America 18/70

Immigrant New York – The Final Word

There is only one place to go to really get the full works on New York’s immigrant history. The Tenement Museum portrays the lives of real people who once lived in the block at 97 Orchard Street.

97 Orchard St, NY. Photo: author’s own!

Visitors take guided tours of the building to see the restored apartments and businesses of past residents. I chose the ‘Hard Times’ tour to discover how a German-Jewish family survived the panic of 1873 and how the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Entering the dark and dingy ‘dumbbell’ hallway was an experience I will never forget. Our guide developed each life story using documents and texts whilst we stood experiencing the authentic atmosphere of a tenement apartment. Amazing!

Later I chose one of the ‘Walk the Neighbourhood’ tours called Outside the Home. The tour included the Jarmulowsky Bank, a former Loews Theatre and the Daily Forward Building – all very significant in the social history of the community.

The Forward Building

For great interior shots of this once famous Loews theatre on Canal St, visit Uncle Google!

If this has whetted your appetite, here is the web site for the Tenement Museum.  The About Us page tells the story of its founding in 1980s – by two inspired women who were way ahead of the curve in discerning the importance of ‘history from below!’ And just to reiterate that point, I was advised by my New Yorker friend, Lisa, to book my tours months ahead as they get sold out!

Ps Have a look at the shop! I could not resist my very own ‘fire escape’ pendant.

Finally after all this urban angst, it is time to reconnect with the Swedish pioneers, navigating their way up the Hudson river…

America 18/70

Holiday Research Uncovers Real Life Horror Story!

The Triangle Waist Factory fire occurred on 25th March 1911 in the heart of the diverse community in the Lower East Side of New York. The tragedy epitomises many aspects of the realities of immigrant life. People, particularly women, had little choice but to accept the dreadful conditions of the labour market.

“The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart of Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops.”

Working conditions. Photographer: unknown, ca. 1900
Kheel Center image identifier: 5783pb1f3a

This information came  from the amazing resources available on this website:



Here my research comes full circle. On the website I read one of the testimonials, Days and Dreams by Sadie Frowne about life as a sweat-shop girl. Defending her choice of spending wages on nice clothes, she writes:

“Some of the women blame me very much because I spend so much money on clothes. They say that instead of $1 a week I ought not to spend more than 25cents a week on clothes, and that I should save the rest. But a girl must have clothes if she is to go into high society at Ulmer Park or Coney Island …”


America 18/70

Coney Island – New York’s Historical Pressure Valve!

A day out at Coney Island, aka ‘Bedlam by the Sea,’ provided a respite for the urban masses. The ocean and the beach were made accessible thanks to the famous Boardwalk lined with restaurants and food stands including the five-cent hot dogs from ‘Nathan’s Famous.’ Other diversions included dime museums, concert halls, dance pavilions, sideshows, circuses, firework displays, games of chance, an aquarium and the widely popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Three amusement parks offered ‘ten hours fun for ten cents’ where visitors could have a go on the Human Roulette Wheel, visit Dr Courney’s Infant Incubators, see the 60-ton Captive Whale and experience Dwarf City with its own Lilliputian Fire Brigade. Importantly, this recreation could be enjoyed in a more casual and relaxed atmosphere than was possible in the dreary tenements.

Writers have long held differing views about the Coney ‘experience.’ For some, Coney was a symbol of the best of America’s democratic nature, while others described it as a site of blighted dreams, urban decay and an escape valve for frustrations that would otherwise become politicised. As Lewis Mumford wrote in The City,

“The urban worker escapes the mechanical routine of his daily job only to find an equally mechanical substitute for life and growth and experience in his amusements… the Coney Islands are means of giving jaded and throttled people the sensations of living without the direct experience of life …”

Lauren Rabinovitz takes this point further, analysing the success of Coney in terms of how it acclimatised people to modernity and living in an urban-industrial society. The outrageous architecture and brilliant electrical displays dazzled and helped to win popular consent to being part of the new mass society. Aspects of the industrial age were employed to create the new forms of entertainment and the rides, chutes and wheels became more extravagant in terms of sensationalism, unreflective mental and physical reaction. This hyperstimulation was reflective of the nervous energies of New York.



It was certainly a new kind of social space combining technology, mass leisure, consumption and pleasure. Disaster shows became a playground for more and more virtual realities, spectacularising modern technology and its power to resolve problems brought about by modern living conditions. Thus ‘apocalyptic entertainment’ was a great favourite at Coney and fire spectacles were big business!

In the Fighting the Flames show, two thousand people were employed in the production. Fireman slid down brass poles, horses and machines were hitched and real people jumped from hotel bedrooms to escape the ‘real’ fire!

But imagine my consternation when further research showed just how on the mark Lauren Rabinovitz was in saying Coney’s attractions acclimatised people to urban-industrial conditions – I stumbled upon The Triangle Factory Fire 1911.

America 18/70

The Immigrant Experience – Finding Somewhere to Live?

Stepping ashore was one thing, surviving the first few months in the New World was quite another.

Immigrants had not the ability to choose where they should live or the means to choose how. They could not afford to buy homes nor could they layout much in rent payments. Their first thought was that the cost be as little as possible. The result was they got as little as possible. The immigrants found their first homes in quarters the old occupants no longer desired. As business grew the commercial centre of the city blighted the neighbouring residential districts. The most profitable solution was to divide the old mansions into multiple lodgings.

The plight of those living in such dreadful conditions became the subject of Joseph Riis’ book: How the Other Half Lives. (1890) Riis was an American newspaper reporter, social reformer and photographer who shocked the conscience of the city with his factual depictions of life in the slums.

As the population continued to grow so did the demand for housing. Developers saw profit in the demolition of the old houses and the construction of compact barracks that made complete use of every inch of earth. The new blocks conformed to the uniform city real estate plot, 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. And so the “dumbbell tenement” was born.

Dumbbell Tenement floor plan, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

The immigrant life was confined by the flat. Memoirs describe the living conditions people had to endure, and which made some wish to be back in their Old World villages. “Calico sheets hung on ropes divided up the domains, everything was in poor repair. There was nowhere to store things.  Even the simplest tasks were complex and disorganising. Every day there was a family to feed but how could the unfamiliar coal stove be managed. But what does one do with rubbish who has never known the meaning of waste? It was not really so important to walk down the long flight of narrow stairs each time there are some scraps to be disposed of. The windows offered an easier alternative, the filthy streets were seldom cleaned. The back alleys and rear yards were never touched. Sunlight and fresh air became luxuries. Water had to be carried up steep stairs from taps in the back yard. City dirt was harder to scrub away and there was no nearby creek. “A man got a good bath only twice in his life: from the midwife and the undertaker. “ “ from The Uprooted. The epic story of the Great Migrations that made the American People. Oscar Handlin.

In addition, the confining dimensions of the flat were very oppressive. The space simply would not yield to all the demands made upon it. Where were the children to play if the fields were gone? Where were things to be stored or clothes to be hung? There was only one living room and it contained the sink and stove. The man in the evening came home from work, found nowhere to rest and privacy was difficult to achieve. Many flats doubled up as workrooms for subsistence trades.

Tenement Sweatshop Diorama, New York State Museum, Albany, NY

In these tiny rooms that were all they could call home, many traditional activities withered and disappeared. Not here were friends welcomed, festivals commemorated, children taught, and the family united to share in the warmth. Emptied of these meanings and often crowded with strange lodgers, home was just the feeding and sleeping place. All else moves to the outside.

America 18/70

Writing Up America!

Arrival in the New World!


‘Stepping ashore’ on the hallowed tip of Manhattan at Castle Clinton in Battery Park was the first stage in my  re-enactment of the Swedish pioneer journey.


But I was not alone in appreciating the significance and meaning of this spot in terms of American history and identity.


The Immigrants Statue

“Sculptor Luis Sanguino (b. 1934) celebrates the diversity of New York City and the struggle of immigrants in this heroic-sized bronze figural group. The sculpture depicts figures of various ethnic groups and eras, including an Eastern European Jew, a freed African slave, a priest, and a worker. The figures’ expressive poses emphasise the struggle and toil inherent in the experience of the immigrant or dislocated person.The sculpture is located at the south end of the Eisenhower Mall in Battery Park near Castle Clinton, which served as a processing facility for newly arrived immigrants from 1855 to 1890, when construction began on a larger, more remote facility at nearby Ellis Island. ” This text is part of National Parks’ Historical SignsProject







America 18/70

Crossing the Atlantic!

Marilyn at Sea 27 July to 3 August

The 6 days passed in a flurry of totally pleasant experiences, starting each day with breakfast in bed delivered by the un-obtrusive Mathew, from Thailand. Then the day was punctuated with dance classes, drama workshops, Planetarium expositions, lectures, Mass at 8.30am (some days!) and a great programme of lectures – and actually lots more!

cabin 2014
The Planetarium

We had an opportunity to go ‘below stairs’ and appreciate the scale of the culinary operations.



Another big thrill, so relevant to my story was finding that our evening dining companions were Swedish! A key raison d’etre for the trip has been my interest in Swedish immigration and our route has been designed to follow in the footsteps of the immigrants captured in the novels of Wilhelm Moberg. Whoa – here I was making my Atlantic crossing with 2 delightful Swedes from Gothenburg!


I can’t resist sharing this next episode from life on board! Here I am celebrating in my cabin and signing on for the September  term at Winchester University.

Anyway, this life had to come to a close as I needed to muscle up to face the rigours of my US study tour!

Last check of the charts as we approach the Eastern Seaboard!

America 18/70

Swedish Immigration to the USA

The detailed saga of the journey and life stories of nineteenth century Swedes is wonderfully depicted in the novels of Vilhelm Moberg. The second volume, Unto A Good Land places the immigrants on American soil and specifically at Castle Garden, the immigrant processing centre used before Ellis Island was built.

In the Land of Promise, Castle Garden, 1884 by Ulrich, Charles Frederic (1858-1908)

And here below are 2 other travellers wondering what the New World will hold for them!

America 18/70

The Scale of the Challenge!

I can’t climb every mountain!

This trip covers about one third of the American Continent and will pass through at least 14 States. That means I have a huge amount of information to be mined and prospected and held onto during the planning selection and decision stages! My first thoughts were to capture the basics in the blog because I least, I will know where I have put them! This may result in nothing more interesting than a gazetteer for my readers but hopefully, when I go in deeper and start mining the items, I shall be able to reveal the more interesting nuggets. I can identify with this guy!

Meanwhile, here’s a couple of essential items from my planning kit! 

My Favourite Wall Map!


Another research life-saver! 

ps. I do work with these alongside Uncle Google!

So, I’ve made a start on the direction of travel leaving New York, following the original pioneer route up the Hudson valley, and turning west at Albany. Then its OMG, I feel completely overwhelmed by all the information and decide it’s time to bring on the Cavalry!

Let me introduce you to Kelly Field and her company!  Kelly is a crystal clear communicator and a great mentor. She understands exactly how I think and how I work! I explained the enormity of the travel plans and the fun I was having in the archives, constantly exploring. Kelly, in her lovely quiet way, said that it all sounds wonderful but what are you actually going TO DO on the trip? I had been so swept away in the deep recesses of Trauma and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature or wondering how the Supremes managed their re-entry to segregated Detroit following their UK tour in 1966, that I had neglected the fundamental question – “what are we going to do on holiday?”

Kelly’s suggestion was perfect and full of common sense: a weekly Countdown Planner where I would write down three things such as activities, venues, events for each chosen location. I would then plan a weekly update with Paul to handover travel requirements and once a fortnight write up the blog to share the highlights from the three items researched. It is a crystal-clear plan!

However, I am not quite under starter’s orders, as I was still obsessing about information overload. Consequently, I am not yet in a position to share a great destination but here are some great tips for dealing with the Information Mountain from  The Huffington Post

My biggest takeaway from the article was the fact that when we overload ourselves with information we think we are being productive. “After all, what’s more productive than discovering what you don’t know? Yet information overload paralyses us into a state of inaction and if we don’t use the information that we are learning immediately, we lose up to 75% of that information from our memories and brains, making all of the information we are taking in nearly useless!”


Surprise the Reader!

Notes from a Lymington bungalow? What is this contraption doing here?

I am hoping to draw your attention to the role of these Notes as a place to log the research snippets and discoveries left over from my America 18/70 blog. These nuggets of interest will help provide a context or background to the destinations.

The Great Black Swamp is no longer a feature of the Ohio landscape. But when European settlers first reached the western shores of Lake Erie, they encountered a forested wetland that covered nearly 4,800 square miles in Ohio and Indiana, and the immigrant farmers hated it.

‘It was in their view a pestilential menace and barrier to prosperity and as soon as possible they began the business of draining it.’

Responding to this business imperative, a typical gung-ho American inventor, James Hill came up with the perfect solution; the Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher, an excavation contraption that could dig a ditch faster than a team of 15 men working by hand. When drained, the Great Black Swamp became some of the most productive farmland in the US. You can find out more by visiting the US Nature Conservancy here

This may not be my only encounter with the legacy of the drained Great Black Swamp. Intensive chemical farming practices are cited as responsible for blue-green algae infestations in a number of major waterways – including the Mississippi – See you later, alligator!

America 18/70

Ask the Reader!

 How would you plan to spend 3 months travelling in the eastern third of the USA?

Describing the outline travel plan in the Welcome paragraph was the easy bit! Now I am responsible for building the complete itinerary for the trip! Where to begin and what to choose? This dilemma took me straight to the heart of the research process – how to find out about things that you don’t yet know versus researching more about what you already know.  For some aspects of the trip I know the question I want the answer to (can we travel by boat north up the Hudson river from New York?).

For much of the rest of the planning, I have general knowledge gaps about everything! – landscape, key historical events, significant locations –  to name only three! The first type of question requires a targeted approach to the research to locate something that I know exists. To tackle the general knowledge gaps I will need to research more broadly, learning about culture and places without quite knowing how I will  use the information on the trip. To use an appropriate metaphor, it’s mining versus prospecting! Drill down deep to find the facts and range far and wide to gain the bigger picture. This good tip came from a research article here:

Wider reading

A further source of stimulating ideas is coming from novels. Tracey Chevalier introduced me to the Great Black Swamp of Ohio. Here in the 1830s, struggling pioneers settled where their wagon got stuck.  I found that discovery intriguing and naturally, that set off a few hours of ‘prospecting’ and wanting to know even more.

Great Black Swamp, Ohio
The Great Black Swamp, Ohio