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Day 4: The Unfinished Stories

In 1930, 17-year-old Nellie Colletti finished her training at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. As was customary, the school began finding jobs for her and Nellie reported back on her work experiences. One such report came on May 18, 1931, when she wrote the following letter to the school’s job placement secretary:

Dear Miss Kotter,

I am working for Indestructo Scarf Inc., 15-19 West 39 St.

I join ties and put linings in them and we get paid at $.06 a doz. The most I can complete a day is about 20 doz. I wouldn’t mind the work if I got paid a little more.

The first week I got $10. My hours are from 9 to 5:30, one hour for lunch, and on Saturday [until] 1 o’clock. I am a piece worker now.

If you can help me get something better than this, even at hemstitching, I will except [sic] it, or an inside helper of some kind.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely yours,
Nellie Colletti

That same day, Indestructo Scarf contacted the school. Nellie’s work record includes the following entry, in red ink (meaning it’s a comment from an employer): “May 18, 1931: Went out with two other girls for lunch and none of them returned.”

Miss Kotter was not pleased. She wrote down what she told Nellie: “Return to Indestructo Scarf at once and explain your absence. If you do not go back and give required notice, we shall not assist you in the future.”

The situation came to a head the following day, as documented in Nellie’s work record:

May 19, 1931: Nellie told ADK [Miss Kotter] she went to the dentist during lunch hour. Said cheek was all swollen so went to dentist near home. ADK said she [Nellie] knew she could not get back during her lunch hour and should have told Mrs. New [apparently Nellie’s supervisor at Indestructo Scarf] where she was going. Said she called Mrs. N. at 2:30. ADK asked the name of the dentist. Nellie hesitated — she had told a lie. ADK asked her calmly where she was yesterday. Said she was looking for a new position.

That marked the end of Nellie’s time at Indestructo Scarf. Despite this incident, the school continued to arrange jobs for her for nearly six more years.

All of this is in Nellie’s file — her original letter, the story of her AWOL afternoon, the works. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find out what happened to her (or to Indestructo Scarf, which I bet had some great letterhead), which is tremendously frustrating. How was she able to smooth things over with Miss Kotter? Did the incident leave a lasting impression on her? Did she ever tell her family about it?

The employment records in my collection of Manhattan Trade School report cards are filled with unfinished little dramas like Nellie’s — storylines with intriguing early chapters but no resolution. Some of them no doubt made large impacts on the students’ lives; others may have been quickly forgotten. Collectively, though, they offer a revealing window into the school’s operations, the lives of its students, and the Depression-era labor market.

One reason these stories remain so vivid decades after the fact is that the school’s job placement department maintained such assiduous notes. Nellie’s case was typical, documented with a remarkable level of detail, a stern, schoolmarm-ish tone (unsurprising, given that Manhattan Trade’s staff was literally comprised of schoolmarms), and the looming presence of the Miss A. Kotter, who was the school’s placement secretary from the 1920s through the mid-1930s. She appears again and again in the files, usually referred to as either “AK” or “ADK.” Despite my best efforts, I’ve been unable to determine her full name (even when signing letters, she only used her first initial), but she clearly played a major role in the girls’ lives as they transitioned from school to the work world.

Today we’ll take a look at a sampling of unresolved stories from the employment records, all involving students whose families I’ve been unable to locate. Some of the accounts are troubling, but all meet the standard set out by the school’s first director, Mary Schenck Woolman, in her 1910 book, The Making of a Trade School, where she wrote that part of the placement office’s mission was “to build up a series of records that shall be of general sociological value.” In that respect, these stories are a gold mine.

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Of all the compelling stories in the Manhattan Trade report cards, none stands out like that of Doris Abravaya, a dressmaking student from the early 1930s. The photograph on her report card shows a smiling, sweet-looking girl, and her grades were generally good. Her home situation, however, appears to have been heartbreakingly difficult, as spelled out in the following series of notations and letters from the salmon card in her file (for this and all the other transcriptions presented in this article, I’ve spelled out certain abbreviated terms so the text will be easier to follow):

May 2, 1933: Social worker, Mrs. Sklar, at Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society, came to see AK about Doris. Doris’s mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in home of Mrs. Talianksy, obtained through the Society. There is severe unemployment in this home. When funds for Doris cease, on June 12, she will be entirely on her own. Doris has low mentality and is very timid and unstable. She constantly fears becoming like her mother. Children see mother often because father takes them there whenever he is intoxicated. Mrs. Sklar asked AK to try to include Doris in June graduation because not graduating would be such a disappointment.

Oct. 30, 1933: In opportunity home [i.e., a foster home] now. Making $3 a week. Will stay for a while.

Nov. 23, 1933: Had to leave opportunity home because of illness. Will not be able to work for some time.

March 20, 1934: Mrs. Sklar [the social worker] came in. Doris is now back with the first foster mother [Mrs. Talianksy]. She is getting $3 a week and maintenance in return for the little domestic work she does. She cannot work in a factory or workroom because her constitution cannot stand it. She had a nervous breakdown after her two weeks at Perfect Negligee [a job she briefly held in 1933]. Since she can never do any strenuous work, AK told Mrs. Sklar that we probably would grant diploma on receipt of OK for domestic work and letter from Hebrew Guardian Society that she could never work at trade.

Apr. 30, 1934: Note from Hebrew Guardian Society claiming doctor has forbidden factory work, etc. because of physical condition. Diploma to be granted.

That might have been the end of Doris’s story. But several months later, Mrs. Sklar sent Miss Kotter another letter, this time announcing that Doris’s physical condition had improved and that she wished to be placed in a job. (As you can see in the note toward the bottom, the school’s administrative staff was so obsessively detail-oriented that they noticed an inconsistency in Mrs. Sklar’s signatures, which she then explained, with a hint of annoyance, in a follow-up letter. That’s an archetypal Manhattan Trade moment right there.)

So Doris went back to work. She held a series of garment positions in the fall of 1934. Then there’s a one-year gap in her work history, followed by one last entry from January of 1936, when she obtained a clerical position at a high school in the Bronx. Her wages there were $60.50 per week — much more than she could have made doing garment work, and by far the highest salary I’ve seen listed in any of the Manhattan Trade employment records. It’s not clear what happened to Doris after that, but the high school job feels like a well-deserved happy ending after all the difficulties she endured.

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Manhattan Trade was open to girls of all races. But black students had a special designation on the upper-right portion of their report cards: a small but unmistakable black adhesive dot — literally a black mark on the students’ records.

I’ve been unable to find an explicitly stated rationale for this symbol, but circumstantial evidence is provided by the case of Violet Baker, a dressmaking student who finished her training in 1919. Her card does not have a black dot, and her nationality is listed as “English,” but in 1921 the school sent her to work for a dressmaker listed simply as Barbara, whose reaction to Violet was swift and blunt: “I did not know you were sending a colored girl. Cannot use her.”

The school quickly placed Violet with another dressmaker, named Miss Kugeloff. But a few weeks later, Violet left that job and returned to a negligee manufacturer named Harry Collins, where she had worked before. That prompted a communiqué from Miss Kugeloff: “Don’t think this [is] fair. Had to work hard to get my other girls to work with her, and now that she is accustomed to the work, she has left me, when I am busiest.” Although it’s not spelled out directly, the clear implication is that Miss Kugeloff’s other employees resisted having a black co-worker.

My hunch is that the black dots were a warning system to the placement office, to help avoid precisely this type of problem. If an employer was known to have issues with black workers, the dots would alert the placement office to take care when finding jobs for these students. (This would have been particularly important prior to 1926, because the school had not yet started putting photos of the students on the cards.) Indeed, I could find no other incidents of racial discrimination in any of the other black girls’ work histories. If the dots were intended as a warning, they apparently worked well.

But why didn’t Violet’s card have a black dot? I showed the cards to Janette Gayle, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago who’s writing her dissertation on black women in the New York garment industry. She did some follow-up research on Violet’s family. “Her parents were British West Indian, and the family was categorized as ‘mu’ –mulatto — in the 1910 census,” she said. “They lived on an all-white block in Brooklyn, which suggests that they were light-complexioned enough to fit in in a residential setting. Violet was probably fair enough to pass for or be mistaken for white — or at least not black — by less discerning eyes.”

There’s no evidence of racial discrimination in the employment record of Anna Green, an African-American dressmaking student who attended Manhattan Trade from 1929 through 1931, although she faced several other challenges. Her mother had left the Green household when Anna was four. When her father, a longshoreman, had trouble finding work during the Depression, he could no longer provide for Anna and sent her to live with friends. The school found some positions for her, but her stint at a blouse and scarf manufacturer called E. Vonder Esch just compounded her problems, as seen in this series of exchanges she had with Miss Kotter:

May 3, 1933: Vonder Esch out of business and owes employees three weeks salary. Attorney already on the case.

Oct. 31, 1933: Received a check for $1.73 for my services at Vonder Esch. Can you give me some information on this?

Nov. 2, 1933: You may get more from the Vonder Esch bankruptcy. It depends on what they realized from the sale of the business. Why don’t you communicate with the attorney?

Dec. 6, 1933: Earn $25 a month. Five dollars of this each week has to be contributed at home, and the rest is used up for carfares. This leaves almost nothing for clothes. Home conditions are unbearable and will continue to be so until I can give more. Mrs. Schachter [Anna’s employer at the time] has refused me a raise, saying she cannot pay any more. Shall I look for a job now or after Christmas?

Dec. 8, 1933: Stay with Mrs. Schacter for the present. There are no jobs now.

Dec. 13, 1933: Telephoned attorney Baer regarding the remainder of the back salary due me from Vonder Esch. Was informed that I had received my share of the Vonder Esch estate. Feel as if I’ve been cheated. How can I find out if this was a just settlement?

Dec. 15, 1933: I told you before how bankruptcy cases are settled. I’m sure there is no fraud here. It simply means that, after settlement, there was very little to divide among the creditors.

The school continued to find jobs for Anna for the next four years. It’s not clear what happened to her after that.

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The casual racism of the era wasn’t limited to employers. In at least one instance it was expressed by the school staff. The student in question was Selma Kaufman, who studied dressmaking in the early 1930s. Take a look at this entry in her record, which is unsigned but was probably written by Miss Kotter:

Sep. 14, 1934: Selma’s father came in. Typical overfed Jewish silk salesman, with no taciturnity. He has some very good instincts, however, and is really a good father. He believes in all advantages for his children, but errs on the side of over-indulging them. He certainly has spoiled Selma. He will send Selma to business school (Miller’s, possibly) and then see that she is placed [in a job] by a friend.

Sep. 21, 1934: The father has changed Selma’s mind again. Now he wants her to become a designer. He will see if Textile High School offers what he thinks she should have.

A letter in Selma’s file indicates that she did indeed attend Textile High. That’s the end of her paper trail.

Selma’s father is one of several parents and other family members who make periodic appearances in the job placement notes. The transcripts of these interactions show some interesting tensions between the families and the school.

Consider the case of Florence Guerin, who studied dressmaking at Manhattan Trade from 1929 through 1931. She received above-average grades and consistently made the Honor Roll, but she drew a negative report from her first employer (“Very affected, uses her eyes to attract, rather than to sew”). Soon after that, her father became involved, as detailed in the following entries:

Sep. 15, 1931: Florence’s father was in to talk about Florence to ADK. ADK explained that Florence was too uppity and that her sewing as not as good as it might be. Mr. Guerin suggested [a] selling and modeling position. Mr. Guerin [is a] very fine person.

Nov. 5, 1931: Father telephoned AK regarding Florence. He was very abusive and practically said AK was a fool, a poor business woman, and a heartless creature who gave the girls no consideration. Said Florence should be placed in a position that pays $15, no less.

Nov. 11, 1931: Father refuses to let her take anything but finishing. Feel sorry for Florence. Even today AK offered her a hand rolling position. She called her father and he refused to let her take it.

Some parents didn’t want their children to know that they had been in touch with the school. That was the case with Antoinette Alfano, a mid-1930s dressmaking student whose mother asked the school to steer Antoinette toward trade work, with mixed results:

Sep. 15, 1936: Mother in. Very much worried about Antoinette. She does not want to continue in her trade, and will not look for a dressmaking job. Mother has asked our help. Antoinette is not to know of her visit.

Sep. 17, 1936: Antoinette came to the office. She is decidedly set on getting a clerical job. RP [apparently Miss Kotter’s successor] pointed out that she had nothing to offer to an employer in that field until she completed at least one term of commercial work at the Bay Ridge Evening High School, where she is registered. Antoinette is to reconsider taking a sewing job until February.

Oct. 20, 1936: Antoinette’s mother telephoned. Father is out of work — four weeks. Had nervous breakdown. Antoinette needs a position. Mother asks us to induce girl to take sewing job for the present. Antointette is not to know of the telephone call.

A few days after that, the placement office arranged a job for Antoinette with Harry Butler, a sportswear manufacturer. After working for three weeks, she was absent for two days without any explanation, so her supervisor sent a wire to her home. Antoinette’s sister called Harry Butler and said a family member was ill and that Antoinette would be taking care of her indefinitely, leading to the following notation in her file: “Imagine such a feeble excuse after mother had pressed placement office to make special effort to place Antoinette because of economic need in family!” This and other incidents led the placement office to conclude that Antoinette was “not completely reliable,” and to stop finding positions for her.

Sometimes other family members became involved. After the school arranged a job for a student named Mary Farrauto at the Gorlieb Dress Co., there were some theatrics during her first day of work:

Feb 3, 1932: Mary’s brother telephoned that he did not want her to work. Told him that she did not mention it to ADK when sent for this morning. [He] wanted name and address of Gorlieb and said he would go there to see what place was like because he was in that neighborhood. Explained one of ADK’s assistants had been there with Mary this morning but he said he would go anyway.

Later that same day: Gorlieb telephoned. Mary’s brother came and took her away.

Still later that same day: Brother came to office with Mary. Said he doesn’t want Mary to work, but to stay in school until June. AK complained about tactics used regarding Mary’s leaving so abruptly. Mary’s brother believes Mary is too good for Gorlieb anyway. AK explained to him that Mary is an average worker.

It’s not clear whether Mary went back to school, but she didn’t work again until late September. After she failed to respond to several follow-ups from the placement office in early 1934, she was removed from the office’s list of applicants.

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One thing that’s apparent throughout these stories is that garment jobs in New York City were difficult, usually short-term, and almost always low-paying. Tomorrow, in our final installment, we’ll look at a student who rose above those difficulties to create a sewing-based company that still bears her name today.

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JOHN: Here’s a short sidebar that could appear anywhere within this installment.

SIDEBAR: Student Aid
Enrollment at Manhattan Trade was free of charge, but a small weekly stipend was available for cases of extreme need. One student in my card collection, Helen Farkas, appears to have been a representative case. The oldest of four children, Helen entered Manhattan Trade at age 14, in February of 1926. She received consistently excellent grades and commentary from her instructors, but by early 1927 her mother — a widow living on a pension — felt Helen should leave school and begin working to help support the family.

After a social worker from the Board of Child Welfare investigated Helen’s case and recommended that she be eligible for a “scholarship,” she was referred to the school’s Student Aid department on April 25, 1927. A new card was filled out, breaking down the family’s finances. The school’s principal, Florence M. Marshall, then determined that Helen should receive $2 per week plus $1 for lunch. Helen’s mother agreed to these terms, and Helen was able to finish her studies.

By the time the school placed Helen in her first job in February of 1928, she had received a total of $88.41 in aid. She went to work in various positions arranged through the school’s placement office for the next decade, none of which would have been possible if she’d been forced to leave school before completing her vocational training.
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