Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jewish Market on the East Side

This postcard shows Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan just before 1900. Like Cliff Dwellers, the painting by George Bellows I showed the other day, it reveals the vibrancy of high-density urban neighborhoods and not, except by implication, the extreme hardships endured by the people who lived in them.

{Caption: New Jewish market on the East Side, New York, postcard by the Detroit Photographic Co. from a photo of 1900; source: Library of Congress}

Here is a copy with inscription from "Lizzie R."

{New Jewish Market On The East Side. Postmarked New York 1906. Source: ad on eBay}

As Jacob Riis had something to say about the content of the painting (though twenty years beforehand), so he had something to say about the street market (though this particular "New" market hadn't yet come into existence):
The crowds that jostle each other at the wagons and about the sidewalk shops, where a gutter plank on two ash-barrels does duty for a counter! Pushing, struggling, babbling, and shouting in foreign tongues, a veritable Babel of confusion. An English word falls upon the ear almost with a sense of shock, as something unexpected and strange. ... [Apart from pigs,] there is scarcely anything else that can be hawked from a wagon that is not to be found, and at ridiculously low prices. Bandannas and tin cups at two cents, peaches at a cent a quart, “damaged” eggs for a song, hats for a quarter, and spectacles, warranted to suit the eye, at the optician’s who has opened shop on a Hester Street door-step, for thirty five cents; frowzy-looking chickens and half-plucked geese, hung by the neck and protesting with wildly strutting feet even in death against the outrage, are the great staple of the market. ... Old coats are hawked for fifty cents, “as good as new.” ... The endless panorama of the tenements, rows upon rows, between stony streets, stretches to the north, to the south, and to the west as far as the eye reaches.[2]
I think the photo shows the south end of Elizabeth Street. The camera seems to be located just north of Bayard, aimed up toward Canal.

Canal St. is at the arrow point on this 1879 birds eye map. Division St. bears the elevated railway running east from Chatham Sq. and the E. Broadway of Cliff Dwellers is parallel to and just south of Division.

{The city of New York, by Will L. Taylor, 1879; source: Library of Congress}

Here's the original photo from which the photocrom was made.

{Caption: Jewish market on the East Side, New York, N.Y., by Detroit Publishing Co., taken between 1890 and 1901; source: Library of Congress}

The block contains mid-century wooden buildings with small brick structures and newer dumbbell tenements. Judging from the open windows and number of people in shirtsleeves, the day is warm, probably during one of the summer months.

If I'm right about its location, this market is only two blocks from the Italian street market on Mulberry St. Riis noted the similarities between the Jewish and Italian markets: "A common pulse beats in the quarters of the Polish Jews and in the Mulberry Bend, though they have little else in common. Life over yonder in fine weather is a perpetual holiday, here a veritable tread-mill of industry. Friday brings out all the latent color and picturesqueness of the Italians, as of these Semites. The crowds and the common poverty are the bonds of sympathy between them." Here's the Mulberry St. market in 1900. There's also a famous photocrom version of it.[4]
{Mulberry St., New York, N.Y. c1900; Detroit Publishing Co.; source: Library of Congress}

Here are some detail views from the "Jewish Market" photo.

1. A woman watching out a window seems to be looking directly at us. The appears to have a pine tree; you can't tell what's being advertised. There's a high intensity electric lamp, a version of New York's first electric street lighting. Someone's apron has found its way to the top of the sheet metal awning.

2. The boy with hand on head catches my eye, then, to the left, the bearded guy with "boater" and open collar. The wrought iron gate just behind him is a bit of a mystery. Vendors would rent the barrows for twenty five cents a day. Two guys are having a discussion and one scratches his nose.

3. The kerchiefed woman on the left has soiled her apron and the woman with top knot in front of her seems to be bustling to get her shopping done. A vendor has sold almost all the potatoes on his cart. Two boys are looking at a woman's improvised countertop which displays books and bric a brac.

4. I think this is a meat wagon. The harness is more elaborate than normal on delivery wagons, possibly because the loads were heavy. Note the heart cutout at back.

5. A vendor cries his wares while a girl sits somewhat slumped looking out.

6. It's mainly potatoes on this side of the street.

7. A young vegetable seller has some friends to hang out with.

8. The stall at left is selling pants. Riis said "Old coats are hawked for fifty cents, “as good as new,” and “pants” — there are no trousers in Jewtown, only pants — at anything that can be got. There is a knot of half a dozen “pants” pedlars in the middle of the street, twice as many men of their own race fingering their wares and plucking at the seams with the anxious scrutiny of would-be buyers, though none of them has the least idea of investing in a pair. Yes, stop! This baker, fresh from his trough, bare-headed and with bare arms, has made an offer: for this pair thirty cents; a dollar and forty was the price asked."

9. It can't be easy to keep up with the washing when your clothes line is so short.

10. Selling socks off an old baby carriage.

11. I wonder whether the boy is just observing or has been tasked with keeping the horse quiet.

12. A close-up of the nose gesture.

13. Selling ice.



[1] This card was almost certainly made using the photocrom method for converting black and white photographs to lithographic prints. From the 1880s and into the 20th century, this was the dominant method for making colored postcards and the Detroit Photographic Co. made thousands of them.

[2] Jewtown, by Jacob A. Riis, Chapter X of his book, How the Other Half Lives, (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890). As with Chapter XI, to which I drew attention the other day, this article is worth reading in full. Also, as I said then, Riis didn't mean to disparage Jews in using the term Jewtown, but intended it as we use the terms Chinatown and Little Italy.

[3] Canal Street got its name from a ditch used half a century before to drain Collect Pond. Once drained, the area that was Collect Pond became the notorious Five Points district. If you're interested, see my last blog for a list of posts I've done on Five Points. Elizabeth Street, like others I've mentioned, lies on the route my great-grandfather took between his home in Woodside, Queens, and his office on Reade Street. Known for his optimistic outlook and sense of humor, he once told of petty thefts he made at street markets like this back when, as a teenager, he first arrived in New York. In an interview that appeared in The Sun, June 30, 1906, he said that in 1854 he had stolen a tomato off a wagon in Vesey Street: "I was only a boy. I had just come to this country. I was a clerk in a grocery store on Vesey street. I was trying to be good and forget what had happened in Munster. But at the fatal moment a cart full of tomatoes stopped in front of the door. ... It was then I stole the tomato." (A sudden decline in family finances forced him to leave a prestigious high school in Munster. It's unclear what happened but, at age 18, he apparently moved in with an aunt and uncle and then emigrated to New York. Another reason for wishing to "forget what happened in Munster" was his participation in the radical rebellion of 1848 in that city and its outcome for him and the other rebels.)

[4] See my blog posts on the two: Mulberry Street 1900 and Mulberry Street, again. Although Riis refers to Mulberry Bend, the market was located somewhat to the north. The Bend is just visible three blocks south of the camera in the photo. Like his contemporaries, Riis refers to the Jewish refugees from the pogroms and poverty of the Eastern-European areas of the Russian Empire as Polish.

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