After finding 1920s report cards and employment records from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, Paul Lukas traced the former students to see how their lives turned out. The series on Slate includes a gallery of photos with links to reports.
Girls attended Manhattan Trade in lieu of high school, usually beginning when they were 14 or 15, and were expected to finish by the time they turned 17. The school . . . offered one- and two-year programs in a variety of disciplines, primarily in the “needle trades” (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery) and, to a lesser extent, the “brush and glue trades” (sample catalog mounting, novelty box making, lampshade making). The curriculum also stressed thrift, home economics, personal presentation, and other life skills that would help the students survive in the labor marketplace.
Manhattan Trade, started by “wealthy progressives” (“reformie” types!) in 1902, placed students in jobs for years after they left the school.
. . . the majority of the students had been born to immigrant parents—Italians, mostly, but also lots of Eastern European Jews, some Russians, and a smattering of others. Many of their families appeared to have been desperately poor, with lots of bad luck to boot. Here was a girl whose mother had ended up in an insane asylum and whose father was “paralyzed and a drunkard.” Here was one who needed dental work but couldn’t afford the dentist’s $3 fee, so the school’s secretary gave her $1.50 to have the work started. Here was one who said she had received $3.50 for three days’ work and had then been forced to leave the job because the work site was so cold “your hands almost freeze off of you.”
But there were also tales of success, triumph, and joy—stories of striving and pride, of the American Dream taking shape.
One graduate started a business making stuffed animals and toys that’s still around.
Today, girls from low-income immigrant families are urged to go to college with little guidance on what they might do there to reach their real goal, a decent job. Most will start in remedial classes, give up on a degree and work low-skilled, low-paying jobs forever.