Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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Most of the Manhattan Trade School report card files consist of four or five individual five-by-eight-inch cards. But some of the files have additional paperwork: notes from the school staff, letters from social workers, and, as you can see above, notes from doctors. These extra documents -- sometimes still tucked into their original envelopes -- are among my favorite aspects of the Permanent Record project, because they introduce a new set of voices to the chorus of schoolmarminess that's found throughout most of the report cards.

I also love that these notes and letters are often printed on lovely old stationery. In the case of the letter shown above (which was in the file of a student named Florence Gattusa), I was intrigued by the address on the letterhead. Second Aveneue between 7th and 8th Streets -- I know that block. It's in the East Village, and I've walked on it countless times over the years. In fact, I used to walk on it a lot on my way to See Hear, the now-defunct fanzine shop on East 7th Street.

Hmmm, I thought, could there still be an optometrist's office at 124 Second Avenue today? A quick check of Google Maps reveals that the address is now a convenience store. But is it the same building where Florence had her eyes examined by Dr. Rubin in 1931? Probably not -- the oldest certificate of occupancy on file for that address with the city's Department of Buildings (or at least on the department's web site) is dated 1973. This isn't definitive -- sometimes there are older records that aren't available on the web -- but the likelihood is that the old building was torn down and replaced by the current one.

That's part of the fun, and sometimes the sadness, of Permanent Record -- getting to see how New York has transformed and reinvented itself over and over in the years since the students attended Manhattan Trade.

A few other quick notes about Florence:

• Her teachers absolutely loved her. Check out all of the glowing comments on her report card.

• The school placed her in a sewing job with a downtown operation called Progressive Underwear. That's one of the many excellent business names scattered throughout the report cards.

• Here's something I hadn't even noticed until I began working on this blog entry: At one point Florence and the other workers at Progressive Underwear apparently went out on strike. I can't recall seeing any other references to organized labor actions in the report cards; then again, I didn't even notice this one until just now, so I may have to take a closer look.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

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What you see above is not a report card, obviously -- it's an old police mug shot.

Or, rather, it's a Photoshopped image based on an old police mug shot. It's one of several 1950s mug shots that have been subtly doctored and are currently being reproduced and sold by a Cincinnati operation called Larken Design.

I learned about Larken -- which consists of two women in their late 20s -- in this article, which ran in Sunday's New York Times. It says that the photos had been discarded more than a decade ago by a California sheriff's office (the "Cincinnati Police Department" lettering on the sign is one of Larken's Photoshop adjustments to the original photo) and had somehow ended up at a flea market and then at a Nevada antiques shop, where one of the Larken partners, Tara Finke, found them two years ago.

Sounds kind of familiar, right?

Finke and the other Larken partner, Megan Scherer, began selling prints, posters, and notebooks based on the mug shots earlier this year, and they've been a hit at craft shows and on Etsy. In the Times article, Finke is quoted describing the products' appeal like so: "I definitely think it’s the mystery. I kind of feel like I’m getting a glimpse of something I’m not supposed to.”

What Finke was referring to there, whether she realized it or not, was voyeurism -- the cheap thrill of getting a peek into someone else's private affairs, the tingle we get from the public airing of something private, and the potential for shame if we're caught looking. Voyeurism is a very specific term, because it indicts the viewer in some sense of culpability or responsibility, and it's at the heart of what most of us find appealing about found objects. One big weakness in that Times article is that it doesn't address voyeurism at all and instead describes the Larken products as exercises in ’50s nostalgia, which I think is way off the mark. (Another weakness is that the article doesn't mention Mark Michaelson's seminal book of found mug shot portraits, Least Wanted. If you like Permanent Record, you'll really like that book. Trust me.)

I've spent a lot of time thinking about privacy and voyeurism ever since I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards 15 years ago, and especially since I decided to use the cards as the basis for a media project. For starters, I wondered if there were any legal issues, so I consulted an attorney. (I'll spare you the details, but the short version is that I've been assured that I'm on safe legal footing for this blog, for the Slate series, etc.)

But the bigger issue, I've always felt, is less legal than ethical, or maybe cultural. Once I saved the report cards (when I found them, they were about to be thrown out), what responsibility, if any, did I take on? What moral imperatives, if any, accrued to me? As I've mentioned in previous entries on this blog, many of the cards include very personal information about the students -- is it wrong for me to have access to that information? Is it wrong for me to share it with others (i.e., with you)? Is it wrong that the cards with the most heartbreaking tales of woe and pathos tend to be the ones that are, for lack of a better term, my favorites? Does the fact that the students are now dead make it all okay? Or does it make it worse, since they're no longer around to grant or deny me permission to share their stories?

Then there's all the history documented in the report cards -- history about New York City, about the education system, about the garment business, and so on. Would it have been wrong not to share that history? Would it have been better if I blacked out the students' names and/or photos when showing the cards?

My feeling about all this is, basically, that it's complicated. I've tried to be sensitive to issues of the students' privacy, and I've also tried to be more than just a voyeur. I don't ever want the primary response to the report cards -- from me or from anyone else -- to be limited to, "Wow, look at that old stuff, that is so fucking cool!" I fully agree that there's tremendous temptation to respond in precisely that way, though. Frankly, it's more or less how I reacted on the night I found the cards.

But as I quickly realized, the important thing to remember about the report cards -- and about mug shots like the ones Larken Design is peddling -- is that they're not just evocative artifacts or romantic curios from the past (or, um, vehicles for a media project). They're real documents of real people's lives, and that's something I've always tried to keep in mind. That's a big part of why I decided to track down some of the students' families, because I wanted to make the students feel less like ciphers and more like real human beings. My hope is that I'm telling these stories in a way that makes the students seem real to you as well.

Meanwhile, I've sent a note to the Larken Design gals, telling them about Permanent Record and suggesting some obvious parallels between their project and mine. They're probably swamped with e-mails today, since they were featured in the Times, but I'm hoping they'll get back to me so we can compare notes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

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A few posts ago I featured the odd-seeming Non-Fraternity Membership Statement that was included in the student records I found at the old Cass Tech building, an abandoned school in Detroit (the photo shown above is what Cass looked like when two friends and I explored it last summer; most of it has since been torn down). Two readers have helped shed a bit of light on this.

First, Erik Shmukler found the original 1929 Michigan law that served as the basis for the anti-fraternity statement, along with a 1930 court case that affirmed its constitutionality. Here's his summary of his findings:

The brief synopsis of the reasoning behind the law is that these organizations [i.e., fraternities and such] were considered disruptive to the educational atmosphere of public schools. I was hoping for some amazingly worded stuff that referenced some kind of sensational crime wave perpetrated by marauding gangs of high school frat boys, but alas, I can't find anything other than what seems to be a bunch of adults concerned that kids wouldn't pay attention in school.

It seems that the biggest change since 1929 is that the onus is now on the school officials to make sure there are no secret organizations, as opposed to penalizing kids for joining them. I'm trying to connect the dots between 1929 and the present day in terms of changing the focus from kids to the adults, but I'm having trouble filling that in.

Interesting. You can see the original law and excerpts from the court case -- all of which Erik copied and pasted from Lexis-Nexis -- here.

In addition, Chris Powers turned up a 1956 issue of the National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin that includes a 12-page article about secret societies in public schools. Unfortunately, the article costs $25 to view -- too steep for me. But if anyone out there feels the urge, let us know what you find.

Big thanks to Erik and Chris for their contributions -- much appreciated.
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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Manhattan Trade School for Girls had a job placement office that helped the students find work after they graduated. When a student was placed in a new job, she was given postage-paid postcard, which she was expected fill out with a description of her experiences at the job and then mail back to the placement office. The information on the postcard was then transferred to a beige card in the student's permanent file.

Those beige cards had extremely small boxes, which forced the placement office's staff to execute some extraordinary handwriting. In the case of Sarah Aboulafia, whose main report card is shown above, the data on the beige card is a model of teeny-tiny space-efficiency. That image shows the card at its actual size (5" x 8"); here's a larger view, so you can actually read what was written.

There's something very physical -- almost textural or tactile -- about this handwriting. It was done with a fountain pen, but there are no smudges, no ink splotches. No cross-outs, either. In fact, there are only two or three cross-outs in my entire collection of Manhattan Trade report cards, which really speaks to the quality of penmanship during the early 1900s (or maybe just to the incredible level of schoolmarm-ish perfectionism among the school's staff).

A few notes about the information on Sarah's beige card:

• In the "Firm" column, it's amazing to see how they managed to squeeze in the address for each company Sarah worked for. None of those businesses still exists today (unsurprising, since the Manhattan garment trade is now a bare sliver of what it was in the early 1930s).

• The "Business" column shows all the different types of products Sarah worked on: men's neckwear (i.e., ties), nurses' uniforms, curtains, bedspreads, hats, underwear, capes (I love that it specifies evening capes), corsets, and abdominal belts (I think this means trusses).

• In the "Kind of Work" column, "Singer op" means Sarah was doing garment work on a Singer sewing machine. This is what she'd been trained in -- if you go back and look at her main report card at the top of this blog post, you'll see "Gar Op" in the top-right corner, which means her chosen trade was sewing machine operation. (Other choices offered by the school included dressmaking, millinery, lampshade making, etc.)

• As you can see, Sarah's weekly wages more than doubled in the span of about a year and a half -- a testament to the skills she learned at Manhattan Trade.

• In the "How Found" column, "MIHS" refers to Manhattan Industrial High School, which is what Manhattan Trade renamed itself in 1930. (It would change names two additional times in the next 15 years or so. But for the purposes of this project, I've continued to refer to its as the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, because it's less confusing for everyone if I stick to one name.)

• In the "Reason for Leaving" column, "Slack" does not mean Sarah was a slacker. It refers to a business's slack season -- the slow period in a seasonal or cyclical industry.

Amazing stuff, no? I don't know who filled out this card, but let's all give a silent thanks for her remarkable handwriting, which allows us to glean so much information nearly 80 years after the fact.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

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When I decided to track down some of the families of the Manhattan Trade School students whose report cards I'd found, one of my biggest concerns was how people would respond to negative or personal information about their loved ones. After all, just about everyone's student record includes some embarrassing information, and some of the comments and notations on the Manhattan Trade cards were particularly harsh and personal. How would people respond when they saw these comments about their mother (or aunt, or whatever)? And how would I handle such situations when interviewing these people?

The student who epitomized these concerns was a girl named Tessie Karapura, whose card is shown above. Here's a larger view -- take a look at the bottom. As you can see, it reads, "Irregular menstruation (no pain). Dr. says girl will outgrow this."

There was good reason for the school to have made this notation. Irregular periods can be a sign of malnutrition, and many of the Manhattan Trade students came from impoverished families, so diet and nutrition were a constant concern. Nonetheless, this seemed like a very personal detail for me to know about.

But that's nothing compared to a note that appears later in Tessie's file, where a school administrator wrote, "Walks around as if she were dying. Absolutely pepless." Pepless! It would be amusing if it didn't seem so devastating. Between this comment and the menstruation note, I wasn't in any particular hurry to sit down with Tessie's descendants.

When I started trying to find students' families, I didn't go about it with much rhyme or reason. I was lucky enough to have a small army of research volunteers assisting me, so I pretty much just typed up a list and said, "Okay, you look for these five students' families, and you look for these five, and you take these five…" and so on. I knew it would be difficult research (Manhattan Trade was a girls' school, so almost all the students had presumably gotten married and changed their names), so I figured I'd just follow leads as they came in.

If this were a movie, the first family to be located would be Tessie Karapura's. Fortunately, this is real life, so that's not what happened.

Instead, hers was the second family.

One of my volunteers had located Tessie's brother. And I couldn't just not follow up on the lead -- for all I knew, we might not find any additional families. But man, why did we have to hit paydirt on this particular student right at the beginning of the project? I imagined myself going over Tessie's report card with her brother: "And yes, apparently your sister had irregular periods as a teen…" Ugh.

I reluctantly called Tessie's brother, who was in his 80s and living in New Jersey (Tessie herself had died several years earlier). He seemed a bit confused by my inquiries but agreed to meet with me at a coffee shop near his home. I mailed him copies of Tessie's student file and prepared to meet with him a few weeks after that, but then he called and said I'd be better off contacting his niece and nephew -- Tessie's daughter and son, respectively -- because they would have more to say about her. He gave me their contact information and said goodbye. I'm still not sure why he changed his mind about meeting me. Had he found the information in Tessie's file distasteful, or was he just uncomfortable with the whole notion of discussing family matters with a stranger? Maybe a bit of both.

I followed up with Tessie's daughter and son. Both of them were polite and gave me some perfunctory information about Tessie, but neither one seemed eager to meet with me or even be interviewed over the phone. Given my own reservations about some of the content in Tessie's file, I decided to put her in the "Well, I did what I could" category and move on.

Happily, most of the other families I've contacted during the course of Permanent Record have been remarkably generous-spirited about meeting with me. There have been a few tense moments about some of the material in the report cards, but they've all been handled with grace and humor.

As for Tessie, she had enough "pep" to raise a family, which seems like a good rejoinder to that comment in her file.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

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The photo you see above is from the 1952 yearbook of the Manahattan Trade School for Girls (it was actually called Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational School by that point, but it was essentially the same school). It shows the school's third and final home, which opened in 1918 and still stands today on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan. It has been a 6-12 school since 1992, but the original "Manhattan Trade School for Girls" lettering is still plainly visible on the fa├žade.

But this building is not where I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards. I found them in a different school -- the old Stuyvesant High School, on East 15th Street. (I'll explain what I was doing there, and how the cards ended up there, in the Slate series next month.) And as it turns out, these two school buildings -- Manhattan Trade and Stuy -- were designed by the same architect, a fellow named C.B.J. Snyder.

I don't know much about architecture, and I'd never heard of Snyder, but he appears to have been an interesting guy. According to his Wikipedia page, he served as the city's school buildings superintendent from 1891 through 1923, during which time he designed over 400 structures (Stuy and Manhattan Trade were both built during this period), several of which are now city landmarks and/or on the National Register of Historic Places. Along the way, he pioneered a number of design innovations.

Snyder supposedly "preferred [to build schools at] mid-block locations away from busy and polluted avenues." He wasn't able to do that with Manhattan Trade, which sits right on a heavily trafficked corner. But the 10-story building is now nearing its 100th birthday and has been continuously occupied as a school the entire time, which seems like a fair measure of success.

New York Times metro columnist Jim Dwyer wrote a really nice piece about Snyder a few years ago. If anyone knows more about Snyder's work, I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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I didn't set out to become a report card collector, specializing in student records from old vocational schools, but that's what's happened. In addition to the 395 Depression-era files from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, I also stumbled across a small stash of 1950s report cards from Cass Tech, a vocational school in Detroit. (I'll explain how I found the Cass Tech files -- and will give further info on how I found the Manhattan Trade cards -- in the Slate series next month.)

By and large, the Cass Tech files aren't as interesting as the ones from Manhattan Trade -- with one exception. Each Cass Tech student record includes a "Non-Fraternity Membership Statement" like the one shown above (here's a larger view, so you can read it). It cites a 1929 state law that prohibits

any organization [in the public schools] whose active membership is composed wholly of chiefly of pupils in the public schools of this state and perpetuating itself by taking in additional members from the pupils in the public schools on the basis of the decision of its membership rather than upon the right of any pupil who is qualified by the rules of the school to be a member of and take part in any class or group exercises…

In short: Don't join a private club that excludes other kids. But if such groups were already banned, why was it necessary to make the students -- and their parents! -- sign a promise not to join them? And why was the ban enacted in the first place? Was it just to ensure that all kids would have equal access to school activities, or was there something larger at work? (If the law had been enacted in, say, 1952, it would be easy to view it as an outgrowth of McCarthyism. But it was enacted back in 1929, which doesn't seem like a particularly anti-secret society period.)

I've spoken to one Cass Tech student from this period (not the one whose signed form is shown at the top of this entry), and he had no memory of any of this. I've also tried Googling the statute in question -- the Public Acts of Michigan of 1929, Section 7664 -- to see if I could glean any legislative history, but I came up empty.

If anyone from Michigan knows more about this, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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You may have noticed that Anna Green, who I wrote about a few days ago (she's the one who ended up drawing the short straw in a bankruptcy settlement), had a black dot on her report card -- a dot very much like the one that appears on Ethel Adamson's card, which is shown above. You may also have noticed that Anna and Ethel were both black.

This is no coincidence. Only about 5% of the Manhattan Trade School report cards in my collection are from black students, but they all have this small, adhesive black dot. The dot also appears on the card of a Native American student, and a Hispanic student was given half a dot. So the dots were apparently used for all students of color.

You've heard of the term "a black mark on your record"? Here it is, literally.

I initially thought the black dots were meant to stigmatize the students in some way (like a scarlet letter, or a concentration camp tattoo), but I eventually figured out a more benign reason for them. I don't want to give everything away, so I'll explain this more fully in the Slate series; for now, take my word when I say I don't think the dots are as offensive as they initially appear to be.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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One of the most interesting aspects of the Manhattan Trade School report cards is that the cards list the names and occupations for the students' parents. In the case of Domenica Castiglia, whose card is shown above, her father was a "ship builder-polisher" -- a profession that no longer exists in New York City.

To skim through some of the other parents' occupations is to get a glimpse of a city that few living New Yorkers can remember, or even imagine: soap maker; ice and coal deliverer; stableman; cigar maker (sometimes engaged in by both parents); twine and rope maker; sheep butcher; organ grinder; farmer; "picking hairs" (literally, a nit-picker -- someone who treated people afflicted with head lice); and so on.

My favorite of the bunch is listed on the card of a student named Caroline Cataudella, whose father, George, was listed as a "macaroni laborer" -- in other words, he worked in a pasta factory. Of course, pasta manufacturing still takes place in New York today, so this isn't some quaint bygone trade, but there's something really endearing about the term macaroni laborer (or, even better, macaroni labor, which is what was originally written on the card before someone added the "er" at the end).

As it turns out, George (whose real name was Giorgio) didn't just "labor" at macaroni -- he had his own company, the Harlem Macaroni Mfg. Co. I learned this simply by Googling "cataudella macaroni," which led me to a book called The Journey of the Italians in America, which features this photo. According to the caption, the photo was taken around 1934 -- about seven years after Caroline attended the Manhattan Trade School. Note that the address listed in the caption and on the side of the truck -- 239 E. 108th St. in Manhattan -- is the same one shown on her report card.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

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Most of the 395 student records in my collection are fairly extensive, with four of five individual cards, most of them filled out on both sides, plus assorted additional paperwork. But some of the files are incomplete, and a few of them are barely files at all. The letter you see above is all I have for a student named Concetta Colozou -- that's the entirety of her "file."

As you can see, Concetta was receiving student aid (the Manhattan Trade School for Girls made a small weekly stipend available for extreme hardship cases) and was facing a series of dental procedures she could not afford. The letter was written by one of the school's employees -- it's not clear to me whether it was a teacher or another staff member -- and was addressed to "Miss Marshall." That would have been Florence M. Marshall, who was the school's principal from 1911 through 1937. (That photo is from an old yearbook.) Her response, written at the bottom of the letter, reads, "You arrange for this. It can be paid from student aid."

The report cards are full of paperwork like this. Letters from social workers and doctors, letters from parents, letters from the school to the students -- a treasure trove. More of them will be shown in the Slate series next month.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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Before we get to today's post, one quick order of business: I've taken the first entry on this blog and repurposed it as an "About Permanent Record" page. That page, along with the full list of all 395 students whose report cards I have, is linked in the right sidebar.

Now then … The Manhattan Trade School for Girls was unusual because it had a job placement office that helped the girls secure jobs (mostly garment-related, because most of the students were trained in sewing or dressmaking) after they graduated. The girls and the employers were encouraged to report back on each other, and all those reports were documented in the students' files. This information is some of the most compelling material in the report cards, because you can see little dramas and storylines playing out.

One such story involved Anna Green, a dressmaking student who attended Manhattan Trade from 1929 through 1931 (the front card of her student record is shown at the top of this page; you can see the rest of her file in this slideshow). Anna faced a lot of 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 with school's job placement director:

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. I wasn't able to locate her family, so it's not clear what happened to her after that.

The report cards are full of unresolved stories like this one. Many more of them will be presented in the series of Permanent Record articles that will appear on Slate next month.

Monday, August 8, 2011

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The short version: My name is Paul Lukas. Fifteen years ago I came upon a discarded file cabinet full of incredible 1920s and ’30s report cards from a defunct girls' vocational school. I took as many of the cards as I could carry and then spent the next decade-plus wondering what to do with them. At some point in 2009 I decided to track down some of the students -- or, since most of them were likely deceased, their families -- and see how their lives had turned out. I've spent much of the past two years doing that. This has led to, among other things, numerous instances of calling people up and saying, "Hi, you don't know me, but I have your mother's report card from 1929. Would you like to see it?"

The result is Permanent Record, a five-article series that will be running on Slate during the week of Sept. 19. It will tell the stories of some of the students whose report cards I found, the remarkable school they attended (it was called the Manhattan Trade School for Girls), and my own experience connecting the dots between the cards and the students' families.

I plan to use this blog to address issues that aren't covered in the Slate series, to post some material that was originally written for the series but ended up on the cutting room floor, to provide follow-up coverage of developments that take place after the series is published, and so on. My current plan is to do short posts every two or three days, although one thing I've discovered over the past few years is that Permanent Record is a very fluid, evolving project, so there's a decent chance that my initial plans will have little bearing on how this blog eventually turns out.

Anyway. Want to know if a loved one or acquaintance is represented in my report card collection? You can browse the complete list of all 395 students here. Have questions, suggestions, or feedback? Contact me.

More soon.