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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For all documents, you can click to enlarge

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:

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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:

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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 Stabenow.com

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 Ancestry.com 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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Respectfully,
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.