Saturday, March 24, 2012

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At top is a photo of Eva Greene Rosencrans, who studied dressmaking at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls nearly 100 years ago; beneath her is a shot of her son and daughter-in-law, Bob and Margie Rosencrans, holding Eva's report card. Bob and Margie say Eva didn't talk much about her time at the school, but it must have been important to her, because she saved her diploma, awarded when she was not quite 17 years old. It was the highest level of formal education she would achieve.

The most notable line in Eva's report card is the final entry in her work-placement record, which indicates that she'd begun working for a "Mrs. Rosenstein." That would be Nettie Rosenstein, a young Austrian immigrant who'd begun making a name for herself in the fashion world. Nettie and Eva would be professionally and personally linked for the next 45 years, as Nettie became a top fashion designer and Eva stayed on as her business partner and top creative assistant and also married Nettie's brother.

Nettie Rosenstein's prestige grew in 1953, when she designed Mamie Eisenhower's inaugural ball gown -- or at least that's the party line. The truth is that Nettie had turned over most of the design work to Eva by this point, and it was Eva -- not her famous sister-in-law -- who designed the First Lady's gown. She designed another one for the Eisenhowers' second inaugural in 1957.

Today the Nettie Rosenstein label is highly sought after by vintage clothing aficionados, even though it was actually Eva -- drawing up on the dressmaking skills she learned at Manhattan Trade -- who designed much of the company's clothing. Most people never realized this, even at the time. At 1950s runway shows, it was Nettie who'd come out at the end and take a bow, while Eva, who'd actually created the designs that had just been presented, stayed off in a corner. But Bob and Margie say she never minded this. "She had very little ego," Bob told me. "She was happy to do her job. She was very good at it, but her real focus was always her family, not her career, so professional accolades didn't matter that much to her."

I look forward to telling more of Eva's story in a feature-length article later this year.

(Special thanks to volunteer researcher Samantha Bulgerin for laying the groundwork for this piece, and to my longtime friend Robin Edgerton for assisting with my interview of Bob and Margie Rosencrans.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Yesterday I was walking around Brooklyn and heard someone call out, "Hey!" I turned and saw a carpenter named Gary, who I used to hang out with at a bar we both frequented. We hadn't seen each other in years, maybe longer (he admitted that he couldn't even remember my name, which is why he'd simply said, "Hey!"), so it was a nice surprise to encounter him there on the street.

Gary was standing in front of a storefront. "Is this your carpentry shop?" I asked. He said yes and offered to give me a quick tour. He was particularly eager to show me a bunch of artifacts that the shop's previous tenants had left behind in the basement, including a bunch of old stamping/embossing dies. Gary said they were for old-fashioned analog credit card machines (you know, the ones where the merchant would put your card in a metal bracket thingie and then run a slider over it), although I'm not convinced of that.

Whatever the dies were for, Gary had dozens of them, mostly for local businesses. One of them, shown above, really spoke to me -- "Atlas Putty Co." Sounds like the very embodiment of light-industrial Brooklyn, no? Since the address on the die includes a zip code, the die can't be all that old (zip codes weren't introduced until 1963 and didn't come into common usage until the early 1970s), but something about "Atlas Putty Co." has more of a 1930s or ’40s. feel to it. I suspect that's when the company was founded.

There's something inherently amusing about the word putty -- it feels sort of diminutive and playful. Is this simply because of the toy Silly Putty, or is it the word itself? In any case, the notion of an entire company devoted to putty seems endearingly quaint (although, of course, someone has to make the stuff).

From what I can tell, Atlas Putty is no longer operating in Brooklyn. Some quick internet searches came up dry, and Google Maps shows the address as a plain warehouse space.

There's a company called Atlas Putty in Illinois, however. This "other" Atlas has even snagged what is presumably the definitive putty-related web domain name, (although they haven't exactly made the most of it). Could this be the same company as the Brooklyn operation? Curious to find out, I called the Illinois Atlas, where the very pleasant woman who answered the phone told me, "No, we've always been here in Illinois."

So what became of the Atlas Putty in Brooklyn? If I spent a bit more time digging, I'm sure I could find out, but I don't have time for that right now, plus I kind of like it sometimes when things are left unresolved -- it's a little more mysterious that way, which lets us project our own imagined versions of what happened. Maybe Atlas Putty was a Mob front, for example (laundering cash via putty -- hey, stranger things have happened), and it went out of business when the owner was busted by the Feds. I'm gonna stick with that storyline until someone comes up with the real one.

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Wondering when I'll get back to talking about report cards? Soon. This weekend I'm driving up to Connecticut to interview the son of Eva Greene, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls nearly 100 years ago. She went on to work for her sister-in-law, Nettie Rosenstein, who was a famous fashion designer. Nettie is credited with having designed Mamie Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural ball dress, but I've been told that Eva -- the former Manhattan Trade student -- was actually doing most of the company's design work at that point, including the Mamie dress. I'm looking forward to hearing the full story this weekend.

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Wondering when Slate will finally publish the next full-length Permanent Record article? You're not the only one. Grrrrr.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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At its heart, Permanent Record is about found objects with stories to tell. Although the project has focused on old report cards and other printed ephemera, the same sort of sleuthing and storytelling can be done with other types of objects.

Case in point: I collect vintage sports uniforms, many of which I find on eBay. My most recent acquisition is the one you see above, a gorgeous baseball jersey from a team sponsored by -- or perhaps comprised of employees from -- a business called Lamanna Florist. Judging by the style and material, I'd say it's from the 1950s or early ’60s.

There's no indication of where Lamanna Florist was located, although the jersey itself was made by a Brooklyn company, which means Lamanna was probably situated in the Northeast. (A team in, say, Chicago, would likely have ended up with uniforms from a Midwestern supplier, because that's who the team's local sporting goods shop probably ordered from.) Some quick internet research revealed the following:

• There was a John Lamanna Florist in Syracuse. That's close enough to Brooklyn -- I'd be willing to bet that that's the shop connected to the jersey.

• The address listed on that postcard -- 101 South Warren Street -- is now a medical office, and I can't find any other address listing for the florist, so it's apparently no longer in business.

• The owner of that shop, John Lamanna, endorsed Penzoil Motor Oil in a 1961 ad (use the zoom function to get a better look).

• Here's a 2008 article a Syracuse resident named John Lamanna. This is not the Penzoil fan -- the article mentions "his father, Joseph Lamanna ... who used to own John Lamanna and Sons Florist." So this John is probably the nephew or grandson of the shop's eponymous founder.

I'd like to know more about the Lamanna Florist baseball team, and I figure John Lamanna might get a kick out of seeing photos of the jersey, so I came up with what I think is the right phone number for him and gave a call. Got his voicemail, left a message. No response yet, but I'm hoping.

The Lamanna jersey isn't the only interesting uniform find I've recently come across. Last week I acquired this softball jersey (click for larger images):

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Lots of history in this one. Local 507 was formed in Cleveland in 1966 and helped launch Jackie Presser on the path that would eventually lead him to the Teamsters presidency (and also to a heavy involvement with organized crime, a role as an FBI informant, a Federal indictment, etc.). The jersey lists Presser’s title as Secretary-Treasurer, indicating that it’s from the late 1970s.

I'm a small-ish guy (5'8", 150 lbs.), yet this jersey fits me perfectly, which means it must have belonged to one of the smallest Teamsters in organized labor history.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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Photo by Jon Augustine, the Daily Nebraskan

What you see above is a book from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's library and a note that was recently found inside of it. The note reads:

David Erbach used this June 12 1963. Just for kicks, drop me a note at 2979 Dudley. I am curious just how often this vital info is perused.

Wow -- very Permanent Record, right? As described in this article, the note was recently found by a UNL professor named Richie Graham, who decided to track down David Erbach. Erbach appears to have been delighted by the connection (“It’s like putting a note into a bottle and chucking it into the ocean,”) but doesn't recall having written the note, which is a shame.

Library books don't need to have 50-year-old notes hiding within their pages in order to be Permanent Record-ish, incidentally. For example, I recently acquired several dozen of these old library check-out cards (click image to enlarge):


The handwritten names, the typewritten book titles, the ink-stamped dates -- it's a potpourri of data styles. These cards are from the library at one of America's more exclusive prep academies. I purchased them from a woman on Etsy who works in that library and told me she harvested the cards "one by one from old books" as the library's operations were digitized and the cards were no longer needed. If you want some for yourself, she continues to sell them here. (You can also get someone's personal library card from long ago.)

I haven't tried to track down any of the students whose names appear on the check-out cards. Just seeing them there is satisfying enough.

(Special thanks to Robert Eden for pointing me toward the UNL story.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

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Recognize the gentleman shown above? It's the fashion designer Calvin Klein, who's about the last person I'd expect to have a connection to Permanent Record.

Klein's name came up a few days ago, when I was interviewing a woman named Stephanie Wilson. She's the granddaughter of Beatrice Gross Zelin, who studied dressmaking at Manhattan Trade in the mid-1920s and is now deceased. As Ms. Wilson explained to me, Beatrice went on to become a teacher and then a placement advisor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where one of her students was Calvin Klein. In fact, one of Beatrice's more prized possessions was a blazer that Klein had made as part of his FIT senior project. (Ms. Wilson recently arranged to donate the blazer to Klein's company, where it will be featured in a historical exhibit about Klein and his career.)

Beatrice also co-authored several books on pattern-making, some of which are still in print. By coincidence, my upstairs neighbor is a young pattern-maker who works in the fashion district in Manhattan, so I asked her if she was familiar with these books. She immediately pointed at one of them and said, "It's on my shelf right now! It's one of the standard books in the field."

All of which is to say that Beatrice, who came from extremely modest means (according to her granddaughter, the family had to go to another house to bathe), really made the most of her Manhattan Trade School training. While the school's founders would no doubt be thrilled to hear how successful she became, they weren't really trying to prepare girls for professional careers. They just wanted to give them basic skills to help them survive in a blue collar environment. It's a testament to Beatrice's talent and ambition that she was able to go much further than that. I'll tell her story in more detail in a future article on Slate.

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Speaking of Slate, some of you have asked (and others among you are probably wondering) when Permanent Record will resurface there. Good question. I actually delivered a full-length article a few weeks ago, but my editors are overworked, so the wheels are turning slowly. My hope is that we'll get that article up in a week or so. After that, I hope to have new Slate articles roughly every six weeks. But again, my editors will have the final say on that.

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Meanwhile, for those of you in the New York area, here's something that might interest you: For the past year or so I've been hosting a monthly event called Open Mic Show-and-Tell, which is exactly what it sounds like: Anyone can show up with an object of personal significance and talk about it for up to three minutes. Some people bring objects that are very Permanent Record-ish -- found ephemera, family records and heirlooms, etc. -- and many of the stories are amazing.

The next Show-and-Tell event is this Thursday, March 15, 7:30pm, at Cabinet magazine's exhibit space in Brooklyn. Admission is free, and so is the beer (!). You can either bring an object to talk about or just be part of the audience (because you can't have show-and-tell without people to be shown and told). Either way, it's a good time. Full details here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Seven Second Delay - Live @ The UCB Theater - 3/7/12
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I had fun last night talking about Permanent Record, along with some other projects, on WFMU's excellent Seven Second Delay show, which is broadcast live from a small theater in Manhattan. That's me in the center, in the blue jeans and light green shirt. The guy up on the cross is co-host Andy, who had promised to be crucified if the show met its pledge drive goal, which it did. He was mortified that he actually had to follow through on his promise and spent a good portion of the show apologizing to anyone who might be offended.

Here's the audio of my segment, which lasts maybe 10 minutes:

Monday, March 5, 2012

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Here we have Judy Helrich (left) and her sister, Marilyn Saias, holding the report card of their mother, Doris Abravaya, who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in the early 1930s.

As you may recall, Doris is the student whose record read like a horror story:

May 2, 1933: Doris's mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in [a forster home]. … 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.

And that's just a snippet of the challenges described in Doris's file. By any measure, she was dealt a rough hand.

On Sunday I met with Judy and Marilyn for the first time (we had been e-mailing for the past month or so), and I'm pleased to report that the Doris went on to have a very happy, successful life that gave few hints of the challenges she faced during her childhood. Interestingly, Judy and Marilyn had no idea that their grandfather (who they never met) was an alcoholic, or that their grandmother (who Marilyn never met and Judy met only once, when she was very young) was confined to a mental institution. Doris didn't talk much about those aspects of her life. So my interactions with Judy and Marilyn have been as much of a learning experience for them as it's been for me. I love it when that happens.

Doris's case is probably the strongest example so far of a trope I've been aware of since the start of this project: An adult's assessment of a child -- whether in the form of a report card or in any other format -- is not necessarily that child's destiny. It certainly wasn't in Doris's case. I'm looking forward to telling her full story in a future article on Slate.

Incidentally, I'm slowly building a nice little gallery of these portraits of people posing with their ancestors' student records. You can see the ones I've shot so far here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

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On the left is Rose Baggini, age 15, as shown on her Manhattan Trade School report card in 1932; on the right, Rose Baggini Vrana, age 95, in her Florida home on March 3, 2012.

Rose is the first -- and so far only -- living connection to Permanent Record. I interviewed her by phone a few weeks ago but didn't know what she looked like because she doesn’t own a camera or a computer. Fortunately, I was able to arrange for one of Rose's friends, Linda Cadovius, to take a photo of her and e-mail it to me. Linda, whose parents were close with Rose, lives nearby and looks in on her from time to time. Big thanks to her for serving as Permanent Record's first remote photographer.

My article about Rose will be appearing on Slate shortly -- stay tuned.

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Update: Remember all that stuff that I found in the pocket of an old jacket? I contacted the vintage shop where I bought the jacket and told them the whole story. "We receive a lot of merchandise, so we usually just pat down the items instead of checking each pocket," the owner told me. "I'm sure we've sold back hundreds of stray dollars and coins over the years." So much for my theory that they put random ephemera in random pockets, just for fun.

Meanwhile, my thanks to everyone who weighed in on the question of whether I should contact Ann Marie Kroznuski (the widow of the man whose stuff was in the pocket). For the record, my whole "Should I get in touch with her?" thing was meant to be rhetorical -- I don't plan to contact her.

Why not? Mainly because I think doing so would be selfish. When I track down a report card family, I gain information from them but I also provide lots of information for them regarding their ancestors, so it feels like a fair exchange. That's one of my favorite things about Permanent Record -- I'm giving as well as taking. But if I were to contact Ann Marie Kroznuski, it would probably be interesting for me (I'd get to ask her questions about the jacket, about her late husband, etc.), but what would she get out of it? A reminder of a check that she bounced years ago? Feels like a pretty one-sided interaction, which wouldn't be fair to her. So I don't think I'll be going there.