By: Rayna Voz
Built on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1863, the Tenement Museum was home to nearly 7,000 working class citizens. From the outside, the seemingly ordinary building at 97 Orchard Street blends with the façade of adjacent Lower East Manhattan buildings. Yet beneath twenty-one layers of the decrepit wallpaper, the museum preserves a rich history of the newcomers who came to Manhattan in pursuit of building new lives. Historian and social activist, Ruth Abram built a museum in honor of the immigrants and with several years of researchers sifting through archives, the museum opened its doors to visitors to expose the profound role immigration has played in shaping the flourishing American identity. “We collect objects that serve as the vehicle for story-telling,” says David Favaloro, the director of curatorial affairs at the museum.
The tenement housed mainly Prussian families during the 1800’s, one of which was the German-Jewish Gumpertz family. On October 17, 1874, Nathalie Gumpertz, mother of three daughters and infant son who ran away woke to see her husband, Julius off to work. This day was different however, for her husband never returned. Despite their instabilities of starting a new life and finding new work in America, Julius and Nathalie were settled comfortably in the tenement for ten years now. Without a single trace of her husband, Nathalie was forced to support her and her young daughters, all under the age of ten during a time where women had a limited selection of professions.Unfortunately Nathalie’s case was common at the time as the local German newspaper even held a specific “Missing Husbands”.
“Ready to wear clothing didn’t exist” Falvaro says, which is exactly why Nathalie took on dressmaking. Working straight from her home, Nathalie was able to both support her family and raise her girls simultaneously earning around $8 to $10 dollars a month, says Falvaro. After nearly a decade supporting her family, Nathalie received a letter from Julius’ family who had enclosed an inheritance of $600, which converts to around $10,000 dollars today. With the extra money, Nathalie was able to move out of the tenement for a larger apartment in upper Manhattan, following the path of other German immigrants. Although Nathalie most likely never knew where her husband went, the museum was able to trace Julius’ path to Cincinnati, Ohio through genealogists’ research through archives.
Nathalie Gumpertz died in 1884, due to arterial sclerosis yet her rich story continues to thrive within the museum walls. Nathalie’s spirit rests in the museum artifacts that adorn her former apartment. Her determination shines through the antique sewing machine, bread on the table, mock clothing line and photograph sitting proud on the apartment’s mantel.