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Hey, Young Historians!

One of the most important ways we can try to better understand a historical period is to examine primary documents and sources – first-hand records – from that time. Newspaper articles, government reports and letters are all important primary sources, but photographs are among the most fun to examine. They provide visual evidence of a time period or event that can expand your historical understanding – and help you really picture what life was like back then.

Every week, we’ll share with you a photograph of real people or a real scene from New York in the early 1900s. Your job? Put on your Young Historian glasses and examine it. What do you see? What do you think it shows you about the people in the picture, the place where they are, and the time period? What are the clues in the picture that tell you something? You’ll be amazed by what you can discover when you look closely!

AUGUST 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORE ABOUT THIS PHOTO

 

The photographer Lewis Hines Wickes took this photo of children playing baseball in 1910 and labeled it “tenement playground.” The kids weren’t actually in a playground – they were in an alley behind a row of tenement apartment buildings – but the idea was that the kids had made their own playground in the space that was available to them. The alley is also home to laundry drying on clothing lines strung between the buildings (no washer dryers in 1910 tenements!) and to a wagon. Even though cars existed, horse-pulled wagons were still common on Lower East Side streets. And as it turned out, that parked wagon did double-duty as improvised bleacher seats for the children watching this tenement-alley baseball game. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this scene of children at play is that there are no parents in sight!

Credit: New York Public Library

More to think about:

  • What spaces are just for kids today?
  • Would you like to be a part of this game? Why or why not?

JULY 30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This scene took place in a nursing class at P.S. 1 on the Lower East Side in 1911. The students in this class appear to be older girls (elementary school continued through 8th grade back then). They are practicing bandaging techniques on younger children. In the center of the photo is a baby with jaunty hair perched in a bathtub. While the young boys may have been volunteers from a lower grade, the baby was too young to be a student. Perhaps the baby was the child of the teacher. In any case, this was hands-on learning. 

The existence of a nursing class in a public elementary school was, in part, because of Board of Education Commissioner William Maxwell. He had added to the school curriculum used throughout New York City more classes that emphasized practical skills, including carpentry, sewing, and, yes, nursing, too. 

Credit: New York State Archives

More to think about:

  • What do you notice about the nursing students? What do those things tell you?
  • What subjects do you study in school that are preparing you for a future career?
  • What opportunities do you have to work with younger students at your school?

JULY 23

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, which was taken sometime between 1908 and 1916, shows girls lining up to take baths at a municipal bathhouse. In the early 1900s, many Lower East Side families lived in tenement apartments without private baths. While there were bathhouse businesses where, for a fee, someone could bathe, they were of little use for poor families without spare money to pay for such things. That’s why the city began building public bathhouses, where people, like the girls in this photo, could bathe for free. The city hoped that public bathhouses would aid public health and promote proper hygiene. The bathhouse buildings, like one on Allen Street and another on Rutgers, were often majestic with tall ceilings and lots of light, making them an even more appealing destination. It seemed grand to go take a bath! 

More to think about:

  • How would your life be different if you didn’t have a place to bathe in your home?

  • Why do you think the city decided to build bathhouses?
  • How do baths promote good health?

[Photo Credit: Library of Congress]

JULY 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, taken by Lewis Wickes Hine in July 1910, shows a group of children, several of whom are holding newspapers. That’s because they were newsies – kids who sold newspapers on streetcorners in order to earn money. While a New York law banned children younger than 13 from working in factories back then, kids could work just about anywhere else, including on the street selling newspapers!  While most newsies were boys, girls sold papers too and this photo includes 9-year old Mary Malachade (in the light-colored dress on the left) among the group of newsies, which had assembled to pick up the afternoon paper. (In 1910, some newspapers published two editions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.) If you look really, really closely you might be able to see some of the day’s news on the newspaper the boy in the middle is holding. (Hint: there’s something about a race!)

More to think about:

  • Why do you think that laws in the early 1900s allowed children to work?

  • What do you think it would have been like to be nine years old and have a job?

[Photo Credit: Library of Congress]

JUNE 25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In this photo, a group of children has gathered outside a storefront, which touts on its window “Fancy Cheap Groceries.” While several people pictured are wearing long-sleeves, others are wearing short sleeves and one boy appears to be shirtless. The day this picture was taken was a sweltering one in July, 1912, and the children have come up with an inventive way to cool off: they are licking a large block of ice, something that was commonly used to preserve food. Chances are, the ice was being delivered to the grocery store to keep its window-advertised inventory of “milk, butter, cheese” cool, and the kids seized an opportunity to keep themselves cool!

More to think about:

  • Refrigerators for household use weren’t invented until 1913. What do you think it would be like to live without one?

  • How do you find relief from the heat?

JUNE 18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This 1912 photo captures a group of boys hanging out along the East River at the Rutgers Street slip. It was a hot day, and a few of the boys couldn’t resist jumping in the river to splash around and cool off. The ship worker on the boat on the right side of the picture seems to be gesturing to the kids, though it’s hard to tell whether he might be telling them to get out the way or giving them encouragement to have a good time. Although we don’t think about the East River as a suitable place for swimming today, things were different in 1912. Lower East Side kids didn’t have air-conditioning and the river was an easy way to find relief from the heat.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think people don’t typically swim in the East River today?

  • How do you find relief from the heat?

MAY 28

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At first glance, it seems like this group of boys is fascinated by the sidewalk, but if you look carefully you can see that they are looking at a scattering of pennies. Indeed, this 1915 photo captures these boys playing a sidewalk game of pitching pennies. This picture was one of many the photographer Lewis Wickes Hine took of working kids in the early 1900s. These boys were bootblacks who would typically be polishing customers’ shoes right there on the sidewalk. In the absence of customers, working kids were just kids who wanted to have fun and play. And play pennies they did! [Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections]

More to think about:

  • Why do you think children had to work in the 1900s?
  • How do you spend your spare time?

MAY 21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Though it might look like a brunch buffet just for boys, this table overloaded with yummy snacks (spot the sandwich cookies on the lower right side) was daily offering for Lower East Side school children starting in 1908. That’s when New York City launched a pilot program in a few public schools, including P.S. 21 on Mott Street, serving lunch to students for the affordable price of three cents. For one additional penny, children – like the boys shown here – could select an item from a snack table. In addition to the apples, crackers and cookies visible in this photo, newspaper accounts from the period reported that schools also offered penny snacks of cocoa, stewed prunes, and the especially delicious-sounding “slice of ice cream on graham cracker”! No wonder that by 1921 the program had spread throughout the city.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think schools serve meals to students?
  • Can you imagine a buffet like this at your school? Why or why not?

MAY 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, taken at P.S. 147 on the Lower East Side in 1900, shows a boys’ gym class. On the right side, several students appear to be playing a game that involves tossing a large ball. Other boys are watching the action from various places in the room – a couple students are lying on the floor, others are balancing on ropes suspended from the ceiling, while others are perched on benches or sitting on what may be gymnastics equipment. A couple boys stand out from the crowd because, unlike the rest of the students, they are wearing aprons. At least two teachers are present and looking on from the back left side of the room. This class would likely have been a lot of fun for the students because places devoted to play were rare at the time. The first municipal playground in the city – Seward Park – wouldn’t open for three more years! [Credit: New York State Archives]

More to think about:

  • Does this scene seem similar to or different from gym classes you’ve experienced? How?
  • What are teachers usually doing in classes that you’ve had?

MAY 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, taken in December 1908 by the Bain News Service, shows four newsboys who have gone fishing. Sort of. The boys had hopped into the fountain in Union Square to catch goldfish! Three of the boys likely still had work ahead of them, as they have unsold newspapers tucked under their arms. In the meantime, the boys’ antics attracted a crowd of well-dressed onlookers, who must have been surprised by the sight. If boys catching fish in a fountain wasn’t odd, the desire to splash around in the water on a winter day surely was! [Credit: Library of Congress]

More to think about:

  • What’s the most surprising way you have fun?
  • How do you find ways to enjoy yourself even when you have work to do?

APRIL 30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This 1913 photo shows a group of adorable babies sitting atop a row of tables. Just behind them are their mothers. The group of moms and babies – plus a couple of men and at least one older boy who are looking on from the side – had assembled for a class in childcare and hygiene at the University Settlement on Eldridge Street. Courses like this were among the wide range of offerings at the settlement house, which was founded in 1886 as a place where new immigrants could get advice and assistance as they adjusted to new lives in America. The University Settlement was the first settlement house in the United States and remains a pillar of the Lower East Side today. [Credit: Library of Congress]

More to think about:

  • What types of places can families get help in your neighborhood?
  • What role do community organizations play in your life?

APRIL 23

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo was taken inside the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Library and shows a line of children snaking down the staircase and around to the end of the hallway. What were all those kids waiting for? Books! Back in the early 1900s when this picture was taken, books were not only a way to learn, they were a prized form of entertainment and families often didn’t have extra money to buy them. Many Lower East Side children took weekly trips to the library to borrow new books – and return the ones they’d finished. (You’ll notice several children in line are holding books.) The Seward Park Library was one of 2,500 libraries built between 1883 and 1929 with money from the wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who believed that the richest Americans had an obligation to use their money for public good. Among the library’s draws to the immigrant children of the neighborhood? It offered books written in both English and Yiddish, and it had an outdoor reading room on its roof where kids could crack open the latest book while savoring the fresh air. [Credit: The New York Public Library Digital Collections]

More to think about:

  • What role do books play in your own life?
  • What public spaces do you rely on for fun?

APRIL 13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo shows a group of boys who have congregated along a cobblestone New York street to play. This moment, captured in 1900, was three years before the creation of Seward Park, the city’s first municipal playground. And in the age before Seward Park, the streets doubled as playgrounds for Lower East Side kids. Just beyond the children’s curbside circle lies a dead horse. That the children appear unconcerned about the collapsed animal reflects the reality that it was pretty common to
see such a sight. Horse and wagons were still used for transportation. And sometimes horses died – and the wagon owners would just leave them where they fell. The city’s garbage pick-up, known then as the Department of Street Cleaning, was still pretty new and it wasn’t entirely effective. Streets were often piled high with filth – trash and, yes, sometimes dead animals too. (Credit: Library of Congress)

More to think about:

  • In what ways does your local government help you? Can you think of ways it could improve?
  • Why might it be important for children to have playgrounds and other dedicated playspaces?

APRIL 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This 1911 photograph shows children wrapped in blankets and lying on cots with the windows wide open during rest hour at a New York public school. It captures a moment during the open-air movement, which became popular in the first half of the 20th century. The idea was that fresh air was a key ingredient in preventing children from contracting contagious diseases like tuberculosis, which were a huge problem at the time. First launched in Germany in 1904, the open-air movement prompted the creation of classrooms without walls throughout Europe – some school classrooms were merely desks lined up in a forest. In New York, several schools adapted the idea by continuing to use existing school buildings with walls – but cranking the windows wide as shown here. By the late 1950s, open-air classrooms had all but disappeared because of important improvements to public health practices. While we don’t know the name of the person who took the photo, it’s part of the Library of Congress’ Goldsberry collection of open-air school photos.

More to think about:

  • Can you think of any trends in education that have come and gone while you’ve been in school?
  • Do you think you would enjoy going to an open-air school? Why or why not?

MARCH 30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The photographer Lewis Wickes Hine took this picture in 1924 as part of a series showing children at work. These kids, probably brother and sister, were working on what was called “homework” for a garment factory in their tenement apartment. Homework, in which people of all ages would do tasks for a garment factory at home, was a common practice on the Lower East Side. Children had to be 14 to get a job in a New York garment factory, but if they did the work at home, there were virtually no age barriers. Many families relied on the money kids could earn at these at-home jobs. The children in this photograph are working with lace. Lace and other trim would often be added to fancier ladies clothing.

More to think about:

  • Would you like to have a job? Why or why not?
  • How do you help your family?

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