The Slate Series, Chapter 3: The School

This article was originally published as part of a five-part series on Slate.com. The original Slate version is undergoing technical difficulties, so the Slate editors have given me permission to republish the article here.

The first article in the series is functioning reasonably well on Slate -- you can access it here. The second, fourth, and fifth installments are available here, here, and here.

+ + + + +

The northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan is occupied by a stately 10-story building. A sign on the door identifies it as the School of the Future -- an exotic-sounding name for a public school that teaches grades six through twelve.

Above the sign, however, old-style lettering chiseled into the building's fa├žade provides a window into the School of the Future's past. It reads, "Manhattan Trade School for Girls." It was here that most of the students in my report card collection, and thousands of others, received their vocational training.

The School of the Future has been in this building since 1992. In many ways, it is a standard New York City school, with a uniformed police officer near the entrance and computers in the classrooms. But here and there you can see hints of the building's previous life. In the lobby, a Manhattan Trade School dedication plaque is still mounted on the wall. The auditorium is home to an old Manhattan Trade School safe, too heavy and cumbersome to remove. (It's now used to store office supplies.) In the administrative office, two battered old photos are on display. And a few of the classroom doors are still equipped with beautifully ornate doorknobs that date back to when the building opened in 1918.

"It's an odd building," said John Fanning, who's been the School of the Future's principal since 2007. "I started here as a teacher, and back then some of the classrooms had rows of electrical outlets across the floors, which I assumed had been used for rows of sewing machines. But the building is very narrow -- when you think of people using it for vocational purposes, there's not a lot of room."

Fanning's architectural critique notwithstanding, the building at 22nd and Lex was a triumph in its day, a key stepping stone for generations of female students, and the crowning achievement for a remarkable educational experiment that succeeded far beyond its founders' original aims.

+ + + + +

The Manhattan Trade School for Girls opened in November of 1902 in a private house on West 14th St. One of the students in my report card collection, Frances Sehres, appears to have been one of the very first enrollees. She's listed as having entered the school on Nov. 3, 1902. After studying dressmaking, she left the school in February of 1904 and spent the next decade working at a variety of garment-related jobs, with her weekly wages increasing from $5 to $16 during that period -- an impressive rate of increase.

Frances's experience is more or less what was envisioned by the wealthy philanthropists and reformers who conceived of and financed Manhattan Trade. Their goal for the school was twofold. First, they hoped to rescue young girls from poverty by giving them skills that would lead to a decent wage and self-sufficiency, at least up until they married. They also sought to ensure that skilled labor would be available to New York’s burgeoning factory trades.

This was a revolutionary concept for its time. There were no girls' vocational schools in New York City -- or, for that matter, anywhere in the United States. But the need was there. The school's first director, Mary Schenck Woolman, explained the situation in her 1910 book, The Making of a Trade School (viewable in its entirety here):

Thousands of families are so poor that the children must go to work the moment the compulsory school years are over. … [But] a little fourteen-year-old girl finds it difficult to obtain a satisfactory occupation in the teeming workrooms of New York. She, or some member of her family, eagerly searches the advertising sheet of one of the daily papers. Most of the "Wants" are entirely beyond her crude powers to supply. An unskilled worker is perhaps desired in some business house, but the applicant finds that hundreds of other girls are flocking to obtain the same position, and her chance is too remote for hope.
Many of these girls ended up at the lowest rung of the ladder in sweatshops, illegal workrooms, or prostitution. The now-infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 hadn't yet taken place, but that is precisely the type of situation the school's founders wanted to help their students avoid. By providing a solid grounding in good trade practices and maintaining a relationship with reputable employers, they hoped to provide their students with a route toward a decent life.

Students typically entered Manhattan Trade at age 14 or 15, after completing the eighth grade. All races were welcome and enrollment was free; financial aid, in the form of a small weekly stipend, was available for extreme hardship cases. New enrollees chose a vocational focus from one of the needle trades (sewing, dressmaking, millinery) or the brush and glue trades (sample catalog mounting, decorative box making, lampshade making). They also received instruction in foundational subjects like math, English, civics, art, exercise, hygiene, and business practices.

Diplomas were not granted until the students had left the school and shown proficiency in their trade. So after the girls completed a one- or two-year course of training, the school helped them obtain work. Job referrals were originally handled by the school's teachers, then outsourced to a local employment bureau, and finally conducted by the school's own in-house job placement office, which was established in 1908. Many graduates continued to obtain work via the school for years -- sometimes for a decade or more -- which speaks to the unusually strong bond the school had with its students.

Manhattan Trade was an immediate success, attracting enthusiastic pupils who earned demonstrably higher wages after their training at the school. As laudatory articles and other accolades poured in (a 1905 report to the Canadian Minister of Education went so far as to describe Manhattan Trade as "probably the most interesting and successful effort that has been made in Educational practice in the New World"), it soon became apparent that the school's original location on West 14th Street, which could accommodate only 100 students, was not large enough to meet enrollee demand. So in 1906 the school moved across town to "a fine fire-proof building" on East 23rd Street, which could handle 500 students.

By 1910, Manhattan Trade was deemed to be so effective that it was folded into the New York City public school system, and soon it was determined that another site upgrade was needed. So in 1918 Manhattan Trade moved again, this time to a handsome new Collegiate Gothic structure that had been custom-designed to suit the school's needs. This building, which became Manhattan Trade's permanent location, is the one that still stands today at the corner of Lexington and 22nd. (City records indicate that the school's first two homes were later demolished. The first address is now the site of an apartment building and a podiatrist's office; the second one is now the location of the renowned School of Visual Arts.)

A list of Manhattan Trade's early financial backers reads like a who's who of New York high society, with names like Carnegie, Macy, Morgan, Rothschild, Tiffany, and Vanderbilt. Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, left the school $10,000 in his will -- about $225,000 in today's money. But despite these friends in high places, the school appears to have been in constant need of more money -- for larger quarters, for more staff, for sewing machines, for fabric, for student aid. The school's 1905 annual report included a direct appeal for donations to help purchase a new building ("Will not the readers of this report visit the school, judge of the work and help us to secure the remainder of this amount?"), and notices for charity events to benefit the school -- polo matches, dances, garden parties -- appeared frequently in the New York Times throughout the early 1900s.

Fund-raising may also explain a document as remarkable as the report cards themselves: a 16-minute silent film, called Manhattan Trade School for Girls. Shot in 1911, when the school was at the second of its three locations, it offers a priceless look at Manhattan Trade's early operations. As the film follows the progress of five typical students (none of them represented in my report card collection, unfortunately), we can see them sewing, gluing, receiving instruction, and playing basketball. We can even read what's written on various blackboards!

The film has been preserved by the George Eastman House and has recently been made available by the National Film Preservation Foundation. You can screen the entire thing -- with overdubbed music or with overdubbed commentary from cinema scholar (some of it, unfortunately, inaccurate) -- here. Anyone interested in the report cards will want to watch it.

The film's director and purpose are unknown, but it has the feel of a promotional vehicle, perhaps to solicit donations. In any case, it provides an invaluable look at Manhattan Trade, and helps contextualize the information on the report cards.

+ + + + +

One thing the film does not provide is a close-up look at the type of sewing and garments the girls worked on. Fortunately, Lucille Fasanalla, who attended the school from 1935 to 1938, saved some of her work from her time at the school, and her daughters kept these heirlooms after Lucille died in 2004 (another case of a student I could have found while she was still alive if I hadn't waited so long to start researching). Even more fortunately, I was able to find Lucille's daughters, who shared these treasures with me.

Lucille's story is classic Manhattan Trade School. Born into a poor Italian-American family (her report card includes the notation "Home Relief," which was the principal welfare program established at the start of the New Deal), she attended the school to learn dressmaking and worked for a few years at various garment houses before getting married. She later made clothes for herself and her children, including her oldest daughter's wedding gown. When her husband, Dominic Grosso, suffered a heart attack at 46 and could no longer work, Lucille went back to work, first in a garment factory and then as a school crossing guard. She kept sewing for most of her life.

But the sewing she did at Manhattan Trade must have been very important to her, because she kept two very special items. The first is a cute little child's romper that she made as a class project. "She saved it all those years, so she must have treasured it, and now so do I," said Debbie Pastina, one of Lucille's daughters. Interestingly, the 1911 film about the school, which was shot 25 years before Lucille attended, includes a scene showing students learning the basics about children's garments -- including rompers. Apparently the curriculum hadn't changed much in a quarter-century.

Debbie's sister, Donna Protter, saved another relic from Lucille's trade school days: her classroom sample book, an extraordinary trove of work that shows the various seams, stitches, and embroidery patterns she learned. Amidst all the buttonholes, pockets, and pleats, there are some surprising moments of whimsy: At one point Lucille appears to have mocked up a playful swimsuit (or perhaps lingerie, since the bikini wasn't invented until the 1940s); at another, she used trimmings to spell out her initials. It's an amazing document of the school and its teachings.

"She would show it to me when I was growing up, because she was so proud of it," said Donna. "Frankly, it always intimidated me -- I knew I could never sew like that. And it's not just a reflection of my mother's ability, but also the school. You can tell that the message was, even if you came from the bottom, you didn't have to stay there. They were going to make these girls into elite, dignified women."

The sample book's first page lists Lucille's teacher as Mrs. Bloom -- the same teacher who cited her on her report card for excessive talking, lack of initiative, and chewing gum. "We were laughing our asses off when we saw those comments, because that was definitely her," said Donna. "She was a troublemaker, a tomboy, and she stood up for herself." (Indeed, Lucille's file includes a letter she wrote in 1940, complaining about the salary that the school's placement secretary had recommended for her. The secretary referred to this as a "rude note" and concluded that Lucille was "a real trouble-maker!")

I initially thought Lucille's sample book was a one-of-a-kind discovery. But it turns out that Louise Fenaroli, who studied dressmaking at Manhattan Trade from 1921 through 1923 saved two of her sample books. And in her case, her training at Manhattan Trade helped lead to a career in clothing design.

I didn't find Louise's family; they found me. Her daughter, Christina Taddei, was doing some family history research when she stumbled upon Louise's name in a listing of my report cards that I had posted on a blog, so she got in touch with me. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to meet Louise, who had died in 2005 (yet another missed opportunity), but Christina and I soon made arrangements to meet. She brought along her older brother, Andrew Taddei. They both loved talking about their mother.

Christina and Andrew explained that Louise was born in Italy, the youngest of eight children, and moved to New York with her family at age four. She never knew her father, a tenant farmer who died when she was an infant. Her mother did not work, so the children had to support the household as they reached working age. Manhattan Trade must have seemed like a good option to help make Louise a better earner.

"If you look at her report card at Manhattan Trade, you can see she was just an average student," said Andrew. "The fact is, she never really liked sewing, even though she was good at it. It was tedious for her. I remember her telling me, 'I learned how to do all that before I went to any school. We were taught that in the home.' "

Maybe so, but Louise cared enough about her trade school experience to save two beautiful sample books, both with hand-tied bindings. One of the books is a lot like Lucille Fasanalla's, with lots of stitching samples and several playful mini-garments, including a kimono and a tea apron. The second one is filled with magnificent embroidery. Andrew and Christina also brought along what they believe to be Louise's Manhattan Trade graduation photo.

Louise, like most Manhattan Trade graduates, worked a series of garment-related jobs after finishing her training. But what she really wanted was to design. By this time, one of her older brothers had become a successful restaurateur in Chicago, and he decided to nurture Louise's creative talents. "This brother -- my uncle -- said he would pay for her to go to some sort of art and design school," explained Andrew. "And he also made up for her share that she would have contributed to their mother's household."

With her uncle sponsoring her, Louise enrolled at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now known as the Parsons School of Design), where she studied fashion design, especially eveningwear. "That's where she really excelled," said Christina, showing me a sampling of drawings Louise made during this period. She'd clearly come a long way from her Manhattan Trade days.

After leaving design school, Louise embarked on a successful career as a designer for several apparel companies in the 1930s. A seamstress who worked for her had a brother -- an auto mechanic named Anthony Taddei. He took a fancy to Louise, and the two of them were married in 1933. "The thing is," explained Andrew, "she was making $150 a week to his $85, and that bothered him. It was causing problems in their marriage, so in 1941 she stopped working. But she said, 'I'm not going to just sit around the house. If I'm not going to work, then we have to start a family.' " That's how Andrew and Christina came along. But Anthony fell ill and died just prior to Christina's birth. So Louise embarked on a second career, this time as a kindergarten teacher, a job she held until her retirement in the late 1970s.

Andrew now lives in the same house in Astoria, Queens, where Louise lived for most of her adult life, across the street from the address listed on her report card. Christina lives in Massachusetts but still thinks of herself as a New Yorker and visits the city frequently. I asked if they had ever gone to the corner of 22nd and Lexington to see the Manhattan Trade building where their mother had gone to school.

"Yes," said Andrew. "It's a looks like a very nice building."

"But I never went inside," said Christina. "I'd love to see what it's like in there."

+ + + + +

Manhattan Trade changed its name several times in the 1930s and '40s, first to Manhattan Industrial High School, then to the Manhattan High School of Women's Garment Trades, and finally to Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School (named after a prominent former Board of Education member and Red Cross administrator). As New York's vocational landscape shifted, so did the school's curriculum. Courses in cafeteria management and cosmetology were added in the 1930s, and by the 1970s the school was training students to become dental hygienists and practical nurses. Budget cuts and changing priorities eventually led to the school's closure in the spring of 1992, with most of its programs and students parceled out to other schools in the city. The School of the Future moved into the building that summer.

Jim Chin, a teacher, is the School of the Future's unofficial historian, and he remembers that summer. "We had to get the place ready for our school in September, so a lot of stuff was just thrown away," he told me during one of my visits to the building. "But a lot of the old records were still here for a year or two. They took up a whole room—rows and rows of file cabinets."

And what happened to them?

"A lot of the Mabel Dean Bacon students had moved to the High School for Health Professions and Human Services, so we thought it would be better if they had the records. We sent all that stuff over there."

And where is that school?

"Over on 15th Street. You know, it's the original Stuyvesant High."

A-ha! So that's how the report cards ended up in the old Stuyvesant gymnasium, where I discovered them in 1996. But they were being thrown out, so the High School for Health Professions, having received the files from the School of the Future, must have decided they weren't worth saving. A few of those student records, like Frances Sehres', dated all the way back to Manhattan Trade's original location on West 14th Street and had been hauled around to each of the school's subsequent sites, and then over to Stuy. If I hadn't come across them that night, the final stop on their 90-year journey would have been a dumpster.

That would have been a shame on several levels, not the least of which is that the school's founders always intended for the cards to be a database for further study. Back in 1910, in The Making of a Trade School, Manhattan Trade director Mary Schenck Woolman wrote that one reason so much information was recorded in the students' files was "to build up a series of records that shall be of general sociological value."

They certainly succeeded on that account. Some of the most compelling stories involve students whose families I've so far been unable to locate. We'll take a look several of those tomorrow.

+ + + + +

As a bonus, here's a short video of Andrew Taddei talking about his mother and her report card:



+ + + + +

Read the entire five-part Permanent Record series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.