Inside Nathalie Gumpertz’s Life; Tenement Museum in the LES

– by Daniel Yeom

The history of the United States is the history of immigrants. Ever since the pilgrims started to flock in the New World in the 1600’s, immigrants from all over the world have put down their roots all over America. New York City is no exception. Once home to millions of German and Eastern European newcomers, the Lower East Side offers a fascinating outlook into what life in the city was like in the 19th century. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street between Delancey and Broome, offers a peek into the lives of approximately 7,000 residents who resided in the building between 1863 and 1935.

Even before the museum opened, folklorists, genealogists, and historians have closely observed the history of 97 Orchard St, a typical boardinghouse that mainly housed fresh-off-the-boat, working class families, in order to chronicle the history of immigration into New York City. After gathering sufficient historical evidences and stories, the museum opened in 1992.

For the most part, the museum has preserved its former structure and decor from the 1860’s. Layers and layers of wallpapers, markings on wooden walls, and creaking stairs showcase how much time has elapsed. The rooms are furbished with antique furnitures that the museum deem appropriate to represent the time period.

“We collect objects that serve as the vehicle for story-telling,” said David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs at the museum. You’d understand exactly what Favaloro said as soon as you enter the room that Nathalie Gumpertz and her daughters used to call home.

The Gumpertz migrated to the United States and lived on Orchard St in the 1870’s; Julius and Nathalie Gumpertz and their three daughters. Soon after, however, Julius simply picked up and left; not an uncommon phenomenon, according to Favaloro.

What happened next is incredible. Nathalie rolled up her sleeves to support her children. She started making handmade dresses for the wealthier women in town, and building a solid reputation for herself. She successfully raised her three daughters; an incredible feat for a 19th century single mother.

Funnily enough, karma hit Julius quite bad. Genealogists tracked down Julius, and found the record of him in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he spent his last 25 years in a Jewish elderly home all by himself. Meanwhile back in New York, Nathalie received a surprising turn of luck; Julius’s father in Prussia died and left a significant amount of inheritance to Julius. Since Julius could not be found anywhere, the money went to Nathalie and the girls.

With a sudden and significant boost in economic status, Nathalie and her daughters could move out of the shabby apartment in the Lower East Side and move into a nicer home on the Upper East Side. Although Nathalie Gumpertz hadn’t lived on 97 Orchard for over a century, her go-getter spirit remains in the shape of an antique sewing machine, bread on the table, and a dress hanging from the clothesline on the side of the middle of the room.

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