The Levine's Tenement Story
In 1890, Harris and Jennie Levine came to the United States from Plonsk, which was then part of Russia and now is in Poland. According to family lore, Harris and Jennie arrived in New York shortly after their honeymoon.
The Levines settled on the Lower East Side, moving in to the tenement at 97 Orchard Street sometime around 1892. However, the apartment was not just their home; the Levines also used the space to run a small dressmaking shop.
The Levine's apartment-based shop was hardly unusual on the Lower East Side. Indeed, it was one of more than an estimated 100 workshops in business along the one block of Orchard Street between Delancey and Broome Streets. Like a number of their neighbors on Orchard, the Levines worked as contractors, assembling garments for manufacturers.
According to Factory Inspector Reports, Harris's workshop was less crowded than many of the other apartment-based factories in the area. He employed three workers--a presser, a baster, and a finisher-and operated the sewing machine himself.
Harris reported to a factory inspector that he employed his workers 10 hours a day, six days a week, which was the legal limit. However, it seems likely that his employees worked much longer than that. This was almost certainly the case during peak times, when Harris was under great pressure to meet manufacturer's demands. In turn, he and his workers logged long, hard days, perhaps working 15 hour shifts. During high seasons, workers ate, slept, and sewed in the same space - bundles of clothing were often used as beds and blankets.
Harris also struggled to turn a profit. As a contractor, he probably spent close to 80% of the contract price on labor. This usually left Harris with $16 per week to support his family.
Regardless of the season, making dresses was a complicated, time-consuming task. A dress consisted of a bodice and a separate skirt. The bodice had at least eight shaped pieces, plus sleeves and collar, while the large, puffed sleeves were very particularly difficult to attach. Volumes of fabric had to be gathered, and the fullness evenly eased into the sleeve hole. Every dress had two or three layers of inner lining, and all the seams had to be overcast by hand.
There were other reasons that Harris and his workers toiled for such long hours. Harris paid his workers by the piece, a practice that was and still is common in the garment industry. Workers earned approximately four or five cents per piece. Such a low rate forced workers to produce as many pieces as they could in hopes of earning a living wage. Despite the pressure to earn a living, Harris told Factory Inspectors that he closed his shop on Saturdays to observe the Jewish Sabbath.
While her husband sewed and supervised, Jennie Levine cooked for her family and the workers. Finding space to cook, however, could be a challenge. The presser did his work in the kitchen, heating twenty pound irons on the stove and pressing garments on an ironing board in the middle of the room.
Though space was scarce with two children, Jennie managed to find room in the apartment to raise a family. During the moment in 1897 that the Museum has recreated the Levine's apartment, their family included two children, Hyman and Pauline.
However, the Levine family soon grew larger. In 1897, Jenny gave birth to a third child, Solie (known as Max). Jenny did not leave 97 Orchard to give birth to Max. Rather, a midwife, Esther Kalmonovsky, helped Jenny give birth in the Levine's back room. Over the next seven years, Jennie also gave birth to two young daughters, Eva in 1901 and Fay in 1904.
Sometime after Fay's birth, Harris decided to make some significant changes. Not only did he close the dressmaking shop at 97 Orchard and move to Brooklyn, but he also applied to become a naturalized American citizen. However, Harris did not change professions, continuing to make garments, though he likely did not work out of his home.
Over the next twenty years, the Levines moved to four different locations in Brooklyn. They settled in the borough, eventually making their home in Bensonhurst, where Harris passed away in 1929.