NEW YORK—For a little over 100 years, 97 Orchard St., held commercial tenants, nothing special.
“This building is typical in so many ways, but when you look at the typical, you start finding the exceptional,” said Sarah Lohman, educator at the Tenement Museum.
From the 1870s through the 1970s, it was one of dozens of stores selling the popular goods or services of the time: beer, meat, and even undergarments.
Today 97 Orchard St., is home to the Shop Life Exhibit at Tenement Museum, the first new permanent exhibit since 2008. The exhibit explores the ever-changing times of the Lower East Side through four businesses. Rather than using generalities, each time period is told through a personal story of tenants who actually resided at 97 Orchard St.
“The humanity of it connects all of us, and that is what allows us to connect these stories,” Lohman said.
The humanity of it connects all of us, and that is what allows us to connect these stories.
—Sarah Lohman, Tenement Museum
Living Room of the Day
Much like today, the residents of the Lower East Side in the 1870s had small living spaces. After a hard day’s work, heading back to cramped quarters was not desirable, so they often headed to the saloons.
From 1864 through 1886 at 97 Orchard St., there was Schneider’s Lager Beer Saloon, which was fully recreated for the exhibit. The saloon, owned by John and Caroline Schneider, provided everything a patron needed: a glass of their favorite German lager, free home cooking, and a connection to the community.
“The bars became the living room of the community,” Lohman said during a tour on Friday.
Visitors to the exhibit enter the storefront at the basement level and are greeted with imitation kerosene lamp light, giving it a warm feeling. The bar has no stools, a custom of the time.
A table of sausage, onions, cheese, crackers, sauerkraut, and pickled pig’s feet is placed in the corner, showing the offerings of a typical “free lunch” provided to those who purchased beer at the saloon. Lohman said families would often come in on a Sunday as a way to cheaply feed everyone.
Just past the bar was a meeting room, where organizations like the Odd Fellows and the Order of the Red Men met. “This room was a hotbed to talk about politics,” Lohman said. “It was how they reached out to people.”
They would speak in the native German, but talk about issues such as immigration, the Blue Laws—which made it illegal for their shop to open on Sunday—and other issues of the time.
As time passed, the Saloon closed, but the idea of communal space, where residents of the area could escape as well as talk about issues unique to their community, lived on.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Eastern European Jews moved into the neighborhood, Israel and Goldie Lustgarten opened a kosher butcher shop at 97 Orchard St. “There was a real social society here,” Lohman said. “It was where all the women came to gossip.”
In the 1930s Max Marcus opened an auction house, selling general merchandise, often to be resold on the pushcarts that lined Orchard Street. Men would line his shop to barter for goods, but also talk politics during the hard times of the Great Depression.
Instead recreating four separate storefronts to tell those stories, the Tenement Museum used an interactive “sales counter,” much like the one used in the auction house.
Visitors are invited to grab an item from the shelf and place it on the counter where a menu of photos comes up. The photos can be touched revealing new information via text or audio. “Not only is it integrated physically, but intellectually with what we are doing,” Lohman said.
After seven minutes, Lohman brought everyone back to discuss what was learned and used an interactive board on the wall to give new information.
Seniors (65+): $20
It allows each visitor to the museum time to explore the individual stories more in depth, much like at a typical museum, but still gives the visitor that personal touch that is unique to the Tenement Museum.
“Our education department comes at it from the perspective that the educator is the most important resource they have here,” Lohman said, “This was not designed to take power away from the storytellers, it was designed to assist us and our storytelling.”
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