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.

Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Spewack, Part I

I am now reading another memoir, Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side.  The author, Bella Spewack, had quite an interesting life.  She moved with her mother, Fanny Cohen, from Transylvania to NYC in 1902 when she was just three years old.  Fanny Cohen was just a teenager herself and had been abandoned by Bella’s father shortly after Bella was born.  They arrived in NYC with no resources, no money, no relatives to help them, and yet somehow Bella grew up to be a successful journalist first and then a very successful Broadway playwright along with her husband, Sam Spewack.  They are perhaps best known for the Tony award-winning play, Kiss Me Kate.

Bella wrote Streets in the 1920s while living in Berlin with her husband as foreign correspondents, but like A World Apart, it was not published until relatively recently (1995).  I chose to read this book to get an idea of what life was like for our family when they were living on the Lower East Side in the 1890s and early 20th century.

Whereas A World Apart failed to convey what life was like for poor Jews living in Galicia, Spewack does not shy away from depicting the hardships endured by Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side in the first two decades of the 20th century.  In the first chapter, Spewack describes how her mother scratched together a living in the early years after they first arrived in New York.  Like many young immigrant women, Fanny started by looking for employment as a house servant right after she arrived in the US. Fanny and Bella lived behind a restaurant those first days and shared a bed with two strangers.   When after some time, Fanny finally secured a position as a servant, she found the man of the house at her bedside in the middle of the night.  Fanny left and returned to the restaurant and started looking again.  Her second position was in Canarsie (Brooklyn), where she lasted somewhat longer until Fanny intervened to protect a girl living in that home from sexual assault.

My eyes opened wide when I read that they then returned to the Lower East Side and stayed with a woman they called the Peckacha who lived on Ridge Street. (The woman had a pock-marked face, and I assume that’s what the nickname meant.) This would have been in 1902, the year after Joseph died, when Bessie and the children were living on Ridge Street.  Since Frieda was then five and Gussie was seven, it is entirely possible that little Bella knew our family.  Of course, since there were probably thousands of people living on Ridge Street, it’s also possible and probably likely that they never met, but it made reading this section more meaningful for me as it helped me imagine what life was like for those other two little girls, my grandmother and her little sister.  Unfortunately, Bella’s experience with the Peckacha and her children was not a pleasant one.   The children would pick on her, both verbally and physically, while Fanny was out working.

Bella described Attorney Street, the street one block west of Ridge as like Orchard Street, “a market where fruit and vegetable dealers sell to the street and store vendors.  Cases, bulging with oranges or apples and watermelon, line the streets, while men with live, dirty hands darted among them with eyes that took in everything.  People live on these streets as well, rotting in their cases with the overripe fruits.” (p. 8)

lower east side

Fanny soon decided that she would prefer working in a factory to being a house servant.  Her next job was working as an operator in a ladies’ shirtwaist factory for $7.50 a week.  Bella and Fanny moved to Cannon Street where they lived with a widow named Pincus.  Bella went to a day nursery while her mother was at work.  The nursery was located in the basement of a building on Cannon Street, which Bella described as “gloomy but much warmer than the rooms all of us had just left.”  Overall, Bella’s experience at the day nursery sounded positive, with pleasant caretakers, but the days were very long, stretching past seven at night, and the space was overcrowded with too many babies and young children.

Unfortunately, once again Bella experienced some abuse.  Fanny trusted Mrs. Pincus, her landlady, to get Fanny up and to the nursery, and Mrs. Pincus ended up hitting and pinching Bella, once leaving her with such a huge bruise that Bella had to admit to her mother that Mrs. Pincus was abusing her. These experiences finally led Fanny to decide that she needed to find a place of her own where she would take in boarders to help pay the rent and provide her with some income.  She found a place in a new building on Cannon Street near Rivington Street, a three room apartment (bedroom, kitchen and dining room) with its own bathroom, and took in several boarders.

In the foreword to the book, Ruth Limmer provided a description of early tenement houses: “horrific five- and six- story dwellings that…lacked toilets, running water, fire escapes, and landlord-supplied hear and cooking stoves.” (p. xix)  By 1903, however, newer buildings had been built that were somewhat of an improvement.  “Now each apartment had, in addition to its windowed “front room”…another room that opened onto an air shaft, and interior windows were cut into the walls in order to permit a flow of air.  Little by little, the apartments were fitted with piping for illuminating gas. And instead of backyard privies, families got to share indoor toilets, two per four-apartment floor.  The law also required that fire escapes be affixed to all buildings.”  (p. xix)  The tenements were built on lots originally intended for single family dwellings ( 25 feet by 100 feet), but they housed over twenty families plus boarders in each building.

les interior

I imagine that this is like the apartment that Fanny and Bella were renting in 1903 and likely also what the Brotmans were living in on Ridge Street.  The census from 1900 did not list boarders as living in the Brotman household; perhaps Joseph’s income as a coal carrier/dealer was sufficient to support the family, though I doubt their standard of living would be acceptable to any of us today.

inside tenement

Bella described the many boarders, both men and women, who shared their small space, men sleeping in the kitchen, women in the living room and bedroom with Bella and Fanny.  You can imagine the goose bumps I got when I read that two of the young girls living with them at the beginning were named Frieda and Gussie.  Obviously, those girls were not our Frieda and Gussie, and those were common names for Jewish girls at that time, but nevertheless, once again the book made me realize that I was reading not about some foreign land or a work of fiction, but a work that reflects what life must have been like for the Brotman family living on Ridge Street in 1900.

More to come….