You Must Remember This: The Jeff Kisseloff Oral History Interviews
On a beautiful Wednesday morning in 1904, six year old Edna Doering left her apartment in the East Village with her mother, and two elder siblings. Her mother carried a shiny tin lunch box for the picnic the family was going to have at Locust Grove, Long Island, the intended destination of a church-sponsored pleasure cruise aboard the General Slocum steamboat. Soon after the boat set off, it caught fire and ran aground on North Brother Island. Most of the 1,400 passengers women and children died onboard or drowned in the East River. It remained the worst mass fatality in New York City history until September 11th, 2001.
In 1987, journalist Jeff Kisseloff interviewed Doering, then 87 years old, and one of the few remaining survivors of the General Slocum disaster. In her interview, Doering recalls her anticipation for the trip and her childlike disappointment that her panicked mother threw the lunch box overboard during the fire. Doering was the only member of her family to survive that day. She was saved when a stranger aboard the boat threw her overboard. Doering landed, she graphically relayed to Kisseloff, on what she could only assume were floating bodies and was rescued by a passing rowboat that was searching for survivors.
Doering is one of over 150 interviews Kisseloff conducted for his book, You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II. Between 1986 to 1988, he traversed the city with a cassette recorder to interview former longshoreman, bootleggers, pickle makers, butchers, community activists, housewives, and writers in an attempt to capture stories of old Manhattan. Most of the people he interviewed were elderly at the time and have since died. Thus, Kisseloff’s recordings provide the only extant story of their lives in and around Manhattan before 1945. These original, unedited interviews have recently been digitized and are now open to the public through the Jeff Kisseloff oral history interviews collection held in the Manuscripts and Archives Division.
The interviews touch on the key topics of late 19th and early 20th century life. During this time period horse drawn carts were almost entirely replaced by motorized vehicles; refrigerators replaced ice boxes; unions were increasingly organized across industrial and public service sectors; alcoholic beverages were outlawed during Prohibition and eventually re-legalized ; and the Great Depression flipped countless lives upside down. New York City’s population growth soared from 1890 to 1920, as immigrants from Europe and Russia made their homes in the swollen tenements throughout the city. As the population grew, residential Manhattan surged northward assisted by the creation of the subway system. Farmland in northern Manhattan was settled by new Irish and German citizens while southern African Americans migrated north to Harlem during what is now called the “Great Migration.”
Kisseloff framed his book according to the city’s neighborhoods; contained in the collection are interviews from a wide range of New York’s urban population. The interviews he conducted in each neighborhood reflect the variety of social, economic, and cultural forces that shaped them. These neighborhoods often contained diametrically opposed economic classes as well as multiple ethnic and religious groups, all coexisting only a few blocks from one another. For example, on the Upper West Side he interviewed the influential newspaper editor William Randolph Hearst who lived in a private building his family owned on 86th Street; Olga Marx, an upper class German Jewish woman who grew up in her family’s brownstone on 77th Street; Rosanna Weston, a lifelong resident in the predominately African American San Juan Hill area (most of which was razed to build Lincoln Center); and Bullets Bressan, the son of an Italian tile setter, who lived in a four room apartment on 69th Street and the Hudson River with his parents and five siblings. While these four individuals lived within walking distance, their respective experiences were worlds apart.
Despite ethnic and class differences, common threads carry across interviews from the same neighborhood, or region of Manhattan. The East Side interviews discuss the massive gashouses that lined the East River, and the Chelsea interviews consistently mention union bosses Joe Ryan and John Lovejoy Elliott, who founded the Hudson Guild. The East Harlem interviews tend to focus on boxing, cigar making, and the neighborhood’s pride in Congressman and native son Vito Marcantonio.The Harlem interviews vivify the Harlem Renaissance and outstanding neighborhood figures such as Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. Interviewees from the Lower East Side recall their fear of the mafia and Chinatown gangs; the unionization of the garment industries, particularly the creation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; and their involvement with community groups and landsmanshafts, immigrant benevolent organizations with ties to a particular region. Discussed in many of the interviewees who lived along the west side of Manhattan are the effect of the Hudson River Railroad lines and the river itself on the neighborhoods, and memories of the 10th Avenue cowboys, mounted men who road in front of the trains wielding flags to warn pedestrians of the approaching locomotive.
Present in all interviews are personal details of apartments and houses , and the minutiae of everyday life. Food and eating habits are often discussed. Kisseloff interviewed Stanley Auster of the famous Auster family who owned candy stores in the Lower East Side and the East Village. While Auster does not give away his families secret egg cream recipe, he explains how the candy shops and drinking egg creams provided a neighborhood gathering spot and activity during Prohibition. Sol Kaplan discusses making pickles on Allen Street and Joe Hinzman recalls working at Ruppert’s Brewery in Yorkville. There are also memories of home cooked meals, ranging from humble lunches of herrings and potatoes to the multicourse formal dinners of Fifth Avenue resident Frederick Vanderbilt Field. Also discussed is sexuality and human relationships. Interviewees recollect when they courted and married their husbands or wives. There are sweet stories, like a couple who met across a fire escape, as well as more salty tales of going “two button,” slang that references the two buttons that held a girl’s knickers together. Many interviewees who grew up in tenements remembered spending Saturday afternoons at the movies, for their own entertainment and to give their parents rare moments of privacy.
Researchers are encouraged to read You Must Remember This, peruse the finding aid, and make an appointment to come in and spend some time with these remarkable and engaging interviews. Any researcher whose project touches on late 19th or early 20th century life in New York City, or indeed the United States, will find at least one interview that will enrich their research.