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7.20.16: A Stitch (Back) in Time at the Philadelphia History Museum

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A Stitch (Back) in Time at the Philadelphia History Museum
Particularly in its older neighborhoods, the city of Philadelphia finds a unique way for its celebrated American past to creatively co-exist with its present. On Independence Mall, the home of the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, tourists from around the world wielding iPhones and selfie sticks pose with Benjamin Franklin lookalikes. On South Street, tattoo parlors and beer bars reside next door to historic synagogues. In Philadelphia, no one can dispute the neighborly intermingling between the city’s historic past and its vibrant present.
Perhaps that is why the Philadelphia History Museum’s current exhibition Philadelphia's Fabric Row: The Pushcart Years, 1905-1955, feels so appropriate for this city. Practically a next-door neighbor of the Museum, the Philadelphia History Museum provides a vibrant, multifaceted look at city history through several exhibitions that employ everything from portraiture to photography to huge, floor-size maps of Philadelphia. At the Fabric Row exhibition in particular, which runs through October 29, visitors can explore the history of this noteworthy area, famous for its role as a Philadelphia textile center. Still located today on 4th Street between South and Catherine Streets, Fabric Row has historically comprised the center of the city’s once-booming textile industry. Additionally, Fabric Row was situated in a neighborhood of mostly Jewish immigrants who worked in the fabric industry. This exhibition focuses on Fabric Row’s heyday, which occurred during the first half of the 20th century. The phrase “the Pushcart Years,” used in the show’s title, originated with the popularity of the pushcart for selling goods in approximately 1912.
Despite the exhibition’s relatively small layout in one of the museum’s front rooms, the show does a thorough job of taking viewers through Fabric Row’s history in compellingly visual and tactile ways. A life-size pushcart in the center of the exhibition helps bring this time period to life, and a variety of material artifacts provide a look into the area’s legacy. For instance, on view are monogrammed shears, highly diverse fabric samples from a variety of points in this time period, family photographs, and an antique sewing machine, among other objects. At the opening event, I even had the privilege of meeting former Fabric Row employee Morris Kornsgold, whose monogrammed shears and photographic portrait from 1960 were on view in the exhibition. Kornsgold, who attended the opening with his wife, worked at the wholesale and retails fabrics firm Winitsky & Company. Kornsgold, who like every employee at Winitsky & Company had received a personal pair of scissors, had his shears monogrammed with his initials “MHK.” At the opening, Kornsgold reminisced about his experiences working for the company during Fabric Row’s heyday.
Although the exhibition emphasizes the history of Fabric Row during its “pushcart years” of the early 20th century, overarching narratives also emerge from the show. These include the role of Jewish immigration and assimilation into the United States amid two World Wars and the Great Depression; the model of families working together to sustain their fabric businesses; and the eventual movement to the suburbs by Fabric Row families and its impact on the previously very urban environment of Fabric Row.
After seeing the Fabric Row exhibition twice, I came away from the show with a new understanding of this historic area’s key role in defining Philadelphia as a one-time premier center for the textile trade. To me, the exhibition also underscored the influential role of American Jewish immigrants in the garment industry, a role I first started to understand as an intern at NMAJH. In NMAJH’s core exhibition, visitors learn that many of these fabric companies were run by Jewish immigrants; the galleries illustrate in detail the experiences of many of these individuals who came to America seeking a better life. From the “Only in America” video story about garment worker and labor activist Rose Schneiderman, to tailor’s shears and a Singer sewing machine from the turn of the last century, the Museum provides abundant examples of the relationship between Jewish Americans and the garment industry. It was exciting to see our neighbor further explore this connection.
I would be curious to see even more material culture and photographs from this fascinating period in Philadelphia’s history.

-Anne Grant, NMAJH Intern, Yale Divinity School
The Philadelphia History Museum is located on 15 South 7th Street, between Market & Chestnut Streets. The museum is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday from 10:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.

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