Showing posts with label immigration. Show all posts
Showing posts with label immigration. Show all posts

Monday, March 2, 2015

Matriarchal Monday: "Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars"

For Women's History Month, and for insights into the lives of my immigrant grandmothers, I just finished reading Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars by Elizabeth Ewen.

This nonfiction book gave me valuable background for understanding the lives of immigrant women like Minnie Farkas and Henrietta Mahler who came to New York City between 1890 to 1925. Although the book focuses on Jewish and Italian households, some of the observations apply to immigrant households in general.

One insight, from the "Our Daily Bread" chapter, explained why my great-grandma (Lena Kunstler Farkas) insisted that her children (including my grandma Minnie) hand over their pay packets in their entirety. Immigrant families simply couldn't be supported by the wages of the father alone--if he found steady work--and as soon as children were able, they went to work to help pay for food and rent and clothing.

The book observes that mothers had to exert control over the children's pay early (before the children learned to spend) or they wouldn't have enough money to keep the family going. Some immigrant families also needed money to pay for bringing other family members from the home country to America. So teenagers and even children in their 20s gave the pay packet to Mom, who then doled out car fare and maybe a bit for snacks or lunch and kept the rest for the household's expenses. This was the pattern in my Farkas family, for sure.

Another tidbit I learned is why my elderly Schwartz cousin made a point of mentioning that the clothes worn by my female ancestors in Hungary were good quality. Newcomers from Europe came to realize that in New York (and probably throughout America), "greenhorn" ladies needed to wear stylish clothing -- even if inexpensive -- if they wanted to be accepted into the mainstream, as the author points out in her chapter titled "First Encounters."

Quality was very important in the Old Country as a mark of financial achievement, and that's why my cousin emphasized that point. However, being seen in the latest styles was much more important for ladies in the New World. Luckily, my Farkas grandma and great aunts were super with a sewing machine and could whip up fashionable dresses for their daughters.

My immigrant grandfathers both boarded with immigrant families in NYC tenements before marrying. This book says (in the "House and Home" chapter) that boarding with immigrants who were originally from the same area was extremely common, especially among men who arrived alone and needed someone to cook for them, etc. The book also points out that a boarder often got the best bed and/or the only bedroom.

Grandpa Isaac Burk boarded with his future in-laws, the Mahler family, for a short time after arriving in NYC.  Unfortunately, I'll never know whether Grandpa Isaac knew Grandma Henrietta before he was a boarder in her family's apartment, or whether love blossomed once he was part of the household.

PS: Today is the 125th anniversary of the wedding of my great uncle Joseph Jacobs to Eva Michalovsky. They married in Manhattan on this date in 1890, a Sunday. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ellis Island Photos

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The NY Public Library has digital collections of photos of old New York and much more for people like me, who are climbing their family tree.

About 10 years ago my sister and I went with several cousins to Ellis Island and looked for the names of our ancestors who had come to America through its gates. What a moving visit! And what a great opportunity to tell family stories. Afterward, Cousin Ron guided us to his favorite Chinatown restaurant. It was a day to remember, even as the research continues.