Permanent Record: Quite Contrary

A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell.
Sept. 18 2011 3:55 PM

Permanent Record

Quite contrary.

Mary Meyer's employment record includes a disturbing notation. After being sent to work for a dressmaker in April of 1921, she sent the Manhattan Trade placement office a letter, which was transcribed in her file. It includes this passage: "I did not like the place, so I went home at 12 o'clock. Do not intend to go back. Nearly all Jewish there—the men tailors and some of the girls. Perhaps you did not know it?"

My report card collection includes a few other instances of anti-Semitism—some of it coming from employers and in one instance from the school's staff—but Mary's letter is the only example I found of a student expressing such views. At the risk of engaging in some ethnic stereotyping of my own, her commentary seems all the more troubling because her parents came from Germany, where anti-Semitism was rampant—and where the term anti-Semitism had been coined—well before the rise of Hitler.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I pointed out this part of Mary's student record to her son and grandson, Walter and Steven Meyer. Steven broke the tension by laughing. "How about that," he said, "looks like good ol' Gram was a bigot!" After an uncomfortable pause, he added, "Seriously, that seems very out of character for her. But it's true that she would often identify people as Jewish, German, French … "

"Ethnicity meant a lot to her," added Walter.

"Yes," said Steven, "she had opinions about ethnicity. But was she uncomfortable with Jewish people? Absolutely not."

Walter then mentioned one of Mary's Jewish acquaintances, and the whole thing began to feel like a rote "Some of my best friends are … " routine. With nothing else to go by, I took Walter and Steven at their word and reminded myself that the comment in question had been written by a 16-year-old nearly a century ago.

Mary's work record shows that she was reprimanded for "leaving without giving place [a] proper trial," but there's no indication that she was scolded for her offensive statement. Then again, the last sentence of Mary's comment—"Perhaps you did not know it?"—could be interpreted as implicating the school, or at least the job placement office, with a presumed sense of shared anti-Semitism, so perhaps the placement staff didn't feel the comment merited any rebuke.

It's hard to know what to make of that, but it's worth noting that Manhattan Trade had a large contingent of Jewish enrollees during this period (they appear to have been the student body's second-largest ethnic group, after Italians), and my report card collection shows no sign of anti-Semitism, or any other ethnic bias, in the school's job-referral practices. Indeed, given the level of Jewish involvement in New York's early-1900s garment industry, it would have been difficult for the school to have avoided placing students in Jewish-run shops even if it had wanted to. So this one incident, as upsetting as it is, feels more like an isolated blip on the radar screen, not part of a pattern.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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