Whose Clothing Were They Wearing?

I recently posted these two photographs of two of the Strolowitz/Adler sisters, Rebecca (Ray) and Leah.

Leah Strolowitz Adler

Leah Strolowitz Adler

Ray Strolowitz Adler

Ray Strolowitz Adler

A number of people asked me questions about the photographs.  In particular, people were struck by the fact that two poor immigrant young women were dressed so well and were able to sit for a formal portrait.  The photograph was dated 1918, so Ray and Leah had only been in the US for about ten years.  They were both working as dressmakers.  How could they afford these luxuries like furs and hats and fancy shoes and a studio photograph?

I did some research online but did not find anything that indicated that photographers provided clothing for customers to wear, although there are many references to the props photographers kept in their studios to add interest to the photographs.  There is also this quote from a website that addresses the question of how to determine the date of a particular photograph:

“Your ancestor may have only owned one nice dress or suit that was used for all sorts of occasions. Perhaps they did not own a nice suit of clothing and borrowed one from the photographer.”

http://www.genealogytoday.com/articles/reader.mv?ID=1149

I also posted a question to the Tracing the Tribe group on Facebook about these issues and received numerous responses that were very helpful.  One commenter pointed out that since Leah and Ray were dressmakers, it was entirely possible that they made these outfits themselves.  The commenter recalled that her own ancestor was able to create fashionable dresses from older clothing and scraps by copying what she had seen in store windows.  Another commenter made the point that furs may not have been that expensive back then.  There was also discussion of the possibility that the furs and hats were props supplied by the photographer to supplement the clothing that belonged to the customers.  And some commenters believed that photographers did have clothing at their studios for the customers to wear.

As to the question of the cost of having a portrait taken, several people pointed out that having portraits done, regardless of your economic status, was very common.  Immigrants wanted to be able to send photographs back to the old country and to mark their own special occasions.  http://gary.saretzky.com/photohistory/resources/photo_in_nj_July_2010.pdf  This website points out that with improved photographic techniques, it was in fact not that expensive to have a formal photograph taken even for a family of limited means.  The early 20th century saw the development of postcard photographs in the size used like the ones of Leah and Ray, and the website states that they were a “cheaper, quicker format for producing prints, made photo portraits available to almost everyone.”

I was also able to locate some information about the photographer.  From the photographs I was able to find his name, Rothman, and address, 186 East 116th Street in New York.  By using the stevemorse.org tool for finding an address on a census, I was able to find Isadore Rothman, recent Russian immigrant, residing at 186 East 116th Street.  In 1916, Mr. Rothman was working for a different studio, Mantor Photographic Studio, according to the 1916 New York directory.  So perhaps Rothman was just starting out on his own when Ray and Leah came to have their pictures taken.  They also all lived in the East Harlem neighborhood.

Isadore Rothman on the 1920 census

Isadore Rothman on the 1920 census

So I don’t know the answer for sure, but it is possible that Leah and Ray made their outfits or borrowed them from the photographer or from someone else or a combination of both.   I guess we will never know.  And it is also possible that these photographs were not that expensive despite their seeming formality and quality.

UPDATE:  I just received this comment from Ava Cohn, an expert in using photographs in genealogical research.  She said, “Photographers did have props that were used in photos. By this time, however, the clothes were usually not part of what was “borrowed” from the photographer. As many have suggested, our Jewish ancestors were tailors in Europe and quite adept at pattern-making and sewing. There were also many companies that produced patterns and sewing one’s own clothes was both a business and a past-time. Studio photos were relatively inexpensive. …  And btw, if you are certain that your photos were taken in 1918, then Ray’s outfit is not the latest fashion. Her skirt length and shape are more typical of the 1916-1917 period.”  You can learn more about Ava Cohn and her services at her website, Sherlock Cohn.

25 thoughts on “Whose Clothing Were They Wearing?

  1. Thanks for summarizing your findings. I’ve learned a lot from this. Like these ancestors of yours, many of mine were tailors and dressmakers. I can reflect on the few photos I have of them, now, through the lens of your insights.

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  2. I love this post and I have to tell you, we are on the same page with this topic!
    I wanted to write a post about the photo cards and photography studios from the 1890’s. I used Newspapers.com to research the photographer who took many photos in my collection.. It turned out that the photographers daughter-in-law caused a big scandal at the time because she left the photographer’s son whom she was married to for another man. She just disappeared one day. I didn’t expect to find that so then I decided to change directions. Photography will be one of my future post topics. My writing is in another direction right now.

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  3. Great post Amy, and amazing research. You have added a very insightful story to these photographs and helped to bring one day in their lives back to life again. I have not thought about researching photographers before, but I certainly will now.

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    • That’s interesting—she’s quite a distant relative—my grandfather’s first cousin, so my first cousin twice removed. And since my mother thinks all three of her children look more like my father’s side than her side, I am not sure she’d agree!

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  4. Amy, this is great information. My grandmother was a dressmaker/tailor (who started out in a sweatshop in Chicago) and she made her own clothes, so she was able to dress more nicely than she would have been able to otherwise. When she worked as a tailor she sometimes was given things by her clients. For instance, she had beautiful silk drapes that had been given her by a client and she reworked them for her own apartment.

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    • Thank you for the additional insight. I do think that there were many very skilled seamstresses among those immigrants, and it makes sense thatthey made their own clothes. Your story did make me chuckle, remembering Carol Burnett’s parody of Gone With The Wind when she wore the drapes as a dress so Rhett Butler wouldn’t know how poor they were (a story lifted from the book, but made hysterical by Carol Burnett!) Here’s a clip, in case you’ve never seen it.

      No disrespect to your grandmother, of course.

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      • Hahaha, I’m laughing so hard because I’m imagining you imagining maybe my grandmother used the drapes to make a dress. hahaha. (I do remember this parody!!!) I remember those drapes so well because eventually she gave them to us and cut them down for our small picture window. Then my new cat discovered that they were a great scratching wall and my mother used to scream, “The cat’s ruining my drapes” a little too often.

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