What Gets Passed Down

Our historians spend a lot of time tracking down the descendants of former residents. By being able to speak to the people who either lived in the building or worked in the neighborhood, we’re able to create a more authentic sense of individuality in each recreated home.

There is often this idea that an heirloom must have a high monetary value or be in a family for generations. While that is sometimes true, the Tenement Museum challenges the concept of what has “value” daily. The real value of any inherited object comes from the significance it carries for the family – the reason the original owner passed it down and the reason the descendants never got rid of it. Any object becomes sentimental when there’s a story behind it. What can be learned from the things we decide to keep? Use the slider below to compare the original shears donated to the museum and the period-appropriate pair on display in the recreated Levine apartment.

By 1999, the museum had recreated four tenement apartments and was looking to develop an apartment and exhibit centered around the garment history of the Lower East Side. Museum researchers had found Harris Levine listed at 97 Orchard Street as a dressmaker in the New York City Directories from 1892 to 1904, After seeing his business listed in the Annual Reports of the Factory Inspectors of the State of New York, we chose to interpret his apartment as a garment factory. Using documents like Jennie Levine’s will, museum researchers traced the Levine genealogy and identified potential grandchildren, sending letters to everyone in the area sharing their name. A grandson responded to our letter and put the museum in contact with his older cousin, Martin Hirsch, who had direct memories of Harris and Jennie Levine.

After a few years of correspondence, Mr. Hirsch donated these shears to the museum in 2002. His grandfather had used these scissors during his tailoring days, after leaving 97 Orchard. We sourced period scissors to be a part of the Levine’s recreated home while also displaying the original pair for visitors. We don’t have many original objects from former residents of homes we’ve recreated, especially from this era of the building’s history, making these simple scissors one of the most prized pieces in our collection.

Use the slider below to compare the original shears donated to the museum and the period-appropriate pair on display in the recreated Levine apartment.

And they represent much for the Levines and their descendants. They weren’t easy years, running a crowded “sweatshop” in 97 Orchard and trying to raise a family, all while dealing with a recent immigration to a foreign country.

Harris and Jennie would eventually settle in Brooklyn, considered at the time to be a move up the economic ladder, and they were able to open up a garment shop outside their family home. What can we understand about Harris, his sentimentality in holding onto the scissors and his need to keep them in the family? The years of toil helped the Levines provide a better future for their children, and these shears are a heavy reminder of their humble beginnings.

Many have heirlooms without even realizing they’re heirlooms. Sometimes they can be as simple as a family recipe.

In 1993, Josephine Baldizzi shared with the Tenement Museum some recipes from her mother, Rosaria. Some were more traditional recipes that every family hands down, such as a signature Italian breadcrumb recipe to be used at every holiday meal. Others were unique, the work of a mother trying to keep her family fed and her children happy in a time when money and food were both scarce. These recipes were vital in helping us recreate the Baldizzi’s Depression-era kitchen in the year 1935.

Explore three of Rosaria’s recipes, handwritten by Josephine, and the recreated kitchen of the Baldizzi family below. For best results, view in fullscreen by clicking the “fullscreen” button in the top right corner.

Although she was only a child, Josephine had strong memories of her life during the Great Depression. She gave us a menu of a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner when food and money were both incredibly scarce. For breakfast, the family ate hot milk with butter, sugar, and stale bread – recalling with a fondness only a child in this time could have that it was delicious, “almost like a pudding.”

Lunch was a loaf of Italian bread, and her Italian immigrant parents did not skimp on the olive oil, cheese, oregano, and tomatoes if there were any on hand. And dinner was often a stew, healthy enough and easy to make with whatever happened to be on hand or leftover, with the ability to feed a lot of people. As well as sharing these recipes, in 1994 Josephine also donated several kitchen implements that her mother used in 97 Orchard, a testament to their deeply-held significance for her.

Taste and smell are some of the strongest memory triggers, so it’s no surprise that Josephine carried these memories fifty years later. Since so many of them took place in their kitchen, we knew it was important for us to recreate it as accurately as possible. “I can still see my mother in front of this big black stove putting the bread in the oven,” she told us, “and my father would peel an orange and put the skins on the stove. This sent out a nice aroma.”

For a museum working to recreate historic spaces, there is nothing more helpful than a photograph. The further back in time one goes, however, this proves to be exceedingly difficult to find. While we have old photographs taken on the 97 Orchard Street roof and front stoop, as well as professional portraits of some residents taken in a studio, we don’t have any interior photographs of the actual apartments of these tenement families. Without the flash technology included in fancier, more expensive cameras, the box cameras that were common at the time could only be used with natural light, making the building rooftop or stoop ideal locations for picture-taking.

But as the 20th century progressed, the improvement of new technologies made interior photography easier for anyone. During the 1950s and 60s, the Saez Velez family acquired cameras of their own. The photographs they donated of the building and their lives were essential when we began developing an exhibit of their home, allowing us to recreate key details of their living room.

While it likely isn’t your intention when you’re taking photos of your friends and family, the resulting images are some of the most informative historical records for future scholars and historians. They freeze forever in time a wealth of information not only about the society in which a photo was taken – fashions, décor, technologies, architecture – but also about the person being photographed. What can be learned about your ancestor about the way they were smiling decades before, or how they’re posed, or what they wore, or what they chose to stand with? When Ramonita posed in her finest outfit and perfectly styled hair while getting ready for a family wedding, she had no idea the photo would one day be used to help museum professionals accurately design a recreation of her home. But not only do these photos help us get the wallpaper and knick-knacks right, they also help us tell the Saez Velez family story in a richer and deeper way.