Dresses to Riches: The life of a single mother in the late 1800’s

A typical dining room inside tenement housing of the late 19th century.

A typical dining room inside a tenement housing of the late 19th century.

By Yelin (Christina) Chung

The Tenement Museum, built in 1863, was used as housing for more than 70 years. Located at 97 Orchard Street, the Tenement museum’s humble exterior of faded brick and worn cement hardly hints at the fact that it has housed approximately 7,000 families within its lifetime as a residential space.

Visitors can go on tours within the restored spaces that describe the lives of the many previous occupants–some of the small spaces are said to have housed an entire family in a single room. Some places throughout the museum are left in an unrestored condition; important writings and shop advertisements are still standing where they were placed, so many years ago.

The museum recounts carefully gathered details of the various families that lived within these walls, such as the life of Nathalie Gumpertz, a single mother, immigrated from Prussia, who managed to support herself and her four children after their father, Julius, abandoned his family.

A bed with several articles of women's clothing folded on top.

A bed with several articles of women’s clothing folded on top.

Due to her three young daughters (all under the age of ten) and infant son (who would not live past 9 months), Nathalie had to work from her home, and so she took on dressmaking, a self-employed occupation that was common among many women during the late 1800’s.

“Ready to wear clothing …didn’t exist”, says David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs at the museum, and explained that she must have acquired a sewing machine “second hand, or on an installment plan”.space

After ten years of keeping her family afloat on her humble dressmaking job, which earned her “around $8-$10 a month”, says Favaloro, news of Julius’s father’s death arrives from Prussia, and since Nathalie has had Julius declared dead, it left the hefty $600 inheritance (approximately $10,000 today) to the hardworking mother.

A mock clothesline hanging below the fire escape behind the Tenement Museum.

A mock clothesline hanging below the fire escape behind the Tenement Museum.

Nathalie is said to have moved promptly out of the tenement, instead opting for a larger home in the Upper East Side. She later died in 1884, due to arterial sclerosis.space

As for the tenement itself, the landlord had been faced with either fireproofing the stairwell, or leaving the home to be deemed unsuitable for living due to new housing laws created around the 1930’s. Not seeing an investment in fireproofing part of the home, he opted to evict residents instead, which left the apartment desolate and lifeless by 1935.space

Recently, the new National Park Service-affiliated site will allow the Tenement Museum to tell the stories of Puerto Rican and Chinese families, a strong and diversifying addition to the many empowering stories that are told on the tours at the museum.


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