I was recently interviewed by Bernadette Duncan on Pioneer Valley Radio about my novel Pacific Street and about genealogy research in general. I hope you find it interesting.
You can find it here.
You can buy my book here.
As I noted at the end of my last post, Joseph J. Felcone, the author of The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), helped me learn more about my cousin Alfred Goldsmith and his famous bookstore, At the Sign of the Sparrow. He also gave me permission to use some of the images from his book. I am deeply grateful to Mr. Felcone for his generosity and all his help. With his permission, I can share this wonderful self-portrait that my cousin Alfred drew as his response to an invitation to dinner with the Old Book Table, the antiquarian book club to which he belonged:
From Mr. Felcone, I also learned about three other sources with information about Alfred Goldsmith, including accounts from two men who knew him personally, Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller, and Edward Naumberg, Jr., a patron of the arts and book collector. The third source is a book published in 2003 by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meader entitled Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade (Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2003).1
Although I still don’t have a photograph that I can post of Alfred’s store, the descriptions I found create a vivid picture. The New York Times provided this description in its obituary of Alfred:2
With its entrance a few steps below street level, the shop reflected the intimacy of its owner; it was small, laden with all kinds of books and enmeshed with cobwebs. A mecca for theatrical personalities, the shop specialized in books on the stage, pictures of famous actors and old programs.
Mondlin and Meader describe the store in similar terms in Book Row:3
The entrance to the small, quaint (as some said) shop at 42 Lexington Avenue required walking down steps from street level.….Inside, the shop presented a diverse congregation of books, rather jumbled, and a hint of age, cobwebs, benign neglect, and intimate charm. The faux Gothic ambiance fit the proprietor, who typically stood waiting, book in hand, smiling in welcome.
Edward Naumburg, Jr., who knew Alfred well, provided these details:4
Outside was a wobbly bookstand offering 10-cent and 25-cent bargains. The shop was dimly lighted, warmed by a gas stove, lined of course with bookshelves, and divided by a flimsy partition beyond which was the inner sanctum where rarities were kept. The average customer was not invited to enter.
The store was allegedly the setting of two mystery books: Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop5 and Carolyn Wells’ Murder in the Bookshop. Carolyn Wells, as previously noted, was Alfred’s collaborator on works about Walt Whitman, and according to Naumburg, Alfred told him that Wells did in fact visualize his store as the setting for her novel.6 Perhaps then the illustration from the cover of her book conveys some sense of the appearance of the exterior of Alfred’s store.
Naumberg’s essay includes two photographs of Alfred inside the store, but I’ve been unable to find someone who can give me permission to use them; however, if you go to the link for his article here, you can see them.
I also found this old photograph of Lexington Avenue looking north from 24th Street, so although Alfred’s store is not in this photograph, it does depict the neighborhood where he worked and lived.
But what happened inside the store is more important than its appearance. Naumburg said it “was often the scene of quite wonderful arguments and discussions.” 7 Mondlin and Meader noted that “Customers, scouts, collectors, bibliographers, writers, and librarians … made the Sparrow a friendly hangout at the outer border of Book Row.”8 In addition, they observed that “[h]is shop became a theatrical oasis specializing in stage books and ephemera. Broadway enthusiasts and personalities browsed at the Sign of the Sparrow for books, theater programs, and pictures of actors.”9 Serious historians, book collectors, and theater fans all shopped together in the little store.
What I most enjoyed learning from these sources were the insights into Alfred’s personality. Walter Goldwater described him this way:10
Goldsmith never sat down; he always stood behind his little counter and made cute remarks to people who came in, usually the kind of things where you’d have to say, “When you say that, smile.” He always did smile, so nobody took it quite to heart….He said it in such a sweet way that nobody could really believe that he really meant those terrible things that he said.
Naumburg shared this humorous story, which exemplifies Goldwater’s comment:11
One of my favorite stories concerns the time a rather shabby man entered the shop and said, “Mr. Goldsmith, you are the Whitman expert. I have here Whitman’s eyeglasses and his cane which I’m sure you’d like to buy.” Alfred didn’t reply. He took a scissors from his desk drawer, reached down and clipped a few hairs from his pet dog, Chris, who was lying at his feet, handed them to the man, and said, “And here are clippings from Walt’s beard. They’ll go well with the eyeglasses.”Mondlin and Meader wrote that “his knowledge, amiability, probity, humor, and punctilio made him such a congenial square shooter that he elevated the hospitality tone of Book Row all by himself.” 12
The one characteristic that all the sources commented on was Alfred’s lack of entrepreneurial drive. Mondin and Meader said that he was “more interested in having a leisurely talk about books than a chance for monetary gain.”13 Goldwater commented:14
Most of us knew that, at some price or another, Goldsmith would buy a book. How in the world he could do it, since it didn’t seem to us he ever sold anything and he certainly was very cheap in price, we never could understand. But he always would buy a book at some price or other. If we were broke during those early thirties, we would go to Goldsmith and be able to get fifty cents or a dollar, because he would buy.
Goldwater said that Alfred was known for coining the statement that “the book business is a very pleasant way of making a very little money.”15 Mondlin and Meader quote book collector John T. Winterich, who wrote this about Alfred:16
How Alfred Goldsmith contrived to convert the mutually effacing principles of buying high and selling low into anything resembling the profit motive is beyond my economic comprehension. But I am sure he had a good time in the process….And although he lived by selling books, he was about the poorest—or possibly the best—bookseller of my acquaintance. He never talked up a book. He never priced up a book.
His financial burdens were amusingly depicted in this cartoon he drew:
In addition to his book collecting and selling activities, Alfred was active in the Old Book Table from its earliest days in the 1930s. His financial challenges were described in his tongue-in-cheek comments and in a cartoon he drew in March 1933, humorously depicting his intended means of raising three dollars, the charge for attending the monthly club dinner:16
Today I made a neat little barrow holding a small oil stove and a tin tray and tomorrow I start out at 7 A.M. selling hot hamburger sandwiches at 5 cents each. If I do not make three dollars at this, I will pawn a first edition of Leaves of Grass to make up the difference….
According to Naumburg, in addition to his drawings, Alfred was also known for the short poems he often read at the Old Book Table meetings.17
Here is the one photograph I have of Alfred that I can share on this page, thanks to the generosity of Joseph Felcone. Alfred is standing, fourth from our right.
Alfred’s wife Ray joined him in his work in the Sparrow; the 1940 US census lists her occupation as “saleswoman, bookstore.” (Alfred himself was identified as “storekeeper, bookstore.”)18 Goldwater and Naumburg had conflicting views on her role in the store and her personality. Goldwater’s assessment was rather harsh: “His wife was an Englishwoman who was Cerberus sitting at the door, hating everybody who came in and trying to keep them for fear they might bother her husband.”19
Naumburg was much kinder in his view of Ray:20
Alfred’s wife, Ray, was almost always present. She was British with a charming London accent and a shrewd, intuitive sense for sizing up browsers. On first acquaintance she seemed a bit aloof; later one found her warm and understanding. Ray was a splendid cook, and her own collection of cookbooks was an appropriate hobby for the wife of an antiquarian bookseller.
Alfred Francis Goldsmith died on July 28, 1947.21 Goldwater recalled seeing him “grimacing in pain” from what Alfred believed was sciatica, but what was in fact cancer. 22 According to Alfred’s obituary in The New York Times, the day after he died was “the first time since it was opened [that] At the Sign of the Sparrow was closed to its frequenters.”23
Mondlin and Meader wrote that after Alfred’s death, his widow Ray asked a friend, Frederick Lightfoot, if he wanted to take over the store, but Lightfoot declined because he did not think it would be financially viable. Ray kept the store open for a few months, “But without Alfred Goldsmith, the spirit of the store was gone.” The store closed, and the inventory was sold to Swann Auction Galleries.24 According to Walter Goldwater, that inventory proved to be less valuable than expected, as Alfred did not in fact own as many valuable books as had been assumed.25
Alfred was only 66 when he died and was survived by his wife Ray and four of his siblings: his younger siblings Bertha, Alice, and Louis, and his oldest (half) brother, Milton Goldsmith. He certainly lived an interesting life and made his mark on the book world. He is another Goldsmith I wish I could invite to dinner. Not only would I enjoy his humor and his intelligence, I would love to hear the stories he had about his family and his life.
Thank you again to Joe Felcone for his invaluable assistance and generosity.
As seen in my last post, Alfred Goldsmith’s ill-fated 1905 marriage to Beatrice Miller ended in divorce in 1913, and I was unable to find anything about the eight years in between. But what happened to Alfred after 1913?
The first record I have for Alfred after his 1913 divorce was a record of his second marriage on July 24, 1918, to Ray Solomons in Troy, New York.1 Ray was the daughter of Myer Solomons and Caroline Weinberg. Myer was originally from Warsaw, Poland, and Caroline from Austria. They had both immigrated to England, where Ray was born in 1891. The family immigrated to the US in 1910 when Ray was nineteen. On the 1915 New York State census, her father listed his occupation as a dyer; later records show he was in the fur business. Ray was employed as a bookkeeper in 1915. She was living with her family in the Bronx. 2
So why did Ray and Alfred marry in Troy, New York, a city about 150 miles north of New York City? At first I worried that this was another elopement, and perhaps it was. But happily for Ray and Alfred, this marriage lasted. Ray was 27 when they married, Alfred was forty. They stayed together until Alfred’s death. It does not appear that they ever had children.
Like his half-siblings Milton and Emily, Alfred loved books. He had a life-long interest in literature and in particular authors: Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, and especially Walt Whitman. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Alfred “was only twelve when he became captivated by Whitman’s poetry and started to collect rare Whitman editions.” 3 That interest in Whitman stayed with him throughout adulthood.
When Alfred registered for the draft on September 12, 1918, six months after their wedding, he and Ray were living at 2593 Eighth Avenue in New York City, and his occupation was “bookseller” at 42 Lexington Avenue. That would remain his place of business for the rest of his life. Alfred’s bookstore, known as At the Sign of the Sparrow, became very well-known, as we will see.
In 1920, Alfred and Ray were living at 304 Second Avenue in New York City, and Alfred listed his occupation on the census as “Books” in his own business.4 The 1922 New York directory also has his occupation simply as “books,” and the 1925 New York State census lists his occupation as “bookseller.”5
In 1922, Alfred and Carolyn Wells, the author of over 170 books for adults and children, collaborated on The Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1922), which was “affectionately dedicated to Ray S. Goldsmith.” The book is, as the title indicates, a bibliography of all the books written by Walt Whitman and all the books written about Walt Whitman. It was for many years considered one of the authoritative works of scholarship about Whitman.6
Alfred Goldsmith and Carolyn Wells also collaborated on another project, editing a collection of Whitman’s essays entitled Rivulets of Prose (Greenberg, Publishers, Inc., 1928). That also was dedicated to Alfred’s wife Ray: “With Affection to Ray S. Goldsmith for Her Sympathetic Assistance.” It is evident from the foreword to this collection that Alfred and his co-editor had quite a scholarly approach to Whitman and his work.
In addition, Alfred organized a major exhibit at the New York Public Library about Walt Whitman in 1925. He collected from many private collectors Whitman’s manuscripts and books and other materials and prepared them for the exhibit. According to the November 8, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle (p. 11), interest in “Whitmanania” was so intense that the price of these materials had risen sharply and were mostly in the hands of private collectors; the purpose of the exhibit was thus to give the public a chance to see these materials.
Alfred was very active in book auctions, buying and selling first and other editions of books on his own behalf and for collectors. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported this amusing story about Alfred’s experiences at one book auction:7
It will cost you money if you arrange signals with a bookseller at an auction and then forget those signals. The idea is Alfred F. Goldsmith’s, a bookseller, and it grew out of this incident.
At one of the numerous book auctions (New York has dozens of them each month) a wealthy collector authorized Goldsmith to purchase a certain volume for him. “I’ll pay as much as $125,” he instructed the seller, who was to do the bidding for him.
“But,” explained Goldsmith, “It would be a crime to let the purchase fall through if it could be effected for a few extra dollars.”
“Then,” said the client, “keep bidding until I stop you. I’ll be there watching the sale. When you see me remove my glasses, drop out; that will be the signal.”
Thus agreed, both arrived at the auction. But Goldsmith soon found himself several rows removed from his client and unable to keep in oral connection. It didn’t take the book long to climb. In a trice, it was up to $125, the agreed sum. Goldsmith dropped out, for just at that moment his client casually removed his glasses.
The bidding soared. Soon it had reached $325, and Goldsmith, glancing toward his client, saw that gentleman nod and refit his glasses. Just as he launched a bid, however, off came the glasses. Then the client hastily put them on again. Reassured, Goldsmith then began to bid in earnest, finally winning for $375.
“Congratulations,” called Goldsmith to his client, “you got it.”
“Got what?” asked the client, not comprehending.
“Why, the book,” said Goldsmith.
“Didn’t I tell you,” gasped the fellow—“to stop at $125?” Goldsmith then reminded him of the signal by glasses.
“You know,” he said sheepishly, “I’d forgotten all about that.” Then he wrote out his check for $375 and went out to his limousine, smiling at himself.
A newspapers.com search turned up numerous articles about Alfred’s success at book auctions. For example, in March 1936, Alfred bid successfully for a rare book written by Lewis Carroll, one of his other favorite authors. The Central New Jersey Home News wrote:8
The magic name of Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” made book collectors bid frantically for a little known, privately printed book at a sale here. When the hammer banged, its price was announced at $310. The purchaser was Alfred F. Goldsmith, Carroll expert.
According to one inflation calculator, $310 in 1936 would be worth about $5,500 today.
The Reading (Pennsylvania) Times reported on Alfred’s acquisition and sale of a rare book of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in April 1938; it described the book as “the scarcest and most valuable book of poetry ever published in America.” Poe, as noted above, was another of Alfred’s favorite authors.
These are just two of the many articles I found reporting on Alfred’s purchases of rare books at auctions.
But Alfred was probably best known for his bookstore, At the Sign of the Sparrow, which was a well-known landmark in New York City. In my search to find a photograph of the store, I landed on the website of The Old Book Table, “a social club composed of antiquarian booksellers and those engaged in professions related to antiquarian bookselling.” According to the website, it is the oldest such club in the world, founded in 1931 in New York City.
Alfred was one of the early members of the club, and the history page on the club’s website had both a photograph of Alfred and one of his drawings. The history page was excerpted from a book by Joseph J. Felcone: The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006). Through the magic of the Internet I was able to contact Mr. Felcone and, with his help, learn a great deal more about my cousin Alfred. That merits a whole separate post.
Emily Goldsmith was the fourth child of Abraham Goldsmith and Cecelia Adler to live to adulthood. She was born in Philadelphia on April 30, 1868.1 Her mother died on November 8, 1874, when Emily was only six years old.
On January 28, 1892, Emily married Felix Napoleon Gerson, the son of Aron Gerson and Eva Goldsmith—who was not related to my Goldsmith family, as I wrote about here. According to his entry in Who’s Who in Pennsylvania, Felix went to Philadelphia public schools and then studied civil engineering; in the 1880s he served in the department of the Chief Clerk, Philadelphia & Reading Railway Company, and then in 1891 he changed careers and became the managing editor of Chicago Israelite. In 1892, Felix became the managing editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.
Emily and Felix’s first child Cecelia was born on October 27, 1892.2 She must have been named for her grandmother, Emily’s mother Cecelia Adler Goldsmith. A second daughter, Dorothy, was born on June 2, 1897.3
I was delighted to discover that Emily, like her older brother Milton, was an author of children’s stories, books, and plays. Beginning in the 1890s, Emily contributed children’s stories regularly to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent where her husband Felix was the managing editor. I counted over twenty stories written by Emily that were published between 1895 and 1899.
For example, on April 17, 1896, (p. 5), the Jewish Exponent published Emily’s story, “Joseph’s Toy Theater,” about a little boy who received a toy theater as a gift and refuses to share it with his sister. When the puppets in the theater come to life at night, he hears them criticizing his selfishness and threatening to punish him. He then goes to his sister’s room and gives her one of the puppets from the theater. (The illustration below is by Alice B. Ewing and appeared when this story was republished in The Picture Screen, as discussed below.)
On October 9, 1896, (p. 5) the Jewish Exponent published “Helping Mother,” another of Emily’s short stories, this one about a little girl who helped her mother by playing on her own while her mother worked.
These and the other stories written by Emily Goldsmith Gerson and published in the Jewish Exponent are quite short and usually have some lesson teaching children about good behavior. In addition to her stories, Emily also wrote plays for children to perform for the Jewish holidays such as Purim and Hanukkah.4
In 1900, Emily, Felix, and their daughters were living in Philadelphia., and Felix was working as an editor. Emily did not report an occupation, but she continued to contribute her stories during the next decade.
Emily not only continued to write short stories for the Jewish Exponent; she also published books and plays for children. Her earliest published book was The Picture Screen, published by George W. Jacoby & Co. in 1904. According to this brief description in the list of suggested Christmas books in Book News, the book is a “unique juvenile consisting of stories told about the pictures on a big picture screen. A little girl’s mother tells her and her brother the tales while the little girl lies helpless with a sprained ankle.”5
The book reached an audience far beyond Philadelphia, as seen in this review that appeared in the Buffalo Enquirer on July 9, 1904 (p. 2):
I obtained a copy of the book, and it is as described in the reviews. Some of the stories the mother tells the children are stories Emily had previously published, including the one about Joseph and the toy theater that I described above. They all teach the children something about being a good person. The book was dedicated to Emily’s daughters, Cecelia and Dorothy.
Then in 1906, Emily published A Modern Esther and Other Stories for Jewish Children (Julius H. Greenstone, Philadelphia, 1906), another collection of short stories and two short plays; she dedicated the book to her father Abraham, who had died just a few years before. The title story is about a girl born somewhere in a shtetl in Europe, the daughter of the rabbi, who bravely goes to the local governor to stop the anti-Semitic attacks on her family and community. Many of the stories have a religious theme; for example, one is about a little girl discovering faith in God, and several are about God saving families from poverty or from illness. Often the stories are connected to a Jewish holiday. You can find this collection of Emily’s works online here.
The reviewer for the New York Times wrote that “the author’s object is not so much fiction as the encouragement of piety and the teaching of the simpler lessons of the faith to which she belongs, to show how pleasant and profitable it is—in the end—to do those things which are commanded, how faith and honest and kindness win their sure reward, and how wickedness is punished…..Naturally the stories are of extreme artlessness—-but all of us in our time have read stories of like artlessness not without eager ears and open eyes.”6
Emily also published several of her holiday plays for children, including Ten Years After, A Purim Play (1909), A Delayed Birthday, a play for Hanukkah published by Bloch Publishing Company in 1910, and The Purim Basket, another Purim play published by Bloch Publishing Company in 1914.
Emily’s daughter Dorothy seems to have enjoyed theater also. In March 1914, when she was sixteen, she appeared on stage in a production put on by the French department of Girls High School in Philadelphia.7 That is Dorothy on the far left.
Emily’s career as a children’s author was, however, cut short. She died from pancreatic and liver cancer on November 28, 1917. She was only 49 years old and was survived by her husband Felix and her two daughters. She was also survived by her eight of her nine siblings, the other surviving children of Abraham Goldsmith.
But Emily was not forgotten. A camp for underprivileged Jewish girls was established in her memory, known as the Emily G. Gerson Farm.8 In 1920, her synagogue, Keneseth Israel in Philadlephia, dedicated a stained-glass window in her memory. In reporting on the dedication, the Dallas Jewish Monitor stated that Emily had been the first president of the Keneseth Israel Sisterhood and was “deeply interested in all things appertaining to the good and welfare of the Temple.”9
The window still exists and was depicted in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 5, 2004, when it was being being exhibited at Congregation Keneseth Israel’s Judaica museum in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. The caption under the photograph of the window stated that it was presented with the inscription from Proverbs 31:26: “She opened her mouth in wisdom and the law of kindness is on her tongue.”10
The 1920 census reported that Emily’s widower Felix continued to work as a newspaper editor. Her daughters were also working. Cecelia, now 27, was a secretary in a doctor’s office, and Dorothy, 22, was a public school teacher.11
Later that year Cecelia married Malvin Herman Reinheimer in Philadelphia.12 Malvin was the son of Samuel Reinheimer and Julia Lebach and was born in Cameron, West Virginia, on January 26, 1891. His father was in the wholesale clothing business. Malvin graduated from Swarthmore College in 1912 where Cecelia had also been a student; perhaps she met him there. Malvin then graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1915 and was practicing law in 1920 and living in Philadelphia with his father and sisters. He had served stateside in the US military during World War I.13
On November 29, 1921, Cecelia and Malvin had their first child, a daughter they named Emily Gerson Reinheimer in memory of Cecelia’s mother Emily Goldsmith Gerson.14 A second child was born a few years later.
Meanwhile, Dorothy revealed that she had some of her mother’s writing talents when she won a prize for best limerick in 1921:
The 1930 census record for Felix and Dorothy is a complete mystery. First, it has Dorothy listed as Felix’s wife and says Felix was 38 when in fact Felix was 68. It says Felix was 31 when they first married, and Dorothy was 26. Then it says Felix was a salesman in a dress shop, and it has no occupation listed for Dorothy. There were also four men lodging with them. How much of this can I trust? Is this a different Dorothy and Felix Gerson? Not likely—they were still living at 3415 Race Street, the same place they were living in 1920.
There is no indication from any other records that Felix had left his newspaper career or that Dorothy had stopped working. In fact, the 1930 Philadelphia city directory lists Dorothy as an advertising manager for Oppeheim Collins & Company and Felix as the president-manager of the Jewish Exponent.15 That 1930 census record indicated that Dorothy was the person providing the information to the enumerator—would she have lied about her relationship with her father, his age, and their occupations? Or was the enumerator just sloppy? I don’t know.
Fortunately, there was no confusion in the 1930 census record for Cecelia Gerson and her husband Malvin Reinheimer and their children. They were all living in Philadelphia where Malvin continued to practice law.16
After almost twenty years of being a widower, Felix remarried at age 73. On August 31, 1936, he married Emma Brylawski, who was also an editor and journalist at the Jewish Exponent.17
Not long afterwards, in about May, 1937, Felix’s daughter Dorothy Gerson moved to Middletown, Connecticut, where she was working as an advertising manager for Wrubel’s Department Store, according to the Jewish Exponent of February 25, 1938.
The 1940 census records for Felix and his daughters show that Felix and his second wife Emma were living in Philadelphia without any listed occupation,18 that Dorothy was an advertising manager living in Middletown, Connecticut,19 and that Cecelia and her family were living in Philadelphia where Malvin was still working as an attorney.20
Cecelia lost her husband Malvin to renal failure and other illnesses on October 24, 1944; he was only 54 years old.21 Then she and her sister Dorothy lost their father Felix a year later on December 31, 1945; Felix was 83 years old.22 Eleven years later on August 12, 1956, Cecelia died at age 63 from lung cancer. She was survived by her two children and by her sister, Dorothy.23 Dorothy died at age 80 in January 1978.24
Emily Goldsmith Gerson’s story is in many ways such a sad one. She lost her mother Cecelia Adler Goldsmith when she was only six years old. She named her first child Cecelia in memory of her mother. Then she herself died young, ending a promising career as a children’s writer and leaving behind her own daughters. Cecelia, the daughter named for Emily’s mother, then later named her first child for her own mother, Emily. The family’s alternating naming pattern reveals Emily’s sad story. But she left behind her works and her descendants, and I hope that by telling her story I have honored her memory.
You know by now that I believe we are all somehow connected—that there truly are only six degrees of separation between any two people. I’ve encountered it many times while doing family history research—my cousins who end up being close friends with either my own friends or with my husband’s cousins, a cousin who once worked at the same JCC where I’ve belonged for over 30 years, cousins with children or grandchildren living in the same town where I now live, and so on.
So here’s another small world story, and although this one does not involve any of my own ancestors or cousins, it nevertheless is more evidence of our interconnectedness.
Back in the fall of 2013, I ordered from a third-party seller on Amazon a book entitled Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Cohen Spewack (Feminist Press at CUNY, 1995). I purchased the book to learn more about life on the Lower East Side in the first two decades of the 20th century when my grandmother, Gussie Brotman, was growing up there. The memoir gave a detailed and, in many ways, harrowing portrayal of Bella Spewack’s life as a child in the Lower East Side. Despite her poverty-stricken and difficult start in life, she grew up to become a successful journalist and writer, best known for the play and Broadway hit, Kiss Me Kate, which she wrote with her husband Sam Spewack. I devoted three blog posts to summarizing and commenting on what I had learned about the Lower East Side from reading Bella Spewack’s book.
In a footnote to my last post about Spewack’s book, I wrote about the mysterious handwritten note that had been tucked inside the book when I received it. The note was written to people named Sheila and Alan and read,
At last we have received copies of Bella’s memoirs. We thought they would never come. This one is for you. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll talk to you this weekend. On to Turkey! Love, Arthur and Lois.
When I found the note in the book, I had wondered whether Sheila and Alan, the addressees, had ever seen it and whether they had meant to leave it in the book when they gave away or sold the book. I also wondered who Arthur and Lois and Sheila and Alan were. I thought about trying to return the note, but without last names I had no way to do that.
I had one clue: there was an afterward to Bella Spewack’s book by a woman named Lois Raeder Elias, who wrote that she had been a longtime friend of Bella Spewack. I wondered whether the note was written by Lois Raeder Elias since it certainly seemed from the content of the note that the person sending it had participated in some way in the publication of Spewack’s book.
So I mentioned the note in my last blog post about Spewack’s book, hoping that Lois Raeder Elias or someone who knew her might somehow find my post and contact me. That was in December of 2013, almost four and half years ago.
Fast forward about two years later to November of 2015. I was now in the process of researching my Schoenthal ancestors and their lives in Washington, Pennsylvania. While researching the history of Jewish life in so-called “Little Washington,” I connected with Marilyn A. Posner, a past president of Beth Israel synagogue in Little Washington as well as the author of the centennial history of the synagogue, The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752 (1991, Congregation Beth Israel, Washington, Pennsylvania). Marilyn was extremely helpful to me in my research, and I relied on her research and her book extensively in writing about Little Washington’s Jewish history on my blog. We also developed an email friendship and found other areas of common interest.
So how do these two things relate? How does a note in a book by Bella Spewack about the Lower East Side of New York City connect to a woman who lives in Washington, Pennsylvania?
Well, fast forward another two and half years to April 2018, about a week ago. Out of the blue I received an email from Marilyn that I had to read several times to absorb and understand completely. But here’s the essence: Marilyn’s first cousin, once removed, a man named Arthur Elias, had died on April 12, 2018, at age 92. Marilyn’s son, in Googling his cousin Arthur’s name for information about his life, somehow fell upon the footnote to my blog post from December 15, 2013, and sent it along to his mother, Marilyn.
Marilyn immediately recognized my blog and contacted me to share this small world story: Lois Raeder Elias, who had written the afterward to Bella Spewack’s memoirs, was the wife of Marilyn’s recently deceased cousin Arthur Elias. Arthur and Lois were very close friends of Bella Spewack and in fact had inherited the rights to her works when she died, including the rights to Kiss Me Kate, which had been revived and brought back to Broadway in 1999 with the support of Arthur and Lois Raeder Elias.
Marilyn also solved the mystery of the handwritten note I’d found inside the book. She assumed it must have been written by her cousin Arthur and his wife Lois to Arthur’s sister Sheila and her husband Alan.
Marilyn then connected me to her cousin Sheila, who was very excited to hear that I had the note and the book. The next day I mailed the book and the note to Sheila, and she received it last Friday. She was thrilled and so grateful, and I was more than delighted that I could reunite Sheila and Alan with the book and the note that Arthur and Lois had sent to them over twenty years before.
I had long ago forgotten about the footnote that I’d left on my blog and never expected at this point to hear from anyone about that handwritten note. And then the forces of six degrees of separation came through, and someone with whom I’d connected almost two years after writing that blog footnote and over two and a half years ago turned out to be the cousin of the author and of the recipient of the note.
How is that for a small world story?!
In 1940, Milton Goldsmith turned 79 years old. He appears to have retired by then, although a few of his books were re-released in the 1940s. As seen in my last post, his younger daughter Madeleine had married Charles A. Jacobson, Jr., on September 29, 1933, and his older daughter Rosalind married Michael Zale on October 25, 1940.
Rosalind was a commercial artist; and as we saw, illustrated one of her father’s books. I do not know what her husband Michael did for a living. I also could not find any military record for Michael Zale during World War II. Given that Michael would have been 26 when the US entered World War II in December 1941, I find it odd that there is no military record for him. I searched for him as Michael Zale, Michael Zalefsky, Metre Zale, Metre Zalefsky, and other wildcard and Soundex possibilities, but nothing came up.
According to her obituary,1 Milton’s younger daughter Madeleine worked as a dietician. Her husband Charles listed his occupation as a banker on the 1940 census.2 Charles served in the US military during World War II, but I could not find any details about his service. He was 37 when he enlisted in 1942.3
After World War II, Charles and Madeleine moved to Larchmont, New York, a suburb of New York City. According to several city directories, Charles was at least for some time the treasurer of Voland & Sons, a company that his brother James had purchased in the 1940s that manufactured balance scales.4
Michael and Rosalind Zale stayed in New York City at least until 1960 according to directory listings, but again, I have no information about Michael’s occupation.5
Milton Goldsmith died on September 21, 1957, at the age of 96. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he had lived in Larchmont with his daughter Madeleine before going to a nursing home in New Rochelle. He was described in the obituary as the author of 24 books and as having been in the advertising business until his retirement 25 years earlier. The only book specifically mentioned in the obituary was Rabbi and Priest and the play that was based upon it, The Little Brother.6 Interestingly, Milton was not buried in New York where he’d lived since 1905, but back in Pennsylvania at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from Philadelphia where Milton was born.
UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Thank you to Marla Oxenburg Roth of Huggin’ My Cousins! for investigating the burial of Milton Goldsmith. I was puzzled that FindAGrave had a listing saying that he was buried near Philadelphia after living in New York for over fifty years, and Marla volunteered to go to Roosevelt Memorial Park to find his grave. Sure enough, there was no marker for Milton Goldsmith there, and when I followed up with a call to the cemetery, they had no record of a Milton Goldsmith buried there. Obviously, the FindAGrave memorial I relied on was incorrect, and I have notified the contributor of the memorial. I am hoping the contributor will remove the memorial so others are not confused. This is the first time I’ve found such a mistake on FindAGrave. Thank you, Marla!
Marla also found a death notice for Milton from the Philadelphia Inquirer that stated that he had been cremated. So perhaps he is not buried anywhere.
I learned even more about Milton from his obituary in The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent:
For example, from this obituary I learned that Milton could remember when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated although he was not even four years old in April 1865 when Lincoln was shot. The obituary also revealed that Milton had entertained the troops during World War I with his skills as an amateur magician. Another hobby was “medieval wood carvings”—did he make them or collect them? I assume the latter. And not surprisingly, he enjoyed math and word puzzles.
Michael Zale died eleven years after his father-in-law in November 1968.7 As the death notice below indicates, Michael was cremated, and the family asked that donations be made to the New York Association for the Blind. I mention this because several of Michael’s siblings made similar requests—that donations be made to some organization for the blind. It makes me wonder whether a member of the family—perhaps Michael himself—was blind. That might explain why I cannot find any records of his military service or his occupation. Michael was 53 when he died.
UPDATE: Michael Zale was in fact blind at least as a child. Heather Paxton once again found the answer! She located a news article about a camp for blind children in New Jersey that included this quote:
Rosalind died eleven years after her husband Michael in May 1979.8 She was 78 years old. According to her death notice,9 her family asked that contributions be made to the Vacation Camp and Community Center for the Blind in New York City, another indication that blindness may have afflicted someone in the family. A listing on FindAGrave indicates that Rosalind donated her body to Columbia University for medical research and was later buried in 1981 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn at a site purchased by Columbia to honor those who had dedicated their bodies to science.
Charles Jacobson, Jr. died in November, 1983. I could not find a death notice or obituary for him, only the entry in the Social Security Index. According to that record, his last residence was in Larchmont, New York. He was 78 years old.10
Madeleine Goldsmith Jacobson far outlived her husband, sister, and brother-in-law. Like her father, she lived into her nineties, dying on August 21, 2001, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She was 97 years old. According to her obituary, she had worked as a dietician for many years after college and had been active in many charitable and other organizations while living in Larchmont. The obituary reported that “she and her husband always welcomed friends, relatives and sometimes foreign students into their home for as long as they wanted to stay. She will be remembered for her hospitality and as someone who was always helping people and working for organizations that tried to make the community and/or the world a better place.”11
It has been very rewarding and interesting to learn about my cousin Milton Goldsmith and his family; I enjoyed having the opportunity to read some of his books and to understand more about his life and his views through those books. Because of my own interest in and love of reading and writing, those family members who contributed to the world through their published works all hold a special place in my heart.
After the very productive first two decades of the 20th century when Milton Goldsmith published at least ten books and had a play produced on Broadway, his output seemed to drop off after 1920. Although he published some puzzle books for children during the 1920s, he did not publish another novel or non-fiction book until 1930.
The 1925 New York State census record is a bit of a mess so it’s hard to know how reliable it is. I think the enumerator was a bit confused. For example, for Milton he first wrote that he was born in Russia, as was the case for the person in the line above his entry. Then he crossed that out and correctly entered “US.” However, he left the entry that Milton was an alien, not a citizen. So can I trust the listing for Milton’s occupation as a store manager? I don’t think so.
Especially since the line below for Milton’s wife Sophie says she was in advertising and the line below that for Rosalind (spelled “Roseline” here) said “housewife” and was then crossed out and replaced with commercial artist (which she was). So I think that the enumerator had all the occupations off by a line and that Milton was still, as he had been since 1910, in advertising. And I’ve no idea why the enumerator completely crossed out Madeleine (“Madline”) and the servant living in the home.
Despite these confusing entries on the census, I think it’s safe to assume that Milton was still working in advertising and that his wife and daughters were still living with him at 353 West 85th Street in New York City. Both daughters were now in their twenties. I was not able to learn much else about their lives in the 1920s; there were no news articles of interest or directory listings or other records that shed any light on how they spent that decade.
There was, however, one mention of Milton in a news story that was of particular interest to me as a former teacher of copyright law. One of my favorite cases to teach was Nichols v. Universal Pictures,1 an opinion written in 1930 by the renowned jurist, Learned Hand, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was brought by Anne Nichols, the author and copyright owner of the play, “Abie’s Irish Rose,” which was a hit on Broadway in the 1920s. She claimed that Universal Pictures had infringed her copyright with its movie, “The Cohens and the Kellys.”
Both works involved a story of an interfaith marriage between a Jew and a Catholic and the conflict it creates for their parents, who don’t approve of the marriage. There were a number of differences between the stories (which my copyright students better remember in detail, but aren’t relevant here), and both the trial court2 and the appellate court3 ruled in favor of the defendant movie studio, concluding that the theme of star-crossed lovers, one Jewish, one Catholic, was something in the public domain and not protected by copyright law.
How did Milton Goldsmith become entangled in this dispute? He was a witness for Universal Pictures at the trial in 1929, giving testimony about his own work, Rabbi and Priest and the play based upon it, The Little Brother. Although his testimony was not described in detail in the New York Times article that covered the trial, I imagine it was used to support the defendant’s argument that conflict between Jews and Catholics is a common theme used in many works, including Rabbi and Priest, and not original to Anne Nichols play, Abie’s Irish Rose.
It would have been fun to mention this family connection to the case when I was teaching, but alas—I knew nothing about my cousin Milton at the time.
Although Milton released updated versions of some of his earlier books in the 1930s and 1940s, his last new book, first published in 1930, was Old Mother Earth and Her Family, a geography book for young people.4 His daughter Rosalind did the illustrations for this book.
I was unable to find Milton or any of his family on the 1930 census, but I was able to find Milton, Sophie, Rosalind and Madeleine on several ship manifests in 1930 and 1931 that showed that their home address was still 353 West 85th Street in New York City.5 I used stevemorse.org to search by that address in the 1930 census, but no members of Milton’s family were listed at that address. I wonder whether the whole family was traveling or living abroad when the 1930 census was taken.
The next decade would bring some more changes for Milton and his family.
My father remembers Milton Goldsmith as an author of children’s books so I was not surprised to learn that Milton had in fact written a number of works for children after moving to New York City in about 1905.
In 1905, Milton, Sophie, and their two young daughters were living at 1125 Madison Avenue in New York City, but Milton was still working as a merchant, according to the 1905 New York State census.
However, by 1906, Milton was listed in Who’s Who in America as an art publisher and author.1 The listing stated that he was the president of Goldsmith-Leving Company, a company engaged in the embossing of art, calendars, pictures, and the like. It further described him as a contributor of many short stories to magazines and local and Jewish newspapers and of “several hundred poems” to magazines such as Puck, Judge, Life, and Cosmopolitan. In addition, Milton’s musical and dramatic works were mentioned in the listing and, of course, his books.
In 1908 Milton published his first children’s books. So far I have found three of them published in that year alone. The Adventure of Walter and The Rabbits,2 is a story about a boy named Walter who follows a rabbit into a hole in a tree and observes the rabbit family; he learns never to be cruel to animals based on his observations. It is a sweet story and one with a lesson all children should learn. Its innocence and simplicity seem quite refreshing in contrast with some of the cloying Berenstain Bear books I’ve lately had to read to my three year old grandson. I assume that Milton wrote this book with his two young daughters in mind.
I was unable to locate online versions of the other two children’s books published by Milton Goldsmith in 1908; I wish that I could spend the money to buy copies of all his works, but alas, that is not feasible. But I was able to find images of the covers of the books online.
One was entitled Dorothy’s Dolls:3
The third book published by Milton Goldsmith in 1908, also a children’s book, was The Magic Doll. 4
I imagine that Milton’s two young daughters Rosalind and Madeleine were the inspiration for all three books. From this point forward in his writing career, almost all his books were written for an audience of children.
By 1910, Milton seems to have left the art embossing business and gone into advertising, for that is the occupation listed for him on the 1910 census. At that time he and Sophie were living at 783 Madison Avenue with Sophie’s mother and her two sisters as well as her sisters’ husbands. I was puzzled that neither of Milton and Sophie’s daughters was listed in the household; Rosalind would have been nine, Madeleine six. Where could they have been? Since I could not find them anywhere else on the 1910 census, I believe that this was just an enumeration mistake.
According to one source, Milton spent 1910 and 1911 in Berlin and Paris, translating German and French plays into English for the American stage.
By 1915, they were all listed together (though Rosalind was here listed as Ralph and as a son), living at 353 West 85th Street in New York, and Milton continued to work in advertising, now at his own agency.
Meanwhile, his writing career continued. As his daughters grew from young children to schoolgirls and teenagers, his works also targeted somewhat older audiences than the fairy tales he’d written in 1908. In 1916, he published Practical Things with Simple Tools: A Book for Young Mechanics.5
Interestingly, and a sign of its times, this book was specifically targeted for boys. Here is part of the introduction to the book:
The book consists of instructions and illustrations for how to make a long list of things intended for boys:
Milton Goldsmith also wrote two books under the pseudonym Astra Cielo during these years. The first, published in 1917, Fortunes and Dreams, is a “practical manual of fortune telling, divination, and the interpretation of dreams, signs, and omens.”6 The second Astra Cielo book is similar. Published in 1918, Signs, Omens and Superstitions covers, as you’d expect, signs, omens and superstitions.7
It’s hard to imagine the same author who expressed quite modern views of religion and skepticism about superstition in A Victim of Conscience and Rabbi and Priest endorsing these practices, but perhaps that’s why he wrote under a pseudonym. Although both books express doubts about believing in or relying on these practices, the books go into great detail about these subjects and thus create a sense that these are legitimate practices and beliefs.
After these works of “non-fiction,” Milton published a novel for older children, The Strange Adventures of Prince Charming: A Story for Young & Old. 8 This work is a full length novel and tells about the adventures of a young prince as he makes his journey in the “real world.” It has elements of satire and more advanced vocabulary than the earlier children’s books. (I confess I did not read the entire book; perhaps my older grandson would appreciate it, however.)
Milton ended the decade with another work of children’s non-fiction, I Wonder Why: The How, When and Wherefore of Many Things.9 I was very happy to see that he dedicated this book to his daughters, “Rosalind and Madeleine, whose many questions inspired the writing of this book.” At least this time he recognized that girls also have curiosity and a need to know about practical matters.
The book is written in narrative form based on a fictional family, the Palmers, with five children, three boys and (yay!) two girls. Their father is an engineer, and the book consists of chapters on different topics where the father (sigh) answers the children’s questions about a wide variety of scientific issues. Here is just a portion of the table of contents:
In addition to publishing all these books, Milton, along with Bennett James, adapted his first novel Rabbi and Priest into a play, The Little Brother, which was performed in London and then on Broadway in 1918 with a cast that included Tyrone Power, Sr. Despite positive reviews for its treatment of interfaith conflict and prejudices, it closed after 120 performances in March, 1919.
Thus, by 1920, Milton had published a number of books and had had a play produced in London and on Broadway. However, his principal occupation, as listed on the 1920 census, was still advertising. 10
What would the next decade and those to follow bring for my cousin Milton and his family?
In my last post we saw what my cousin Milton Goldsmith predicted for the 21st century; in this post, we will start to look at his life in the 20th century.
In 1900, Milton was recently married to Sophie Hyman of New York City, and the newlywed couple were living in Philadelphia where Milton continued to make a living as a clothing merchant. Their first child, Rosalind, was born on February 1, 1901, in Philadelphia,1 and a second daughter, Madeleine, followed on May 20, 1904, also in Philadelphia.2
A Victim of Conscience takes place in the 1850s in a city that is unnamed but (based on the street names) is most likely Philadelphia. The main character is a recent German Jewish immigrant named Isaac Schwartz. He has been in America for four years at the beginning of the novel and is living in dire poverty, desperate for a way to earn enough money to support his family. He finally decides to go to California to join the gold rush. There he encounters anti-Semitism and abuse and ultimately commits the crime that makes him a “victim of conscience.”
The principal theme of the book is atonement. Isaac seeks advice from a rabbi about how to atone for his crime and is discouraged by some of the rigidity of Jewish law. He then considers converting to Catholicism and studies with a priest, but ultimately decides that he can’t accept the notion that mere faith in Christ as his savior will provide salvation. In the end he learns that Judaism can provide a path to forgiveness and expiation for his sins.
The book’s focus is thus on Isaac’s struggle with his conscience and how religion affects that struggle. But the book is of more interest to me in the way that it reflects the way my cousin Milton understood his own family’s story—their life in Germany, their reasons for leaving Germany, and the life they found when they first settled in the US fifty years before he wrote this book. A few excerpts will illustrate what I mean.
Although I have no reason to assume that Milton was being at all autobiographical in describing the lives of some of his characters, I did wonder whether this description of Isaac’s life in Germany was based on his father Abraham’s life in Oberlistingen before emigrating:4
Isaac’s father, old Meyer Schwartz, was a power in his native village of D. He was in fair circumstances, and educated as far as education went in those days; for the Jews, rich and poor alike, were denied the privileges of the village schools, and were limited in their instruction to the teachings of their “Cheders ” and the scraps of information which they could impart one to the other. Old Schwartz was a profound Talmud scholar, and was deemed as wise as he was devout, which was no equivocal compliment, for he was pious indeed. … It was [his] ambition to make a Rabbi of [Isaac], but in spite of his earnest and painstaking instruction, Isaac never got beyond the general outlines of the law and the Talmud. Buying and selling afforded him more pleasure than poring over parchments, and, after a vain effort to keep him to his studies, old Schwartz reluctantly allowed him to follow his own inclinations.
Milton also provided some background for the reasons so many German Jews emigrated:5
In those days the Jews in Germany had few rights and many grievances. Harsh measures were devised, stringent laws enacted to drive them out of the country, or at least to restrict their increase. The possession and cultivation of land, the study of a profession, the following of the fine arts, were all interdicted. Buying and selling, borrowing and lending, were the only channels in which the Israelites were allowed to exercise their ingenuity, and grievous was their condition in consequence. Worse still, a Jew was not allowed to marry until some co-religionist in the community had died or had moved away.
His main character Isaac decides to emigrate because he wants to marry the woman he loves, Lena, and cannot stay in his home community and do so.
Milton also described the hard lives of the Jews who made a living as peddlers after coming to the US, as his father Abraham probably did:6
A number of peddlers were among the visitors, stalwart young fellows but lately arrived from Germany, who, with a heavy pack on their shoulders, or, if their means allowed, with horse and wagon, wandered through the State, hawking a varied assortment of merchandise, and seeking to master the American tongue while they accumulated American dollars. It was a hard experience, but a salutary one. For the pious Jews, peddling meant untold privations, a total abstinence of all food except eggs and such “Kosher” dried meats as they could carry with them. It meant a weary trudging through unfamiliar villages, over stony roads, amid hostile surroundings, from Sunday morning until Friday evening, and a short rest on the Sabbath in some synagogue town.
It was a career which might well have daunted the most enterprising youth, and yet thousands of “greenhorns ” adopted it, thrived at it, became wealthy through it. It was not considered degrading in those pioneer days, but eminently proper for a new arrival.
The book also sheds light on the lives of German Jewish families in Philadelphia during that time period—the level of observance of Jewish law, the economic and social conditions, and the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The book is likely more valuable today for what it reveals about its times than for its literary merit, but for me, it was a worthwhile read.
Thus, by 1903, Milton had published two novels and written many essays, short stories, and even a musical. He and his family must have decided that it was time to leave Philadelphia and move to New York City where he might have more opportunities to pursue his literary career.
You can download a free copy of A Victim of Conscience here.
After the publication of his first book Rabbi and Priest in 1891, Milton Goldsmith contributed a number of essays and short stories to the Philadelphia newspapers. My favorite is “In the Next Century”1 dated August 28, 1892, when he predicted—with tongue in cheek—what life would be like in the year 2000:
Here are a few highlights from this clever and humorous look at the future—or in our case, the past:
It is safe to assume that the world is but in its infancy, and that coming generations will show a vast mental and physical improvement over the present inhabitants of the globe. Our varied knowledge, the wonderful progress on which we are so prone to pride ourselves, will probably appear as absurd to our progeny as the fragmentary information of our forefathers appears to us. Knowledge will be universal, and the inhabitants of our continent will, in the next century, be intellectual giants.
Imagine yourselves transported to the year 2000….What a change greets our wondering eyes. Ignorance appears to be unknown. The child of 5 knows more than the college graduate of the present era. Let us examine the system that has wrought this improvement. The guide of that year first leads us into the School for Infants. It is here that the babies are taught under the supervision of the government. Competent teachers are appointed the very young idea to shoot. For example, as soon as a child is old enough to drink milk from a bottle, it is taught at the same time the fundamental laws of suction and the principle of the air-pump. Experiments with valves, Torricelli vacuums, etc., form part of the curriculum.How disappointed my cousin Milton would be. I am far past infancy yet I still didn’t know what a Torricelli vacuum was!
He continued with further examples of how babies and children would be instructed in gravity, zoology, geometry, trigonometry, and other mathematical and scientific concepts. Then he looked at medicine and health in the year 2000:
With a people of such mental caliber it is but natural that arts, science and inventions should prosper. The pleasure and comfort of man is greatly enhanced by the numerous devices invented for his welfare. Principal among these are the appliances for fostering the health of the community. Sickness is absolutely unknown. The medical fraternity, having discovered the germ of each disease, have at the same time provided an antidote for such germs. At the age of 2 months the child is vaccinated against tuberculosis. At the age of 3 months against cholera; at the age of four months against smallpox, and so on at regular intervals against all the diseases in the modern doctor books.
Here, Milton has done a better job of prognostication; we do have vaccines against smallpox and tuberculosis and many other diseases. But alas, we certainly have not eliminated all diseases.Milton went on to describe, with tongue in cheek, the extreme measures that would be taken to prevent the reintroduction of germs into society—“Before a mother kisses her child she cleans her teeth and lips with an antiseptic solution. All water is boiled, and all milk sterilized before it is taken.”
He then takes this notion and applies it to the way adults will behave in the year 2000.
When the boy or girl reaches the age when matrimony appears a consummation devoutly to be wished, there are no haphazard marriages as in former days. The partner to be chosen is carefully examined by a psychologist, a pathologist and a phrenologist, and every peculiarity of mental or physical structure carefully noted. Only such parties who are perfectly sound and whose peculiarities are fitted to one another, are allowed to mate. Such a thing as an unhappy marriage, or a divorce, are as a matter of course impossible. Sick or weakly offspring are unknown.
What would Milton think of couples meeting through online dating? Of our over 50% divorce rate? Of birth control and premarital sex?
He then discussed married life:
The intelligent groom knows that promiscuous kissing is injurious; that each kiss, acting upon the sensitive nerves of touch, are apt to create a depletion of nervo-vital force. He therefore limits his kisses to two a day. The lips are carefully disinfected before and after each osculations. …. The groom retires promptly at 10 o’clock, as sufficient sleep is found to be more important than making love.
Imagine Milton watching some of the movies or television shows of our era. What would he think?
Finally, Milton reached his conclusions about life in the year 2000:
As a result of this wonderful system sickness is unknown in the community. People live to the normal age of 100 years and then die suddenly without a struggle. The remains are immediately cremated, the ashes disinfected and buried ten feet in the earth.
Taking it all in all one is almost glad that this happy time has not yet arrived, for though we may have more disease than the possible inhabitant of A.D. 2000, we have a great deal more fun.
Ah, Cousin Milton, how wrong you were! We are still having a lot of fun, probably more than your generation did, as we have fewer diseases, more leisure time, looser social mores, and all the amazing toys that modern science has given us.
I loved the satiric tone of his essay. And I also loved the sense that while I am now looking backward to learn about the life that Milton led as a young man in the 19th century, in 1892 he was looking forward to the future to imagine what life would be like for his descendants in the 21st century.Milton’s creative output in the 19th century was not limited to short stories and essays. In December 1893, Milton’s burlesque entitled “Jay Cesar, Esq.”—which he wrote and acted in—was performed by the Stag Opera Comique Company in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “it was a distinct success from every standpoint and from a social standpoint it was decidedly the leading event in Hebrew society this season so far.” The performance consisted of two hours of “catchy airs, humorous songs, fantastic dances and whimsical dialogue.” 2
Milton was obviously a very talented young man. The 20th century would find him leaving behind his life as a merchant and making a new career in a new city. I wonder what he would have predicted for his own future when he wrote “In the Next Century” in 1892.