900, had his own cigar business by 1910, which continued to be his source of income through the 1940s. Tillie also left the sweatshop world after she married, and she and her husband Aaron owned a grocery store in Brooklyn.  Gussie, who helped Tillie and Aaron by caring for their children while they ran their grocery store, married Isadore, who worked at a dairy company as a milkman.  Abraham worked as a tailor for almost all of his working life and in a restaurant in Brooklyn later in his life.  Frieda was working as a “finisher” in the feather business, which I assume was in the garment industry, in 1920, not too long before she married.  Sam worked as a stock clerk, then in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and ultimately as a cab driver in New York City.

Thus, by 1920 or so, all of Joseph’s children had left the Lower East Side and had found occupations that took them out of the sweatshops.   Three of them became independent business owners, and the others found work in various trades that did not involve breathing in coal dust and carrying heavy loads of coal to tenement buildings.

The next generation continued that trend.  Joseph’s grandchildren became professionals and business owners: teachers, a lawyer, a pharmacist, advertising firms, real estate investment, and retail stores.   When I look at the list of occupations of Joseph’s great-grandchildren, my generation, born in the 1940s through the 1960s, that trend continues.  Although there are fewer of us who own our own businesses, consistent with the decline of the small family-owned business throughout the country, there are still a number of entrepreneurs.  We are also lawyers (fifteen of us, including descendants, their spouses and our children), doctors, teachers of all types, and school administrators.  We are involved in business, finance, sales, banking, the computer industry, and the arts.

Our children, those born in the 1970s through the 1990s, continue in these fields and others—there are a number working in the creative arts and the music industry as well as medicine and the health care, finance, law, business, and the restaurant industry.  You name the field—we probably have someone related to us working in the field.

As for the next generation, those who are still  at home going to school, maybe even still in diapers, we’d like to hope that the possibilities are limitless.  Yes, the world is a more competitive place, houses are much more expensive relative to income than they were for us, the cost of a college education is beyond what anyone would consider reasonable, and the economy is tougher and tighter than it was for many of us when we first entered the job market.

But if a 50-something year old man could drag coal from tenement to tenement to support his family, if our grandparents could rise from sweatshops to become storeowners and tradespeople, if our parents could go the next step and become professionals and business owners, then certainly we cannot be anything but grateful and appreciative and hopeful.  After all, it was only 125 or so years ago that our ancestors first stepped off the boat and into the streets of New York City with nothing to their names, speaking a foreign language, and risking all they had known to take a chance that this life could be better than what they had known.

3 thoughts on “The American Immigrant Experience: The Brotman Story

  1. Pingback: Looking back on the first six months: Seven lessons learned by doing genealogy « brotmanblog

  2. Pingback: Finding the Ruby Slippers and Getting Back Home to Where It Started: The Brotmans « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  3. Pingback: Hyman and Sophie Brotman’s Sons: A Family Album « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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