The Slate Series, Chapter 4: The Untold Stories

This article was originally published as part of a five-part series on The original Slate version is undergoing technical difficulties, so the Slate editors have given me permission to republish the article here.

The first article in the series is functioning reasonably well on Slate -- you can access it here. The second, third, and fifth installments are available here, here, and here.

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In 1930, 17-year-old Nellie Colletti finished her training at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. As was customary, the school began finding jobs for her and Nellie reported back on her work experiences. One such report came on May 18, 1931, when she wrote the following letter to the school's job placement secretary:

Dear Miss Kotter,

I am working for Indestructo Scarf Inc., 15-19 West 39 St.

I join ties and put linings in them and we get paid at $.06 a doz. The most I can complete a day is about 20 doz. I wouldn't mind the work if I got paid a little more.

The first week I got $10. My hours are from 9 to 5:30, one hour for lunch, and on Saturday [until] 1 o'clock. I am a piece worker now.

If you can help me get something better than this, even at hemstitching, I will except [sic] it, or an inside helper of some kind.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely yours,
Nellie Colletti
That same day, Indestructo Scarf contacted the school. Nellie's work record includes the following entry, in red ink (meaning it's a comment from an employer): "May 18, 1931: Went out with two other girls for lunch and none of them returned."

Miss Kotter was not pleased. She wrote down what she told Nellie: "Return to Indestructo Scarf at once and explain your absence. If you do not go back and give required notice, we shall not assist you in the future."

The situation came to a head the following day, as documented in Nellie's work record:

May 19, 1931: Nellie told ADK [Miss Kotter] she went to the dentist during lunch hour. Said cheek was all swollen so went to dentist near home. ADK said she [Nellie] knew she could not get back during her lunch hour and should have told Mrs. New [apparently Nellie's supervisor at Indestructo Scarf] where she was going. Said she called Mrs. N. at 2:30. ADK asked the name of the dentist. Nellie hesitated -- she had told a lie. ADK asked her calmly where she was yesterday. Said she was looking for a new position.
That marked the end of Nellie's time at Indestructo Scarf. Despite this incident, the school continued to arrange jobs for her for nearly six more years.

All of this is in Nellie's file -- her original letter, the story of her AWOL afternoon, the works. Unfortunately, I've been unable to find out what happened to her (or to Indestructo Scarf, which I bet had some great letterhead), which is tremendously frustrating. How was she able to smooth things over with Miss Kotter? Did the incident leave a lasting impression on her? Did she ever tell her family about it?

The employment records in my collection of Manhattan Trade School report cards are filled with unfinished little dramas like Nellie's -- storylines with intriguing early chapters but no resolution. Some of them no doubt made large impacts on the students' lives; others may have been quickly forgotten. Collectively, though, they offer a revealing window into the school's operations, the lives of its students, and the Depression-era labor market.

One reason these stories remain so vivid decades after the fact is that the school's job placement department maintained such assiduous notes. Nellie's case was typical, documented with a remarkable level of detail, a stern, schoolmarm-ish tone (unsurprising, given that Manhattan Trade's staff was literally comprised of schoolmarms), and the looming presence of the Miss A. Kotter, who was the school's placement secretary from the 1920s through the mid-1930s. She appears again and again in the files, usually referred to as either "AK" or "ADK." Despite my best efforts, I've been unable to determine her full name (even when signing letters, she only used her first initial), but she clearly played a major role in the girls' lives as they transitioned from school to the work world.

Today we'll take a look at a sampling of unresolved stories from the employment records, all involving students whose families I've been unable to locate. Some of the accounts are troubling, but all meet the standard set out by the school's first director, Mary Schenck Woolman, in her 1910 book, The Making of a Trade School, where she wrote that part of the placement office's mission was "to build up a series of records that shall be of general sociological value." In that respect, these stories are a gold mine.

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Of all the compelling stories in the Manhattan Trade report cards, none stands out like that of Doris Abravaya, a dressmaking student from the early 1930s. The photograph on her report card shows a smiling, sweet-looking girl, and her grades were generally good. Her home situation, however, appears to have been heartbreakingly difficult, as spelled out in the following series of notations and letters from the salmon card in her file (for this and all the other transcriptions presented in this article, I've spelled out certain abbreviated terms so the text will be easier to follow):

May 2, 1933: Social worker, Mrs. Sklar, at Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society, came to see AK about Doris. Doris's mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in home of Mrs. Talianksy, obtained through the Society. There is severe unemployment in this home. When funds for Doris cease, on June 12, she will be entirely on her own. Doris has low mentality and is very timid and unstable. She constantly fears becoming like her mother. Children see mother often because father takes them there whenever he is intoxicated. Mrs. Sklar asked AK to try to include Doris in June graduation because not graduating would be such a disappointment.

Oct. 30, 1933: In opportunity home [i.e., a foster home] now. Making $3 a week. Will stay for a while.

Nov. 23, 1933: Had to leave opportunity home because of illness. Will not be able to work for some time.

March 20, 1934: Mrs. Sklar [the social worker] came in. Doris is now back with the first foster mother [Mrs. Talianksy]. She is getting $3 a week and maintenance in return for the little domestic work she does. She cannot work in a factory or workroom because her constitution cannot stand it. She had a nervous breakdown after her two weeks at Perfect Negligee [a job she briefly held in 1933]. Since she can never do any strenuous work, AK told Mrs. Sklar that we probably would grant diploma on receipt of OK for domestic work and letter from Hebrew Guardian Society that she could never work at trade.

Apr. 30, 1934: Note from Hebrew Guardian Society claiming doctor has forbidden factory work, etc. because of physical condition. Diploma to be granted.
That might have been the end of Doris's story. But several months later, Mrs. Sklar sent Miss Kotter another letter, this time announcing that Doris's physical condition had improved and that she wished to be placed in a job. (As you can see in the note toward the bottom, the school's administrative staff was so obsessively detail-oriented that they noticed an inconsistency in Mrs. Sklar's signatures, which she then explained, with a hint of annoyance, in a follow-up letter. That's an archetypal Manhattan Trade moment right there.)

So Doris went back to work. She held a series of garment positions in the fall of 1934. Then there's a one-year gap in her work history, followed by one last entry from January of 1936, when she obtained a clerical position at a high school in the Bronx. Her wages there were $60.50 per week -- much more than she could have made doing garment work, and by far the highest salary I've seen listed in any of the Manhattan Trade employment records. It's not clear what happened to Doris after that, but the high school job feels like a well-deserved happy ending after all the difficulties she endured.

Some students who came from particularly impoverished families were eligible for student aid. Enrollment at Manhattan Trade was free of charge, but a small weekly stipend was available for cases of extreme need. One student in my card collection, Helen Farkas, appears to have been a representative case. The oldest of four children, Helen entered Manhattan Trade at age 14, in February of 1926. She received consistently excellent grades and commentary from her instructors, but by early 1927 her mother -- a widow living on a pension -- felt Helen should leave school and begin working to help support the family.

After a social worker from the Board of Child Welfare investigated Helen's case and recommended that she be eligible for a "scholarship," she was referred to the school's Student Aid department on April 25, 1927. A new card was filled out, breaking down the family's finances. The school's principal, Florence M. Marshall, then determined that Helen should receive $2 per week plus $1 for lunch. Helen's mother agreed to these terms, and Helen was able to finish her studies.

By the time the school placed Helen in her first job in February of 1928, she had received a total of $88.41 in aid. She went to work in various positions arranged through the school's placement office for the next decade, none of which would have been possible if she'd been forced to leave school before completing her vocational training.

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Manhattan Trade was open to girls of all races. But beginning around 1920, black students had a special designation on the upper-right portion of their report cards: a small but unmistakable black adhesive dot -- literally a black mark on their permanent records.

I've been unable to find an explicitly stated rationale for this symbol, but circumstantial evidence is provided by the case of Violet Baker, a dressmaking student who finished her training in 1919. Her card does not have a black dot -- the school wasn't yet using them -- but in 1921 the school sent her to work for a dressmaker listed simply as Barbara, whose reaction to Violet was swift and blunt: "I did not know you were sending a colored girl. Cannot use her."

The school quickly placed Violet with another dressmaker, named Miss Kugeloff. But a few weeks later, Violet left that job and returned to a negligee manufacturer named Harry Collins, where she had worked before. That prompted a communiqué from Miss Kugeloff: "Don't think this [is] fair. Had to work hard to get my other girls to work with her, and now that she is accustomed to the work, she has left me, when I am busiest." Although it's not spelled out directly, the clear implication is that Miss Kugeloff's other employees resisted having a black co-worker.

My hunch is that the school began using the black dots as a warning system to help avoid precisely this type of problem. The dots would alert the placement office to take care when finding jobs for these students, especially with employers who were known to have issues with black students. This would have been particularly important prior to 1926, because the school had not yet started putting photos of the students on the cards, which so it wasn't always easy to tell a student's race simply by glancing at her file. Violet's nationality, for example, is listed on her card as "English," but census data indicates that her parents were British West Indian and that the family was categorized as "mu," for mulatto.

I could find no other incidents of racial discrimination in the work histories of any student whose card had a black dot. If the dots were intended as a warning, they apparently worked well.

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The casual racism of the era wasn't limited to employers. In at least one instance it was expressed by the school staff. The student in question was Selma Kaufman, who studied dressmaking in the early 1930s. Take a look at this entry in her record, which is unsigned but was probably written by Miss Kotter:

Sep. 14, 1934: Selma's father came in. Typical overfed Jewish silk salesman, with no taciturnity. He has some very good instincts, however, and is really a good father. He believes in all advantages for his children, but errs on the side of over-indulging them. He certainly has spoiled Selma. He will send Selma to business school (Miller's, possibly) and then see that she is placed [in a job] by a friend.

Sep. 21, 1934: The father has changed Selma's mind again. Now he wants her to become a designer. He will see if Textile High School offers what he thinks she should have.
A letter in Selma's file indicates that she did indeed attend Textile High. That's the end of her paper trail.

Selma's father is one of several parents and other family members who make periodic appearances in the job placement notes. The transcripts of these interactions show some interesting tensions between the families and the school.

Consider the case of Florence Guerin, who studied dressmaking at Manhattan Trade from 1929 through 1931. She received above-average grades and consistently made the Honor Roll, but she drew a negative report from her first employer ("Very affected, uses her eyes to attract, rather than to sew"). Soon after that, her father became involved, as detailed in the following entries:

Sep. 15, 1931: Florence's father was in to talk about Florence to ADK. ADK explained that Florence was too uppity and that her sewing as not as good as it might be. Mr. Guerin suggested [a] selling and modeling position. Mr. Guerin [is a] very fine person.

Nov. 5, 1931: Father telephoned AK regarding Florence. He was very abusive and practically said AK was a fool, a poor business woman, and a heartless creature who gave the girls no consideration. Said Florence should be placed in a position that pays $15, no less.

Nov. 11, 1931: Father refuses to let her take anything but finishing. Feel sorry for Florence. Even today AK offered her a hand rolling position. She called her father and he refused to let her take it.
Sometimes other family members became involved. After the school arranged a job for a student named Mary Farrauto at the Gorlieb Dress Co., there were some theatrics during her first day of work:

Feb 3, 1932: Mary's brother telephoned that he did not want her to work. Told him that she did not mention it to ADK when sent for this morning. [He] wanted name and address of Gorlieb and said he would go there to see what place was like because he was in that neighborhood. Explained one of ADK's assistants had been there with Mary this morning but he said he would go anyway.

Later that same day: Gorlieb telephoned. Mary's brother came and took her away.

Still later that same day: Brother came to office with Mary. Said he doesn't want Mary to work, but to stay in school until June. AK complained about tactics used regarding Mary's leaving so abruptly. Mary's brother believes Mary is too good for Gorlieb anyway. AK explained to him that Mary is an average worker.
It's not clear whether Mary went back to school, but she didn't work again until late September. After she failed to respond to several follow-ups from the placement office in early 1934, she was removed from the office's list of applicants.

One thing that's apparent throughout these stories is that garment jobs in New York City were difficult, usually short-term, and almost always low-paying. Tomorrow, in our final installment, we'll look at a student who rose above those difficulties to create a sewing-based company that still bears her name today.

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Bonus section: If you ever had a teacher or guidance counselor who seemed to specialize in ruining your day with an endless stream of stern, reproachful commentary, then you have a good sense of what Miss A. Kotter appears to have been like. Miss Kotter, who ran the Manhattan Trade placement office from the 1920s through the mid-1930s, was never at a loss for words, and those words were frequently harsh and petty, at least as expressed in many of the students' work histories. Here are some of her best lines (or worst, depending on how you look at it):

• Carmela Panarello was initially described in 1930 as "Quite attractive, extremely likeable girl." But on Jan. 27, 1933, Miss Kotter crossed that out, wrote, "Not now," and added, "Has developed an inflated idea of herself." A few months later, after Carmela failed to respond to two messages from the placement office, Miss Kotter wrote this: "AK told Carmela we would not place her before fall season. Has to pay penance for recent negligence. This may also help to deflate her ego that has grown so lately."

• Pasquelina Colozzo was also described as "attractive," but this appears to have been a backhanded compliment at best, because Miss Kotter also wrote, "Speech is coarse and crude. Irresponsible. Probably very popular with the boys.

• Miss Kotter had strong feelings about how students should address her, as seen in this entry from Minnie Gropper's file: "Very unbecoming attitude when AK telephoned regarding a position. Seemed a little annoyed, and very fussy about position. Called AK 'Dear.' "

• One of the nastiest and most unprofessional comments in my entire report card collection can be found in the file of Mary Baio, an Italian student who Miss Kotter described as follows: "Very plain and foreign-looking. Garlic (?)"

It's not clear how students felt about Miss Kotter, although it's easy to imagine them calling her lots of things besides "Dear." Sometimes, however, her strict approach was effective, as in the case of Julia Paltrinieri, whose record includes this entry for March 30, 1933: "AK received letter two days ago from Julia, dated 3-21-33. Said she did not have time to write and then said she wished AK could get her something, because the days were so long with nothing to do. AK wrote to Julia, reproving her for all this, including mis-dating the letter. Told Julia she will not be put back on the [job] applicant list until she comes in to explain." The next entry, dated April 1, reads, "Sorry you had to reprimand me in your last letter. I'll be more punctual and accurate in the future."

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Read the entire five-part Permanent Record series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.