Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Taught Me About Early 20th Century New York City

As someone who gets her history from the novels she reads, I was paying close attention while reading Betty Smith’s wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so that I could pick up some juicy historical tidbits. (OK, that’s an exaggeration; I read history books too, just not nearly as many as novels. History just makes more sense to me when it’s in story form! Me and most other people in the country, I guess, which explains why Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book that reads like a novel, is so popular.)

1) People in Olden Times Had Sex
I know this shouldn’t be shocking, considering the continued presence of man on earth, but there is a tendency in the popular narrative to view earlier times as much more innocent, where there was no crime and everyone frolicked naked in the garden without shame. Literature from earlier eras often bears out this view, essentially cutting to the fireplace in lieu of the good stuff, leaving blank empty space in its wake which, nine months later, is filled by a delightful and clean infant.

But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is very frank about sexual matters. Aunt Sissy loves men. The outside world may judge her for it, but her family still loves her and views her as just having a big heart and a lot of love to share. Sissy is married, but to her third husband. She calls him John, even though that is not his name. She has called all her husbands John, even though none of them were named that. John is, of course, the word for a customer of a prostitute. So maybe the author is judging Sissy? But I don’t think that’s the case. I get the feeling Betty Smith loves Aunt Sissy just as much as her protagonist, Francie. Maybe the John thing is just Aunt Sissy’s private joke with herself.

2) What They Make at the Rubber Factory
When someone in 1912 tells you they work at “the rubber factory” with a wink and explains that the factory also makes a small quantity of children’s toys as a cover, they mean that they work at the condom factory. Aunt Sissy works at a rubber factory.

3) Tammany Hall is Endlessly Fascinating
Back in Francie’s time, New York City politics were run by a political machine known as (among other names) Tammany Hall. They did all kinds of corrupt things and they ran politics in New York City. I know, I know, you’re asking yourself “How is that different from now?”’s not so different I guess. Except that government corruption nowadays is mostly under wraps until a scandal breaks out or an awesome investigative reporter digs up some dirt, and Tammany’s corruption has been well studied and well documented (Gotham by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace is a good place to start). Also, the Tammany guys had the city so under wraps that they felt fine about openly doing shady stuff, like getting citizenship for immigrants, who were then happy to cast votes for the machine’s candidates of choice for the rest of their lives. (If any of today’s politicians were studying their history books, they might be much more excited about trying to get the Dream Act passed.)

Francie’s family goes to a picnic thrown by Tammany Hall, which takes the families in the neighborhood on a boat ride to a carnival. And as fascinating as it is to read about Tammany, it’s even more exciting to see what happens when one of your friends comes into contact with these historical figures. And by “friends” I mean “fictional characters who you really like.”

4) Clipping Services Existed
I had heard of clipping services before, but somehow I never extended that thought into, “Wait, there were companies who made money by reading every newspaper every day, cutting out articles that their clients were either mentioned in or were interested in, and then mailing the clippings to those clients?” Crazy. But maybe I only think that because it is hard to remember a world where the internet doesn’t exist. The internet is the modern clipping service, and your friends on Facebook and Twitter are the people sending you the clips because you don’t have time to read all the papers. Only they are not reading all the papers either. Are some of the papers going unread? Those poor papers.

5) Singing Waiters
Francie’s dad is a singing waiter. He is in the singing waiter’s union, and it might have been totally possible for him to make a living as a singing waiter if he hadn’t been too busy getting drunk all the time. With waiters nowadays depending on customer tips to get by, it’s hard to imagine a time when waiters could make a living wage.

Also, singing waiters! Did they sing to the whole restaurant or did they come to your table and sing at you? Because I feel like that might have been awkward. Luckily, singing waiters still exist so I can go and check it out and report back.

Finally, in addition to the hours of enjoyment I got from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I am overjoyed to be able to claim an additional reward; this stylish Out Of Print Clothing t shirt, which, having read the book, I can now purchase and proudly wear. 


  1. Burrell's (see Burrelle Luce) was a major clipping service in its day. Headquartered during your dad and my youth in Livington, many working moms in town were employed there…

  2. This made me want to reread A Tree, which I have already read at least twice. But the last time was in the early 90's. I forgot about the Tammany Hall picnic, and the clipping service. [In fact, I serve as an unpaid clipping service for friends and family members!] And singing waiters did come to the table & sing to you--it was awkward, unless I sang along. Then the waiter chose someone else to bother.The most vivid memory I have of this book is when Franny caught the last Christmas tree! Thanks, Maya for reminding me of this great book. The sequel is good too--more 1912 sex, also.
    Susan Renner-Smith