The Gumpertz ApartmentOn the morning of October 7, 1884, Nathalia Gumpertz's husband set out for work and promptly disappeared, never to return. Mrs. Gumpertz was left with four children - the oldest a girl of seven, the youngest a baby boy who would die eight months later - and whatever skills she had learned at her mother's knee in Prussian Poland.
The apartment we see today evidences how Nathalia Gumpertz survived on her own. She turned to dressmaking. Her customers were probably neighborhood women: salesgirls, waitresses, domestic servants, teachers - those who hadn't the time to sew for themselves or who perhaps hadn't the skills to create the era's especially complicated contraptions - and possible even some "nonworking" wives.
Nathalia's front room - the only one with natural light - was her workshop. If her customers had to wait for a fitting, they may well have sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and cake served by the Gumpertz daughters.
In what language did they chat? Not Yiddish. German Jews rarely knew
it. Yiddish arrived with the East European Jews in the 1880's. And probably
not English. Although the Gumpertz girls would be competent in English,
it is unlikely that the adults were wholly comfortable in the new language.
Most likely they would have spoken together in German or in the Germanized
Polish or Ortelsburgh, where Nathalia had been born in 1836. (It now lies
in Polish territory and is called Szczytno.)
Dressmaking As a TradeSome 35,000 women - single, separated, widowed - are thought to have plied the trade of dressmaker or milliner in the New York City of the 1870's. Their work was necessary because off-the-rack dresses and uniforms did not yet exist.
When you needed a new garment, you had first to decide on a style. If you were uncertain, you selected from a drawing in a fashion magazine (the famous Godey's Lady's Book was only one among the many available). Then you supplied the dressmaker with the fabric, the proper color thread, the buttons and whatever lace or beads might be required.
The fabric would be cut from a ready-made paper or cotton pattern, and sometimes from a pattern cut by the dressmaker herself. But nothing could begin until your precise measurements were taken. Bodices fit in those days - fit, it is said, like wallpaper.
The dressmaker pinned, cut, pasted. You came back for a fitting. The dressmaker made adjustments. You came for another fitting. More adjustments were made. (The more skilled the maker, the fewer fittings were required; the fussier the purchaser, the more fittings were demanded.)
When everyone was satisfied, the seams of the almost-dress were ready for machine stitching. Buttonholes would have been sewn by hand, possibly by the young Gumpertzes, who may also have been assigned the tasks of "cutting the cottons," snipping off the loose threads as Bella Spewach would do on far less ambitious garments.
What would Mrs. Gumpertz have charged for her labor? If she was adept at arithmetic, she could have determined what a dress cost her to make. That is, she could have pro-rated her rent and the extra kerosene for the lamp as well as the tools of her trade - a tape measure or two, chalk, pins and needles and a magnet to pick them up when spilled, thimbles, tracing wheels, bobbins, a variety of shears, a dress form, a sewing machine - and let's not forget a replacement belt for the machine and a can of lubricating oil when its joints got cranky.
If she was not clever with figures, she would have found out what equivalently skilled dressmakers in the neighborhood were asking. We estimate she may have charged $10 for a new dress, perhaps $5.00 for remaking an old one. Remaking involved taking apart, cleaning (with benzene), perhaps reversing the fabric of the skirt so that the shine of wear would be hidden, probably adding a flounce here or a ruffle there. It was a sensible way for those whose budgets did not permit easy expenditure to keep up with fast-changing styles.
We also think Nathalia trimmed hats. With a relative in the millinery business, it would have been easy enough to get decorative items inexpensively.
Did she thrive? Clearly yes. A study published in 1863 explains that a dressmaker had only to establish her reputation "as a successful fitter and fashionable trimmer" in order to reap "handsome profits." But Nathalia need not have attained that level of achievement. Earning $7.50 or $8.00 a week would have been enough for her to pay he rent, send her children to school, and in 1885 - probably with the added help of an inheritance from her legally declared dead husband's father - to make her first move out of the increasing crowded, ethnically changing neighborhood.
In this, she would be following a pattern that still exists. As a present-day Latino told the New York Times recently, "It's the American dream. First you go where you're comfortable, make a little money, get a little English and then head for the suburbs."
In Nathalia Gumpertz's day, the German "suburb" was Yorkville. Jew and Gentile alike, those Germans who had started out and succeeded in "Kleindeutchland," the Little Germany of the Lower East Side, chose to settle in Yorkville and its environs. Nathalia and her three as-yet-unmarried daughters went initially to East 65th Street, where on July 7, 1894, at age fifty-eight, Nathalia dies of a cerebral hemorrhage.