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charlotte hurdus

charlotte, 1910

Charlotte, ca 1918
New York Herald, May 15, 1910
New York Herald, May 22, 1910

In 1910, my great-grandmother placed these job wanted ads in the New York Herald.  I could only find two of them — for consecutive weeks in May — and I am taking that as evidence she found the position she was looking for.  In both of the ads, she says that she is experienced, and this seems to be very true.  Just a month earlier, on April 18, she had given her occupation as “stenographer” in a “law office” to the census taker who visited the apartment at 202 West End Avenue where she lived with her parents and two younger siblings.  This census also says that she had attended school sometime in the interval between September 1909 and April 1910, which is intriguing. I don’t know if it was high school or secretarial school, but the fact that she attended some kind of school until she was 16 or 17 means that she received substantially more education than many of my other American-born great-grandparents.

I am also intrigued and would like to know more about why, in her May 15th ad, she says she has “excellent references,” but on May 22nd they are only “satisfactory.”

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about these ads, however, is that she specifies her Americanness as a job qualification.  Other ads on the same page give details about job seekers’ backgrounds (“refined North German Protestant,” “young lady of New Orleans,” “French nursery governess”), so it isn’t unusual at all for her to include “American” (lots of other job seekers did). Really, it makes sense that, in a city full of immigrants (and bigotry), you would specify your nativity, your language skills and your cultural background, but the fact that Charlotte was not actually born in America is what makes this so interesting.  As I have written about before, she arrived in New York from Belarus at the age of 5 or 6 and, until the 1910 census, she is listed in public records with the first name Sadie. Even in 1910, her place of birth is listed as Russia — she has not yet started spreading around that she was born in New York or South Carolina (that wouldn’t change in the public record until she married and moved out of her parents’ home).

I have thought about Charlotte’s invented origin story many times over the years and where I once found it disturbing, I now feel empathy for my great-grandmother and her reasons for telling the lies that she told.  After all, even though she wasn’t actually a natural-born American, she was still young enough when she arrived in New York City that she was able to blend in and learn Americanness, differing from her two older sisters who (as the family story goes) retained more of the old country about them.  In later life, she would not keep up her relationship with these two sisters, perhaps mentally relegating them to the country she had left behind as a little kid (or maybe she just didn’t get along with them very well). They perhaps would not have been able to advertise themselves as Americans, but Charlotte could.  Unlike them — unlike many other immigrants — she didn’t just pick up the language, adopt the customs, and learn to integrate these things with her immigrant identity.  These things became her new, American identity — the world of the immigrant was for her parents, her grandmother, her older sisters.

Unlike them, she didn’t just learn to be an American — she really became one.

Charlotte Hurdus Fenning (1893-1989)

* newspaper advertisements from the New York Herald, May 15, 1910 (Section 6, page 2) and May 22, 1910 (Section 1, page 19).  Accessed at Old Fulton Postcards (specific URLs linked above), October 28, 2011.

* Samuel Hurdus household, 1910 U.S. Federal Census for Manhattan (Ward 22), New York County, New York, ED 1381, dwelling 18, household 113, sheets 3B-4A.  Ancestry.com, accessed October 28, 2011.

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