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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!

OCTOBER 22

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This picture takes us all the way back to 1898. The photo shows a group of children who have gathered on a Lower East Side sidewalk. They’ve likely been drawn there by the musician who’s standing on the curb playing the hand organ – otherwise known as the hurdy-gurdy. The instrument, which the musician wears strapped across his chest, looks a bit like an accordion with a hand crank. The street beyond the gathering is dotted by wagons, visible by their oversized wheels.

Credit: New York Public Library

More to think about:

  • The children in this photo appear to be unsupervised. Where do you think their parents might be?

  • What do you notice about the way the children are dressed? What is different or similar to how children today dress?

OCTOBER 15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, shows the early-1900s version of working from home, with a mom juggling child care and her job – in this case, rolling cigarettes by hand! The picture depicts a mom with a baby on her lap and a toddler at her side seated across a table from her oldest son. The mother and son are both rolling cigarettes, and they likely would have been paid a set price for a certain number of cigarettes completed. From the size of the pile of cigarettes on the table, it looks like they’d been working for quite some time. It was tedious and repetitive work, which may explain the box of chocolate on the table! The Library of Congress, in whose archives we found this picture, estimated the photo was taken in 1908, but eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the calendar on the wall above the table says it is March, 1909.

Credit: Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • Why do you think that this mother would have taken a job rolling cigarettes at home? 
  • In the early 1900s, people were not yet aware of the dangers of smoking. Do you think that knowledge would have affected this mother’s decision to take this job?
  • Why do you think that the son is helping his mother with the work?

OCTOBER 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photograph, taken around 1910 by Lewis Wickes Hine, shows a group of girls gathered around a table in Corlear’s Hook Park, one of the oldest municipal parks in the country. Opened in 1905, the park was near what years earlier had been a bustling shipping port along the East River, which anchored an area filled with the homes of merchants. But the port had since closed, and the neighborhood declined. The park was meant to improve living conditions for the immigrant workers who moved in when the merchants moved uptown. And these girls appear to be enjoying the transformation. They’ve gathered at a table in the park that’s covered in books, and an older girl with braids seated on the left side of the table is reading to the younger girls gathered on the other side. To the left of the older girl who’s reading, you can glimpse the two small wheels of a baby carriage and a small child who is leaning forward, as if listening to the story too. Just beyond the girls’ table is a basketball hoop, but the court is empty and books appear to be all the recreation the girls need. Credit: New York Public Library

More to think about:

  • Why do you think the girls have gathered in the park to read together?
  • There are no adults visible in the photograph, and the older girl appears to be watching a younger child. Where do you think the parents are?
  • Take a look at the girls’ clothing. What do you notice and what does it tell you about these girls?

OCTOBER 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We’ll forgive you if you thought that the man in this October 1909 photograph was trying to pick out just the right pumpkin for Halloween! In fact, he was reviewing a display of seasonal pumpkins and gourds at the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America Expo, which was held at the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side 111 years ago this month, specially timed to coincide with the Jewish harvest holiday Sukkot.

The Jewish Farmers of America Expo was a place where, yes, New Yorkers could see the wide range of produce that Jewish families were growing on farms throughout the United States. (More than 200 farmers from across the country participated, including at least one from North Dakota.) But it also served as a way for farmers to share with each other growing tips and strategies, and for new Jewish immigrants to learn about the possibility of an agricultural life – if they were willing to leave the Lower East Side. The Federation of Jewish Farmers was one of several organizations that supported Jewish farm families. The Jewish Agricultural Society, which launched in 1900, promoted farming as an attractive life for Jewish families and offered loans to get new farmers started. The Jewish Farmer was a Yiddish-language magazine launched in 1908 to bring Jewish farmers expert advice, and it included such articles as, “Ten Commandments for Prospective Farmers.”

Credit: Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • Why do you think farm life would have been appealing to a Jewish immigrant who had recently arrived in America from Eastern Europe?
  • Why do you think that Jewish farmers decided to show their produce in New York City, rather than in a rural area?
  • What role do you think organizations like the Federation of Jewish Farmers played in the lives of Jewish farmers in rural areas without large Jewish populations?

SEPTEMBER 24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This 1910 photograph shows a group of well-dressed men and women standing in front of several kneeling children. The woman in the center of the photo wearing a dark dress is pulling up the hem of her skirt. And that’s because she and the others are getting their shoes shined by the children, who are young bootblacks, in preparation for Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, it is traditional for Jewish people to wear their best clothes. Dingy shoes just wouldn’t do!

Credit: Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • What can you tell about the people in this picture by the clothing they are wearing?
  • Do you think the two children standing on the right side of the picture are bootblacks? Why or why not?
  • The people in the photo are getting their shoes shined for Rosh Hashana. What special things do you do to celebrate a holiday?

SEPTEMBER 17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The group of children captured in this 1916 photograph are sitting on the fire escape of a building – likely a tenement – on Allen Street on the Lower East Side. Back in 1916, an elevated train ran on Allen Street and you can see the tracks on the left side of the photo. Children living in tenement apartments who longed for fresh air or the smallest amount of open space would often head to the fire escape. These kids appear to have used cloth coverings placed over the railings of the fire escape to transform it into a semi-secret fort. Not a bad idea to have a barrier – even if just a blanket – when the train came barreling by!

Credit: Museum of the City of New York

More to think about:

  • What do you think it was like to live right next to a train track?
  • What do you think it felt like to play with friends on a fire escape when a train passed?
  • The elevated train stopped running in 1942 and the tracks were taken down. How do you think that affected the neighborhood?

SEPTEMBER 10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The three boys in this March 1913 photograph are each carrying a bunch of newspapers under their left arms. And that’s because each one was a newsie – selling newspapers to people on the street. These kids were selling The Warheit, a Jewish newspaper with offices on East Broadway. Newsie was a popular job for Lower East Side kids in the early 1900s because there was no age restriction to do it. Factories, for example, required workers to be at least 14. Children commonly had jobs to help their families pay for food and rent, and that led to scenes like the one shown here. We can tell that the photograph was taken at night because the streetlamps are illuminating the dark background. Indeed, the photographer Lewis Wickes Hine encountered these boys, the youngest of whom was 10-years old, on Delancey Street at midnight. The late hour may not come as a surprise when you look at the boys’ expressions. They seem ready for a good night’s sleep!

Credit: Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • How do you think childhood was different in 1913 compared to today?
  • Would you have liked to be a newsie? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think these boys were together on Delancey Street?

SEPTEMBER 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo, taken in 1910, is proof that even more than a century ago, New Yorkers appreciated outdoor escapes. Here, we see a man seated at a table with several children. But this is no outdoor café. This group is at the rooftop reading room at the Seward Park Library, which was a prime destination for turn-of-the-last century Lower East Siders. The library, which opened in 1909, was built thanks to funding from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood’s many Jewish immigrants, the library offered books written in both English and Yiddish. The rooftop reading room was also a recognition that many readers lived in dark and cramped tenement apartments; the airy space on the roof was a far more appealing setting in which to get lost in a book.

Credit: New York Public Library

More to think about:

  • Have you ever benefitted from a library?
  • Why do you think the library would have offered books in Yiddish?
  • How do you think it would have felt to read in a space like this?

AUGUST 27

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photograph shows that children have loved to splash around on a hot day since at least 1910! That’s when this picture of New York City kids playing around under the spray from a fire hydrant was taken. The water has attracted lots of children, but not everyone is ready for a soaking. One girl in a lovely dress, in the lower right of the frame, appears content to watch and stay dry. Kids often played in the streets in the early 1900s, and not even the helmeted police officers who look on seem inclined to tell the children to stop.

Credit: Bain News Service/Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • What’s your favorite way to cool off on a hot, summer day?
  • Why do you think the police officers allowed this to happen?

AUGUST 20

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This 1936 picture was taken by photojournalist Dorothea Lange as part of her work for the Farm Security Administration. It shows a group gathered in front of a Lower East Side branch of the U.S. Post Office. Most people in the crowd are men, but one woman, on the right, looks directly into the camera. Several people look out over the crowd from their apartment windows above the Post Office. Given recent events, you might think that this crowd had gathered to mail their absentee ballots. But that’s not it! The word “veteran” on a sign that is partially obscured by the crowd, hints at what has, in fact, drawn people there. In the wake of the Great Depression, the U.S. Government had promised cash bonuses to World War I veterans – and veterans could apply for the money at, you guessed it, the Post Office.

Credit: Library of Congress

More to think about:

  • Why do you think that the government would have paid bonuses to veterans nearly two decades after World War I ended?
  • How do we show appreciation for veterans today?

AUGUST 13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This picture, taken by the photographer Lewis Hine Wickes back in 1910, shows that playing outdoors takes many forms. Here, we see a group of boys huddled closely playing a game of cards. They’re playing on the steps of a building that houses an upholstery shop. (Notice the lettering on the window?) Many families lived in cramped tenement apartments, with little space for friends to come over and play. The stoop was a readily available alternative. Several girls appear to be watching the boys’ game, and one girl is holding onto a carriage. She may have been caring for a younger sibling.

Credit: New York Public Library

More to think about:

  • What unconventional spaces do you use for play?

AUGUST 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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