The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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The Curious Etiquette That Prevails in That Quarter of the City.

From The New-York Tribune, June 30, 1901.

If any one thinks that, below Houston-st., Mrs. Grundy either does not exist or is a lady addicted to slumber, that person is mightily mistaken. The outward and visible signs of her power may be, to the casual observer, less noticeable than in Fifth-ave., but she is there, and her power is, in certain particulars, all supreme. The desire to outshine the neighbors grows doubtless on the very day when a cave dweller, killing an ostrich, tore out the tail feathers to brush away the flies, and found that his wife appropriated them for her hair. The more neighbors one has, the more one would think, should be the social rivalry; ergo, there being a score of times more neighbors on the East Side than in any other equal space in the city, this form of aspiration should be found there in a high degree. Perhaps the reasoning do0es not hold good; but the code of etiquette is none the less severe.

The field of activity is rather restricted on the East Side. Social entertainments are not many. Balls are affairs of tickets, and each man pays his own way and that of "his lady." The one occasion on which the ambition of the aristocratically inclined my manifest itself is that of a wedding. Mrs. Grundy has woven around this ceremony all the red tape she expends on "functions" in a different sphere. A wedding must be large. There must be [an] abundance of food and drink and plenty of carriages, and to secure these advantages many families are willing to sacrifice the savings scraped together for years. Put before the ceremony comes the question of the suitability of the bride and bridegroom, and this point, or at least the latter part of it, is of the greatest importance. The choice of the son of the family may be poor and of inferior connections, and there will be nothing worse than disappointment, but should the daughter look beneath her, there are storms and entreaties and even curses.

So great is the desire for sons-in-law above the rank of the family that extraordinary measures are taken to secure a desirable specimen. The son-in-law for whom the soul of every East Sider pines is a professional man - a doctor preferably. Now, there are not so many physicians to be had, and there is only a slight chance that one of the number will look kindly on any given girl; so the affair cannot be left to chance. An ambitious youth is "caught young," his fancy fired with pictures of social and professional glory; financial help is promised him, and then, like a pill in jelly, is tucked the condition "marry my daughter afterward." This practice is so common that there has arisen a saying, used when any girl marries a physician, "Her father bought a doctor for her." The young men do not seem to object. Indeed, at the age of seventeen the prospect of marriage is little worthy of consideration to a boy. If repentance comes after, he manages to keep it to himself and to live up to the bargain.

The case of one young man, recently married, will serve to illustrate the practice. At the age of eighteen the father of a girl a year or two his senior made a contract with him, the one promising a medical education and the other side marriage and social elevation. The boy agreed, went through the medical school, and duly announced his engagement. The girl's father furnished his office and living rooms, paying the rent and promising support until the young man's practice should pay. They have put their daughter a rung higher up the social ladder; they shine with reflected glory. Henceforth, their conversation will be peppered and salted with "my son-in-law, Dr. So-and-so" and "my son-in-law ­ he's a doctor, you know." Should he be present when neighbors visit, his title will be hurled at their heads at least once a minute.

Still more extraordinary is the case of a girl doing the purchasing of a doctor quite without assistance. Some ambitious maidens have negotiated the whole affair alone, their parents lacking in social ambition or failing parents altogether. These cases are kept quiet, naturally, but the neighbors usually find out and spread the news that such a one "is buying a doctor."

When the son chooses a girl whose parents are not well-to-do, a large wedding is none the less necessary. On the East Side, as elsewhere, the bride's family pays the wedding ...., but if they are not able the bridegroom will step into the breach and cover the fact that the parents of his bride are poor. The alternative of a quiet wedding does not appeal to anybody concerned. There must be music and dancing and wine unlimited, whoever pays. One family, paying the wedding expenses of the son's wife, spent more than half the savings which up to that time had been the comfort of their hard worked lives, their one assurance of a decent old age.

Certain minor conventions are also strictly observed. The custom of giving a ring and a gold watch to one's fiancée divides the social sheep from the goats. Should a young man fail in this the omission is remedied at social affairs which the newly wedded pair attend by borrowing the necessary articles from some intimate friend. Only in this borrowed finery does the bride feel able to face the inquisitive eyes of her friends and acquaintances.

These gorgeous marriage ceremonies do not have their rise in a base mercenary desire for presents. Guests do not offer tribute as universally as in higher circles, although the members of the family do their best. The desire to shine socially is at the bottom of it, pure and simple, if, indeed, social aspiration is ever pure and simple. it leads parents to educate their children so that they may rise higher and cast into the shade the children next door - thus mingling good and evil in odd fashion. But it amuses them, it excites them, and perhaps the game is worth the candle, after all.







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