Discussion Thread #2

(credit: King’s Handbook of New York City, page 145)

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for a good class yesterday afternoon. As we mentioned, here is Discussion Thread #2. We have discussed the power of the visual image a little bit in class. The images of Jacob Riis, among others, helped spur many of the reforms of the Progressive Era. Above we see a photograph taken of Mulberry Street in Little Italy around 1890. It was published in an illustrated history of New York City in 1892.

Among the reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the so-called Settlement House Movement, about which we will talk more in class in the coming days. The photograph below was taken in the library of the Mulberry Settlement House in October 1920, almost exactly 100 years ago. For Discussion Thread #2 explain in 100-300 words what you see in the image. You have wide latitude and can answer however you like. Perhaps you might focus on the children as a group, one child in particular, one or more of the adults, the room, the furniture, the image itself as a piece of photojournalism, or how and what brought them all here. Or, you might write about something else entirely related to the image that you find striking or meaningful in some way. Focus on what you like and give a thoughtful response.

(credit: Children reading in Mulberry Settlement House library, October 1920; Digital NYPL)

35 thoughts on “Discussion Thread #2”

  1. When this photograph was taken, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch proposed Greenwich House on Jones Street that offered better public housing. Classes in carpentry, pottery, sewing, millinery, English, and cooking were some of the many programs offered to residents at the settlement homes in NYC. Mary’s goal was to improve housing conditions and eliminate slum clearance. She saw an opportunity in a group that people always tend to overlook passed their capabilities. Mary’s dedication towards helping the less fortunate in the settlement homes even after retiring shows her true heart. In the photograph, children from families living in the settlement homes are reading in a small classroom. An adult who seems to be the teacher is helping a group of children as the rest of the class are reading silently to themselves. Seeing less fortunate children whose parent fled their home country for a better life in the United States deserve an equal opportunity to those who are more well off. At the end of the day, everyone shares the same common needs, and should not be determined based on their economic status.

    1. “Mary’s goal was to improve housing conditions and eliminate slum clearance.” –close. She wanted to eliminate slums, not slum clearance. You touched on a great point; slums and the unintended consequences of slum clearance will return in the coming week.

      I like the way you ended your post. Indeed, as humans we all share common needs.

  2. To think that this image was taken almost 100 years ago in the library of the Mulberry Settlement House is baffling. For this to be used a space where children spend their time reading seems unattainable to keep concentration. For instance, most, but not all children are looking into their books with a smirk on their faces. It seems as if they are aware a photo is being taken and they are trying to maintain calm off their laughter. The conditions of the wooded and plaster walls interior seem that there was never enough creaking sounds to enter with the weight of a kid sitting and getting out of a chair. One could easily lose concentration in having a classmate sit nearby you a foot and a half away, but it could have also served as a great icebreaker between the young group of children.

    1. Yes, they totally knew they were being photographed. Kids being kids, it would be interesting to know how “real” they were being. Conditions in the library must have been difficult, but then the streets were crowded and dangers. Even with its flaws the library must have been a respite and refuge for these children who lived crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side.

  3. This picture reminded me of myself when growing up. My primary school had a period for reading and they will match us to a nearby library where they reserved for the students during that time. in this picture, I see serious students who are actively reading. In 1920 segregation which means the separation of different racial groups in a community or country, was still going on. The library was predominantly white during that time. Black people did not have the privilege the white kids had. They were discriminated against and kicked out places like the library when they tried to take advantage and gain knowledge. In the picture I see only white kids sitting together as a group without any black kid in the room. Today when you go to the local libraries before coronavirus you see a single desk and cubicles with different races. People do not visit the library nowadays, since the world is evolving and advancing. Most people read and do their work on their technologies. The world is becoming more individualistic instead of collectivism which in my opinion it would affect us in the long run. We need each order to survive.

  4. There are many things to talk about in this photo but the one thing that I want to dwell on is how much we as a society have evolved in the last 100 years. In the photo you can clearly see that all the children all reading. Since there was not much to do, they weren’t afforded the liberties that we take for granted today such as listening to music whenever you want or learning a new skill by watching a couple tutorials on the internet. Unfortunately, these privileges have come with a very big downside and that is that our society has gotten less intelligent even though we have all the information we need at our fingertips. In the age of social media where anyone can say anything people value emotional hot takes over facts and this is because we have become lazier because of the technology that is available to us. Back in 1920 you would have to actually read and research topics to be well informed but today everyone looks for the quick notes version and pretends to be a genius in whatever they are talking about. Unfortunately, we live in a society where people think it is unacceptable to be good at one thing and if you do not have the correct opinion you are looked down upon. Just like how I do not know how to play basketball well Lebron James does not know economics and that is ok. The sooner we realize that we are not perfect and that its okay to have faults and not know everything the better off we will be.

  5. This image gives off the appearance that it stems from a time period spanning many decades. In this image, it depicts many children, both boys and girls in which appears to be a classroom, but is in fact a library, and these children look very focused on the readings and/or assignments given. In this image, they all appear to be wearing very formal clothing such as white button down shirts for the boys and dresses/skirts for the girls, both all white and cardigans that may be black or grey. What I do notice that is visually common for the girls is they all share similar hairstyles. These hairstyles are ranging from long braided pigtails, to short bob cut hair.

    Each of these children are in groups of 4 sharing a small wooden desk for their studies. Many of which seem to be mostly in three or four groups of girls. In those tables which share a group of 4 girls, rarely there will be one boy in the group. From what i can see in this image, it appears to only have 6 boys in the library.

    As we all may know, this library and/or programs that the children of the settlement housing are attending may stem from the programs in which Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch has built and integrated within the community. The opportunities given to the children have been for the greater good to improve daily life and to advance their futures both career wise, and health wise.

    1. Albert, that’s an interesting point about the gender disparity. I wonder if such a breakdown was common in these settlement house libraries or unique to this photograph. Good catch. And yes, they were fortunate to have the opportunity and resources provided by the Mulberry settlement.

  6. This image freezes a very interesting period with it being 100 years ago in the time period of the 1920’s.Where mostly images of children working in factories and child labor was still pretty high. Examples of photos showing that children worked in terrible conditions for very low pay. Also during this time period is children where put into schools they were separated boy’s in one section while girl’s were in another. Till this day you can find some schools where the exterior identifies which entrance a boy or girl will walk through. Too see that their is one boy for every table captures a very interesting time because I would like to understand why this was allowed for its time period what exterior force caused the change.

    This photo also presents a different type of teaching approach from todays world. It seems that their is more then 2 teachers in a class room. This allows all student to get enough attention that is needed to be guide with knowledge, I believe today students lack multiple assistance where now their is one maybe even two teachers in a class that has to generalize their teaching technique because there is one teacher for 30 plus children, and everyone don’t learn or learn the material the same way.

    1. “Till this day you can find some schools where the exterior identifies which entrance a boy or girl will walk through.” The elementary school near where I live has old signage built into the masonry for separate Boys and Girls entrances. I like the mention of the photographs depicting young children working working in tough conditions in the factories. Images such as those, and the ones taken by people like Jacob Riis, had a lot to do with the enactment of child labor laws and other reform measure.

  7. Maybe kids were just *really* well behaved 100 years ago, or maybe this is proof that libraries are just that amazing, but all of the children in this photo look completely consumed in what they’re reading. Some of them have peaceful/focused expressions on their faces, and others seem sort of amused. Two girls are actually full-on smiling at their pages. Everyone’s gaze is downward, whether they’re sitting or standing. The boys in the back are even reading their books fresh off the shelf. When you look closer, some of the covers are different shades, suggesting that the kids got to pick which books to read instead of all being assigned the same one. I feel like if English classes these days gave students more free will in what to read, we’d have more kids (and then eventually adults!) who are as excited about literature as the ones in this picture.

    1. “Maybe kids were just *really* well behaved 100 years ago, or maybe this is proof that libraries are just that amazing.” Ekemini, I totally agree with the latter, but not betting on the former. Ha! 🙂

      Nice opening line.

      I liked in the first discussion thread and presentations when many wrote and spoke about their local libraries. It is indeed so much more enjoyable to read what one chooses instead of what one is forced to read for one’s classes.

  8. For this photo to be taken nearly 100 years ago, I can see how society has changed. In the photo all these children are reading independently. They look very concentrated or amazed by whatever they are reading. I also noticed that majority of the children in the room were girls (we rule! Lol). Even the lady at the desk(I’m assuming she’s teacher or a librarian?) is a female. These children look like they want to educate themselves and seem very attentive. Compared to today, most kids need a parent or a teacher to tell children “hey sit down!..go read a book!”and need to be monitored. A lot of today’s kids are focused on games, social media, tv and do not have that urge to read or independently educate themselves. Also, because we have computers and the internet, not a lot of children are in the libraries anymore. Growing up I enjoyed reading and would often go to the library to take out books. I don’t go to the library as often as I used to. However, when I do go, it’s mainly filled with college students and adults vs younger children. Most of the time, if I do see younger children at the library, it’s because the library is used more as a hang out spot over a learning center. Times have changed completely and this photo shows how it. Today’s version of learning is more shown through technology than an actual book.

    1. When I worked for the public library it was totally a hang out spot for many K-12 students after school. Many did homework but others just socialized. Noise could often be an issue. When the library got computers and internet in the late 90s that further changed the game. Finding the balance between online and physical resources can be a challenge. Hopefully libraries won’t go extinct.

  9. The photograph in itself is a very interesting piece. All the children don’t seem to mind the photographer at all. They seem more intrigued by what they are reading. This photograph is more meaningful and wholesome than you would think. In my opinion, the children are happy with the chance they’ve been given to learn and educate themselves but there is also a sense of pride because they know they’ve accomplished a boundary line between rich and poor and it gives them great joy. Especially because around the 1900s child labor was especially harsh and dangerous not to mention the horrible conditions that many factories had. I lived in Ecuador for 5 years and throughout those years I’ve seen child labor growing up. It would always break my heart seeing little kids 7- 15 years old working on cleaning shoes or farming instead of given the opportunity to go to school. Compared to other countries I feel like the USA has a lot to offer. It’s so interesting how different societies live.

    1. This photograph brought back so many memories to me from my childhood. When I was a young youth, I remember that I was enrolled in a reading program through the library. I would go a few days doing the week after school and I would always read a different book with a group of kids. The library gave a prize according to how many books each youth read during the end of the month. The children reading in Mulberry settlement houses library sets a foundation of the education kids were receiving during the progressive era. I’m thrilled to learn that there was access to libraries back in that era. I was interested to see how the boys and girls were grouped 4- 5 kids at a table. I noticed that as the kids sat at the table each of them were encouraged to read a book individually independently on their own. It seems like the library also provided many books for the children. I am curious to know if the adult women in the picture were library assistants or the children’s teachers. Some of the children really like reading at the library. Other kids looked bored. The settlement houses created a safe haven for families and their children. The settle houses program was conducted to help relieve women’s stress about their children coming from an era where poverty hit every family hard. Working mothers were given nurses and community kitchens. Teachers in the 1920’s taught the kids English literacy among other subjects that were to be taught. As I closely viewed this photograph I observed that there were no other race of children presented in the library. This draws reference to the case of Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. The supreme Court settled that separation of white and black children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. This ruling marked a huge change in history. I am just happy that change has been involved since the progression era. I believe that kids should not be separated because of the color of their skin. Statistics demonstrate that children build good social skills by connecting with kids from all races and nationality. This builds a strong foundation for cultural competency. As leaders and educators we have to set an example for children that kids should all be created equally. Education is available for all minorities.

  10. By looking at the photo, I can feel these children enjoy reading books. I see some smile face and that reminds me of my grandfather’s age back to 1940s. During that period of time, most children couldn’t offer to go to school. Since we were living in the countryside, kids are forcing to help their parents at farm. I can’t imagine how difficult that time is. Back in this photo, it was taken 1920s, and I believe these children are from high society class family. Not sure how America looks like at that time period but back to China, reading books was never a possible thing to do. Maybe we were busy fighting with Japanese army at that time, it make huge difference. Not only mentioning China but everywhere even now days, there are kids suffering hunger and cold. It also makes me to think about the opposite side when I look at the beautiful thing. I am greatful to I can read, study and going to school.

    1. Yuhang, what a touching post. Children are among the hardest to suffer during wartime.

      Regarding the kids we see here, because they are in the library of a settlement house on the Lower East Side in 1920 we know that they were likely poor. The settlements tended to the needs of the families crowded into the nearby tenements, most if not all of who were either immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans whose parents came to New York City from Southern or Eastern Europe.

  11. Form the image I first took notice of the entire atmosphere of the room, since it’s taken in a library and how the children are reading the books the entire room is properly really quiet and the only voice might be the lady in the middle helping the girl right next to her. I imagine the lady is a teacher or a librarian of sort helping the children to learn how to read. I also notice the clothing the kids wear, not sure is it because the picture is black and white or that is the basic clothing around the time, they all seem to be wearing the same thing making me more certain that this might be a class of sort. This picture really reminds me of little kids in the class before the pandemic, now everyone is just sitting in front of the computer to learn, it is very different.

    1. Yuli, nice observations. Early this very morning I ran into my neighbor in the laundry room who teaches middle school. She just began her school year fully online.

      Further to your point about the pandemic: oddly enough, these kids themselves had just come through a pandemic as well, the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 that took the lives of tens of millions of people around the world.

  12. From observing the picture below, what I believe to see is either a library or a school of children reading from books. If the picture is a library then I believe it could be a public library where a class of students is attending for educational purposes as I see adults also selecting books to read from the shelves. The more I look at this image I see both the kids and adults wearing mostly the same outfit except for one person which makes me think this is more of a class library than a public version.

  13. Looking at this image I see a very classic New York. With the full market on the left side and carriages in the street, The striped awnings Are very early century aesthetic, but the thing I notice the most is all the old brownstone buildings. With no towering skyline and such historic buildings, it really gives a beautiful picture of old New York. To see the street bustling with people pushing carts And the way people on the sidewalk are dressed And all the different kinds of people .I notice the bent telephone pole and a lot of things just crooked which gives a lot of character and it really just feels lived in.

    1. Gillen, one was supposed to discuss the image of the library and kids but no harm no foul. I totally agree that the street scene has lots of character and the neighborhood seems quite lived in. Manhattan was bursting to the seams with humanity and certain parts were among the most densely populated in the world.

  14. I think this picture would catch a lot of people off guard. Seeing kids in the library and on top of that reading is something you don’t see as often anymore. Without reading what it was and just glancing one would think this was a class. After reading it was taken in a library in 1920, 100 years ago you can’t help but think about all the differences and how almost everything is different now. For instance, just comparing the clothing, where most girls are wearing long dresses or skirts and the boy in the front is wearing a buttoned up shirt. I just find it amazing how so many things can change within that time span. It makes me question how people in the next hundred years will be looking at our pictures and question almost everything.

    1. “It makes me question how people in the next hundred years will be looking at our pictures and question almost everything.” What the people of 2120 will say about the torn jeans we see everywhere today is what I’d like to know.

  15. Looking at the photograph you can say that a lot has changed over the years. This library is more enclosed than the libraries that are built today. More space can be beneficial to most kids because it can give them more concentration when reading their books. However, keeping things close can be helpful as well as the kids can be monitored better. As many people has stated the children in this photo are serious into their books but I believe that many are only doing so because of the photographer, it looks at if they are posing for the photo.

    In addition to the space of the library there is also something that is noticeable as the kids in the library are all white. Segregation was happening during this time in 1920, this is a perfect example of the term white privilege as minorities weren’t able to get the same opportunities as white children.

  16. Compared to the previous pictures we’ve seen in class, this one screams clean or fresh. From the organized books on the shelves to the cleanliness of the kids’ clothes and the neatly braided hair. The kids look like they’re enjoying their books in a classroom-like setting as opposed to playing in a puddle of stale water next to a dead horse. There’s plenty of overhead lights to accommodate the readers and I can spot a radiator between the bookshelves which means kids can stay warm during the cold days. It really looks like the children are better off than before as they can read and have a clean, warm space to do it in. This in turn means they can get an education and continue to learn regardless of weather conditions outside.

    1. Anna, you capture the essence of the photograph. Those who ran the settlements sought to provide a clean and fresh environment for their patrons, children and adults alike. I imagine the settlement houses were a place of peace and calm for people whose lives were distracted and difficult on so many levels.

  17. After dwelling on this image for a bit, I have to say that the thing that struck out the most is the size of the room. It’s because of this that it’s quite apparent that there are many children present, resulting in four to six kids to a table, a piece of information on the structure of primary school that I had forgotten about. This piece of visual detail connects the past to the present and then makes the material more personal as it creates a sense of familiarity vital to establishing a sense of intimacy with the viewer. As for the layout of the room, it also draws attention to the way that workplace strategy has evolved with architecture. As various layouts were found to increase the productivity of those working while they read.
    It is very peculiar however that all the children in the photo are actively reading the book that is their possession. It’s quite noticeable because if child behavior is observed, it’s often understood that the solemness seen in the photo is rarely seen with such a wide number of adolescents. In fact, more of the school children would likely be seen giggling or having what they might consider quiet conversations. Something that suggests the atmosphere must possess an unyielding level of obedience by the teachers in the room.

    1. Dawson, it is amazing how much one can glean from an image. You capture a lot here. I can’t help but think, too, that the children would have been conscious of the built space around them. They lived their lives, certainly up to this point, crowded into tenement houses and walking the densely crowded streets.

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