The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, August 26, 1900.

As Broadway is to upper New York, so is Grand Street to the Lower East Side. Here and in the streets immediately ad­joining, one sees what lower Manhattan considers "the glass of fashion and the mould of form." Of "form" there may be something lacking, but fashion is there in full force. Grand Street out - Broadways Broadway. Here one sees all the styles ever devised by the brain of man ­ sees them in all their glory, having their fullest scope, allowed to expand at their own sweet will. Does Broadway wear a feather? Grand Street dons two, without loss of time. Are trailing skirts seen in Fifth Avenue? Grand Street trails its yards with a dignity all its own. Are daring color effects sent over from Paris? The rainbow hides its diminished head before Grand Street on a Sunday afternoon. Grand Street is Broadway plus Fifth A venue, only very much more so. Its wide sidewalks show more fashion to the square foot on a Sunday than any other part of the city.


In Grand Street the East Side buys its dresses, coats, and a thousand and one other things. For its hats it goes to Division Street, which begins its picturesque career at Chatham Square and runs along to Clinton Street. From Chatham Square, for the length of a couple of blocks or so, the neighborhood christens the street "Millinery Lane" for good and obvious reasons. Let no unwary traveler, unversed in the ways of the East Side shopkeeper, set foot in this spot, under pain of being forced to buy the most marvelous creations of the modiste's brain that were ever de­signed to assist Cupid in subjugating the heart of man (East Side man). There are fully twenty millinery stores in the "lane," and each store has one or more "sidewalk ladies" to "pull in." The term "puller-in" is not wrongly applied. They smile seductively as they ask, "Anything in a stylish hat, ma'am?" If the fascination does not work properly, the puller-in gently but firmly takes hold of the arm of the passer-by and proceeds to argue the question. These enterprising ladies devise the hat fashions for the Lower East Side. The system is simple. Whatever a hat may lack in quality, there is never anything to be desired in the matter of quantity. The East Side, though poor enough in all truth, is ever-generous. So far as the people can afford, there is no stint in hospitality or charity, and the same rule is applied to hats.

It is not easy for an unpracticed eye to judge the quantity of chiffon or silk used on an ordinary summer hat, but on one recently seen in Millinery Lane' there was a bulwark certainly no less than ten inches high all around the huge brim of the creation. And it cost only $4 - all that chiffon for $4 - not to mention the handful center! Purple and yellow is a favorite combination, and may truthfully be said , to give more show for the money than any other effect. Black, except in large black velvet hats with feathers, is not popular. When a black straw is used, a microscope is needed to distinguish it at the bottom of a pyramid of peacock colors. The average East Side girl who earns a few dollars every week and is not in destitute circumstances buys every winter a hat with feathers. It is always a large one, and sometimes it groans beneath the weight of nearly or quite a dozen plumes which may once have called an ostrich their parent, although it is certain that the bird would disown her offspring at sight could she again see them.


It is to hats that the young girl's fancy lightly turns not only in spring, but in autumn also. She cares for dress, but it would be impossible to maintain through­out the high standard of elegance set by the headgear. Nevertheless she does very well in this respect. The "habit back" flourished on the East Side from the first moment of its arrival from Paris. If skirts are long, no self-respecting girl would be seen in any costume that did not sweep a yard or two behind. If sleeves are tight, she would consider it a disgrace to be able to raise her arms above her head. She ties her neck scarf as low on the waist of her dress as it is shown in Paris fashions ­ and just a little lower - at the same minute that Fifth Avenue adopts the same style. If over skirts are worn, there is nothing else to be seen in Grand Street. But in the matter of dresses, it is natural that the East Side should be strictly up-to-date, for does it not furnish clothes for the rest of the town? If my lady wears a velvet gown, put together for her in an East Side sweatshop, may not the girl whose tired fingers fashioned it rejoice her soul by astonishing Grand Street with a copy of it on the next Sunday? My lady's is in velvet, and the East Side girl's is in the cheapest of cloth, but it's the style that counts. 

The artistic taste of the East Side men is also highly developed, but the cruel hand of fashion has shut to them the door to its full enjoyment. Only in the matter of collars, neckties, and socks can their fancy display itself. But if the field is restricted, it is worked with energy. There are "sports" and "hot sports" and "stiffs." The "sport" is known by his necktie or his socks. The point is to combine on the small space allowed as many colors as possible. Purple and lavender, green and red, dark and light blue make contrasts which, as the wearers say, are "not to be beat." A "hot sport" is the common or garden "sport" in the superlative. A "stiff" is known by his collar. There are many gilded youths on the East Side who would never be guilty of wearing a "stand up" collar when "high turndowns" were in fashion.

Is it funny, or is it pathetic? One is at a loss to decide, and compromises by a smile and sigh. The girls enjoy it, and they are so pretty, many of them, that two dozen feathers, instead of merely a paltry ten or twelve, could not make them anything but attractive. As to the men, they are hardly attractive at the best, and after all, a manly heart beats as truly under a green and red striped shirt as under one of purest white. It is only an expression of love of beauty. It does not happen to be the right idea of beauty, but it fills a place in the human soul which is better filled with even an idol of clay than left empty. Is it better for a girl to neglect her personal appearance or to deck herself with rubbish? If the latter is vulgar, the first is unwomanly, and the East Side may safely be said to have chosen the lesser evil.


There need not be any evil to choose, however, as many East Side girls realize. Not all overdress, by any means. The uptown world is always underestimating the amount of refinement to be found in the tenements of lower Manhattan. Many girls dress neatly, stylishly, and tastefully, and the mystery of their toilets is often amusingly explained. One story will illustrate. The writer recently had occasion to go out of town on a Sunday in company with a girl whose family is in genuine poverty. People of less indomitable pride, of less intense self-respect, would long ago have applied for help instead of eating bread and water day after day. At the appointed hour the girl appeared, dressed not only well, but stylishly. She had a good figure, and she was positively "stunning." One who did not know East Side girls would have said, uncharitably, that the heartless young woman was spending on clothes the money needed to buy bread for her old mother and small sisters. But a few friendly words turned the conversation to the subject of dress, and the mystery was explained. The waist, thin and charmingly cool-looking, she had made herself, buying the material from a Hester pushcart for 20 cents. Its "style" came from the really handsome neck arrangement, which she had made herself; she worked at neckwear, and the "boss" had allowed her to take the odds and ends from which she had fashioned the pretty thing. The skirt, her brother-in-law, who "works at skirts," had made for her at odd times, and it cost, getting the material at wholesale, $2.50. Her hat, her chum made at an expense of 60 cents. To the uninitiated the costume represented an outlay of $20, at least, although she had achieved it at an expense of $3.30, and was able to go abroad with­out proclaiming to the world the dire poverty at home. Her cleverness and the kindness of others had saved the proud old mother a severe humiliation. There are many such on the East Side.

But, although such girls are not rare, the other kind forms the great majority. It is apparently a part of the process of becoming Americanized. The girl whose Russian mother knew but the wig of the religious Jewess and a soft shawl, the girl who, had she remained in bright Italy, would have kept but one kerchief for weekdays and another for Sunday - these girls feel vastly fine in a "three-story hat" which might well vie with the historic coat of Joseph. In the land of equality shall not one wear what another wears? Shall not Fifth Avenue and Grand Street walk hand in hand - the lion and the lamb lie down together? It would be rank heresy to insinuate that there is anything faulty in the process of "Americanizing" as it goes on on the East Side.








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