The Lower East Side of New York
How We Worked

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links


Novel Industry Thrives on the East Side.

From The New-York Daily Tribune, November 5, 1905.

That portion of the city which comprises the populous East Side has its caterers and dish lenders, who have tiny shops in the cellars of the Ghetto tenement houses, where they rent out dishes for such festive Yiddish occasions as births, engagements, funerals and weddings.

The shops, darkly hidden away under the stairs of the gloomy buildings, are difficult to find. It is practically impossible for strangers to reach them save by the guidance of some native of the East Side. Even this means is not without its difficulties. Nine times out of ten the Yiddish woman when questioned will wrap herself tightly in a dirty red shawl and an air of mystery and declare that she knows of no such place. Later one may be found almost under her house.

The Ghetto child is more communicative, but must also be approached with caution.

"Is there any little store around here where one can rent dishes?" is a fairly safe opening.

The little girl with the pensive Jewish face and unspeakably dirty dress rebalances her fat little brother on her knee and gazes thoughtfully at the inquirer. Little Abey, who bears a strong resemblance to the little boy "who had no little handkerchief to wipe his little nose," coyly covers a very smeary face with still dirtier hands.

The question is repeated, and the little girl, smiling affably, tightens her grip across Abey's fat little paunch and answers above his roars of protest.

"Yes. They have some in stores on top and some downstairs. But they wouldn't rent you any dishes."

"Why not?"

"Because youse a Gentile. They maybe let youse have 'um, but they wouldn't take um back after youse used um," says the grimy little representative of the chosen people, with all the superiority of the clean toward the unclean; and her answer is warranted to start even the most complacent, bath-a-day Gentile pondering on the value of relative points of view.

But, that blow survived, the Yiddish child is ready to turn informant, and points out several cel-airways leading to the dish lenders' shops.

The investigator carefully picks the way down the rubbish-strewn steps, on which three cherub-faced babies are playing with a dad rat on a string, and enters a tiny, dark shop. Around the walls are a series of shelves lined with heavy, fracture-defying pieces of crockery. Those on whose shiny surfaces strange birds and beasts disport themselves and unknown flowers bloom are ranged in the foreground to catch the longing eye of the Yiddish customer. Attractive jugs of a curious design and a few old brasses balance themselves alluringly along the edge of the upper shelf.

Out of a shadowy corner the form of an old man rears itself. On the uncertain bench from which has risen he places the old book over which he has been crouching, and covers it with a large, flowered red handkerchief. As he comes into the lighter dusk of the room his small, dark eyes blink like an old, disturbed owl's. He folds his hands under his patriarchal beard and waits for the intruder to speak. But all attempts at questioning the old dish lender are fruitless. The ancient wags his sparse, white locks and mumbles a toothless Yiddish answer. His questioner, forgetting that his touch is pollution, makes a move toward the dish-covered shelves, but the old man bars his way, three fingers raised as though in such a curse as Moses laid on the rebellious Israelites. Before the silent, threatening attitude of this old patriarch of the Ghetto the trespasser beats a hasty retreat, scrambling over the three cherubs and the defunct rodent up the filthy steps.

Further along the ill-smelling, crowded street the searcher discovers a surprisingly clean and very orthodox little Jewess peering into the ornate window of a crockery store. She is willing to act as guide and interpreter.

"This is a store where the rich Jews come to rent dishes for parties," explains the gazelle-eyed daughter of Israel. "It is a very beautiful store," and she gazes with admiration at the gorgeously flowered vases, eccentrically shaped dishes and bric-a-brac fighting for window space. Two china storks with preternaturally long red legs claim attention.

"When they have babies they rent them storks," the little Kosher girl points out. "They are used a very great deal." And looking about the baby-covered sidewalks and tenement steps, one can easily believe her.

"Is there a good ice cream store around here where we could get a drink?" asks her questioner, suggestively.

Her dark eyes shine eagerly, but the answer is that of one who cannot be led from the true faith.

"Thank you," says the orthodox little Jewess, politely, but very firmly. "I can't take anything."
And the stranger gets a second jolt to his self-esteem.

From the attractive brightness of the fruit-laden pushcarts, yellow with apples, pears and bananas and red with the ripe tomatoes and the chili colorados of the Far Southwest, the visitor plunges down into the second stifling, dusty cellar shop. Here a white china dog, of American manufacture, who is lord of the foreground, disclaims his nationality with a cold stare at the intruder. In the background are small stacks of thick, florid dishes. Only second in importance to the haughty china canine is a beflowered, gilt-edged act of glass tumblers and pitcher. A dozen squat salt dishes and a box of knives, forks and spoons mark the outskirts of the enticing array.

A short and marvelously stout woman, wearing the ugly brown wig of the Yiddish matron, enters the shop, accompanied by two curly headed boys. Her ample curves almost overflow the tiny room; the dish lender, the two small boys, the china dog and the visitor are content to occupy the crevices.

The gaunt dish lender, with parted red beard and shoulders hunched deprecatingly forward, pleasantly lifts his thin upper lip from three yellow teeth, sweeps a comprehensive hand toward his possessions, and the haggling, an invariable accompaniment to a Yiddish deal, begins. The shrill argument and frantic gesticulation ends with the stout woman's renting the china dog as a table ornament, and her departure with the small boys, each clutching several rented dishes to his bosom, in her wake.

Some of the underground stores are a medley of stoves, pots and pans, fat spice bowls and the inevitable dishes which are the most important asset to the business.

From the door one catches a triangular glimpse of vivid October sky. From above come the shouts of the street vendors and the rumbling of wagons and pushcarts. To this and the quickening sting of the autumn air one gladly turns from the musty gloom of the quaint, overcrowded shop of the dish lender.







Home       |       Site Map       |      Exhibitions      |      About the Museum       |       Education      |      Contact Us       |       Links

Copyright 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.