Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Student of the Week: Vanice Greco

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Our Manhattan Trade School student this week is Vanice Greco, who was born in March of 1917 and could therefore still be alive today at the age of 97. Her main card is shown above and has several notable aspects:

1. According to the card, Vanice lived in "Astoria, Long Island." Now, Astoria is a neighborhood in Queens, and Queens is indeed part of the land mass of Long Island (as is Brooklyn, for that matter), but Queens is never referred to as being part of Long Island these days because Queens is part of New York City while the term "Long Island" is usually understood to mean the suburban counties of Nassau and Suffolk. But the Manhattan Trade School report cards routinely append the Long Island qualifier to assorted Queens neighborhoods. Interesting.

2. A note at the top indicates that Vanice was a union member. Although the note is not accompanied by a date, it was almost certainly added after Vanice graduated from the school. Like many of the Manhattan Trade students, she used the school as an employment resource for several years after her schooling, and she apparently became a union member along the way.

3. Vanice's parents were both cigar makers. This occupation is listed quite a bit in the report cards for various students' parents — cigar production must have been a sizable industry in New York back in the 1920s and ’30s. To my knowledge, no cigars are produced in the city today.

4. In the lower-left corner of the card, under "Physical Defects," is the following note: "Had nails 3 times during course!" I believe this means Vanice's nails were unsatisfactorily dirty or otherwise unkempt on three different occasions.

Now let's take a look at Vanice's grades (remember, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):


As you can see, Vanice's grades were generally solid, although there's a note about her being "careless about [her] personal appearance."

This next card provides an assessment of Vanice's character, attitude, and work competency:


Everything here is quite positive, except for a reference to Vanice's "bad complexion." First the note about her nails, then the disapproving mention of her "personal appearance," and now this — it's almost as if the school's staff felt compelled to include a negative comment about Vanice's aesthetics at every turn.

Next up is Vanice's employment record:


Take a look at the second entry, for an employer named Ruth Strauss. The card indicates that Vanice went to work for her on Jan. 2, 1935. But under "Reason for Leaving," there's a note dated Jan. 2, 1935 — the same date she supposedly started working — which says, "Offered $5 [per week], refused position." So Vanice was apparently sent to work for Ms. Strauss but turned down the job when she learned how little she'd be paid.

But there's also a notation in red, dated Jan. 4, which says, "See note." The note being referred to there can be found on this next card:


Sure enough, there's a big note in red (meaning it's from an employer), dated Jan. 4. Here's transcription, with a few abbreviated terms spelled out for clarity:

Vanice was offered $10 [per week]. But upon questioning her regarding the mechanical stitching she told me should could not do that, and then I said I could get a continuation school girl capable of finishing and [sewing machine] operation for $5 [per week]. Vanice misinformed [the] school regarding what I said. — Rush Strauss

In other words, Vanice claimed that she turned down the job because the pay was too low, but the employer said Vanice didn't have the skills to merit a higher wage.

A few months later, the following sequence played out:

March 13, 1935: Not heard from since Jan. 2, 1935 [when she turned down the Ruth Strauss job] although [illegible] was sent March 7, 1935. Taken off applicant list.

March 25, 1935: Please keep me on the applicant list, as I am not satisfied with my present position.

April 3, 1935: You are off the applicant list. I waited two and a half weeks for your reply. Besides, I cannot keep you in mind while you are working. — AB [Althea Borden, the job placement secretary]

That's Vanice's complete student file. If anyone knows anything about her or her family, please get in touch. Thanks.

Meanwhile, coming soon: two very inspiring contemporary stories that have nothing to do with Manhattan Trade. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Student of the Week: Edna Farrel

For all documents, click to enlarge

For the second consecutive week, we're going to examine the Manhattan Trade School student record of a girl named Edna. Last week it was Edna Carrington; this time around it's Edna Farrell, whose main card is shown above. As you can see, was born in 1912 (and is therefore likely deceased, or else turned 102 just a few weeks ago) and grew up in Harlem.

There are two notable entries on this card. First, Edna's father, George, is listed as a sheep butcher. That's an interesting degree of specificity — I have several other cards that list a father's occupation simply as "butcher," but a sheep butcher seems unusually specialized.

Also, look at the upper-right corner, which is where the student's chosen trade is listed. For Edna, it shows two entries: one year of "Nov.," which is novelty box making (one of the "glue trades" that the school taught), and one year of "B.C.," which is beauty culture, a course of study that the school added in the late 1920s to supplement its longstanding focus on the needle and glue trades.

Normally I'd turn this card over and take a look at Edna's grades, but first I want to look at another card from her file — take a look:


The information here is sparse but telling. The card lists Edna's IQ at 77 and her "basic age" at seven years. It also says she "failed reading, arithmetic, writing [and] composition in upper elementary grades."

So how did this supposedly intellect-challenged girl who failed her way through grade school do in her classes? Let's take a look at her grades (remember, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):


As you can see, Edna did just fine — and often a lot better than fine — in all of her classes, including English and arithmetic. She also repeatedly made the Honor Roll and was described as an "intelligent worker." Not bad for someone with a "basic age" of seven, eh?

Meanwhile, look at the top of the card — "Novelty" was crossed out and replaced by "Manicuring." Similarly, the middle of the far-right column has a notation indicating that Edna "trans. to Manic." This reinforces what we saw on the first card — Edna took one year of novelty box making and one year of beauty culture.

Edna's file also includes the record of the jobs that the school arranged for her:


There are several points of interest here. One at a time:

1. All of the business are categorized as "B.C.," which presumably once again refers to beauty culture. One of Edna's employers was called Ralph Beauty Shop, so that fits. But the first business was called Stewart's, which was probably a Stewart's Candy Shop (a popular chain at the time), and the final entry is for a medical center, neither of which fits in the beauty category — yet they're both listed as "B.C." There's also a "hairdresser" reference, but it's unclear which entry it's referring to. Hmmmm.

2. At Ralph Beauty Shop, Edna was a finger waver (this refers to the then-popular hairstyle known as a finger wave), oil shampooer, and manicurist.

3. Edna left the job at Stewart's because it was "too far" — not surprising, given that she lived way uptown in Harlem and the job was in Brooklyn. (By coincidence, the address listed for the job, 221 Flatbush Ave., is a short walk from where I live — or it would be, if it still existed. There's no longer any building with that address. The street numbers on adjacent buildings on that block now jump from 215 to 227.)

4. The notations in red are comments from one of Edna's employers — Ralph Beauty Shop. Oddly, they're out of chronological order. I've put them in the proper sequence and transcribed them like so:

March 18, 1931: Very slow. Takes 50 to 60 minutes for a manicure.

Dec. 21, 1931: Here. OK. [This is a common entry in the work records. It means the employer is basically affirming to the school that the student is showing up for work and performing adequately. — PL]

Oct. 31, 1932: Fair worker.

March 8, 1933: May have to cut Edna's salary to $10 [per week]. Business is very bad.

The final red entry, "Ref. by Mr. Ralph," suggests that Edna got her job at the medical center on Riverside Dr. as the result of a referral from Mr. Ralph, the beauty shop owner.

Edna's file also includes a sheet of paper that may have been a transcript. This sheet appears in a handful of the other student records in my collection, but I haven't been able to suss out its purpose. As you'll see, it's a frustrating document — cut off at both sides and only partially filled out:


That's all I have for Edna. If anyone has more information about her, please get in touch.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Student of the Week: Edna Carrington (aka Mrs. F. Meyer)

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The latest Manhattan Trade School student whose record we'll be examining is Edna Carrington. She differs from our previous students of the week in at least three important ways: (1) Her report card includes a photo, which makes her story much more evocative. (2) She was born in 1917, which means there's a vague chance she could still be alive. Interestingly, her date of birth was revised at some point, from Feb. 4 to April 15. (3) She was black, and apparently Caribbean. In the "Nationality" field, near the upper-right corner of the card shown above, it says "English (West India)."

As you can see, Edna's card also includes a prominent black dot. This was standard on the cards of all the black and Hispanic girls in my collection — literally a black mark on their records. The dot system was instituted before the school began including photos on the girls' cards (and was retained even after the photos became part of the cards' protocol), so it was a quick way of identifying students of color. At first this seemed horrifying, but I eventually determined that it was more of a "Handle with Care" warning to the school's staff, because the school wanted to avoid sending the girls to work with employers who were known to have issues with minority students.

There are several other notable things about this card:

• Toward the bottom is a notation indicating that Edna wore glasses, although she didn't wear them for her photograph.

• There are several notes regarding Edna's home life, where she was raised by a single mother. She had three younger siblings, and the family lived in a three-room apartment, which was apparently visited several times by the Board of Child Welfare. (As we'll see on a subsequent card, this doesn't indicate that anything problematic was taking place in the home.)

• Edna was one of the students who stayed in touch with the school long enough for her eventual married name to be added to her student record. As you can see at the top of the card, her husband's name was F. Meyer.

• Toward the middle of the card is a note indicating that Edna gave birth to a child on April 25, 1937.

• This card features a jumble of many different people's handwriting, but the first person to fill out Edna's name, address, and parents' names and occupations had seriously beautiful penmanship. Gorgeous to look at!

So that's the first card. Now let's turn it over and take a look at Edna's grades and teachers' comments (remember, E = Excellent, G= Good, F = Fair, P = Poor):


As you can see, Edna generally got solid grades and was very well liked by her teachers (although the repeated "fine type Negro" comment is distressing to see).

The school arranged employment for Edna, just as it did with other students. Here's her work record:


The first and third entries are both for an employer called the Margalo Dress Shop. The third entry includes the following notation: "Edna says she gave notice, but employer says she fired her. See above." That apparently refers to the note at the top of the card, written in red (meaning that it's a comment from the employer): "Very dirty — spoken to several times about taking baths. Leaving Saturday, April 13." Yikes.

Interestingly, Edna's file also includes a note from this same employer, dated April 4, 1935 (nine days before she was apparently dismissed for lack of cleanliness):


It reads as follows:

Manhattan Trade School:

Edna Carrington came here the first part o January and left the 1st of February or thereabouts.

She came back here to work April 1st.

Yours truly,
Margalo Inc.

No mention there of the cleanliness issue. It must have come to a head over the next week or so.

Also of note: If you scroll back up to Edna's employment record, you'll see that the last entry is for a "W.P.A. Project" job. It says that she found the position via "Home Relief," which was the principal New Deal welfare program during the Great Depression. The pay — $16.50 per week — appears to have been better than what Edna had earned during her previous gigs.

Edna's student packet also includes a salmon-colored card. Some of the student files in my collection had this card, some didn't. It appears to be a basic summary or assessment of the student, which in Edna's case was generally positive:


Three notable things here:

• Someone felt the need to write, "Skin not terribly dark, but full of blemishes." Sigh.

• Someone also wrote, "Superior type." The school's report cards were full of these "type"-based assessments — fine type, decent type, quiet type, and so on. I'm pretty sure this was all just a form of lazy, reflexive social profiling, not a strict classification system.

Toward the bottom, the card indicates that Edna's mother worked to support the family, but then that part was crossed out. Did the mother lose her job, or become ill? In any case, the next line says that Edna "would like a job as soon as she can get one," presumably so she could become the family's breadwinner.

If we turn this card over, we learn more about the visits to the home by the Board of Child Welfare:


In case you have a hard time reading that, here's a transcription (I've spelled out some abbreviated terms for clarity):

Dec. 21, 1934: Board of Child Welfare pays $45 a month for two youngest children. Rent is $5 a week. Mother has not worked in two years.

Sept. 13, 1935: Child Welfare pays only $25 a month now.

March 17, 1938: Married Oct. 14, 1936.

So that explains the Child Welfare Board visits. But I'm more interested in the last entry — the one about Edna's marriage. Remember, the first card in her packet indicated that she gave birth to a child on April 25, 1937, which is six and half months after the date listed for her wedding. So her child was either significantly premature or conceived out of wedlock, which would have been scandalous in those days.

It's also noteworthy that the news about the 1936 wedding was apparently conveyed to the school in 1938. So Edna must have been out of contact with the school for a while and then circled back. Why? She was apparently looking for work again:


It's interesting to see that Edna wanted to work even after marrying and having a child. Most of the students whose lives I've researched stopped working once they began a family, but this was during the Depression, and we've already seen that Edna had obtained a job via Home Relief, so times were apparently tough for her and her husband. Still, Edna's employment record (the yellow card we looked at earlier) doesn't show any work during 1938, so the school apparently didn't arrange any jobs for her during this period. This doesn't necessarily mean she didn't work; it just means the school didn't find a job for her. By that fall, she'd drifted out of the school's orbit once again:


That's the end of Edna's student record. Interesting stuff, right? Since we know Edna's married name, she would probably be relatively easy to research, although I don't have time pursue that now. But if anyone else wants to pick up the baton, please feel free.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

PermaRec Book Club: Paper Love

I was listening to All Things Considered today during my daily bike ride in Brooklyn's Prospect Park (yes, I have a radio on my bike) when I heard a story tailor-made for Permanent Record.

They were interviewing an author named Sarah Wildman, who has a new book called Paper Love. It's about how she found a cache of love letters that her late grandfather had saved. But the letters weren't from her grandmother; they were from a woman named Valy, who had fallen in love with Wildman's grandfather when the two of them were medical students in prewar Vienna during the 1930s. They had a whirlwind romance and had planned to escape Vienna together when the Nazis annexed Austria, but he ended up leaving with his family while Valy was left behind.

As Wildman read the letters, she began realizing that the story they told didn't quite jibe with the family history she'd been taught over the years. She also became fixated on Valy and on what had happened to her. Had she been killed in the Holocaust? Had Wildman's grandfather felt guilty about leaving her behind?

Wildman's grandfather had passed away by the time she found the letters, so she couldn't ask him to fill in any of the details, and her grandmother refused to say anything about the letters except to acknowledge that Valy had been her husband's "true love." So Wildman began researching — an effort that took her several years and across several continents. I haven't yet read the book, but apparently she hit some kind of paydirt at the end of her project.

Here's the All Things Considered interview with Wildman (if the audio player doesn't show up on your browser, you should be able to access it in the links that follow):

You can read a partial transcript of the audio report here, you can access an excerpt from the book here, and the book is available for sale here.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Student of the Week: Annie Seixas

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The Manhattan Trade School student whose record we're examining this week is Annie Seixas. As you can see above, she was born on Jan. 29, 1895, and grew up in Harlem on West 120th Street before moving to Lenox Avenue — or, as it's now also known, Malcolm X Boulevard. Interestingly, the notation in the upper-right corner indicates that she studied novelty box making and millinery, but the note at the bottom of the card says she received a certificate in "costume sketching," a term that I don't think I've seen used on any of the other Manhattan Trade School cards in my collection.

Annie's school and work records are, frankly, unremarkable. She appears to have been a good student and a steady worker, as you can see in the series of cards I'm about to present. The most interesting thing is the very last notation on the last card in this series:

2 3 4 5 6 7

That final entry, dated Nov. 10, 1919, reads, "Came down to Manhattan Trade School two weeks ago to take exam for substitute license." Note that this was more than three years after the previous entry in Annie's file, and seven years after she'd been granted her diploma. She would have been approaching her 25th birthday. And she was apparently applying for a license to be a substitute teacher — interesting!

Annie's file also includes a letter that she wrote on Nov. 5, 1919. It was addressed to Miss Beagle, who was the school's job placement secretary at the time:

8 9

The handwriting, while lovely, can be a bit difficult to decipher, so here's a transcription:

Dear Miss Beagle,

I saw Janet Jacob the other evening and she told me that you were waiting to hear from me. I am truly sorry for the my seeming neglect to communicate with you but I supposed you would hear that I had been down to see Miss Marshall [the school's principal — PL] and had even taken the examination for a substitute license.

I do realize that I should have thanked you long ago for letting me know of the examination, so will you accept my apologies and at the same time my sincere thanks for your remembering me.

When I visited the school two weeks ago, it was my first peep at the new building and I was so glad to see that at last you had a home worthy of all the good work that is being done there.

I am waiting now for a reply from the Board of Examiners and hoping, of course, that it will be a favorable one, and I am coming down to the school to see you just as soon as I can — that is, if a friendly chat will be permitted.

Yours very sincerely,
Anne Seixes

A few points regarding this letter:

• Note the reference to the school's new building. That's because Manhattan Trade had just moved to a custom-designed building at the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street in 1918, one year before this letter was written. Annie had attended the school when it was at its previous location, just around the corner on East 23rd Street. (The 1918 building is that one that the school used for the rest of its existence. It remains in use today as a high school, but its original identity is revealed by the "Manhattan Trade School for Girls" lettering that's chiseled into its fa├žade.)

• I love how Annie consistently wrote the word "and" diagonally. I don't think I've seen that before. Is that something that was typically taught a century ago?

• Unfortunately, Annie's file contains no indication of whether she was approved for the substitute teaching license.

My best wishes to everyone for a happy Thanksgiving. I'll be back with another Manhattan Trade student next week.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Pass to Visit Nome

Photo from

One of the great things about Permanent Record is that sometimes I'll write about something evocative — a report card, a photo I.D. badge, or whatever — and a reader or commenter will do follow-up research to help tell that object's story. Something similar happened to the Alaska novelist Dana Stabenow when she came across the 1945 military pass shown above, for a soldier named Norman Rambo.

Stabenow found the pass in an old copy of Ernie Pyle's book Here Is Your War, which she purchased at a local Salvation Army thrift store in Homer, Alaska. She was intrigued enough by the pass to blog about it on her website but didn't take things any further than that.

But one of her readers, Bobbi Schirado, did. She posted the following comment on Stabenow's blog post:

Checking on there were at least three and maybe four possible Norman Rambos — but using several other sources I’ve narrowed it down to this one:

Norman E. Rambo was born in 24 March 1915 in Iowa, enlisted at Ft. Lewis, Washington, graduated from high school, was single and as a civilian worked as a clerk. He was a resident of King Co. Washington. In 1930, he lived with his parents, Haven H. and Pauline Rambo at 8119 Latona St. in Seattle. His father was a policeman and his mother a saleslady in a department store. His SSN death record shows he died 19 May 2001. He played football and graduated from Ballard High School. A family marriage record indicates he married Marjorie Lou Christie in Nome, Alaska on 30 June 1946. A divorce was asked for by Marjorie L. from Norman E. Rambo in 1965. In 1970 the Seattle Times says Norman had a wedding license to marry Rita M. McSharry.

Newspapers from the 1950s thru the 1970s show that he sang tenor and was very active with the Seattle Chorale.

And it gets better. Just yesterday a new commenter chimed in on Stabenow's blog post. His name is Doug Rambo, and here's what he had to say:

Norman E. Rambo was my dad. How cool that you found something from his youth which I now found on the internet. He and my mother were married in Nome at the end of the War.

Now that's cool. I've had a few similar experiences during the course of Permanent Record, and I can tell you that they're amazing. Congrats to Dana on her find, and to Doug for following the trail of breadcrumbs that led him to connect with her.

(Big thanks to PermaRec reader Maureen Wynn for letting me know about this one.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Student of the Week: Genevieve Palisi

For all of today's images, you can click to enlarge

As I mentioned last week, I'm planning to feature one Manhattan Trade School student per week here on the site. Last week we looked at Katherine Gausser, whose student file included a rather snippy letter from her mother. This time around we're looking at Genevieve Palisi, whose student record includes some unusually pointed commentary about her demeanor.

As you can see above, Genevieve was born on Nov. 21, 1905 (so in the unlikely event that she's still alive, she'll be turning 109 years old this Friday). Her family lived in Brooklyn (first in Borough Park and then in Bay Ridge), and her father, Joseph, worked as a stevedore. The "Operating" notation at the top-right corner means that she Genevieve's chosen trade was sewing machine operation.

Genevieve was apparently a solid if unspectacular student, consistently receiving grades of "G" (good) or "F" (fair) for her school work:

3 2

Genevieve, like all Manhattan Trade students, had a job arranged for her by the school. The first of these, which you can see listed as the first entry on this next card, was a position at the H.E. Verran Co., where Genevieve worked from Nov. 5 through Dec. 24, 1920 — a period of seven weeks:


Why did Genevieve leave this job? The answer can be found on the following card. The first entry, in black, is from the school's job placement secretary; the next section, in red, is from the employer:


Here's a transcription of the black handwriting (I've spelled out some abbreviations and filled in some missing words for the sake of clarity):

[Girl is] in office. Very insolent. Evidently a bad influence for M. Cline and N. Bonica [apparently two other students who were working at the same company — PL], who were with her. After five weeks on weekly work at $14 [per week], she was put on piece work. Earned $4.23 on aprons in one week. "It was an awful place, so we left today." KE [the placement secretary — PL] asked why no report had been made before. Called Miss Mather.

Miss Mather was apparently Genevieve's work supervisor at the job site. The red notations that follow are what Miss Mather told the job placement secretary:

Girl is a ringleader. Can do good work when she wishes but seldom wishes to. She is a born leader, and this morning she had the whole workroom upset when she left. She is insolent and impudent, and trades on the fact that she does not need to work.

Wow. It's worth keeping in mind that Genevieve had just turned 15 years old when this discussion took place.

Now we're back to black ink, so this is the placement secretary talking:

Miss Marhsall [Manhattan Trade's principal] and KE [the placement secretary] spoke to girl about this report, and it was decided ot give her one more chance. Warned about making prompt reports.

As you can see from the next entry, Genevieve's next job also ended on a bad note. The entry is in red, meaning it's from the employer:

Girl left without notice. The girls in the workroom say she told them she was going to work with her sister. If it was a question of money, I think she should have spoken to me before leaving.

Interestingly, despite these difficulties, Genevieve stayed in touch with the school's job placement office for several more years.

• • • • •

You may have noticed something new about today entry: It has a headline. All previous entries on this site have been headline-free. I no longer remember exactly why I chose not to use headlines when I started the blog in 2011, but for some reason they seemed superfluous and I thought the site looked cleaner without them. Unfortunately, this has also made the site a bit harder to navigate, and has also made the site fare a bit worse in search engines. So I've decided to use a headline today.

I don't plan to go back and add headlines to all of the previous entries, and it's possible that I may end up going back to the headline-free format — we'll see. For now, let's consider it an experiment. Your feedback is welcome.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

For all of today's images, you can click to enlarge

Permanent Record began as an inquiry into the stories behind the nearly 400 old report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls that some friends and I found in a discarded file cabinet back in 1996. Over time, the project has expanded to include coverage of other found objects with interesting stories to tell, and it's now been quite a while since I've written about the report cards.

That's going to change, at least for a bit, beginning today. There are still hundreds of report cards that I haven't written about or investigated. I don't have the time these days to track down and interview the students' descendants, but the report cards still offer a wealth of information that's worth documenting and sharing. So my plan to is choose at least one student per week and take a closer look at her school record, and whenever possible I'll choose students whose records have some particularly interesting documents or commentary. I'll still include coverage of lost class rings, messages in bottles, and all the other stuff that has become part of PermaRec over the past few years. But I want to get the report cards back into the project.

We're beginning today with Katherine Gausser, whose main card is shown above. As you can see, she was born in 1898 (which means she's now either deceased or setting some seriously longevity records) and lived on East 108th Street in Manhattan. Her father was a leather finisher. She began attending Manhattan Trade in July of 1912, when the school was at the second of its three locations — a building on East 23rd Street. Katherine was 14 at the time, pretty much the standard age for the school's enrollees.

The "Department: Novelty" notation at top-right means Katherine's chosen trade was decorative novelty box making — one of the "glue trades" that the school taught. Most students went with one of the needle trades (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery), which tended to pay better. Those who chose the glue trades often did so because they weren't sufficiently handy with a needle and thread. It's not clear if that was the case with Katherine, or if she simply preferred box making.

This next card shows Katherine's grades and teacher comments:


Katherine's grades were mostly "G" (good) and "F" (fair). In additional to "Novelty," she also took a class in another glue trade, "Sample Mounting," which involved pasting fabric swatches and other samples into catalogs. A note at the bottom commends her "excellent class work and attitude."

The next card shows Katherine's work record. Many of the school's students used the school's job-referral service to procure many positions over the course of several years, but Katherine apparently only obtained one job via the school — a "Nov." position (again, this refers to novelty box making) that she held for only six days:


Why did Katherine leave the job so soon after starting it? A hint is offered on the next card, which has commentary from the school's job placement office:


That handwriting is hard to read, so here's what it says for the entry on Oct. 7, 1913 (the day after Katherine's last day on the job). I've spelled out some abbreviations for the sake of clarity:

Miss [illegible] criticized some of her work (which on the whole was not bad). She told bookkeeper she was not coming back. Said nothing to anyone else. Wrote [to] girl for explanation.

A week later, on Oct. 14, there's an entry that's harder to read because the ink has faded, but here's what I can make out:

Did not get along well because place [several illegible words]. It took her all day to make one little box.

As you can see, Katherine was later told that she would not receive a diploma because she "failed to report an additional experience." This was because the school required students to perform adequately in the workplace before earning their diplomas, and Katherine's six-day position apparently did not meet that standard.

But here's the kicker: Katherine's file also includes a letter from her mother. It was written on Oct. 12 and received on Oct. 17 — right in the midst of the placement office's inquiry as to why Katherine had left her job:

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Again, the handwriting can be difficult to read, so here's a transcription (I've once again spelled out some abbreviations and made other minor edits for the sake of clarity):

Dear Miss Adams,

Katherine left the place for the simple reason that they let her sit idle for several hours a day. There isn't much money in that. And when she asked for work, why it was too much bother, or "Oh, are you finished again?" Very encouraging, is it not? And the Manhattan Trade School, that is very little credit to a girl in that place, and I dare say it won't be, to my estimation, anywhere. So I have fully decided to take Katherine out of the business entirely.

Mrs. E. Gausser

Wow — that's a doozy of a letter! It's rare to find something so critical of the school in any of the student files. It's a shame that Katherine's relationship with Manhattan Trade ended on such a down note, especially after she was commended for her class work.

That's all I have for Katherine, but many more students' records await. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The beautiful needlework sampler shown above was recently acquired by the Seattle Art Museum. Its provenance is listed toward the bottom:

Liberated African
Charlotte Turner
Aged 10 years
Bathurst Sierra Leone 1831

Who was Charlotte Turner? Does "Liberated African" mean she was a freed American slave? What was she doing in Sierra Leone? What became of her?

All of these questions are addressed — and most of them answered — in a sensational new article by the art critic Jen Graves, which recently ran in the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. It tells the story of British missionary settlements in Sierra Leone, where children rescued from illegal slave ships were often trained to make needlework like Charlotte's, which were then sold to sponsors back in the UK to raise funds. The sponsors were granted the perk of renaming the African children whose needleworks they were purchasing, so "Charlotte Turner" was likely named by a wealthy Britisher she never knew. It's also possible that Charlotte never even existed, and that she was simply fabricated by one of the missionaries to raise money.

All of this, and a lot more, is explained in greater detail in the Stranger article. Check it out here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

In 2002, a woman named Fawn Fitter bought box of old letters, photos, and related memorabilia from a flea market vendor. She soon realized she'd stumbled upon the chronicle of one family's life, beginning with a series of 1940s love letters documenting the courtship of the man and woman who formed the family's foundation.

Fitter decided to track down the family and was surprised to discover that the man who wrote the love letters was still alive. The family welcomed her inquiries and she soon became the family's de facto historian, or even something like an unofficial family member.

All of this, and much more, is explained in greater detail in this excellent article. Fitter is also documenting her research on this blog. It's all very, very Permanent Record, and highly recommended.

(Special thanks to my friend Gina Duclayan — at whose 1996 birthday party I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards that formed the basis for Permanent Record! — for tipping me off to this one.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Click to enlarge

The negative and the resulting photo shown above were taken at a prison in Iowa. They're part of an excellent-sounding project recently brought to my attention by reader Matt Miller. I'll let him explain it in his own words:

My cousin's name is Mark Fullenkamp. He's an amateur photographer and also a technology geek who's interested in genealogy and history. He's from West Point, Iowa, not far from the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, which has been in use for 150 years. My aunt (Mark's mother) worked at the prison in the early 1960s and actually ordered the rope for the prison's last two hangings. A few of our cousins work there.

The penitentiary is preparing to move to a new facility. When Mark had heard about the move, he wanted to see if he could take some photos of the old prison while it still housed prisoners. In addition, he said he had heard rumors of old glass plate negatives still laying around from the prison's early days. These were old prisoner intake photos, taken as the person was committed to the prison. He eventually was able to get his hands on the negatives and has now completed scanning over 11,000 of them and inverting the colors.

He has also come across old prisoner records, at least some of which have prisoner numbers on them. Most of the photos have prisoner numbers on them as well [see above], and he's now in the process of matching up the photos and the paperwork. I know he plans to make the images and I believe the whole project available online and possibly in book form, but so far I've heard no details about those plans.

Faaaaaascinating. Fullenkamp calls this endeavor the Iowa State Prison Memory Project. You can learn more about it in this Des Moines Register article, and you can see Fullenkamp and his research assistant, Gemma Goodale-Sussen, discussing the project in this video, which is definitely worth watching:

I hope to be in touch with Fullenkamp soon to learn more about his project, and of course I'll share what I learn here on PermaRec. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

After our recent PermaRec posts about time capsules, I found myself with lots of questions, so I got in touch with Nick Yablon, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa, who's become something of a time capsule authority (and is shown above, reading the headlines from a 1914 edition of The New York Times that was contained in a recently opened time capsule). He agreed to do an email interview with me, which went like so:

Permanent Record: Notwithstanding ancient examples like Egyptian tombs and such, what's the history of the time capsule? Do we know when/where was the first one was buried (or stowed, or whatever)?

Nick Yablon: At the risk of sounding academic, it depends how you define "time capsule." If you define it loosely to refer to the burying or sealing of certain items in the hope that someone will find them at some point in the future, then this is clearly a very old practice. Americans have been filling cornerstones of buildings and monuments since at least the late eighteenth century. And they borrowed this practice from the masons who constructed Europe's cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

But if you define time capsules more narrowly, as a deposit of artifacts and messages to be opened on a specific date in the future, then that is relatively recent. After researching its origins for 5 years, I can safely say that nobody thought of doing that until 1876.

As for who can take the credit, that's also complicated. In 1876, several people seem to have come up with the idea independently, although not all of them followed through immediately. But, if forced to choose the winner, I'd go for Anna Deihm, a magazine publisher from New York City. She displayed a specially designed bank safe at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and announced her plan to fill it with signatures and photographs of politicians (including the President), judges, scientists, inventors, and other leading Americans. It was eventually sealed for a hundred years in the U.S. Capitol.

PermaRec: Is there a period that could be considered the "golden age" of time capsules?

Yablon: I think time capsule buffs would probably identify the mid-twentieth century. The Westinghouse Corporation's time capsule at the New York World's Fair in 1939 brought the idea to a much larger public. It was for this exhibit that the term "time capsule" was coined, by Westinghouse's PR guru, George Edward Pendray. This time capsule — and a second one buried next door to it at the New York World's Fair of 1964 — captured the nation's imagination with the types of objects chosen, their missile-like design, and their long timespan (thousands of years). But by the 1970s, critics were complaining that time capsules had become solipsistic and banal.

Having said that, I would personally declare the late nineteenth century to be the real golden age. Because there was no standard protocol or even name for them, time capsules were more varied and experimental in that period. People were literally inventing a new tradition, and making it up as they went along.

PermaRec: Have time capsules been more prevalent in certain parts of the country?

Yablon: Nowadays, you would find them all across the country, and even in small towns (there are several in my adopted hometown of Iowa City). But in the late 19th and early 20th century, they were very much an urban phenomena. They cropped up in cities all across the country (although I've yet to find any in the South), and were generally launched by mayors, newspapers, churches, or philanthropists.

PermaRec: Are time capsules largely an American phenomenon, or have they been common in other countries?

Yablon: Yes, in the early years, this was a uniquely American tradition. Beyond the U.S., the earliest time capsule (defined as a deposit with a specified opening date) that I've found was one sealed in the basement of the Paris Opera House in 1907. Very Phantom of the Opera!

PermaRec: The term "capsule" brings to mind a specific shape — something round-ish and/or cylindrical. But most time capsules that I've seen have simply been boxes. How did the term "time capsule" originate, and was there a time when the capsules were more truly capsule-like?

Yablon: The first time capsule, as I mentioned, was a specially decorated bank safe. Thereafter, they tended to be small, plain boxes, made of iron, steel, lead, or wood. The one just opened in New York was unusually ornate: a bronze chest with legs in the shape of lion's paws, handles resembling ropes, and a finial crowning the lid. In the 1930s, Westinghouse introduced the capsule or missile shape — a brilliant way of conjuring the sense of a vessel hurtling through time. The capsule shape also evoked the streamline aesthetic of that decade. They were re-designing all sorts of objects to make them look more aerodynamic, even pencil sharpeners and toasters!

PermaRec: I've seen you quoted to the effect that "disappointment is the most common response to time capsule openings." Could you elaborate on that point?

Yablon: The fact that they have been sealed for so many years naturally stimulates all kinds of speculation about what is inside. In the case of the 1876 time capsule, there were even rumors it might contain gold or a skeleton. So the opening of a time capsule is bound to disappoint. Another issue is that the depositors' sense of what is interesting or worth preserving are inevitably different from what a later period might consider interesting or valuable.

PermaRec: Any other good time capsule anecdotes?

Yablon: The most bizarre thing I've found in a time capsule was a matchbox containing a human tooth. Even more bizarre was that the label claimed it was the molar of the French revolutionary, Robespierre. Sounds like a hoax to me.

PermaRec: Maybe I'm just spoiled by being a journalist working during the information age, but is there really much suspense regarding time capsule openings? I mean, hasn't someone left a list of what's inside the capsule, or maybe the list was published in the local newspaper back in the day? Doesn't that pretty much eliminate the element of surprise?

Yablon: You're right. People did compile inventories of their time capsules, and left copies of them in local libraries — or as you say, printed them in the local newspaper. I've often wondered why they did this, because it does kind of spoil the suspense! Perhaps it was to leave a clue to the existence of the time capsule, to prevent it from being forgotten — a common fate of many time capsules.

PermaRec: I'm also puzzled by instances of time capsules being "forgotten" and "rediscovered." My impression is that the capsules are usually buried/sealed/etc. with great fanfare. Do they really fade so readily from a town's (or business's, or museum's, or whomever's) institutional memory?

Yablon: Yes, it is surprising how often this has happened — and a reminder that even the grandest ceremonies are quickly forgotten. For instance, the very first time capsule was removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and consigned to a storage space under the outside stairs. It was only rediscovered a few years before it was due to be opened. In an early science fiction novel, one author came up with an ingenious solution: miniature cylinders containing a message about the time capsule were sent out across the country.

PermaRec: Related to the above: It seems to me that the appeal of time capsules is rooted in a sense of wonder that's increasingly difficult to maintain in a technologically sophisticated, hyper-documented era. With that in mind, I find it interesting that time capsules are still being created today for future generations to open. So what is the current state of time capsules? How common — or, I guess, uncommon — are they today?

Yablon: The celebration of the millennium did renew interest in the phenomenon. The most widely publicized time capsule from that year was probably the one organized by the New York Times. I'm sure people will continue to deposit time capsules — and to come up with new ideas for time capsules — for some time to come. In fact, I would say that the instantaneous, electronic availability of vast amounts of information has increased, not decreased, our fascination with chests and troves that are inaccessible. Kind of like how the omnipresence of digital music has sparked interest in vinyl records.

PermaRec: I understand you've written a book about time capsules. When is that going to be published?

Yablon: The book is now about 70 percent completed. I'm hoping it will be out in a couple of years. Or maybe I should seal the manuscript in a box for a hundred years? Actually, that was an idea I read about the other day: a project to enlist one novelist each year to submit a book that would remain unpublished until 100 years from now. It's called the Future Library project, and Margaret Atwood has agreed to be the first contributor.

PermaRec: On balance, do you think time capsules have lived up to intended function of teaching future generations about the past?

Yablon: Well, I would say that they can tell us much about the past, but not necessarily what the depositors wanted us to know. In other words, they tell us much about the implicit hopes, fears, and prejudices of certain groups in the past. And in particular, they tell us that, since 1876, people no longer trusted the traditional forms of memory, such as libraries, monuments, or orally transmitted stories. The time capsule represents a modern, somewhat artificial way of transmitting our legacy to future generations.


Great stuff. Big thanks to Nick for sharing his time and expertise. You can learn more about him at his website.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A few days ago I did a post about time capsules, so my ears perked up when I was listening to All Things Considered today and heard a report about a century-old time capsule that was forgotten about, rediscovered (inside the head of a lion statue, as you can see ablove), and just opened in Boston. Here's the audio of that segment:

It's straightforward enough, but I hate how the reporter, Audie Cornish, concludes the report by saying, "Stay tuned, history nerds." For starters, that's really condescending. More importantly, I've always thought that the whole point of time capsules is that they make history accessible and appealing to everyone, not just "nerds." Lazy, kneejerk remark by Cornish.

Anyway. Here's some video of that capsule being removed from the lion's head:

Meanwhile, I expect to publish an interview with time capsule expert Nick Yablon shortly — stay tuned.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Toyota recently launched a new six-commercial ad campaign for the 2015 Camry, and one of the spots (a screen shot from which is shown above) is very PermaRec-ish.

Before you watch the commercial, check out the script, which is delivered as a first-person narrative:

Started my Camry
Went to the auction
Won a storage locker
Found an old guitar
Tracked down the previous owner
Reunited them
Hit the jackpot

Now, if you've ever watched the TV show Storage Wars, you know that the people who bid on abandoned storage lockers tend to be professional salvage dealers, not random Camry owners, so it's rare for a "normal" person to win one of those auctions. It's even rarer for the lockers to contain anything of value. And it's well-nigh impossible for that thing of value to be connected to a famous person such as — here, just watch the commercial and see for yourself:

Pretty cheesy, right? Still, the impulse to reunite an object with its original owner is certainly one I can appreciate. And as aspirational fantasies go, the urge to investigate an item's past is certainly better than car advertising's usual fantasy, which is that the car will give you status and get you laid. Fortunately, as we've demonstrated many times here on Permanent Record, you can turn the "Let's find out who owned this" fantasy into reality without bidding on a storage locker — or driving a Toyota Camry, for that matter.

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Site Upgrade: If you look in the right-hand sidebar, you'll see that all of the site's entries are now tagged by category. I hope this will make the site easier and more fun to poke around in — enjoy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The top photo shows a 100-year-old sealed bronze time capsule that was recently opened in New York. The lower photo shows some of the capsule's contents -- newspapers, journals, yearbooks, a world almanac, and so on.

According to a New York Times article, the capsule was sealed on May 23, 1914, and was supposed to be opened 60 years later, on May 22, 1974. But before that could happen, the building that housed the capsule was demolished, and the capsule ended up in a storage warehouse. The 1974 unsealing was forgotten, as was the capsule itself until 1998, when it was rediscovered. It was finally opened last Wednesday at the New-York Historical Society (yes, they spell it with the hyphen). Some high school students who've been interning at the Society then presented the objects that they'll be placing in a new time capsule, to be opened in 2114. Those objects included the following (click to enlarge):

Time capsules have always struck me as sort of a big fuss over nothing. I get how they're supposed to be intriguing and all, but isn't there usually a list or other documentation of what's inside the capsule (like the photos of the contemporary objects shown above), and doesn't that pretty much eliminate any element of suspense of surprise? Couldn't you get a more interesting sense of the past just by poking around at a flea market or antiques shop?

I'm about to pose those questions (and others) to Nick Yablon, an academic who's something of a time capsule expert and has written a soon-to-be-published book on the topic. He's agreed to do a PermaRec interview, which I'll be posting here on the site shortly — stay tuned. Meanwhile, what do you folks think of time capsules? Post your thoughts in the comments.