Saturday, June 30, 2012

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My friend Katy Amory recently told me about a project that feels very Permanent Record-ish. Here's the deal: In the mid-1700s, a British philanthropist named Thomas Coram opened the London Foundling Hospital, where poverty-stricken mothers who couldn't care for their newborn babies could anonymously "donate" the babies for adoption. In each case, the baby's record at the hospital was accompanied by a small piece of fabric or cloth provided by the mother -- a sort of textile fingerprint that could later be used for identification purposes if need be. As you can see from the example shown above, the fabric swatches were sometimes accompanied by heartfelt (and heartbreaking) notes from the mother.

Two and a half centuries later, the Foundling Hospital is now the Foundling Museum. All of the hospital's records have been kept and conserved, including the little fabric swatches (which also serve as one of the best surviving collections of 18th-century textiles). In 2010 the museum ran an exhibition called "Threads of Feeling," which focused on the swatches. You can see the exhibit here, and there's some good background information here and here.

These records feel like cousins to the Manhattan Trade School report cards -- each one represents a story waiting to be told, and collectively they tell an even bigger story. Great stuff.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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Remember Miss Kotter, the job placement counselor who peppered many of the Manhattan Trade School report cards with very sharp commentary? Back in January I mentioned that volunteer researcher Cate Bloomquist had solved the puzzle of Miss Kotter's identity. I've now put that research to good use while writing the latest full-length Permanent Record article for Slate, which will be about Miss Kotter and one of the students she worked with. It should be published in a day or two.

What you see above is a 1944 obituary for Miss Kotter's second husband, Edwin Borden. It was a key piece of evidence in Cate's sleuthing. Her research on this one was so amazing that I've decided to share the paper trail with you, so you can see just how much work is involved in tracking down someone for the Permanent Record project.

First, to set the stage: Miss Kotter presented a thorny research puzzle. Some letters in the report card files referred to her as "Miss Kotter" and others as "Mrs. Kotter," so I wasn't sure if Kotter was her maiden or married name. She signed letters as "A. Kotter" and referred to herself on the report cards as "AK" or "ADK," so I didn't even know her first name.

But Cate Bloomquist connected a bunch of dots that hadn't even occurred to me. She summarized her research process for me in the following rundown:

1. In Doris Abravaya's file, letters dated 4/27/34 and 9/4/34 are addressed to "Mrs. Kotter." But the 9/4/34 letter has handwritten note at the bottom that begins "AB." It appeared to me the B had been written over a K, but in Mrs. Kotter's same handwriting (which we've seen on many of the report cards). I began to think she must have married sometime in 1934. Or perhaps she had some other reason for a name change, but marriage was the most likely explanation.

2. Sure enough, the next letter in Doris's file, dated 9/13/34, was addressed to a "Mrs. A. Borden." Evidence was mounting for a marriage.

3. Then, in Marie Garaventa's file, last index card includes notes from "AK" and "AB" -- in the same handwriting. It appeared Mrs. Kotter had become Mrs. Borden, but what was her first name?

4. Selma Kaufman's file includes a letter from "Mrs. Althea Borden, Placement Counselor." Also, Maria DeTuro's file included a card signed by "Althea Borden." Again, compare the handwriting among all of these -- they pretty clearly match. I now had a first name for Mrs. Kotter/Borden.

5. Since Althea is a relatively uncommon first name, even for the 1930s, I searched on "Althea Borden" in the New York Times index, thinking I probably wouldn't get an overwhelming number of responses to comb through. I found a 1944 obit for an Edwin Borden [this is the obituary shown at the top of the page — Paul], and it listed his widow Althea and son Matthew. They lived in Stamford, Connecticut, though. Initially I was doubtful that this would be the same Althea as "our" Althea. Therefore, I decided to research the "Kotter" angle a bit more to see if I could find something more conclusive tying our Althea ("ADK") to this Althea Borden of Stamford, Connecticut.

6. I looked up the 1930 census and was able to find an Althea Koetter (not Kotter) living in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband Carl. also pulled up two ship passenger manifests for Carl and Althea Koetter returning from Germany in 1929 and again in 1932. The passenger lists also provided Althea's date of birth: 12/17/1906.

7. I'm not always a fan of, but sometimes it's very useful, and this time it provided the gold: a newspaper entry from the Reno Gazette, dated 4/4/1934, which stated that a divorce decree had been granted for Carl E. Koetter from Althea Dreyer Koetter -- ADK!! For our purposes, this was certainly enough evidence to show that ADK became Althea Borden sometime in 1934.

8. But was this the same Althea Borden listed as the widow of Edwin Borden in the 1944 obit? I turned to again. This time I searched the public family trees for an Edwin Borden who died in 1944. Sure enough, an Edwin Floyd Borden popped up with the correct death date and tie to Connecticut, and his spouse was listed as "Althea Dreyer."

9. According to the Social Security Death Index, Althea Borden died in 1971 in Florida. It becomes more difficult to track down people the closer we get to the present time mainly because of privacy laws, etc., but I'm fairly confident that Matthew Borden (Althea's son) is likely still living because I don't see him in the Social Security Death Index. I could not find him easily/conclusively. However, the person who entered the Borden family tree on is named Linda Brooks and I believe that she is a niece of Althea's. I think probably the quickest route to Matthew would be to contact Linda, or if Matthew has passed away, I'm betting Linda would have some pretty good info on the appropriate next of kin, given the amount of info she has on the family tree in Ancestry. Here is her contact information, which I found on….

And that's how Cate led me to Althea's niece, Linda Brooks, who in turn put me in touch with Althea's son, Matthew Borden (both of whom were very forthcoming and provided wonderful interviews). It's an impressive bit of detective work, no? Now you can see why I'm so grateful to have people like Cate helping me -- I could never have pieced this together on my own.

A few notes:

• If Althea's first husband's surname was Koetter, what does all her Manhattan Trade School correspondence list her as Kotter (without the first e)? I'm not sure, and neither are her niece or son. Carl, her husband, was German, and it may be that she simply wanted to Anglicize a German name that other people were prone to misspelling.

• Although Cate didn't mention this in her notes, it's odd that the 1930 census listed Althea's occupation as "None." She was definitely working for Manhattan Trade at that time, so I don't understand why that wouldn't have been listed. If it had been, I'm sure Cate would have known much more quickly that she'd found the right Althea Ko(e)tter.

• Althea's handwriting, which was part of the key to this puzzle, has a distinctive, businesslike appearance. Her niece and son both recognized it immediately when I showed them samples from the report cards. (Personally, speaking as someone who's had to read through a great deal of Althea's notes, I'm grateful that her handwriting was so legible.)

• Althea and Carl's Reno divorce was a classic of its era. No-fault divorce laws weren't yet common in the 1930s, which made divorce a lengthy ordeal. But Nevada had much less restrictive laws, and Reno was its biggest city at the time (Las Vegas was still just a small outpost town, not a resort). So Reno became famous for "quickie divorces," which is apparently what Carl and Althea opted for. Note, however, that the Reno Gazette clipping that Cate found didn't even mention the word "divorce" -- it simply said, "Decrees Granted." I wouldn't have realized that this was referring to divorce decrees, but fortunately Kate did.

I'm happy to report that there was a lot more to Althea than the stern disciplinarian whose voice comes through on the report cards. You'll be able to read her full story in the next Slate article, which should be published within the next week.

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An original 1906 article about the Manhattan Trade School for Girls is currently up for sale on eBay. I've read this article before on the web, but it's interesting to see an original copy of it -- more than 100 years old!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

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Sorry not to have blogged in a while. I've been busy with other projects (including the next feature-length Permanent Record piece for Slate, which I'll have more to say about in a minute).

What you see above are the front and back of a bill sent on June 8, 1945, from the Philadelphia Electric Company to one William E. Finigan, whose account was in arrears to the tune of $1.59. As you can see, Mr. Finnigan was given one week in which to settle the outstanding balance or else his lights would be turned off. Judging by the stern "Pay this" note on the back of the bill, someone in the Finigan household took this admonition seriously.

This bill is part of a batch of mid-1940s invoices, receipts, and bills, all relating to Mr. Finigan, that I recently acquired. They're all interesting, but "Pay this" -- for the whopping sum of $1.59 -- adds a note of pathos that easily makes this slip of paper my favorite of the batch. (And no, I didn't intend for "pathos" to echo "Pay this," although that's a nice bonus.)

This wasn't the only time Mr. Finigan had to be reminded to pay an overdue electric bill. In December of 1944, he received notice of an outstanding balance of $18.11, which he paid six days later. Note that the address on these documents is different than the one shown on the document at the top of the page, however, so maybe one was for his home and the other for his business (for all of these subsequent images, you can click to enlarge):

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And on Aug. 14 of an unspecified year, he received a friendly reminder to remit an overdue sum of $8.60:


But I don't mean to imply that Mr. Finigan was a chronic deadbeat. Here are four electric bills stubs (complete with that beautiful hole-punch lettering you used to see on cancelled checks, paid invoices, and so on) that, near as I can figure, he paid on time:


Mr. Finigan apparently ran a furniture business. Here's a receipt for an insurance policy on his shop:


Here's a receipt from William's visit to a local hardware shop (listing yet another address), which I'm including mainly because (a) I like the logo at the top of the receipt and (b) I love the intensity of the carbon paper transfer handwriting:


William isn't the only Finigan whose paperwork ended up in this stash of documents. Here's a notice of an unpaid car insurance bill, only this one is addressed to John Finigan, at still another address (the Finigans apparently owned or rented a big chunk of Main St. in Darby). Were William and John brothers? Father and son? I'm not sure:


John Finigan, like William, apparently had some ongoing issues with prompt remittance. Here are three separate reminders to pay his annual 1946 dues for the Keystone Automotive Club (along with the fun information from the back of reminder):

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That's all I have on the Finigans. I admit that it's not much of a narrative -- more questions than answers, and not particularly burning questions at that -- but I still enjoy it when I find these small batches of items all relating to a particular person or family. Ephemera like this is so disposable that I figure anything paperwork that's survived this long wanted to be found, wanted to tell its little story. So now I've done my part to help that process along.

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Slate update: I've delivered the next PermaRec article to my editor at Slate, which means it should run within the next week or so. It's about two characters who I introduced last fall in the fourth article in the series. I'll have more to say about that in the next installment here on the blog.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Do you recognize this little girl? If so the Museum of the Confederacy would like to hear from you.

The picture is one of eight photographs that the museum is trying to learn more about. They were found on the battlefield during the Civil War, in the pockets of dead soldiers. According to this Associated Press article:

Typically [the photos] were found by another soldier and handed down through generations. Ultimately an attic would be cleared or a trunk would be emptied and the photo would be given to the museum. Some have been in the museum's possession for 60 years or more. ... [N]ow museum officials are releasing the unidentified images ... on the admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found.

You can see all eight photographs here. Some of them remind me a lot of the photos on the Permanent Record report cards, and the museum's quest to find the stories behind the photos feels a lot like the Permanent Record project, no? Hope they're able to connect some of the dots.

Friday, June 8, 2012

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As I worked on the Slate article about Eva Rosencrans and Bee Zelin, it occurred to me that it might have been intimidating to for a woman to be related to Eva or Bee. After all, they were both big shots in the fashion industry -- were they always looking at people's wardrobes with a critical eye? Did they judge how people around them dressed, even (or especially) their relatives?

Margie Rosencrans -- Eva's daughter-in-law -- ended up with many of Eva's showroom sample dresses. She told me that Eva didn't necessarily critique her sense of style but that she had very specific ideas that didn't leave much room for argument:

She'd invite me up to the showroom three or four times a year and I'd get all the samples. She'd say, "Now Margie, you need this dress if you go to a formal event, and this one if you go to a cocktail party, and this one if you go to a PTA meeting, and this is if you're meeting someone for lunch." And the truth is, I didn't always like the dress. But I couldn't say no. It was a little awkward. So I ended up taking whatever she told me to take, and then if there was one I didn't like, I never wore it.

As for Bee, her daughter-in-law, Barbara Zelin, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Bee worked, so Bee respected her training and her sense of aesthetics. Later in her life, Bee even allowed Barbara -- who went on to become an interior designer -- to remodel her house. "And that went fine," said Barbara. "She trusted me."

But Barbara's daughter, Stephanie Wilson -- Bee's granddaughter -- said things could occasionally get a bit tense. "She was the kind of woman who'd dress up to go get her mail," she said of Bee. "And I was a tomboy. I'm sure that did not thrill her. Hungarians are often stubborn, and we both were."

More follow-ups on Eva and Bee are in store soon....

Monday, June 4, 2012


What you see above is the front page of an old promotional brochure for Manhattan Industrial High School. That's the same school as the Manhattan Trade School for Girls -- the school changed its name around 1930. The brochure was found by Jane Montalto, whose mother, Florence Gattuso, attended Manhattan Trade from 1929 through 1931 (her report card is part of my collection). Jane, who I met and interviewed a few months ago, recently found the brochure while going through some of her mother's old papers and was nice enough to scan it for me.

I've never seen any of the school's promotional materials before, so this is an exciting find. There's no date on the brochure, but a few clues (including the name that the school was using at the time) suggest that it's probably from the 1932 to 1935 range. Interestingly, that means Florence obtained the brochure after she had already graduated from the school. Perhaps she was planning to share it with a friend or relative..?

Here are the remaining panels from the brochure (for each of them, you can click to enlarge):

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The brochure confirms some things I already knew but also has some information that's new to me and some intriguing tidbits. A few thoughts:

• The building shown on the cover, at the northwest corner of Lexington Ave. and 22nd St., still stands today and is now a high school, although the original "Manhattan Trade School for Girls" lettering is still chiseled into the fa├žade. (For more historical background on this building and Manhattan Trade's previous locations, check out the third Permanent Record article from the Slate series.)

• I knew that most girls attended Manhattan Trade after completing the eighth grade. I didn't realize until now, however, that the completion of eighth grade was a prerequisite.

• Fascinating to see the line, "The programme is planned according to progressive methods." I'd love to know what that meant in the context of the early 1930s.

• "Each trade course is divided into 16 assignments." This explains why each report card shows grades for 16 units.

• During the school's early years -- 1902 up through at least the early 1920s -- the trade offerings were dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery, lampshade making, decorative box making, and catalog sample mounting. The first three of these, which were the most popular, were called the needle trades; the latter three, the glue trades. But as you can see in the brochure, things had begun to change by the 1930s: The glue trades had all been folded into a larger trade course called Interior Decorating, and new courses of study had been added -- Flower Making (I had no idea the school had ever offered this), Beauty Culture, and Cafeteria Training. It's fascinating to see how the curriculum evolved to keep pace with the women's labor market.

• The mention of "Educational trips to Washington" matches up with notes I found in some of the girls' files ("Thank you so much for recommending me for the Washington trip," that type of thing).

• Very impressive that the school had its own savings bank. This is very much in keeping with the school's mission to teach girls how to survive in the world of work and business.

An amazing document, and a huge addition to our knowledge base regarding the school. Thanks so much to Jane Montalto for sharing it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wilson

The last entry here on the blog was a follow-up on Eva Rosencrans, one of two Manhattan Trade students whose stories I told in my latest full-length Permanent Record article on Slate. Today I have a follow-up item on the other student profiled in that article, Bee Zelin (shown above with her great-grandson, Spencer, in 1998, when Bee was 88).

In the Slate article, I wrote, "Bee was a solid student at Manhattan Trade and went on to hold a series of dressmaking positions in the 1920s and '30s (one of which entailed a bit of drama regarding her wages). I realize that some readers don't get around to clicking on all the links in a story, and even those who do click can have difficulty reading the handwriting on the report cards. So here's a transcription of the pertinent section from Bee's employment file:

Jan. 5, 1932 [note from placement counselor]: Has worked approximately one week and has not been paid yet. Suggested Leagl Aid Society.

Jan. 7, 1932 [from employer]: Owe Beatrice $21, which she knew would be paid by the end of this week. I suppose she didn't mention the little suit I gave her. — Felice Cotin

Jan. 8, 1932 [from Bee]: Gave me inexpensive suit that was given her and that she could not wear. Pays all other bills at once, even $45 to advertisers. Think she should pay me.

Jan. 13, 1932 [from Bee]: Received $19 from F. Cotin. Promised the rest of it tomorrow. Did not get assistance from Legal Aid in order to obtain money.

Feb. 2, 1932 [from Bee]: F. Cotin still owes me $19.25.

April 13, 1932 [from Bee]: Suing F. Cotin for salary owed.

As you can see, Bee wasn't she about standing up for herself. When I interviewed her daughter-in-law and granddaughter for the Slate article, they both said they didn't know anything about this incident but that it sounded "very much like Bee," whom they described as a tough customer on several different levels.

"She was a very stern disciplinarian to her own child, and also as a grandmother," said Babara Zelin, Bee's daughter-in-law. The big exception appears to have been Spencer, her great-grandson, who's in Bee's arms in the photo at the top of this entry. "She was much more relaxed with him," Barbara told me. "My kids certainly weren't allowed to throw toys all over her house like he was! When I saw it, I couldn't believe it. Like, 'You're letting him do what?' "

I'll have more to say about Bee and Eva in the coming days. Hope you'll all keep checking back to read more.