Stories of Hope: Immigrating to New York’s Lower East Side in the 1890s

by Eda Haksal 

A white long underskirt and an embroidered tiny white dress hang on an old fashioned clothesline airing above a coal heating stove that, in the late 19th century, kept a German immigrant family warm during the winter inside what is now the Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street. 

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Layers of paled wallpaper encapsulate the arcane history of America as the nation of immigrants as poetically as possible in a tenement house that accommodated European immigrants from 1863 until 1935.  The neighborhood where the museum stands today used to be home to German Jews, Eastern Europeans, Irish and Italians.

Circa 1890, one of the families who lived in one of the three 325 square feet rooms on the hall of this crowded old building was a German-Jewish family from Prussia. According to David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs, Nathalie Gumpertz was in her late thirties with three daughters aged less than ten years old. Her husband, Julius Gumpertz, had left his family and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Nathalie worked as a dressmaker from home.

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According to Favaloro, Nathalie possibly made custom dresses for landlord’s wife and some of the other storekeepers in the neighborhood. Perhaps, she had acquired a second hand sewing machine and her customers would bring their own clothes. The children might have also helped Nathalie in her business, as the enforcement of the compulsory school law that had recently passed was still questionable at the time. Dressmaking was a popular activity for immigrant housewives . “Pants made to order for $1.50,” a sign has been recreated by the museum. 

Nathalie and her three daughters were apportioned a great deal of wealth when Julius’ father back in their hometown died and Julius was nowhere to be found. The genealogists at the museum discovered years later that Julius started another family in Cincinnati and ended up spending his last twenty-five years in an old age home. Nathalie died in 1894 possibly from arteriosclerosis in a good economical condition in her second home in the Upper East Side.

The Tenement Museum tells the story of “how we constitute ourselves as a nation of immigrants,” says Favaloro. The museum holds daily tours and provides background information on the immigrant families. With the support of the Congress, the museum is soon going to expand to 103 Orchard Street and be able to tell the stories of Puerto Rican and Chinese families who also called the Lower East Side their home.  

 

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