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JEWISH HOUSEHOLD HEIRLOOMS
By Ann Rabinowitz

Many times, you may find that you are in possession of a household heirloom which you inherited from your ancestors. You will look at the item and wonder what and how it was used. Perhaps you will look at its design and think about what kind of material it is made from or where it came from originally. Its age also may tickle your curiosity.

What follows next are some short essays, originally posted on the JewishGen/Litvak SIG Digests during the High Holidays, September 28-October 4, 2008. They are brief explanations of the role that some of these everyday items played in the lives of our ancestors. They very often meant so much that they were carted over long distances to foreign countries far away from their ancestral shtetls.


More Than Just a Pair of Candlesticks

In retrospect, I ought to explain that I have always been enamored with candlesticks. They have had a strange fascination for me with their fantastic variety of shapes, forms and designs. Over the years, I have collected various types be they metal, porcelain, glass, or otherwise. I have often wondered who had used them and where they had come from before they landed on my table.

With this in mind, I attended a meeting of the JGS of Palm Beach County,Inc. (JGSPBCI) where the speaker, Rafi Guber, was scheduled to help provide identification for member-owned Judaica. In the aftermath of this meeting, I happened to speak to JGSPBCI member Helene Seaman.She had with her an five-branched candelabra that she wanted to have identified and which had belonged to her grandmother, Hudel Glik Barkan, from Dusetos, Lithuania. When the speaker was unable to assist her directly, I told her that I would help her identify her family heirloom.

Helene sent me a picture of her item and I noted the hallmark on the underside of it: Derby S.P., Co., #02572. When I saw that, I realized that the item was not a foreign one made in “der heim” as she had thought, but one whose provenance had originated in the United States.

The Derby S.P., Co. inscription represented the Derby Silver Plate Company which was founded in Derby (originally Birmingham),Connecticut in 1873. At some point in the early 20th Century, Derby joined the International Silver Company which had been founded in 1898 in Meriden, Connecticut.

This company was a conglomeration of a number of independent silver manufacturers and they specialized in making “silver-plated hollowware including pitchers, bowls, mugs, teapots, coffee pots and trays”. Candlesticks and candelabra were also produced by the company, especially what were called wedding candelabra. These items were used at the wedding itself as well as at the reception. In addition, one often found that the groom’s family would give the bride a gift of candlesticks which were used during the ceremony and thereafter.

In all probability, Helene’s grandmother had purchased the candelabra at some point after she had established her household in America.Its elaborate design was symbolic of a time when intricate ornamentation was commonplace and expected. It had come just prior to the next generation of modern clean-cut designs for household items such as candlesticks.

Following this candlestick inquiry, another individual, Shelly Levin, then posted on JewishGen about wanting to identify a wonderful gift that she had just been given. The gift was a pair of brass candlesticks from Szczuczyn, Poland, that had belonged to her great grandmother Nechama Milewicz-Lipowicz. Evidently, Nechama had brought these candlesticks to America in 1939 and Shelly had been told that they had been passed down in her family for over 300 plus years or so.It is always a blessing to receive such a gift which exemplifies family history over such a long period of time.

In response to Shelly’s inquiry, I told her that brass candlesticks were quite popular in the period from the 1600's onward when her great grandmother ancestor’s had reputedly obtained the candlesticks. They were a staple in the Galician woman's arsenal of household items along with her "perina" or goose-down comforter or duvet. Many women prided themselves on their candlesticks which were the main, or sometimes perhaps, the only adornment of their Shabbat table, especially in poorer households.

In fact, my grandmother, Rose Oxenberg Fink, had a number of candlesticks and candelabras of various sizes and shapes which she used on the Shabbat table and which were later divided and given to each of her four daughters. However, the one's given to my mother were supposedly purchased secondhand in 1901 when my grandmother arrived in Manchester, England, from Drogobych, Ukraine.The candlesticks had "Made in England" stamped on the underside. This was her first purchase when setting up her new household as had been the case with Helene Seaman’s grandmother when she settled in America.

At the time, Great Britain produced the best quality of brass in the world; particularly that created in Birmingham, England.The candlesticks were later electroplated with silver which was commonly done and this eventually wore off requiring “re-silvering”.This spawned a whole industry to meet the need for upkeep on the candlesticks.

Many of the British brass products were exported and it is possible that Shelly’s great grandmother's candlesticks could have had a British origin, if there was a hallmark on the side or underside to that effect. However, it is more likely though that the candlesticks were made locally or in a nearby larger city close to where her great grandmother lived in Galicia.

Along with the butcher and the baker, the candlestick maker was an important facet of urban existence for not only Jewish housewives,but the entire community. Many times, housewives purchased their candlesticks from local craftsmen or at the markets in their Shtetl or from peddlers who traveled on a regular circuit through their communities. If the Shtetl were large enough, there would have even been actual stores where the candlesticks could be purchased and which were often called “colonial goods” stores as they were in Lithuania.

An example of such “colonial goods” was the brass “Made in England” candlesticks purchased by Leah Fein Cohen, a resident of Kupiskis, Lithuania. She bought them from a dealer in her Shtetl and then carried them through Europe, sailed with them across the Atlantic Ocean and finally arrived with them in New York in 1893. They were treasured by her, until her death in 1918, when they passed to her daughter and thence to her granddaughter, Linda Cantor, who has them to this day.

Candlesticks are quite interesting in conformation and shape and you can sometimes determine their origins by this alone. Many were constructed in parts and bolted together. They were made from many different metal materials, from the most expensive such as gold to silver,silver-plate, bronze, and to the least expensive which was brass. In addition, there were also wooden candlesticks as well as ceramic, porcelain, and glass or crystal candlesticks which became popular as well.

In regard to my grandmother's candlesticks, they were the only things that survived, along with the tablecloth they were on, after the family home was destroyed during the World War II Blitz in Manchester, England. I came to think of them as literal survivors as the Jews were. Unfortunately, I was not in possession of the candlesticks after my mother passed away and they disappeared last year and are no longer part of the family heritage. It was a poignant moment when I learned of their loss.

In regard to my grandmother's candlesticks, they were the only things that survived, along with the tablecloth they were on, after the family home was destroyed during the World War II Blitz in Manchester, England. I came to think of them as literal survivors as the Jews were. Unfortunately, I was not in possession of the candlesticks after my mother passed away and they disappeared last year and are no longer part of the family heritage. It was a poignant moment when I learned of their loss.

An interesting sidelight of Morris Rich’s story is that he opened the first wood-turning shop in Miami and catered to many celebrities,commercial enterprises and governments with his skilled expertise.His brother, Abe Rich, on the other hand, chose to use his wood-turning ability as a carver of pool cues in America. In his small store in Miami Beach, Florida, he came to produce some of the finest cues available which were used by many celebrities and professional pool players. You can read more about Abe and his famous pool cues at: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/1996-07-25/news/shooting-straight/full

As a final note, when I was writing this article, I asked Linda Cantor for a photograph of her grandmother’s candlesticks. Imagine my surprise, when I saw them for the first time and realized that they were eerily reminiscent of my mother’s candlesticks that had been lost.Here were Linda’s candlesticks obtained in Kupiskis,Lithuania, and mine which had been obtained in Manchester, England,at about the same time, and they were identical!!!This confirms the remarkable extent to which international trade played in the distribution of everyday goods such as candlesticks to our ancestor’s shtetls and towns.

In conclusion, passing down precious family heirlooms, such as candlesticks, are an important responsibility. Something more critical though is to give your descendants a sense of how these heirlooms played an integral part in the history of your family and the Jewish people. Learn more about your heirlooms and take digital photos of them and attach their histories, so that your children and grandchildren will appreciate what they are and where they came from. You won’t be sorry you did this and neither will your descendants.

oldBrassCandleSticks

Shelly Levin’s

300-yr.old Brass Candlesticks
woodenCandleSticks

Author Ann Rabinowitz’s

Wooden Candlesticks
BrassSticks.jpg

Linda Cantor’s

British-Made Brass Sticks
Candelabra

Helene Seaman’s

Candelabra

MORTARS AND PESTELS

The other day, after reading my article on heirloom candlesticks in "Scattered Seeds", Winter, 2008 edition, published by the Jewish Genealogy Society of Palm Beach County, Inc., Howard Margol mentioned to me that his great grandmother had passed down to him candlesticks and a brass mortar and pestle. In addition, Saul Issroff also mentioned that a mortar and pestle had been handed down to him as well from his family in Linkuva, Lithuania.

My response was that the essential elements of a Jewish domestic goddess in those days were her candlesticks, her mortar and pestle, and her perina or feather comforter and perhaps her samovar. These were items which traveled with her wherever she went and settled.

It brought to mind to consider what use did Howard's and Saul's ancestresses have for the mortar and pestle. While not a kitchen staple today, the mortar and pestle did heavy duty in our Litvak and other kitchens of yore. The mortar and pestle's history derives from ancient roots as far back as Egypt (1550 B.C.E.) and biblical times (Old Testament, Numbers 11:8 and Proverbs 27:22) and it can be found on many continents and in many cultures.It has taken many forms and sizes depending on the use it was put to.It has been made from such materials as wood, brass, marble, stone, ceramic or porcelain.

Image

Antique Russian Brass Mortar and Pestle

The mortar and pestle were used to grind herbs and spices for cooking such as horseradish root, garlic, sesame seeds, and cinnamon sticks.There was also the pervasive use of nuts in Jewish cooking which would have required the services of a mortar and pestle, along with perhaps cooking grains, matzo meal and even grinding meat.Most of all, it would have been used for preparing coffee beans where coffee grinders were not available or did not do as good a job.The mortar and pestle was also the basic tool for preparing any medicinal items for use in family illnesses.

There were even miniature mortars and pestles which were made just for the use of future kitchen mavens. This was an easy means for “bubbes” to instill in the “kinder” knowledge of the Jewish culinary arts. Many a time, the child, from the earliest age, was coached carefully on how to prepare nuts for baking or other such skills which gave them a feeling of participating in the baking process.

As our ancestors became modernized and began to purchase more items from retail stores rather than preparing them from scratch in their own kitchens, the use of the mortar and pestle came into disuse. So, if any of you find, like Howard and Saul did, that you have this "ancient" kitchen implement handed down to you, you should treasure it. It is a reminder of the days when Jewish mothers put in a hard day's work to prepare their family's meals and put fresh food on the table under sometimes difficult and trying circumstances.

PERINAS

One of the most important items in the Jewish domestic goddess' arsenal of household necessities was the perina. The perina was what we would call today a coverlet or duvet. It was filled to capacity, often with as much as fifty pounds, of soft goose feathers or down. For those too impecunious to afford feathers, they stuffed their perina with straw or hay.

In my mother's childhood in Manchester, England, her parents, originally from Drogobych and Boryslaw, Ukraine, kept several geese in the backyard of their row house. These were not only for their future purpose on the family table, but as a source of feathers for the perinas.

The white glossy geese, large and luxuriantly feathered, were treated like royalty and fed indulgently by the children in the family. They were even given a vanny or tin tub filled with water to splash about in. My grandparents were not the only ones to have geese and it was a common sight in the backyards, if they had them, of many immigrant Jews. For those who did not have their own personal source of feathers, there were always places to purchase them at market or from local purveyors.

The use of a perina for bedding purposes was well-known. Many were given as wedding presents to the new bride and groom to start their households off on the right foot. It was a mitzvah for mothers and other female relatives to pick just the right feathers of the best quality for such a present and what a lot of work went into making the perfect perina. Some perina makers even chose to insert written blessings and coins or other money as a gift to the recipient to ensure good luck.

Another use for the perina was as a vehicle for transporting the family's valuables when they had to move. They spread out their perina and put their valuables in it such as their candlesticks, mortar and pestle, and pictures, and then tied it up tightly. Off the family went either walking, if they were in dire circumstances, or,in a horse and cart, if they could afford it, and thence to the train or boat.

These valuable bundles were treasured and kept close to the family as they traveled long distances to their final destinations. When they arrived, they untied their perina", unpacked it, aired it out, fluffed it up, and it was just as good as before. Where the immigrant landed up in a tenement, one could see thousands of the perinas hanging out windows and from balconies as they took the air to freshen them up. In addition, one of the daily rituals was for the perinas to be shaken and fluffed in order to get the feathers equally distributed and comfortable once again.

MaggieLand

Courtesy “Harper’s 1898, Maggie Land Blanck Collection

If the perina has suffered any abuse in its transition to the new location, it could very easily be cleaned, the feathers replaced and all would be well.The original feathers though held a poignant memory for the owners as they were from der heim and many kept a few of these as a keepsake or made them into smaller pillows.

It was the relatives and the ancestral shtetl that were given life by the use of the perina in the new country. It was those things which were to be destroyed almost entirely by the dislocations and pogroms following World War I and by the Holocaust of World War II.

So,now, when you go to the department store of your choice and see the huge variety of down comforters or duvets, some of the designer variety with exorbitantly costly feathers, remember the origins of this very handy household item and how well it served your ancestors. Perhaps, you too, will want to give one as a wedding present to bless the union of a new Jewish couple.

CHOLENT POT

The dish, cholent, is spelled many other ways such as shalet or even cassoulet. It is made in a variety of combinations of ingredients such as beans and potatoes with either meat or without, and has been called the most ancient meal in the world. It is something quite suitable to eat during the Rosh Hashanah holiday which commemorates the birthday of the world.

It was made in either a metal or a clay pot and set either over a slow-burning wood fire, over coals, or in an oven.The even heat and the tightly sealed lid of the metal or clay pot enabled the meal to cook thoroughly and retain moisture.Sometimes, the dessert portion of the meal, a kugel,was prepared in a clay pot which was set inside the bigger metal pot. It was certainly an all-in-one dish for the entire family and where funds were not in great supply, the vegetarian version of the cholent was quite tasty and filling.

The custom developed in Jewish shtetls for each housewife to prepare her cholent in whatever way she liked, seal the cholent pot, label it and take it to the communal bakery. There, the baker took these cholent pots and put them in his large oversized oven and let them cook overnight. The next day, the pots were picked up by each family and taken to the table ready to eat.

BialystokWomen

Bialystok women carry cholent pots to the baker’s oven on a Friday afternoon. Courtesy, “Forverts”, November 20, 1932.

It made for a very simple and ingenious means of slow cooking ingredients so that Jews could have a hot meal on shabbat without firing up the stove or other means of cooking which was not allowed.

The pots themselves were either made locally by potters or brought in from shtetls further a field.Many purchased their pots on market day and they usually had a big variety to choose from.Some places had clay which was superior to others and the pots became well-known for better cooking qualities or for their unique design.They came in various sizes to suit the family or their income.These pots were the basics in a Jewish household as they were used every week and sometimes more.

Today,one would use an electric crock pot, perhaps a Dutch oven or even a fancier version of the original clay pot. However, the original pot is still the best and easiest to use for an authentic dish. For those who have such heirloom pots, you can now imagine how many wonderful family meals were made using this item.

In the 1920's-1940's in Brooklyn, NY, there was a restaurant called Dave’s Blue Room whose customer base was from every known Jewish place, but many were Litvaks, particularly those from Minsk guberniya. It was well-known for Jewish-style cooking and families gathered there regularly to partake of the delicious fare.The food was spread out in a smorgasbord manner on the counter and diners were welcome to eat what they liked. As you know,Jews are great restaurant goers, so the variety and quality of the food at Dave’s Blue Room was quite a draw to crowds of people.

One thing the restaurant was known for was its cholent.What the customers did not know was that it was not made in the oven as in days of yore as everyone thought, but was cooked on top of the stove and tasted every bit as good, if not better.Due to the heaviness of the dish, the cholent was most popular during the fall and winter months and there was nothing like a seltzer accompaniment and a good nap after such a filling meal.

Nowadays,one would be hard-pressed to find cholent on a menu or even locate a cholent pot. However, for those who have such heirloom cholent pots, I encourage you to follow in the path of your ancestors and make a cholent. Enjoy its essential simplicity and roots in our ancient heritage.

SAMOVARS,SBITEN AND BLACK TEA

Let me ask you a good riddle. What is Russian, heavy, copper or silver, and can produce hot drinks? Ah, I knew you would guess . . . it is a samovar. Samovars are the Russian heating gadget which combines a teapot with a hot water heater. It is the beloved item that your ancestors schlepped with them and now should be a well-cared for heirloom sitting on your sideboard or table.

Developed in the Tula area of Russia, just south of Moscow, and first manufactured in 1778, samovars have played a vital role in Russian history. This household item was made from various materials,but basically copper and used charcoal or kerosene to heat the water in its main body.

There were known to be over 165 different types of samovars and it was formed in various ways such as pear-shaped, vase-shaped, wine glass-shaped, and cylindrical-shaped. Usually, it was kept hot throughout the day and could produce over forty cups of water, if called for.

Rubanenko

The Rubanenko Family, 1918, Daugavpils, Latvia (Shown with samovar and tea service)

Used initially to produce the ancient spiced honey concoction "sbiten",the samovar helped make this popular drink reign supreme during the long cold winter months. Gaining wide currency in Russia,"sbiten" was similar to mead and other honey-based drinks. It was made from water, honey and berries and then a variety of spices dependent on the recipe of the maker. These spices or herbs were St. John's Wort, Valerian, sage, ginger, bay leaves, and others such as cinnamon, cloves, etc.

Eventually,black tea from Mongolia was first brought as a gift to Tzar Alexis in 1618 by the Chinese and was later added to the samovar's repertoire.Tea overtook "sbiten" in popularity and became the mainstay of the samovar. In actuality, tea came to be flavored with sugar, honey or jam and therefore combined the sweet attributes of both tea and "sbiten".

By 1735, certain customs for drinking tea emerged such as drinking the tea through a lump of sugar held between one's teeth. Many of you will remember such a custom from your grandparents or parents when they made a "glassele te". Many dropped a dollop of jam into the tea too and I seem to remember blackberry jam being a favorite. Usually, the tea was drunk from a glass and perhaps,from a jam jar, if nothing more suitable was available.How strange and exotic it must have seemed to you, little knowing how old and ancient a custom it was.

Not only was tea the drink of choice throughout the Russian Empire, much of it was produced and distributed not only by the famous British companies, but by a Jewish firm, the Wissotzky Tea Company.The company was founded officially in 1849 by Kalman "Kolonimus" Zeev Wissotzky, who was born in Zagare, Lithuania, on July 8, 1824.

Started in Zagare, a main office and factory was opened in Moscow where the family was able to gain approval to reside. Eventually, a London branch was opened in 1908 by Ahad ha-Am aka Asher Ginsburg,who was one of the great pre-state Zionist thinkers.Eventually, the family left Russia due to the Russian Revolution and was forced to settle and continue their business enterprise elsewhere. Therefore, an Israeli branch was opened in 1922 and a factory was added in 1936.

Tea was a drink that conjured up the Jewish spirit of camaraderie and hospitality and enabled the everyday to fade into one where a bit of rest and a chat was important and expected.The ritual of heating the water and preparing for one's tea break was heartening.Sitting with one's friends and discussing the topics of the day, be they religion, politics or the like, struck a cord with people who had no television or movies to enlighten them, only their mental capabilities which they could stretch in discussions such as these.

According to Rabbi Richard Newman of Temple Israel in Cape Town, SA, the samovar and its noisy boiling “chainik” or teapot which sat on top of the samovar heater has even become part of Yiddish colloquialisms. Many a bubbe would say to her grandchildren when they were being too boisterous: Hak mir nisht kayn chainik which meant “don’t bang on my teapot”, but which came to mean “stop annoying me”.

As the fall season is now upon us, the leaves are turning colors in many places and the soon to be chilly winds of winter will begin.Think of your samovar and how it kept the chill away during those long Russian winters of the past. See, if you can, once again,use it to brew that wonderful cup of tea and slip in a bit of honey or jam to make it just that bit more special. And then, ask a few friends in for a chat. Ah, perfection . . .

SINGER SEWING MACHINES

One of the household items which brought the 20th Century forcefully to Europe was the sewing machine.Tasks that had previously been tedious and time-consuming could be done in half the time.Projects could be undertaken at home which would bring in money for the family. In industrialized Western Europe, in such countries as England, people readily set up workshops to make clothing and raincoats, often in their own homes.

SingerSewing.jpg

Antique Singer Sewing Machine

There were simple sewing machines from 1790 on, but the name which became synonymous with sewing machines was Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875), who was born in Pittstown, NY.

Some say his father was a German Jew, but this has not been confirmed. He patented his first machine in 1851 and developed his company based on several critically simple principles: a credit plan to enable purchase by new owners, a singularly aggressive force of agents and salesmen who spanned the globe, an education component for training owners, a continuing maintenance force and finally, a remarkably creative advertising team and budget. All combined to make Singer a well-known worldwide phenomenon and successful multi-national.

The Singer Company was particularly aggressive in spreading their product throughout Europe and Russia. Their most successful agent was Frederick Neidlinger who came to run the Singer operations in Northern Europe. As he was a German and the Singer name was considered to be a German one, and many of the top management were Germans, the company was considered to be a German-owned one as well.

This was somewhat of a problem during wartime when employees were sometimes considered German spies. In the case of the staff in Lithuania and Warsaw, they were arrested during World War I with the women being released finally and the men sent to Siberia, many never to return.

This was somewhat of a problem during wartime when employees were sometimes considered German spies. In the case of the staff in Lithuania and Warsaw, they were arrested during World War I with the women being released finally and the men sent to Siberia, many never to return.

 

In the Baltic, for instance, they had company agents in many towns, both big and small, with headquarters in Vilna. These agents not only sold the machines known as siuvamoji masina in Lithuanian, but provided maintenance and training in how to use them. Owning such a modern machine, if only manually operated,was considered a wonderful opportunity to gain future employment. Women signed up for the classes in large numbers.

In addition, the Singer Company not only sold to Jews, but they hired them as well along with other ethnic groups. As a result, virtually all of the employees in the Ukrainian towns of Kiev, Kozlov and Odessa were Jewish. The job was well-paid and responsible and, in some cases, required that the salesmen memorize the entire repertoire of Singer models which was quite extensive.

The sewing machine was considered a treasured household item, especially since the owner was responsible for its continuing payments for some time. One could hardly do without it and it became an indispensable part of the family.

In times when department stores had not yet become the norm and tiny shtetls had very few commercial resources, the sewing machine enabled individuals to become successful tailors and many traveled with their sewing machine on their back as they took orders from place to place. In addition, householders could create clothing for their entire family with ease. In many family photos, one can see that the same cloth or fabric was used to make everyone’s dress, although some had differently designed collars or sleeves.

I particularly remember one photo of my father’s relatives in Kupiskis, Lithuania, where the women were all attired surprisingly in polka-dotted fabric, the older women with more conservative necklines and the younger with more modern fashionable ones. I thought how modern they managed to look in their home-made clothing.

My maternal grandfather, one the other hand, was a bespoke tailor who had been taken from his home in Drogobych, Ukraine, to Vienna, to be apprenticed. From there, he had been forcibly inducted into Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s Imperial Army and then finally he was able to settle in Manchester, England.

In order to practice his tailoring trade, he purchased a Singer machine which he used at home on Cheetwood Street which was located in Manchester’s Strangeways’ district. As did many tailors, he sang and hummed while he worked. His favorite songs derived from his brief time with Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s Imperial Army and he sang them with gusto as he sewed. One of these was the “Radetzky March”, which he would hum in a loud voice.

My mother, the youngest child in the family, remembered these ditties decades later from the times she would sit at my grandfather’s feet as he sewed. She too could sing them in the same manner. Not to leave the Yiddish favorites out in the cold, my grandfather sang them too, especially the ones from the music halls which were so prevalent then and which he visited quite often with his friends. His favorite was the Palace Theater which he visited every Thursday.

He did not sew alone on Cheetwood Street as there were many small factories and home industries there. The immigrant residents either worked in a factory in the street or somewhere else. The backstreet houses, as they were called, had several floors and, many times, one room or an entire floor was devoted to some aspect of the sewing business for raincoats or other clothing.

How did people know to utilize my grandfather’s services? Word of mouth was always a sure indicator of finding a good tradesman.However, my mother’s oldest sister Bessie spoke and wrote in English quite well and she used to prepare the text or copy for newspaper ads in the Yiddish and British papers. This brought in many non-Jewish clients who otherwise would not have known of my grandfather’s expertise.Three of his favorite customers from the music halls were Vesta Tilley, Ellen Terry and Marie Lloyd, whose personal finery as well as stage clothing he made on a regular basis.

Having such a sewing machine in the household provided intimate knowledge of a piece of equipment that would later provide occupations for the children in the family too.My mother’s brothers learned the various aspects of sewing and opened raincoat factories on their own.Her older sisters also worked in various capacities in the industry such as my Aunty Ada, who was a skilled pattern hand.

Not to be outdone, my mother told her older brothers that she too could operate machinery due to watching my grandfather on his Singer machine. After much heated discussion, between her brothers, Ike,Harry and Ben, she was allowed to try the complicated button-hole machine in their factory. She passed the test with flying colors and became the star button-holer.She was just fourteen, at the time,and found that it was a much more likeable and better paying job than her previous one of covering buttons in a waterproof factory on Great Ducie Street.

Speaking of buttons, many families kept a button tin or box with various kinds of buttons. In those days, decorative tins were quite popular and used for many purposes including that of button storage. Many were handed down from generation to generation of sewers and they were kept in a drawer of the sewing machine cabinet or other place nearby.

I remember quite vividly that my mother brought her father’s button tin with her when she came to America. It had a dark purplish tinge to it and had dents galore. The beautifully printed paper label on it had long ago ceased to exist, but to me that did not matter. It contained a fabulous collection of mysterious items of all different shapes, sizes and materials. As a child I played with the tin as my mother had until it was worn and dented beyond further use. It was a sad day when we had to retire that lovely tin and replace it with another.

In the 1950’s, my mother purchased a Singer machine with a cabinet as my grandfather before her had. Its many drawers were always filled with numerous items of interest for children such as pin cushions and thimbles and we always added a bit more of our own to the collections there. The machine lasted for decades until it was too old to use anymore and my mother replaced it with an electric portable.

Nowadays, many people do not have sewing machines anymore and it is no longer the staple of the household that it once was. Clothing is cheaper and readily available to all in stores. Most women work and do not have the time to engage in sewing anymore. In addition, many Jews who worked in the “needle trades” have given birth to a generation of children and grandchildren who are professionals:doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like. They are no longer interested in sewing machines for the most part. In addition, many of the needle trades have gone overseas to Third World countries where the labor is cheaper.

So,if you still have your ancestor’s heirloom sewing machine, treasure it as it signifies your family’s introduction to the modern age.Try to sew a bit on it still. I am sure that it would do as good a job as it did a hundred years ago. It was made to last, just like our families.

(This article originally appeared as postings on the JewishGen/Litvak SIG,September 28 – October 4, 2008. Reprinted courtesy of Ann Rabinowitz, author.)

© 2008 Ann Rabinowitz