I thought my great-aunt was just a cook
My Great-Aunt Olga emigrated from Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century. Like other immigrants, she found employment as a servant in some of the great houses of New York City.
I have sketchy, early memories of her; ram-rod straight comportment, hair piled on top of her head, rimless glasses. I can’t remember her voice or her dress. Early pictures show her Gibson-girl-like. That’s how I remember her, though her hair had grayed and I’m sure her wardrobe was updated with the times.
Among my memorabilia, I have a note of recommendation for her signed by Emily Post. My Aunt Olga also worked for the Woolworths. After watching Downton Abbey, I realized the head cook was a position of authority “downstairs.”
I have read stories of the old Woolworth mansions. They were incredible grand houses built in Manhattan and on Long Island. The house on the north corner of Fifth Avenue at 80th Street was built in 1900 and its large excess was destroyed in 1920 to be rebuilt as apartments. (That apartment building has become a co-op with six residences in a 12-story building, still standing.)
The Woolworth mansion had a large kitchen and servants’ sitting quarters on the first floor, along with a billiard room and smoking room. The music room, with organ, was on the second floor, as well as the conservatory and dining room, along with the daughters’ bedrooms. Mr. and Mrs. Woolworth used the third floor, and the fourth floor was servants’ bedrooms.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue at 80th Street, open for ten years, was undergoing the construction of its first addition.
Emily Post built a cooperative for herself and her acquaintances on the social register at East 79th Street.
My great Aunt Olga lived in Yorkville, in the east 80s past Third Avenue. An apartment or room in the east 80s would have been walking distance to the mansions and her employers off Fifth Avenue.
During the Depression, she brought butter and other luxury tidbits from the kitchen to my mother’s family, struggling to make ends meet in a duplex in a working-class part of Connecticut.
Etiquette and the Social Register
Emily Post famously became the writer and arbiter of taste and behavior through various editions of her books on etiquette. Mrs. Post was divorced in 1905, scandalous for the time, and needed to bring in her own income. Her fiction was only moderately successful, but like Edith Wharton, another author and member of society, she capitalized on her knowledge of the inner workings of the well-oiled social machine. Her name became synonymous with etiquette.
Frank Winfield Woolworth built three adjoining townhouses at 2, 4, and 6 East 80th Street for his daughters (including the mother of Barbara Hutton, famously the poor little rich girl). The three townhomes still stand, an unusual occurrence for a suite of houses over a century old in New York City. One of the townhomes was recently rented at $80,000/month. Interested readers can view the fantastic Gilded Age interiors and floor plans from the realtor’s listing.
The Woolworth Building, the office headquarters, was designed by Cass Gilbert and was sixty stories tall. When it was built in 1915, it was the tallest building in the world. It held that title from 1915 until 1930 and helped define New York City’s skyline. Today, it has been renovated into luxury apartments.
I am old enough to remember the cherished visits to Woolworth’s Five and Dime, with a section for toys, notions, goldfish, and most household goods one would need in the 1950s and 60s. Woolworth was the Sam Walton or Jeff Bezos of his day, making a lot of money from a little bit of money from a lot of people.
I am old enough to remember going to the station of the Northern Pacific railroad, to greet Aunt Olga on her long trip to the Midwest from New York City.
I am old enough to regret not knowing the details of her life.
There was the ship passage, the arrival in Brooklyn, and how she got her jobs among the wealthiest people of the day. I would want to know how it felt to go from the stately mansions with dining rooms that could seat 50 to a small working-class apartment, or her sister’s family in a crowded duplex.
She would have been in her 60s in 1950 when the Social Security Act was extended to cover domestic workers. Was she eligible?
I remember my mother saying she always set a fine table, a point of pride. I wonder what pieces of history she saw, or overheard. If I am playing the game Six Degrees of Separation, I am suddenly linked to many well-known people of the Gilded Age. It is part of who I am — who you are — that we are part of the world of the past, and can influence the future. It’s a bit like being the time traveler in Highlander.
One of my great-uncles died in World War I, another three relatives served in World War II — one under Rommel, one under Patton, and one in Hawaii. When I asked my cousins about their fathers’ stories, they replied “They never talked about the War.” My family does not share the grand tradition of storytelling, of passing on generational myths.
It’s partly what keeps me reading and writing. What were their stories? How am I part of their stories? What is my story? What is your story? Suddenly, pieces of history are not far away, but part of what my great-aunt saw, my uncle did, the six degrees of separation that might be two degrees of separation.
How cool is that?