Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Anna Lavin, July 9, 1982

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Coming to America

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Partial Transcript: --that's not quite four, not quite five, I was four and, uh, so I had a few years of schooling.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin shares that she is the oldest of her siblings, that her father studied English in Russia and that he never seemed to lose that Russian accent. She shares examples--that they lived on "Benberitchie Street" (Bainbridge) and recalls fondly his description of a ball game. She shares that she is 90, and was only four when they first immigrated to America.

Keywords: Bainbridge Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Chain migration; Russia

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

GPS: Bainbridge Street, the street where Lavin lived.
Map Coordinates: 39.940735, -75.149370
00:01:50 - Lavin's father: A button-hole maker

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Partial Transcript: What did your father do? What profession--

Segment Synopsis: Lavin explains that her father was a book-keeper in Russia for a farmer and once the family moved to America he changed his profession to button-hole maker. She also quickly explains how her mother and father met one another.

Keywords: Book keepers; Book-keepers; Button hole makers; Button-hole makers; Careers; Jobs; Work

Subjects: Employment; Families.

00:02:41 - Lavin's grandfather

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Partial Transcript: My grandfather had a, uh, uh--well, it was a, uh, stop-off for people driving through.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin shares that her grandfather ran an inn in Russia and worked in a
machine shop when he came to Philadelphia at 4th and Carpenter. He lived until he was 96 years old but lost some of his memory in the last three years of his life, which he spent in the Home of the Jewish Aged on 3rd and Spruce Streets.

Keywords: 4th Street and Carpenter Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Careers; Home of the Jewish Aged; Jewish Sheltering Home for the Aged; Jobs; Russia; Sabbath; Spruce Street and Third Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Work

Subjects: Employment; Families.; Immigrants

GPS: 3rd Street & Spruce, the location of the Home of the Jewish Aged.
Map Coordinates: 39.944744, -75.146887.
00:05:38 - Voyage from Russia to Philadelphia in 1897

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Partial Transcript: You came over in 1893 you said?

Segment Synopsis: Born in 1892, Lavin says she came with her parents and two siblings to the United States in January 1897 on the S.S. Pennland. She recalls having daily vaccinations, which left marks on her arms, and eating steamed carrots, which she hated. Her mother was sick through most of the voyage and only ate the Kosher food they had brought with them. Once they arrived at the Washington Avenue Immigration Station, they changed their name from Levitin to Lavin. The purser marked down "L-a-v-i-n".

Keywords: Immigration journey; S.S. Pennland; SS Pennland; Vaccinations; Washington Avenue Immigration Station

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

00:08:11 - Going to work at age 12

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Partial Transcript: And at 12 I went into the shop. And about two years later, there was an edict that, uh, you had to have a b--a certificate to work, children under 13--uh, from 13 years up had to have a certificate.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin says that she got her first job as a button-hole maker when she was only twelve years old, and that she continued to work for another fifty-three years. She shares that after school she carried bundles of work to her father who had his foot-powered sewing machine, which he taught her to use, and that he worked on the 4th floor of a stable at 4th and Monroe Streets. She shares that people worked until they died at their machines, which happened to a man that she worked with, and that when her mother took sick in 1913 they moved to Norma, New Jersey for a few years, where Lavin worked as a vest maker.

Keywords: 4th Street and Monroe Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Careers; Child labor legislation; Factory work; Gaslight; Jobs; Labor unions; Work

Subjects: Child labor.; Childhood; Employment; Families.

00:11:45 - Button-hole making

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Partial Transcript: Can you tell me what your father's shop was--you say he worked on the fourth floor of a stable.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin shares that her father worked in a dirty bare room with other immigrant men. When she found her first job as a buttonholer, working at a shop on 3rd and Cherry, she learned how to use the new Reece Buttonhole Machine. She was the only young girl working in this shop.

Keywords: Careers; Child labor; Jobs; Reece Button Hole Machine; Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine; Work; Working conditions

Subjects: Child labor.; Childhood; Emigration and immigration.; Employment; Immigrants

GPS: 3rd Street & Cherry Street, where Lavin worked.
Map Coordinates: 39.953029, -75.145041
00:13:25 - Ida Chestnut and the organization of the Ladies Shirtwaist Union

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Partial Transcript: And I was union-conscious because my aunts belonged to the union and, uh, one of their friends, Ida Ches--her name was Ida Chestnut and she was the one that really started the union at ladies, uh, shirtwaists...

Segment Synopsis: Lavin talks about Ladies Shirtwaist Union organizer, Ida Chestnut, and how she started the union where there were not enough sleeves for the shirts. Lavin also fondly remembers that Chestnut made her handkerchiefs.

Keywords: Careers; Ida Chestnut; International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (Philadelphia, Pa.); Jobs; Shirtwaist factories; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:16:07 - The Lavin family in Norma, New Jersey, 1913-1920

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Partial Transcript: Uh, do you remember how much you made when you started work? Or what the hours were?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin discusses her working life and supporting her family in Philadelphia and Norma, New Jersey. She remembers going out to get the workers' lunch, which entitled her to a free lunch. She made four dollars a week, while her father made six, supporting a family of 10. During the Scarlet Fever epidemic, Lavin's two youngest siblings died, at age 4 and 2, leaving fewer mouths to feed. Lavin notes that her family lived in Norma, New Jersey, from 1913 to 1920, and her brother (14 months younger than her), worked jobs in both Philadelphia and Norma. During World War I, Lavin got a job making feed bags for horses. Once they moved back to Philadelphia, she began making more money that could support the entire family.

Keywords: Careers; Illnesses; Jobs; Norma, New Jersey; Scarlet Fever epidemic; Sickness; Work; World War I

Subjects: Employment; Families.; Norma (N.J.); World War, 1914-1918

00:25:22 - Malnutrition and Soupy Island

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Partial Transcript: I'm, I'm interested in, um, how you all got by in Philadelphia before you moved to Norma.

Segment Synopsis: Asked about their lives before the move to Norma, Lavin shares that her mother was suffering from malnutrition because she fed the children but not herself, and that some aunts, who had a butter and egg store, delivered food to the house regularly. Lavin says, however, they never saw themselves as poor because in their part of Philadelphia, everyone was poor. She then recalls taking a trip to Soupy Island on the Delaware River during summer vacation, where they received tokens for milk and containers of soup. Lavin remembers going first to the Mount Vernon Grammar School and then to Fletcher School, a few blocks away, and then quitting school to work once she was 12.

Keywords: Fletcher School; Malnutrition; Mt. Vernon Grammar School (Philadelphia, Pa.); Red Bank, New Jersey

Subjects: Childhood; Education; Employment; Families.

GPS: Red Bank, New Jersey Soupy Island
Map Coordinates: 39.876382, -75.176245
00:29:05 - Life in the Front Street neighborhood

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Partial Transcript: Did the other girls your age go to work too? Was that--

Segment Synopsis: Asked to describe the Front Street neighborhood, Lavin shares her recollections of their neighbors. The Lavins lived in the 2nd floor apartment that entered through an alley. An upside down butter churn was their refrigerator. They had cold running water and had a bath every Friday afternoon, with the first child home getting the clean water, which was heated on a 2-burner kerosene stove. They washed clothes in the yard. Each apartment had 3 rooms, one on top of the other. The toilets were in the back, next to a stable. They divided the front room in half to make a bedroom, and had a coal stove in the back room. All five kids slept in a feather bed on the floor. She says that in the social room they had a chair “for each one,” and good rugs on hard wood floors that they scrubbed each week.

Keywords: Fletcher School; Front Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Front Street neighborhood; Mt. Vernon Grammar School (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Subjects: Apartments.; Dwellings; Families.; Housing.; Neighborhoods; Neighbors.

00:36:32 - Scarlet fever

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Partial Transcript: Um, what happened when a--one of the children got sick?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin talks about the death of her two little brothers, James and Benjamin, within one week of each other, during the scarlet fever epidemic. She shares that when they fumigated the house, she and the little children stayed with aunts. She ate out of the same dish with the child she fed and never got sick. She shares that when one kid got the measles they all got it. Doctors making house calls charged 50 cents.

Keywords: Citizens Republican Club; Death; Epidemic; Family doctors; Front Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Illnesses; Infant mortality; Influenza Epidemic of 1918; Measles; Pemberton Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Scarlet fever epidemic; Sickness; Thomas Jefferson Hospital

Subjects: Diseases.; Families.; Health.; Physicians

00:42:53 - Outhouses, baths, and bed sheets

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Partial Transcript: Did you all--there was an--I guess you used an outhouse out back?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin discusses the system of the outhouses and how it all worked, bathing and washing clothes once a week, and even tells a story of when the store downtown had bed sheets for sale during which she, her aunt, and her mother all went down and bought new bed sheets.

Keywords: Coal stoves; Fels-Naptha Laundry Soap; Honey wagon; Jewish markets; Outhouses; Shopping; Stores

Subjects: Families.; Plumbing.; Refuse and refuse disposal.; Sewerage.

00:50:40 - Summertime in Fairmount Park and Torah Hall

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Partial Transcript: What did your, uh--how did your parents feel about living in Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin recalls that when she was young and it was summertime, her family would ride the trolley to Fairmount Park, which only cost a nickel. She recalls this period as the “good old days.” She learned to sew at classes at the Torah Hall at 10th Street and Carpenter. She recalls a sad experience there, when all the younger girls received dolls, but she did not because she was too young.

Keywords: 10th Street and Carpenter Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Fairmount Park (Philadelphia, Pa.); Federation Building; Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Nickel Fair; Sewing classes; Torah Hall; Trolley

Subjects: Childhood; Families.; Recreation

00:52:04 - Schooling at Torah Hall

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Partial Transcript: The only thing is that I was still going to school. I went to Torah Hall. Did you ever hear of that one?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin talks about her schooling at Torah Hall, where she went to sewing classes every Sunday.

Keywords: Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Jewish Hanukah Dolls; Torah Hall

Subjects: Education

00:53:55 - On being a single woman and never learning about sex

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Partial Transcript: Aha. Did you ever have any children of your own?

Segment Synopsis: Lavin admits she never married and never bore children, explaining that she never learned either from her parents or from co-workers in the sweatshops where babies came from. She did not even know where her own siblings came from.

Keywords: "Birds and the bees"; Conception; Sex education

Subjects: Childbirth; Marriage

00:54:58 - Recollections of childhood

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Partial Transcript: Even, even the younger children like my brother sold papers on the street.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin describes her little brother’s job selling newspapers on the street for a penny or two apiece. She laughably remembers the first and probably only time she saw a thousand dollar bill at a bank. Lavin describes some of the good times she had as a child, playing stick ball and telling ghost stories with her siblings and neighborhood kids from down the street. She sometimes went to the Hebrew Literature Society and read books, as well as going to a library to borrow books. She recalls some of the stories and songs the girls would share with one another.

Keywords: 2nd and Chestnut Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 5th and Catherine Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Children; Friends; Ghost stories; Hebrew Literature Society; Stick ball

Subjects: Child labor.; Childhood; Employment; Families.; Recreation

01:01:44 - Girls' clothing, homemade & bought

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Partial Transcript: The only thing I saved for was to buy hair ribbons for the girls.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin explains how and where girls' clothing was made. Most of their clothing was made in factories, although they did have some pieces that were homemade and altered by their mom or aunts. The girls in the family constantly handed clothes down to one another; they received new clothing only twice in a year--for Passover in the spring and the High Holy Days.

Keywords: Clothes; Clothing factory; Girls clothing; Girls' clothing

Subjects: Childhood; Children's clothing.; Clothing and dress.; Families.; Women's clothing.

01:03:06 - How the Lavins became Americans

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Partial Transcript: I have a question for you here. Uh, I'm very interested in, uh, how people became Americans. For instance, your father when he came over here.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin reminisces back to the time where her dad tried to get his second papers in Salem County, New Jersey and couldn't receive them. He and his witnesses were completely drunk at the Salem County courthouse and unfortunately, his witnesses couldn't vouch for him as they were drunk. Lavin explains that her father tried very hard to assimilate to American life, by knowing all of the street names from where and around the area he lived but he could never lose that strong Russian accent.

Keywords: Accents; Assimilation

Subjects: Citizenship.; Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants

01:04:38 - Their furniture & electricity in their home

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Partial Transcript: There we had a couple of rooms, of course there were only three babies then, a couple of rooms and, uh, uh, a bureau.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin goes in depth on the type of furniture and how many rooms they had in their house on Bainbridge Street. At the time, no one in her neighborhood in South Philly had electricity. Everyone she knew had gas lights. She states the first time she remembers having electricity is when she lived on Folsom Street when she was about 45 years old.

Keywords: Electricity; Folsom Street; Gas lights

Subjects: Apartments.; Dwellings; Families.; Housing.; Neighborhoods

01:08:50 - Constant moving for the Lavin family / Lavin's first refrigerator

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Partial Transcript: It seems the family moved around quite a--

Segment Synopsis: Lavin explains how frequently her family moved. At one point in time she left Ellsworth Street and moved to Montrose Street but then returned back to Ellsworth Street because she got sick and diagnosed with Rheumatism. She states that every little thing they received was a novelty for them, whether used or not--they appreciated all of the nice things they could get. Lavin describes how many Italians had nice and expensive things. When she was 75 years old and moved to the ninth floor of the Sidney Hill Apartments and bought her first refrigerator, this is when she knew she made it in life.

Keywords: Ellsworth Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Illnesses; Montrose Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Rheumatism; Sickness; Sidney Hillman Apartments

Subjects: Apartments.; Dwellings; Families.; Housing.; Neighborhoods

01:15:11 - The flu epidemic of 1918

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Partial Transcript: I, uh--my life was, uh--after work I used to have--my mother was a sick woman and, uh, I was pretty healthy. And the only sickness in our family, real sickness was during the flu epidemic, 1918.

Segment Synopsis: Lavin talks on the horrors of the flu epidemic of 1918. She watched many of her family members die of the flu including her aunt, mother, and uncle. Even though she never had the flu, she explains how horrified and helpless Philadelphia was at the time. No one knew if there was ever going to be a cure and no one knew if the epidemic was ever going to end.

Keywords: Death; Illnesses; Influenza Epidemic of 1918; Mt. Sinai Hospital; Sickness; The Flu Epidemic of 1918

Subjects: Families.; Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919

01:20:58 - Conclusion

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Partial Transcript: I should probably let you go now.

Segment Synopsis: Charlie Hardy concludes the interview with Anna Lavin but asks if he could interview her again because he has many other topics he'd like to discuss, including becoming an American, the foods they ate, and the winter season.