Louise Woschkeruscha, my maternal grandmother, boarded the S.S. George Washington on March 8, 1913, a month after leaving three years of paid apprenticeship and another three years as journey-woman in the Viennese clothing salon of master dressmaker, Elise Vogel.
Louise arrived in New York Harbor nine days later. She planned to meet up with her brother, Hans, who had left the year before on the very same ship, entering the United States on May 23, 1912, a century ago. Leaving his abusive and hated father behind, Hans arrived with the skills of a wagon maker and carpenter, giving him an edge over the mostly unskilled immigrants pouring into the country at the same time. I assume Louise moved in with her brother, but I can’t say for certain.
A few months later, in October of 1913, she wrote a letter to Frau Vogel about her new life, starting with her voyage across the Atlantic. The contents make it clear they had corresponded before, but unlike my paternal grandmother who saved every letter, this is one of just a couple of missives I have from or to Louise (and why I have a letter Louise wrote, is a puzzle). Here are excerpts from that letter.
October 1, 1913
Dear Frau Vogel,
I have received your letter with thanks and joy, I was really very pleased that you wrote yourself because I know how hard writing is for you, and yet you were the first one who has [written me].
Now I want to tell you a little about my journey and how I’m doing.
When I left home, I didn’t realize what a huge trip I had ahead of me.
I had absolutely no fear when I saw the enormous water, and did not become sick at all. You cannot really become fearful. First there is always entertainment on the ship: evening concerts, and by day there are varied games, like one might play at a party. Very nice people are there so that I was never scared.
After her arrival, Louise was cheerful and optimistic about her prospects.
I can hardly believe I’m in America! [After arriving in New York], we had to travel two days and two nights in 2nd class on the fast train [to Chicago]. Everyone spoke only English and I couldn’t understand a word. That struck me as so funny, I laughed and laughed. I really had fun on the trip so that I hardly had any homesickness.
Louise rested up for one week before placing an ad in the newspaper, marketing her skills as a dressmaker. She continued her letter, describing the Parisian styles of fine clothing she is creating. It sounds like a very exclusive dress-making shop.
I immediately got a job, where I am now. We make only silk and lace dresses, and some of the dresses cost $100! We make them just like the crazy fashions in Paris chic. In America, people wear a lot of red.
The vests and the blouses are heavily gathered at the top and are worn under the hips. The widths are 28-30 by American measure, which is about 80-90cm in our measure.
Evenings I go to the cinema and Sunday afternoons to the German concert. You write me, dear Frau Vogel, whether I’m afraid. Still never. I would only like to have my parents here. You’d really have to search throughout America to find such a woman as my mother!
I end my writing and hope that it finds you in the best of health. Heartfelt greetings from your former, thankful worker, Luisa.
Louise undoubtedly met many young German-speaking men at the concerts she attended, perhaps even at the cinema, but it would be several years before she found a man whose affections she felt she could trust, given her smallpox-scarred face. Next week we’ll meet that man—John Koroschetz, also from Austria, who had his own tale of physical—and emotional loss.