Wednesday, May 30, 2012


In my new Slate article about Eva Rosencrans and Bee Zelin, I quoted frequently from Eva's "memoir" -- a short autobiographical essay that her family encouraged her to write for posterity a few years before her death, provided to me by her son, Bob Rosencrans.

The memoir was an invaluable research tool for me (if only every Permanent Record student had created something similar!), and the bits that I quoted in the Slate article are just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few days I plan to share some other excerpts that didn't make it into the Slate article but should nonetheless be interesting to anyone who read about Eva's life.

In the article, I mentioned that Nettie Rosenstein -- Eva's sister-in-law, professional mentor, and eventual business partner -- retired in 1928 but then revived her career a few years later when she and her husband lost most of their fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. During that short period when Nettie was retired, Eva worked for another designer, named Rosie Roth. One of the models at their showroom would go on to bigger things, as Eva recalled in her memoir:

One young woman was a tall girl with red, stringy hair. I preferred shorter girls and told her so. She laughingly said she as going out to Hollywood to try show business. Her name was Lucille Ball.

Ball's modeling work with Rosie Roth is confirmed by many historical accounts, including this one, although Eva herself is never mentioned -- understandable, since she was just one of Roth's employees at the time. The photo at the top of this blog entry is one of Ball's early modeling shots from this period, although I don't know if Eva had anything to do with the outfit she's wearing.

Eva had many other brushes with celebrity -- and so did her clothing. At one point in her memoir she wrote:

A lot of movie stars wore our dresses. They bought them and wore them. I saw a movie not too long ago, an old movie with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint -- I can't remember the name. And in she comes, wearing one of my dreses.

This movie was probably North by Northwest. But which scene? Which dress?

I'll have more excerpts from Eva's memoir in the coming days, along with some follow-up info on Bee Zelin (whose story was also told in the new Slate article). Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

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On the left is Eva Greene Rosencrans; on the right, Beatrice Gross Zelin. These two women, born 10 years apart, lived remarkably similar lives: They both grew up poor and Jewish on New York's Lower East Side; both attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls; both went on to have significant careers in the fashion industry, where their respective impacts continue to be felt today; both had major brushes with celebrity; and both finished their careers in the same place, where they may have met. Their stories -- among the most remarkable tales to emerge from my collection of Manhattan Trade School report cards -- are told today in my latest Permanent Record article on

I have a lot of additional research material that didn't make it into the Slate article. I'll be sharing some of that information here on the PermaRec blog in the coming days -- stay tuned.

Friday, May 18, 2012

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Sorry not to have posted anything in a while -- I've been busy working on the next Slate article. I'll have more to say about that in a minute, but first I want to tell you about a new batch of material I recently acquired.

What you see above is a receipt for a New York City sewer assessment payment from 1858 and a New York City process server's affidavit from 1854. They're part of a big stash of mid-1800s legal documents, most of them pertaining to New York real estate, that my friend Amy Fritch recently gave me. Much like the old Manhattan Trade report cards, they're utterly compelling artifacts.

Amy found the documents some years ago while attending a party at a friend's offices in Chinatown (sound familiar?). "The office was in an old building that was in terrible shape and there was an entire room filled with old papers," she says. "Seriously -- floor to ceiling. Definitely a fire hazard."

Some of the papers looked interesting, so Amy took a few handfuls of them but didn't really know what to with them (again, sound familiar?), so she just kept them under her bed. Back in early 2010, when I was just getting started on the Permanent Record project, she brought out the papers to show me, and we spent a night oohing and ahhing over each other's artifacts -- me with my report cards, she with her legal papers, both of us saying, "These are amazing!" But I had forgotten about her papers until last month, when Amy moved away from New York and bequeathed the papers to me on her way out of town.

The papers are primarily from the 1840s, ’50, and ’60s. The documents include deeds, titles, mortgages, receipts, invoices, legal opinions, etc. They're all rendered in beautiful fountain pen script, and some have raised and/or colored seals.

All of the documents were folded; after 150 years, the folds and creases are pretty strong, and a few of the folds have cracked. Aside from that, though, the documents are in surprisingly good condition. They had clearly been protected from light, and many of them look and feel almost like new, the folds notwithstanding.

A few of the documents include little maps or diagrams showing the property being discussed. Here's a good example (click to enlarge):


In case you're having a hard time reading the handwriting, here's the opening paragraph:

Mr. David Samson wishes to raise his house and make it a four-story building, and it has occurred to him that he might be prevented or enjoined from doing so by the Owners of the adjoining house and lot to the North, on account of the party wall between the two houses as shown on the above diagram. And asks our opinion as to his rights and liabilities, with reference to his using the party wall in carrying up his building another story.

The full opinion goes on for several pages. Interestingly, if you look closely at the diagram, it indicates that the house north of David Samson's house -- the one with whom Samson shares the "party wall" -- is labeled, "Heirs of A. Stagman." And if you go back and look at the process server's document at the top of this blog entry, you'll see that the summons was served on behalf of David Samson, and that two of summons recipients were Andrew Stegman and Metta Stegman. (Perhaps the "Stagman" label on the diagram was a misspelling.) So the legal opinion iwht the diagram relates directly to the process server's document. I assume there are lots of other commonalities and groupings running through Amy's papers, but I haven't spent enough time with them yet to suss everything out.

I took some not-very good photos of some of the papers, which you can see in the slideshow below (or you can click here to see the slideshow at a larger size in its own window):

I hope to be able to tell some of the stories behind these papers, just as I've done with the report cards. But assessing legal documents is a lot trickier than assessing report cards (at least for me, since I have zero legal training). If anyone out there has the background, expertise, and enthusiasm to assist me with this, let's talk. Thanks.

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Slate update: The next Slate article should be published in a week or so (maybe right before Memorial Day weekend, or maybe right after), and I don't mind saying it's a doozy. It's about two Manhattan Trade students who lived remarkably parallel lives, from their childhoods on New York's Lower East Side to their careers in the fashion world -- careers that both included a significant brush with celebrity and an enduring impact on apparel design that's still being felt today.

Meanwhile, in another development, it's possible that Permanent Record may soon have a theme song. Can't tell you anything more than that for now, but I'll have further details soon, I hope.

To keep up to speed on all things relating to the project, sign up for the Permanent Record mailing list. You can join by sending me a note here.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

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What see above are scans of two century-old postcards. The scans were sent to me by PermaRec reader Charlene Dodds, and they're part of a project she's planning. I'll let her explain in her own words:

While going through some of my deceased father’s belongings, I recently came across dozens of old postcards from 1910s-1940s, written to and from my great aunt, grandmother, and their friends. These women loved to travel, and back then it was mostly by car, but occasionally by train or bus. Their postcards from across America have pictures of long-gone tourist attractions and hotels. I’ve spent many afternoons reading a handful of them at a time, picturing these adventurous women expanding their horizons.

Some of the postcards are crammed with info and others leave much to the imagination, just like your report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. When reading your articles, I imagined some of the Manhattan Trade students taking the trips with my great aunt and grandmother. Tracing their routes and finding out what happened to some of these once-famous landmarks has always seemed like time travel to me, much in the same way that your Permanent Record project is a kind of time travel.

When I have time, I'm thinking of mapping out the places shown on the postcards and going on a "then and now" road trip. Permanent Record traces people; my project would trace what happened to old landmarks and the communities around them.

Charlene's project will be a great opportunity for rephotography, which is basically before-and-after photography (more info here). One of my favorite examples of rephotography is the wonderful book Wisconsin Then and Now. Another is the excellent web site Dear Photograph, which is now the basis of a new book. My research partner Kirsten Hively and I engaged in some rephotography of our own a few years ago when producing a museum show about some very cool fiberglass structures in Queens (for more on that project, look here). It'll be interesting to see if Charlene's project develops along a similar trajectory.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

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My thanks to everyone for all the positive feedback on the Rose Vrana article -- greatly appreciated.

One interesting phenomenon is that an overwhelming percentage of the feedback that the article has generated -- whether in the form of comments posted on Slate, e-mails sent to me, or requests to be added to the Permanent Record mailing list -- has come from women. This continues a trend that began last fall, when responses to the first five Slate articles also came primarily from female readers, by a ratio of about five or six to one.

Part of the reason for this, I'm sure, is that Manhattan Trade was a girls' school, so the stories I'm telling are women's stories. But I think there's more to it than that: As my research and reporting have continued, I've found that the de facto family historians for most of the families I've contacted have been women. Sometimes I'll track down a Manhattan Trade student's son, for example, and he'll say something like, "Sure, you can interview me, but the one you should really talk to is my sister. She's the one who keeps all the old records and photo albums." This has now happened so often that it can't simply be a coincidence. For whatever reason, women seem more connected to their family histories -- and, if the response to Permanent Record is any indication, to the concept of family history in general.

This has come as a bit of a surprise to me. For reasons not worth explaining here, nobody in my own family has been particularly interested in genealogy or family trees, so I didn't realize that there's a gender gap when it comes to this stuff. I mean, I'm certainly not trying to write the material with any kind of targeted gender appeal. And hey, I'm really into Permanent Record and I'm a guy!

Of course, just because most of the people responding to the articles are women, that doesn't necessarily mean that most of the people reading the articles are women. Maybe female readers are simply more likely to engage with the project in the form of comments, e-mails, etc.

I'd be interested in hearing what other folks have to say about this. Feel free to post your comments, whatever your gender.