A pushcart story

A pushcart vendor selling nuts in New York in 1947. Nut vendors are still one of the most ubiquitous examples of modern pushcarts. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The immigrants to the Lower East Side at the turn of the Twentieth century brought what skills they could to their new lives in New York but often lacked the opportunity to put these skills to use. Many immigrants were fleeing economic hardship and some immigrants, especially the Jewish populations from Eastern Europe also fled government-sanctioned religious persecution which limited their trades and occupations. Even those exceptions, immigrants who had held higher status jobs at home, mostly lost their standing in their move to the United States.

However there was one job that was open to all, regardless of  prior experience or education; immigrants of all social standing found opportunities for work as pushcart vendors. The area with the most replete with push-cart peddlers was the Lower East Side.

These vendors often sold goods to their own neighbors with the benefit of knowing their religious, cultural and practical needs. For decades a vast pushcart economy met the needs of this crowded neighborhood. Pushcart vendors sold everything the residents required from books and toys to clothing and food. Because a majority of Lower East Side residents worked long hours in the garment industry, the pushcart vendors adjusted to this schedule, setting up lanterns and, later electric lights, to allow residents to shop after work.  In fact, shopping became a great excuse for young adults in the community to stroll and socialize.

This photo taken in 1906 under the direction of Lawrence Veiller accompanied the report on the “Pushcart Problem.” Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In 1899 the price of a municipal pushcart license fell from $15 to $4 and by 1904 there were 6,747 push-cart peddlers in New York City. (Today a food cart vendor license is $200 for a “processing food unit” and $75 for a “non-processing food unit.”) The trade developed so dramatically that the Mayor, George B. McClellan, created a “Commission Appointed to Investigate the Push-Cart Problem.” Pushcarts were partly problematized when, as the report puts it, “traffic regulation [had] arisen.” The narrow streets were choked with carts which proved difficult for carriages and pedestrians to avoid and impossible for automobiles to maneuver around.

The commission supposedly reported that when “the list of goods sold [from the pushcarts] was complete we felt it would probably have been easier to make a list of things that were not sold.” (Quoted in Nan Enstad’s  Ladies of Leisure, Girls of Adventure.) The Commission also noted that although no neighborhood in the city was completely free of push-carts “the greatest congestion exist in the most crowded quarters of the Lower East Side especially in the Hebrew quarter.” The report specifies “ that in the section south of Houston street, from the Bowery to the East river, the streets are almost invariably found lined with push-carts on every block; especially on the following streets: Rivington, Grand, Hester, Stanton, Houston, Canal, Monroe, Forsyth, Orchard, Ludlow, Norfolk, Suffolk, Ridge and Pitt.”Our historic tenement at 97 Orchard Street was smack in the middle of the pushcart problem!

The most recent development in the legacy of Russ and Daughters is a delicious and lovely, sit-down cafe.

The commission had plenty of complaints but found that “there is no special danger to the community from the food supplies sold from pushcarts, for the wares are usually as good, if not better, than the supplies sold in neighboring stores.” In fact, some of the food sold by pushcart vendors was so delicious that their food is still being sold today. For example, Russ & Daughters, a celebrated Lower East Side staple which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, which began as a humble pushcart, and is now a renowned purveyor of appetizers most famously smoked salmon. Another pushcart alumnus is Moscot an optical shop that now resides directly across the street from the Tenement Museum. Moscot, much like Russ & Daughters began with the arrival of the patriarch. Shortly after Hyman Moscot emigrated in 1899 from Eastern Europe he began selling eye wear from a pushcart and business has been thriving ever since. Both carts earned loyalty and then financial stability from their delighted customers and have held brick and mortar shops in the neighborhood for nearly a century. Now that’s the American dream. Mazal tov!

Moscot’s storefront appears all over our Lower East Side archival photographs. This picture is from the mid 1970’s featuring a new incarnation of pushcart in the foreground.

Eventually the Commission’s regulations attempted to group the pushcarts to less disruptive spots, such as down under the Manhattan bridge and whether because of these measures or for other reasons the pushcart industry eventually dissolved. But don’t worry you can still grab a nosh at Russ & Daughters !


via @TenementMuseum: a shoe buck with a polish pad! Especially Lower East Side residents with limited means tried to make their shoes and clothing last as long as possible. This photo from the Library of Congress is labeled “Jewish New Year” and shows a young girl getting her shoes polished, probably for Rosh Hashanah. For many Jews it is a New Year’s tradition to wear new or at least fresh clothing.

You have to be pretty diligent to see the remains of Kleindeutschland in the Lower East Side today.  Kleindeutschland was once a thriving community, and while most discussions of Manhattan real-estate don’t mention it, the General Slocum Disaster made as dramatic an impact on the Lower East Side as, for instance, the High Line is making to the Meatpacking district.

The early waves of German immigrants were for the most part welcomed to the Lower East Side as they were seen as a ‘clean teutonic’ people. This woodcut from a 1874 issue of Harper’s shows a boat departing Hamburg for New York. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The General Slocum disaster was the single deadliest in New York prior to the 9/11 attacks.  The event is named after the steamboat S.S. General Slocum which launched on June 15, 1904 carrying mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th street to the North Shore of Long Island for a summer outing.

Records suggest that about 1,350 people would have been on the Slocum, including crew. The boat was steaming up the East River towards Long Island when it caught fire. It had gone only about as far as 97th Street. The boat was made mostly of wood: white oak, locust and yellow pine. More than a thousand people died as the ship burned from the deck down to the water line in less than 15 minutes.

Though a fire inspector had recently deemed the vessel safe, the hoses on board were rotten and burst when the crew attempted to use them. What life preservers were onboard also turned out to be rotten and utterly useless. Few of the passengers knew how to swim and most likely the fashions of the time did little to aid their efforts.

The fire is thought to have been started accidentally but controversy persists as to whether the Captain could have brought the ship to shore sooner, thereby saving more passengers. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The outing had been chartered by the St. Mark’s church for $350, which today would be close to $9,000. This number means nothing in the face of the lives which were lost, but this can help us understand how economically stable and unified the community once was. Kleindeutschland, home to 150,000 people of German descent, was at one time the third largest “German city” in the world after Berlin and Vienna.  With a thousand people lost, few families in this close community escaped the tragedy.  Funerals went on for several weeks after the tragedy, so many funerals occurred that for a time, there was said to be a funeral every four minutes.

The dock at E. 26th Street was made into a temporary morgue to accommodate the 1000 casualties, some of whom were never identified. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The community was so unilaterally affected that depression became endemic in the survivors, mostly men, fathers, brothers, and uncles who had been at working at the time of the excursion.  In the wake of the disaster, there were several suicides and many residents moved away from the Lower East Side to distance themselves from a neighborhood which was so infected by grief.  The disaster became a very emotional push factor for what at first seemed a thriving community. In reality there were a few other contributing factors to the dissolution of Kleindeutschland. By the late 1880s some of the second generation of German immigrants, with their greater command of English, were beginning to settle in other neighborhoods and cities. This period also saw the beginning of a marked increase in Jewish and Italians immigrants, who actually began moving to this neighborhood shortly before the Slocum disaster.

As Immigrant communities often provide support and comfort for countrymen outside of their homeland, it is hard for us today to imagine a disaster disturbing enough to undermine the reassurances of shared language and custom. German speaking communities did gather again in other parts of the city, and of course in other states, but Kleindeutschland became a thing of the past.

It is interesting to consider how strong the German community might have remained in the Lower East Side had it not been for this disaster. Here children of German descent practice a German dance in a N.Y. public school. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nisha Agarwal, New York City’s new Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, comes to the museum to talk about her goals to support the millions of immigrants in the city. Agarwal will be interviewed by Kirk Semple, New York Times immigration reporter.  

This event is free and seats are first-come, first-serve. Doors will open at 6 pm. Contact Laura Lee at llee@tenement.org or 212.431.0233 ext. 259 with questions.

This cartoon from 1912 titled “New York under the Dog-Star” gives us a peek at summer time spent in heavy wool dresses and suits. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

This much jollier scene shows children on the Lower East Side enjoying ice on a less brutal summer day in 1912. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A portrait of Bone Alley from the 1896. This former notorious slum on the Lower East Side was in the heart of the worst suffering. Photo courtesy of NYPL

Theodore Roosevelt as a young police commissioner. Roosevelt kept a cool head in the crisis and was one of the only officials to attend to the victims. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.