A look at the new "Shop Life" tour at the Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum's new "Shop Life" tour explores the businesses that once operated out of 97 Orchard Street.

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  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    By using this motion-sensitive counter, visitors can access a wealth of archival photographs and recordings that tell the stories of the families who made their livelihoods at this 97 Orchard Street storefront. “The whole idea is to get people to think about commerce and how that has shaped their community, and also the history of the neighborhoods they live in,” says Polland.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    When John and Caroline Schneider opened their saloon in 1864, the Lower East Side was called Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”). It was home to the fifth-largest German-speaking population in the world at the time. By 1872, there were more than 700 saloons in the neighborhood.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    The Schneiders’ saloon was a gathering place not just for the neighborhood’s German community, but for the multinational residents of 97 Orchard Street. People who lived in the apartments above would often enter via this back stairway (rebuilt by the Tenement Museum) that led directly into the bar area.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    In order to entice patrons, 19th-century NYC saloon proprietors would offer a free lunch with the purchase of a drink. Using fake food, the Tenement Museum has re-created such a German buffet in convincing detail. “Clearly these were places not just where people got beer,” says Annie Polland, the museum’s vice president of programs and education. “The idea is that you can come, buy your mug of beer for 5¢, and then get a plate of food.”

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    In this kitchen behind the front area, Caroline Schneider would prepare food for the saloon’s patrons. “Often in the German communities and many immigrant communities, the wives did just as much work to keep up the business as their husbands,” explains Polland.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Like many store owners of the day, the Schneiders’ saloon was also their residence. Their bedroom, large compared with others in the tenement, was located directly behind the bar’s back room.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Political groups and social clubs would often hold meetings in the saloon’s back room. This Native American club is a piece of ephemera from the Improved Order of Red Men, a fraternal organization whose local branch gathered there. “They played with the idea that playing Indian was the way of becoming American,” says Polland. “Whether you were an immigrant or native-born, they all were able to take up these made-up rituals that came from Americans.”

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    “You’re going to have a mix of languages in a space like this, and you can see that reflected in the newspapers we reproduced,” says Polland.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Since 1988, the Tenement Museum has offered visitors a glimpse into the lives of the former residents of 97 Orchard Street. But what was going on at the base of the building—besides queues for the outdoor privies? In “Shop Life,” a new guided tour that begins previews on November 12, the museum will explore the diverse array of retailers that occupied its two garden-level storefronts during its stint as a tenement and well into the 20th century. According to Annie Polland, the museum’s vice president of programs and education, “Shop Life” is designed not only to shed light on turn-of-the-century Manhattan, but also to make visitors think about their own relationships to the neighborhood spots they frequent. “It’s about why you go to a place, beyond to get what is sold there,” she explains. “Like, you go to a café—you want coffee, but you’re also going so you can talk to the cute boy that works there.”


In one storefront, the museum reconstructed a saloon that occupied the space from 1864 to 1886. German immigrants John and Caroline Schneider tailored their drinkery to the thriving Teutonic community that had sprung up in the Lower East Side, which was then known as Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”). The bar looks like one you might encounter in, say, Williamsburg today—a cozy basement space with a shiny wooden bar, low round tables and pressed-tin walls painted an earthy green. And it was more than just a spot to toss back a cold one (well, a room-temperature one—in those days, suds came straight from the barrel). The bar was also a hub for the building’s multiethnic residents: Everything from business transactions and political meetings to live musical performances and family gatherings took place here—the Schneiders even collected the building’s mail. “We call it the living room of the community,” says Polland.


The museum took a more modern approach in the adjoining storefront, using interactive, motion-activated screens to tell the stories of three different businesses that existed there: a kosher butcher shop that opened in 1900, a 1930s auction house and a 1970s underwear shop. “The implicit thing we’re asking through this exhibit is: What is the American Dream? Is having a store part of it?” says Polland. The exhibit also features video interviews with contemporary LES shopkeepers—a reminder that the past and the present are inextricably linked. And for Polland, the past is decidedly not a foreign country. “We don’t want it to be like a dollhouse where people just come in and say, ‘Oh, the past is so interesting!’” she notes. “We really want them to experience how people would’ve experienced the space and make connections to their own lives today.”


“Shop Life” preview tours begin on November 12 at the Tenement Museum (103 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts; 212-982-8420, tenement.org). $22, seniors and students $17.



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