Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Bertha Gruenberg, July 1, 1982

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Insularity of Philadelphians

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Partial Transcript: Could you repeat that again then?

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recounts when she first moved to Philadelphia with her husband in 1910 from Minneapolis. She tells a story about spending a weekend at a Quaker boarding house in Plymouth Meeting and meeting a ninety year old woman who thought that Gruenberg and her husband were foreigners because they were from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She also recalls that soon after she and her husband first arrived in Philadelphia, they took a trip to Atlantic City, staying at the Galen Hall hotel and seeing the Wright Brothers because they had a hangar in Atlantic City. Gruenberg thought flying airplanes was something out of a science fiction novel. Gruenberg also remembers how she wept the first time she saw Independence Hall and was surprised that foreigners were more in awe of it than Philadelphia natives.

Keywords: America Plan; Atlantic City (N.J.); Atlantic City, New Jersey; Bryn Mawr (Pa.); Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; Galen Hall Hotel--Atlantic City; Independence Hall; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Orthodox Quakers; Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania; Wright Brothers

Subjects: Minneapolis (Minn.); Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Plymouth Meeting (Pa.)

00:05:15 - From Austria to Minnesota

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Partial Transcript: I myself was brought here by my parents in 19--uh, let me see.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg talks about when she and her parents first moved to Minnesota from Vienna in 1893. They moved to Minneapolis because Gruenberg's mother did not want to raise her children in an anti-Semitic atmosphere and they had a few friends that had also moved there. She says that both of her parents came from very wealthy families and that they were both extremely bright. Gruenberg's mother knew English very well even before the move, but once they had arrived in Minnesota she went to night school to polish her English.

Keywords: Antisemitism; Europe--1893; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Night schools; Vienna, Austria

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Emigration and immigration.; Immigrants; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Language and languages.; Minneapolis (Minn.); Vienna (Austria).

GPS: Gruenberg came to the United States from Vienna, Austria.
Map Coordinates: 48.210534, 16.382798
00:06:47 - Blue laws

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Partial Transcript: But when I first saw Philadelphia--I was married on the 29th of December in 1909.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg says that she and her husband arrived in Philadelphia in 1910. She talks about people using "busy bodies" to see who was at the door so that they did not have to go downstairs to check. Gruenberg also says that nothing was open on Sundays due to Blue laws, which prohibited activities other than church. She discusses the depression she felt her first few years in Philadelphia due to these laws.

Keywords: "Busy bodies"; Blue laws (Sunday laws); Security mirrors; Sunday Blue Laws

Subjects: Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.; Religion

00:09:30 - Philadelphians' attitudes towards libraries and schools

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Partial Transcript: In Minneapolis I had been a newspaper writer.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recalls being involved in amateur theatricals in her youth. Before attending college, she worked as a cub reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, before it offered her the editorship of the women's page. She declined the position because her husband had been offered a job as a bank clerk in New York. She talks about how today, a woman giving up a job for a man would be unheard of, but it never occurred to her to take it. Gruenberg discusses how Philadelphia called its public library a "free library," which to her meant that it was a charity, which in fact was its origin. Many upper class Philadelphians belonged to private libraries. She also talks about the horrible conditions, overcrowding, and filth in the city's public schools. In Minneapolis, she would not have considered a private school, but in Philadelphia she reluctantly enrolled her daughter in Friends Select School, a Quaker school. Rich Philadelphians believed that if you or your children did not attend private libraries or schools, then you were a nobody.

Keywords: Athenaeum of Philadelphia; Free Library of Philadelphia; Friends Select School (Philadelphia, Pa.); Merchant's Exchange Building (Philadelphia, Pa.); Minneapolis Tribune; Women's Page--Minneapolis Tribune

Subjects: Education; Journalism; Journalists; Libraries.; Newspapers.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:17:45 - Prejudice in Philadelphia and joining the Philadelphia Ethical Society

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Partial Transcript: If it isn’t a name forget it.

Segment Synopsis: Due to the prejudices against immigrants in Philadelphia, Gruenberg and her husband joined the Philadelphia Ethical Society. Gruenberg tells a story of a man, Michael Hardy, who was involved in the Philadelphia Ethical Society while he was in the Navy stationed in China and did a study on early religions. Gruenberg was the chairman of archives of the Philadelphia Ethical Society and Hardy was sent to her when he came to Philadelphia. Together, they worked on a study of the first fifteen years of the Ethical Society in Philadelphia.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler; China--Naval Station; Harper's Magazine; Jewish; Kosher; Michael Hardy; Philadelphia Ethical Society; Prejudice against immigrants; Radcliffe College; Synagogues; Unitarian Church; World War I; Yom Kippur

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Immigrants; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; World War, 1914-1918

00:27:00 - The move to Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: I don't mean to divert you, but I’d be interested in--how did you, um--what brought you and your husband to Philadelphia in the first place?

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg explains that she and her husband moved to Philadelphia in 1911 when he was the first Jew hired as a Foreign Relations Expert for Brown Brothers and Company. They had originally not been sure if they were moving to New York, Philadelphia, or London. While this was happening, Gruenberg also had a job and prospect of working as a troubleshooter for Abraham and Straus, recently relocated to Philadelphia. When working for the Minneapolis Tribune, Gruenberg wrote the first Shopper Girl column in the country.

Keywords: Abraham & Straus Department Store; Abraham and Straus--Philadelphia; Brown Brothers and Company--London; Brown Brothers and Company--New York; Brown Brothers and Company--Philadelphia; London (England); New York City (N.Y.)

Subjects: Employment; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Journalism; Journalists; Newspapers.

00:29:00 - Southwark Settlement House

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Partial Transcript: When we got to Philadelphia, there was not an apartment to rent.

Segment Synopsis: When the Gruenbergs first arrived in Philadelphia, it was difficult for them to find an apartment to rent because Philadelphia was a city of home-ownership. Gruenberg speculates that the industries in Kensington were able to regulate their workforce, including the communist presence, by encouraging home-ownership rather than renting. The Gruenbergs rented a place at 1523 North 28th Street in Brewerytown, but she felt bored and lonely. They began volunteering at Southwark Settlement House at Ellsworth and Front, soon living there as residents, running the milk station, and eventually serving as Assistant to the Head Worker of the settlement, making $0 a year and having to pay board to live there. Southwark Settlement House had bed bugs and as Gruenberg describes it, "just about everything else you can imagine." She also says that on Ellsworth Street there were always drunks in the middle of the sidewalk.

Keywords: 1523 North 28th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Bedbugs; Communists; Front Street and Ellsworth Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Homeownership; Kensington (Philadelphia neighborhood); Philadelphia Ethical Society; Settlement houses in Philadelphia; Southwark Settlement House

Subjects: Housing; Neighborhoods.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:33:42 - The Philadelphia College Settlement

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Partial Transcript: Well, one day, John Lovejoy Elliot, who was assis--first assistant to Felix Adler, the founder of the New York Ethical, came to visit.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg talks about meeting Anna Davies, the head worker of the Philadelphia College Settlement in a predominately Jewish-Irish neighborhood. The Gruenbergs asked Davies if they could come to the settlement as residents and she accepted. They lived in the Philadelphia College Settlement from 1911 until 1913 when they took charge of adult immigrant education. While the Gruenbergs were giving classes to the adult immigrants, Davies decided to create a ceremony for when immigrants received their citizenship papers. During this time, Mr. Gruenberg had been offered a job at Newman and Sons, the largest cotton broker in the world, in New Orleans, but the Gruenbergs had heard that a Jewish man had been lynched there, due to his relations with a black woman, and decided that Mr. Gruenberg would not take the job. At the same time, Mr. Gruenberg had been offered a job for the Bureau of Municipal Research as a Specialist in Municipal Government for less money, so this is what he elected to do. Gruenberg also tells a story about when Davies rented a summer home in Swarthmore and a black woman was let in through the front door, unheard of at that time.

Keywords: Adult immigrant education; Americanization classes; Anna Davies--Philadelphia College Settlement; Bureau of Municipal Research; College Settlement (Philadelphia, Pa.); Frederick Paul Gruenberg; Jane Addams; Lusitania; Newman & Sons; Newman and Sons--New Orleans; Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Education; Employment; Housing; Immigrants; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Language and languages.; Neighborhoods.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Race relations

00:40:40 - Impressions of the settlement house population and prejudice in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: I’d be interested in finding out some more about the, uh--what, what were the im--the immigrants were like.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recalls that in Southwark Settlement House, illiterate third and fourth generation Irish-Americans came to learn the alphabet and how to read, in order to join the army. Gruenberg says that "proper people" never bothered with the areas where settlements were located. She says that there were two sections of College Settlement: one on Lombard Street for the Irish, and one on Christian Street for Jews. Gruenberg states that the Irish from Lombard Street had never been to Center City because they did not leave their neighborhood, even though it was only a five minute walk. This was shocking to her because she grew up with "the world as her oyster." Gruenberg tells a story about trying to open a charge account at Gimbels, but she was informed that since she lived in an apartment and did not own a house, she could not get one.

Keywords: Christian Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); College Settlement (Philadelphia, Pa.); Gimbel's (Gimbel Brothers Department Store); Illiteracy; Irish Americans--Philadelphia; Jewish Neighborhood (Philadelphia, Pa.); Lombard Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Settlement houses in Philadelphia; Southwark Settlement House

Subjects: Education; Housing; Immigrants; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Language and languages.; Neighborhoods.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Race relations

00:44:13 - Thoughts on the "Free" Library of Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: But the free library and public schools were my bête noire.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg says that the Free Library of Philadelphia and the city's public schools are her "bête noire." She tells a story about how she recently read an article on free libraries by Dan Rottenberg. Gruenberg says that Rottenberg's article was very compelling and suggested that there be a fee for free libraries in order to change the name. Gruenberg believes that since we are a democracy, powered by the people, citizens should be able to change its name.

Keywords: Dan Rottenberg; Free Library of Philadelphia; Journalists

Subjects: Education; Libraries.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:45:30 - Married women at the Philadelphia Normal School for Girls

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Partial Transcript: I left college at the end of my sophomore year because I went to get married.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recalls that she left college at the end of her sophomore year to get married. Gruenberg tells a story of how she wanted to finish her degree when she came to Philadelphia, so she went to the Philadelphia Normal School for Girls at 17th Street and Spring Garden Street to enroll. She told the man at the desk her name and that she wanted to enroll and he informed her that she was not eligible to enroll because they did not accept, nor did they hire, married women. This caused her disbelief.

Keywords: 17th Street and Spring Garden Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Philadelphia High School for Girls

Subjects: Education; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:46:38 - Participation in the women's suffrage movement

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Partial Transcript: Were you a, uh, Suffragette then?

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg discusses her early involvement in the women's suffrage movement in Philadelphia. She recalls her husband marching in a suffragists' parade in Philadelphia in 1912. Gruenberg says that young kids who had been sitting on the curb yelled a joke to him about his masculinity as he was walking in the parade, but he just laughed it off.

Keywords: Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch; Suffragette parade--Philadelphia (Pa.); Women's suffrage

Subjects: Voting; Women's rights; Women--Suffrage

00:48:16 - The Women's Birth Control League

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Partial Transcript: But, I helped stage the first birth control meeting in Philadelphia in 1916.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recounts organizing the first meeting for the Women’s Birth Control League in Philadelphia in 1916. When this meeting was originally staged, there were only about 20 people who were part of the organization: a few socialists, two women from the Main Line suburbs, and elite women with money. After struggling to find a place to meet, Gruenberg received a call from a woman in the New Century Club located on 12th Street and Walnut Street, offering their building. An overflow crowd came to hear Margaret Sanger speak. A few years later, the Women's Birth Control League changed its name to Planned Parenthood, which made Gruenberg angry, leading her to no longer do much with the organization. In the late 1970s, Gruenberg received an invitation to speak at Planned Parenthood's fiftieth anniversary. She accepted and she spoke about the era during which self-abortion was a main cause of death for women. She received a standing ovation.

Keywords: 12th Street and Walnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Margaret Sanger; New Century Club; Planned Parenthood; The Women's Birth Control League; Women's Birth Control League

Subjects: Abortion.; Birth control.; Contraception.; Reproductive rights.; Women's rights

00:53:49 - Settlement House dramatic productions

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Partial Transcript: In your work at, at, um, either of the settlements, did you, uh--there must’ve been problem with too many children in--amongst the immigrants.

Segment Synopsis: She thinks of the Southwark Settlement House as "an oasis" because the volunteers were able to open up opportunities for the immigrants. Gruenberg taught English classes, but she was mostly interested in dramatics and theater. She recalls her involvement with the dramatics group at the College Settlement. In 1912, the dramatics group put on a production of "Alice in Wonderland" at the theater space of the Curtis Publishing Company. When the Gruenbergs lived at the College Settlement, their residence was at what soon became the Music Settlement at 416 Queen Street. Gruenberg’s husband was friends with Cyrus H.K. Curtis through the Bureau of Municipal Research board. The Gruenbergs received a call from a friend of theirs in Minneapolis who was involved in the Home Dramatics Club there. He asked if Curtis would buy stories from the Saturday Evening Post and put them in Warner Brothers movies. Cyrus declined the offer.

Keywords: 416 Queen Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Alice in Wonderland; Americanization classes; College Settlement House; Curtis Publishing Company; Cyrus H.K. Curtis; Home Dramatics Club--Minneapolis; Settlement Music School; Southwark Settlement House

Subjects: Amateur theater.; Emigration and immigration.; Housing; Immigrants; Language and languages.; Neighborhoods.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Theater.

00:57:53 - Religious ignorance

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Partial Transcript: You see, I'm, I'm--now one of the things that used to rile me so, in those days, women who were still of the child-bearing age could not get any life insurance.

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg recalls that her friend Martha Lippincott got the Gruenbergs a summer house in Maple Shade, New Jersey, where they stayed with an elderly couple. When they first arrived, Gruenberg told the woman that they were Jewish and she had no idea what that meant. Gruenberg then explained to her that Christ was Jewish, but the woman still did not understand. Every Sunday that summer, the couple asked the Gruenbergs to attend church, but they just politely declined. Gruenberg then tells a story about a devotedly Christian woman stating that “you,” meaning Jews, “killed Christ.” She also recalls having a Christian assistant who regularly distributed religious tracts.

Keywords: Delancey Place (Philadelphia, Pa.); J. B. Lippincott & Co.; Life Magazine; Maple Shade, New Jersey; Martha Lippincott--Volunteer at Southwark House; Plays and Players Theatre (Philadelphia theater company); Religious intolerance

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Religion

01:03:35 - Politics, corruption, and defensive Philadelphians

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Partial Transcript: Can I--were, were you all interested in politics when you came to the city, active at all?

Segment Synopsis: Gruenberg notes that she was not politically active, but her husband was extremely active. She recalls after the Rudolph Blankenburg mayoral administration, Philadelphia politics became very corrupt. Gruenberg states that the article, “Corrupt and Contented” by Lincoln Steffens got her husband interested in civic work. Gruenberg recalls the powerful Republican Vare Machine, and how the Democratic Party did not have a chance. She says that the city neglected the streets, the public schools, and other public services, observing that people with civic power sent their children to private schools, and those left in the public schools simply did not care. Gruenberg notes that her husband wrote an article on the Free Library of Philadelphia for the Bureau of Municipal Research and a man, Ashworth, who was a head librarian, wrote a review saying, "who is Gruenberg anyway? He's not even a Philadelphian." Gruenberg concluded that if you were not a Philadelphian, then that disqualified you from having a say in things.

Keywords: Bureau of Municipal Research; Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia; Edwin Rothman; Frederick Paul Gruenberg; Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Lincoln Steffens; Pennsylvania Economy League; Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented (article); Political corruption; Republican Party (Philadelphia); Rudolph Blankenburg (Mayor of Philadelphia, 1912-16); Smedley Darlington Butler; Vare Machine

Subjects: Education; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Political corruption; Politics and government