"We Were Poor Before," 1892-1913
by Alea Echterling and Charles Hardy
Anna Levitin (Lavin) was born February 23, 1892 in Dzernigan, Russia to a Jewish family. Five years later, in 1897, the Levitins boarded the S.S. Pennland from Liverpool, England to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in hopes of a better life.
“We were vaccinated everyday on the boat, on the ship, and every one of the vaccinations took, whatever it was...And I was only a puny little kid, and all those marks stayed. Well, they faded now—They fed us at a long table and they served us carrots, just plain boiled carrots I think and hated it. I hated it! My mother was sick all the way over. She was in the bunk and only ate the food that they had with them.”
– Anna Lavin, July 14, 1982
As the Levitin family disembarked at the Washington Avenue Immigration Station, the purser marked their name down as “L-a-v-i-n,” which became their name in America. The family found an apartment on Bainbridge Street, the older children enrolled in school, and Anna's father, who had been a bookkeeper in Russia, took a job as a buttonhole maker in a small shop above a stable at 4th and Monroe.
"And my mother, of course, we didn't know...We were little children and we didn't know. And when my aunts were visiting us wanted to know what mother was doing, I said 'She's asleep on the floor.' Well, that was unusual.... She had malnutrition.... We all got fed but she didn't. After that one of the my aunts had a thriving butter and egg store, so butter and eggs and cheese were delivered to the door, so that was enough to eat." – Anna Lavin, July 14, 1982
As the oldest child Anna left school at the age of twelve to help support the family.
“We didn't have enough to eat. I didn't go to work because I wanted to.... I don't remember how I got the job. My father was a buttonhole maker and after school I used to go and carry the different bundles of work to my father. And I also learned to run his machine, by a foot power; a Wheeler & Wilson machine.... I got a job as a buttonhole maker at a shop on... 3rd and Cherry. And they...taught me how to run the Reese Machine, which was brand new, and that was not for sale. You rented that. The boss rented the machine." – Anna Lavin, July 14, 1982
Anna was the oldest of six children when she started work in 1904. At that time the family lived in a spare, 3-room apartment on Catherine Street between Front and 2nd. There was a chair for each person and a few bureaus. A butter tub turned upside down in the hallway served as their refigerator. The only plumbing was a single cold water tap, so the family shared an outhouse in the alley with four other tenant families.
"And to take a bath, no bath tubs... Friday afternoon, first one home from school got the cleaning order.... We had to heat the water on a two-burner kerosene stove and had warm water, we took a bath and changed our clothes. And when my mother washed clothes I don't know. And we hung clothes in the yard." – Anna Lavin, July 14, 1982
Anna and her siblings got a bath and changed their clothes once a week. "And we were out of luck if it rained." Five of the kids slept in a feather bed on the floor, and shared it when aunts or uncles arrived. But they never thought of themselves as poor. "For a very good reason. Nobody else had anything!"
With its overcrowding and poor sanitation, Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhoods were breeding grounds for contagious diseases, including cholera, diptheria, rheumatic fever, and scarlet fever, which took the lives of two of Anna's younger brothers, James and Benjamin, age two and four.
“The first one to get sick was the one that was a baby when we came here. And she was just ailing and she went to the hospital. The next one, they fumigated the house, our apartment and...the two little boys died, and I had charge of them, and we went to live with an aunt who had just gotten married, on Pemberton Street… And I fed one of the children, sat in my lap, he was ailing, he was sicker already and when they called the doctor, they brought the sick child back to the house because otherwise the whole apartment, that whole building there where we were staying would have… had to be fumigated. And I ate out of the same dish with the child I was feeding.... They died a week apart.” – Anna Lavin, July 14, 1982
In 1913 the Lavin family decided to leave Philadelphia and move to Norma, New Jersey, for a change in scenery and in hopes of having a healthier and higher quality life.