Meet Marie Garaventa.
What you see above is the front of her report card from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, a vocational school she attended in the late 1920s, after she had finished the eighth grade. As you can see, she had a perfect attendance record — this despite moving several times, having a deceased father, and being hard of hearing.
If you click through the rest of Marie’s student record, you’ll see that the school’s staff initially described her as “slow” and “irritable” (perhaps due to her hearing problems) but that she eventually gained confidence and made the Honor Roll. You’ll also see that the school helped to place her in over a dozen sewing and dress-finishing jobs after she graduated, and that at one point she was scolded for not returning to a job after her lunch break.
It all reads like the storyboard for a movie or a play — the rough outline of a young woman’s life, from her mid-teens through early adulthood, with the later chapters still to be written.
Now imagine nearly 400 of these stories. Four hundred little dramas, all sketched out on cardstock. Because Marie’s report card comes from a large batch of old Manhattan Trade School student records that I stumbled upon more than a decade ago and have been obsessed with ever since. Having spent a good chunk of my life poking around antique shops, yard sales, and abandoned buildings, I can safely say that these report cards are by far the most evocative, most compelling, and most addictive artifacts I’ve ever come across.
I found the cards in 1996 (more on that in a minute). They were fascinating, but I didn’t have a good sense of what to do with them, so for a long time I just kept them around, occasionally flipping through them or showing them to friends. More recently, though, I’ve been tracking down some of the students’ families (including Marie’s), which has been quite a trip. Even after doing it numerous times, I still find it a bit surreal to call a stranger on the phone and hear myself saying, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I have your mother’s report card from 1929. Would you like to see it?”
While a few people have responded to that opening line with suspicion or caution, most have been incredibly gracious. They’ve opened their homes to me and shared their family archives. And they’ve been fascinated by the report cards, often learning new things about their loved ones and filling in gaps in their family histories. Most of them knew very little about this vocational school their ancestors had attended.
That school, the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, turns out to have been a very interesting place. Even better, at least for my purposes, it was extremely well-documented. Within a decade of its 1902 founding, a book about it had been written and a 16-minute film about it had been shot. All of which comes in rather handy if you happen to be researching a bunch of the school’s students.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’re probably wondering how I acquired the cards in the first place. Like any good story about report cards, it starts at a school, although not in the way you’d think.
Back in the mid-1990s, the gymnasium of the old Stuyvesant High School building on the east side of Manhattan became an oddly popular venue for parties. Stuyvesant High had relocated to a new building across town in 1992, but the beautiful old Beaux-Arts structure, which had opened in 1907, was still being used for various educational programs. The old school’s gym could be rented out for the evening, and I found myself there several times in 1996 and ’97 — sometimes for media events, sometimes for private gatherings. One of the latter took place in September of 1996, when a friend of mine used the Stuy gym for her 30th birthday party.
My own elementary school had been built in the 1920s, so being in an old school felt oddly familiar — the ancient radiators, the walls covered with umpteen layers of paint. I was feeling curious about the building and decided to explore a bit. In a hallway just off of the gym was an old file cabinet. A piece of paper was taped to its side. It read, “THROW OUT.”
Well, if you’re going to toss it out anyway…
I opened one of the drawers and was surprised to find hundreds, maybe thousands, of old report cards. Oddly, they were not for Stuyvesant High students. They were all for teen-aged girls who’d attended some sort of trade school back in the early 1900s. Many of the report cards featured small photographs of the students, and most of them were loaded with unusually vivid commentary about everything from the students’ study habits to their personal appearance (one girl, who apparently had red hair, was described as a “real carrot-head”), all rendered in impossibly perfect fountain-pen script. I was immediately smitten.
I called over three friends who were attending the party and showed them my find. We were all asking the same questions: Why had the cards been kept on file for so long? Why were they now being thrown away? If these students didn’t attend Stuyvesant, how did their records end up at Stuy?
We all agreed that the cards appeared to be very, very special — maybe even important, given the level of historical information they contained — and that we couldn’t allow them to end up in the trash. After briefly flirting with the idea of taking the entire file cabinet (hmmm, where does one procure a hand truck at ten o’clock on a Saturday night?), we each took as many of the student records as we could fit inside our jackets — about 80 of them, in my case — and congratulated ourselves on preserving a sliver of New York City history.
Old documents are always interesting, of course, and I figured the report cards would deliver the usual tingle of voyeuristic excitement that comes with getting a glimpse into a past world. But as I examined my batch of cards in the days and weeks that followed, I realized they were no ordinary old documents. For that matter, they were no ordinary report cards. For reasons that weren’t yet clear to me, the Manhattan Trade School for Girls had kept track of its students’ employment history for years after they graduated, which provided a look into the students’ post-school lives and also painted a striking portrait of the Depression-era labor market. (I later learned this was because the school had its own job placement office — essentially an in-house employment bureau — and had helped the students secure those jobs.) Many of the students’ records also featured assorted paperwork — letters to the students from the school staff, notes from social workers and doctors on beautiful old letterhead, postcards from parents and other family members. Each student’s file felt like a series of dots waiting to be connected.
The cards indicated that most of the students had been born to immigrant parents — Italians, mostly, but also lots of Eastern European Jews, some Russians, and a smattering of others. Many of their families appeared to have been desperately poor, with lots of bad luck to boot. Here was a girl whose mother had ended up in an insane asylum and whose father was “paralyzed and a drunkard.” Here was one who needed dental work but couldn’t afford the dentist’s $3 fee, so the school’s secretary gave her $1.50 to have the work started. Here was one who said she had received $3.50 for three days’ work and had then been forced to leave the job because the work site was so cold “your hands almost freeze off of you.”
But there were also tales of success, triumph, and joy — stories of striving and pride, of the American Dream taking hold. Reporting back to the school regarding a millinery job in which she’d been placed, one student wrote, “This is the kind of place I like. … Our hats are always different and I can’t wait until the next day starts!” Other students’ files included notes indicating that they’d gotten married and had started families of their own.
What happened to these young women? How had their lives turned out? Did they keep using the skills they’d learned at Manhattan Trade? Did their teachers’ assessments of them turn out to be accurate? I wanted to know.
But this was 1996. The internet was still in its infancy; Google didn’t yet exist. The prospect of trying to track down the students seemed overwhelming, especially since most of them had presumably gotten married and changed their last names. The task seemed beyond my capabilities, so I decided to enjoy the cards for what they were and leave it at that.
Eventually my fascination with the report cards gave way to other obsessions, other projects, other collections. I put the cards away in a drawer. I never forgot about them over the years (every now and then I’d take them out and read through them, or use them for show-and-tell with friends, who invariably found them as remarkable as I did), but I never did anything with them either. And that always bothered me.
During the summer of 2009, I began to feel a growing responsibility to do something meaningful with the report cards. By acquiring them years earlier, I had essentially become the steward of these stories, the custodian of this history, and I was ashamed of what a poor steward I’d been. What was the point of rescuing the cards from a file cabinet if they were just languishing in my file cabinet?
And time hadn’t diminished my curiosity about what had happened to the girls. By this point, however, I was also acutely aware that any chance of finding some of the students still alive had probably been frittered away during the dozen or so years since I’d acquired the cards.
But even if the students had passed on, I could try to find their families, their descendants. And online databases had come a long way since 1996. The tools now at my disposal made the project seem less daunting.
Before getting started, I contacted the three friends who’d taken their own bundles of report cards on that night at the Stuyvesant gymnasium and told them what I had in mind. I hadn’t mentioned the report cards to any of them in at least a decade (indeed, two of them had largely drifted out of my life by this point), and each of them had moved at least once in the intervening years, so I didn’t expect any of them to have saved their cards. But I thought they should know what I was planning to do.
As it turned out, they’d all saved their batches, and they were happy to donate them to my project, giving me a total of 394 student records — a huge number of leads to follow. If I could track down even five percent of the students’ families, I’d have a lot of stories to share.
As my friends handed over their card batches to me, each one told me essentially the same thing: “I’ve never really known what to do with them. But I always knew I couldn’t just throw them away.”
What exactly do I mean when I keep referring to “the report cards”? What do they consist of, and what do they document? Here’s a breakdown:
• I have 394 student records, all from a now-defunct vocational institution originally called the Manhattan Trade School for Girls and later known by several other names (Manhattan Industrial High School, the Manhattan High School for Women’s Garment Trades, and Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational School). For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to it by its original name throughout this series of articles.
• Girls attended Manhattan Trade in lieu of high school, usually beginning when they were 14 or 15, and were expected to finish by the time they turned 17. The school was founded in 1902 by a group of wealthy progressives and offered one- and two-year programs in a variety of disciplines, primarily in the “needle trades” (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery) and, to a lesser extent, the “brush and glue trades” (sample catalog mounting, novelty box making, lampshade making). The curriculum also stressed thrift, home economics, personal presentation, and other life skills that would help the students survive in the labor marketplace. Many thousands of students attended the school over the years, so the 394 report cards in my collection are just a snapshot of the school’s operations. (We’ll take a closer look at the school later in this Slate series.)
• All 394 students were female. Most were born between 1900 and 1920, and a few in the late 1800s, which means they attended Manhattan Trade primarily in the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s. They came from all five boroughs of New York City, plus a few lived in New Jersey and Connecticut.
• Although I’ve been using the singular term “report card” when referring to a student’s record, each student’s file is actually a packet of several cards — usually four or five of them. Since I have 394 individual student records, this means there is something on the order of 2000 individual cards, most of which have been filled out on both sides. Some of the packets also include additional paperwork relating the student’s time at Manhattan Trade. In short, we’re talking about a lot of data here.
• The cards were not sent home with the students for their parents to review. Instead, they were for the school’s internal recordkeeping — the students’ proverbial permanent records. I’ve been unable to confirm whether the school had separate cards that were sent home for parent review, although it seems likely.
• Around 1926, Manhattan Trade began adding small black-and-white photographs to new enrollees’ report cards. About 40% of the cards in my collection — 166 out of the 394 — feature these photos. Although the photos are only about an inch square, they’re extremely expressive. Some of them are head shots and others show the student’s torso or full body. One girl posed with a mandolin! A few of the shots are in color — apparently the result of hand-tinting, not color film. This lack of standardization suggests that the photos were provided by the students, not taken by the school. A few of the photos include handwritten annotations from the school’s staff, indicating that the student is actually more or less attractive than the photograph suggests.
• As you’d expect, the Manhattan Trade cards include evaluations and comments from teachers and administrators — mostly positive (“Conscientious, hard-working student”), sometimes negative, and occasionally downright harsh. About one student, a teacher has written, “Indifferent and lazy at times. … Writes a very poor letter.” About another: “Personal appearance: Not very immaculate-looking.” And another: “Walks around like she’s dying — absolutely pepless!”
• The 394 students included a handful of black girls, all of whose cards are marked with an extremely potent symbol: a small adhesive black dot — literally a black mark on their records. This seems horrifying, but I eventually figured out the probable reason for it, which we’ll address later in this series. (My collection also includes one Hispanic student, whose card has a partial black dot, although it’s unclear whether this was deliberate or if part of the dot flaked off over the years.)
• Students did not receive their diplomas until they demonstrated a proficiency in their trade. The school helped them achieve this by establishing a job placement office that arranged employment for the girls after they finished their training. The girls and their employers were encouraged to report back on each other to the school, and all of this information was recorded in the card packets. So these aren’t just scholastic records — they’re also employment records. Much like the teachers’ assessments, comments from the students’ employers run the gamut from encouraging (“I’m terribly fond of Florence, her work is very good”) to heartbreaking (“Terrific odor of perspiration, have to lay off”).
Those are the basics. But to give you a better sense of the information contained on the cards, and how to interpret that information, let’s take another look at Marie Garaventa, the student you met at the start of this article, whose card packet is fairly representative of the ones in my collection:
[JOHN: What I envision here is that we would revisit Marie’s report card and have labels/captions/etc. embedded in the card scans, so that the captions would appear when a readers mouses over a particular part of the image.
If you look at the folder “Day 1 Interactive Art,” you’ll see that I’ve annotated each card in Marie’s packet with large green numbers. Each number is keyed to the labels that immediately follow here in the text file.
Then there’s one more short graf of regular text to conclude this installment of the series and set up the second installment.]
PAGE 1 LABELS, for mouse-over:
1. A few of the students maintained contact with the school up to the time when they got married. In these instances, their married names are noted on the report cards.
2. Many of the students moved quite a bit. The school did its best to keep up with their current addresses.
3. “Main5-3112” is a phone number — a fairly infrequent notation on the report cards, as most of the students came from homes without telephones.
4. Each card carries a distinct number in the upper-right corner. These were presumably student numbers for internal recordkeeping. The same number recurs throughout Marie’s card packet.
5. Just below the student’s number is her primary area of trade training — in Marie’s case, a two-year program in dressmaking.
6. “Nationality” is a misnomer — Marie, like most Manhattan Trade students, was born in the United States. A more accurate term would have been “Ethnicity.” The “C” appears to designate “Catholic.”
7. Most of the Manhattan Trade students stayed in public school up through the eighth grade.
8. The “Admitted” and “Discharged” dates show the span of Marie’s time at Manhattan Trade.
9. “Cause: Placed” means Marie left Manhattan Trade because she’d been placed at a job.
10. The students’ parents’ occupations are among the most fascinating details on the report cards. Many of these jobs evoke visions of a New York City that few living people can recall, or even imagine: soap maker; ice and coal deliverer; stableman; cigar maker; ship builder-polisher; twine and rope maker; farmer; “picking hairs” (literally, a nit-picker — someone who treated people afflicted with head lice); and my favorite, “macaroni laborer” (i.e., a pasta factory worker).
11. There was no charge to attend Manhattan Trade. Financial aid, in the form of a small weekly stipend, was made available to hardship cases who would otherwise have been forced to work in order to help support their families.
12. Any health-related issues were listed under the unfortunate term “Physical Defects.” In some cases, these seem unduly personal or critical: “Weak arches,” for example, or “Irregular menstruation.” But a student with weak arches would be unable to work at certain kinds of factory labor, and irregular periods could be a sign of malnutrition — a serious problem for a school whose students came primarily from impoverished families. (The malnutrition concern also explains the note about Marie being nine pounds underweight.)
13. Photos started appearing on the report cards around 1926. Most are one inch square.
14. Marie did not receive her diploma until a full year after she was discharged from the school. This is because such certificates were not granted until the student’s performance in the work world had proven to be satisfactory.
PAGE 2 LABELS:
1. Although Manhattan Trade was a vocational school, students were taught a broad range of subject matter.
2. Grades were given out as follows: E (Excellent), G (Good), and F (Fair).
3. Elsa Pohl was a school administrator. Her name appears on many of the report cards.
4. The school staff often referred to the girls as “types” — nice type, quiet type, helpful type, nervous type. This appears to have been informal vernacular, not a strict categorization system.
PAGE 3 LABEL
1. Many of the student records, including Marie’s, include the student’s report card from public school, which was apparently sent along to Manhattan Trade when the student enrolled there.
PAGE 4 LABEL
1. This is the other side of Marie’s public school report card.
PAGE 5 LABELS
1. After the students finished their training at Manhattan Trade, the school’s job placement office would try to secure work for them. Their work histories were recorded on a series of yellow cards like this one. Many of them, including Marie, used the school as an employment service for many years after they graduated, sometimes for a decade or more.
2. The Depression-era labor market didn’t offer much in the way of wages.
3. The girls were expected to report back on their job experiences, and employers were asked to report back on the girls’ work performance, and all this information was duly recorded on the cards. Comments in black are from Marie; comments in red are from an employer. In general, the students appear to have responded at a much greater rate than the employers.
4. “Slack” does not mean Marie was a slacker. It means she was let go from this job because the shop had hit its slack season — the slow phase of a cyclical business.
5. Bonwit Teller was a fashionable New York department store on Fifth Avenue. Marie worked there for eight days as an assistant dress finisher.
6. Villa Zigmund was a New York fashion house that frequently employed Manhattan Trade students. According to a notice in a 1921 issue of American Cloak and Suit Review, they specialized in “gowns imported from Paris four seasons of the year” and other “charming Parisian creations.” Marie worked there on and off for several years.
PAGE 6 LABELS
1. This is the next card of Marie’s ongoing employment record.
2. By this point, Marie had established herself as a dress finisher.
3. Again, comments in red are from an employer. In this case, Marie apparently caused some confusion by going to lunch and not returning.
4. Marie had to leave this job because her mother had a stroke.
5. It was not uncommon for dress finishers to be hired directly by wealthy clients and to work for them in their homes. That may have been the case with this employer, listed as Mrs. B. Bailen.
PAGE 7 LABEL
1. This is the third and final card of Marie’s employment record. By the time she stopped obtaining work through the school’s job placement office, it was September of 1939 — more than a decade after she’d finished her two-year stint as a student. This ongoing relationship with the school shows the strong connection that Manhattan Trade had with its students.
PAGE 8 LABELS
1. Many of the student records conclude with a salmon-colored card, which carries comments from the school’s job placement office regarding the student’s work experiences and home life. As you can see from the first comment about Marie, some of the commentary could be harsh.
2. Here is the fallout from Marie’s failure to return to a job after lunch. The placement secretary scolded her.
Now that you’ve gotten better acquainted with Marie, you’re probably wondering what happened to her. Happily, I was able to find out. We’ll explore her story, and how I was able to find it, tomorrow.
JOHN: Here’s a sidebar, which should probably run near the bulleted list that describes the cards.
SIDEBAR: Object Lessons
Knowing about the information on the report cards is one thing. But what are the cards like as physical objects?
The cards all measure 5″ x 8″ and are sturdy cardstock — a middle ground between the rigidity of cardboard and the flexibility of paper. When I found them in 1996, each packet was stapled together. They remained that way until late 2009, when I removed all the staples (this made the cards much easier to work with without damaging them) and transferred the cards to a series of file boxes.
Given how old the cards are, they’re in surprisingly good condition. Some of them have gotten brittle around the corners, where small pieces have broken off, and a few have some minor water damage, but for the most part they feel solid and in no immediate danger of disintegrating. A few of the cards have yellowed a bit, but the handwritten commentary — almost all of it executed in ink, not pencil — is vibrant and crisp, with no fading. The photographs haven’t faded either, and most of them remain firmly affixed to the cards, with no peeling.
The cards smell a bit like old books, and some of them have rust stains where staples or paper clips have been removed, but these feel like hard-earned badges of distinguished service, not blemishes. People have occasionally asked me if I wear white gloves while handling them. Maybe I should, but I don’t. I’ve done my best to treat them as gently as possible, but sometimes I’ll be working with a few of them and will find a small scattering of cardstock debris on my desk when I’m done — fragments that have flaked off from the brittle corners. I’ve come to think of this as the report card version of exfoliation.