Shapiro House was the home of Abraham and Sarah Shapiro, Russian Jewish immigrants, and their American-born daughter Mollie, from 1909 to 1928. It is furnished and interpreted to 1919, to show how the Shapiros sought to balance their strong cultural identity with new opportunities in America. While Shapiro House is specifically about the Russian Jewish experience, it also reflects the early 20th-century multi-ethnic community at Puddle Dock, when half of its 600 residents were foreign born. The Shapiro story is a case study of the process of becoming Americans shared by all immigrants. It is a story of struggle and success, tragedy and triumph.
Between 1880 and 1920, more than 23 million immigrants came to America. Many came from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe seeking freedom, work, adventure, property, and self-determination, in short, better lives for themselves and their children. The majority stayed in large urban areas – New York, Chicago, Boston – but about 25% chose smaller cities and towns, including Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Ireland, England, Canada, Italy, Poland, and Russia lived in and around the Puddle Dock neighborhood, alongside native-born residents. Abraham and Sarah were part of a complex network of international families within the community. Born in Ukraine, Abraham Millhandler and Sarah Tapper emigrated to America as young, single adults to reunite with family members who had come earlier. Abraham changed his name to Shapiro, as had his older brothers, Simon and Samuel. In 1905 he married Sarah, his sister-in-law, reinforcing kinship ties that had been established in Russia, even as they made new lives in America.
Part of a small Russian Jewish community, these families relied on each other for financial assistance, jobs, and emotional strength. With other families they established a Hebrew School for their children, opened kosher shops, and founded the Temple of Israel to serve their traditional cultural and religious needs. They established new businesses, particularly the scrap metal yards which flourished at Puddle Dock into the 1950’s. They became retail clothing merchants and shoe manufacturers. For most of his life, Abraham Shapiro worked in shoe shops and factories, loosely organized by kinship ties, that stretched from Lynn, Haverhill, and Newburyport, Massachusetts to Portsmouth and Epping, New Hampshire. In the late 1910’s he owned a pawnshop that catered to sailors stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. When he could, Abraham also invested in real estate – sometimes in cooperation with his brothers – a privilege denied Jews in Russia. The Shapiro brothers were also active in Temple of Israel affairs from its founding in 1905. In 1912 Abraham was a leader in the negotiations to buy and convert the Methodist Church into a synagogue. Only a block from the Puddle Dock neighborhood, Temple of Israel was the social and religious center of the community. Like many Puddle Dock Jews, Abraham was an enthusiastic Zionist, and was frequently involved in fund raising for local, national and international Jewish causes.
Sarah Shapiro worked at home, taking care of their only child Mollie, maintaining a kosher home, and looking after a series of boarders, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants. Sarah’s daily activity focused on her home, family, friends, and neighbors. Immigrant butchers, bakers, and grocers in and around Puddle Dock provided nearly everything she needed to observe strict kosher dietary laws and to celebrate the Sabbath rituals with her husband and daughter. Mollie Mary Shapiro was born in 1909 into an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. As as American-born child of immigrant parents she played a critical role in acculturating her parents, exposing them to new ideas and relationships, and developing her own identity as a Jewish-American. Education was an intergral part of the American Dream in the Shapiro household, as it was in many immigrant homes. In 1920, when Mollie was 11 years old, virtually all of the immigrant children at Puddle Dock were attending school. Mollie excelled in public school, completing high school and graduating from the University of New Hampshire. As an only child, she was the focus of all her parents’ hopes and dreams. They hoped she would maintain her religious cultural heritage as she grew up with an American identity. She worked hard in Hebrew School, as her worn-out textbooks attest, and learned to play the piano, a skill considered particularly American by many working class immigrants.
When the Shapiros purchased the house in 1909, it was well over 100 years old, like many neighboring houses. In fact, immigrants were first drawn to Puddle Dock because of these older buildings’ affordable rents. While the Shapiors certainly had the financial support of their families to buy a home, they were not unique. Of the 30 Russian Jewish immigrant households at Puddle Dock in 1920, half were owner occupied. The house was built in 1795 by Dr. John Jackson a physician and apothecary. After Dr. Jackson’s death in 1834, his widow continued to live in their home. By 1890 the house has been divided into a two-family dwelling and was probably a rental property. In 1909 when the Shapiros moved in, surprisingly few changes had been made to the 18th-century building. The original two-over-two room plan was intact, although the original small ell has been expanded twice by the end of the 19th-century to accommodate an updated kitchen. In 1911 a fire destroyed most of the ell, and when the Shapiros rebuilt it, they expanded it to the full width of the original house and added a small bathroom. After 1928, when the Shapiros sold the house, significant changes were made to the building. The 1795 stairway and chimney stack were removed, the parlor expanded, and the second floor plan reconfigured to create a third bedroom and a bath. In 1996 and 1997, Strawbery Banke staff restored the house to its 1919 appearance. The restoration, exhibit and program, Becoming Americans: The Shapiro Story, 1898-1928 was made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, private foundations, and individual donors.
A Memorial to Jewish Small-Town Immigration
Published: July 5, 1997, NEW YORK TIMES
PORTSMOUTH, N.H., July 4— Russian-Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the century did more than fill the huge urban centers of America.
It also spilled into cities like Portsmouth, where Abraham and Shiva Shapiro settled in 1905 and reared a daughter alongside the predominantly Yankee descendants of the Colonial period.
An exhibit at the Strawbery Banke Museum’s Shapiro House, which opened today, focuses on Jewish small-town immigrants and has given their descendants a new understanding. ”It explodes the myth that all of these old New England locations were then populated only by descendants of the Mayflower,” said Sharon Kotok, coordinator of the exhibit.
Gov. Jeanne Shaheen spoke at ceremonies marking the opening of the exhibit, and Judge Joseph A. DiClerico Jr. of the Federal District Court in New Hampshire naturalized 20 more immigrants of diverse background. The Shapiro House, part of the museum’s 10-acre property on historic Strawbery Banke, has been restored to the way it appeared in 1919.
Abraham Shapiro immigrated here from Annopol, near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1903, when that country was part of czarist Russia. Shiva, who also was from Ukraine, immigrated in 1905 and married Abraham the same year.
At the time, Portsmouth was a city of 10,600 people, full of shoe shops and breweries and economically tied to the Navy shipyard across the Piscataqua River in Kittery, Me.
When Abraham arrived here, he had $12 in his pocket, said his grandson, Dr. Bert Wolf of Portland, Me., a dentist. Deeds and records show that Abraham, a pawnbroker, bought the house for $400 and paid it off in seven years. The Shapiros had only one child, Mollie, and she was ”the apple of their eye,” Ms. Kotok said. Mollie married and had a son, but she died at the age of 24.
The Shapiros were part of the more than 23 million immigrants who spilled into the United States at the turn of the century, fleeing discrimination and poverty.
”Nearly half the people in the U.S. can trace their relatives to immigrants who came here during this era,” said Susan Montgomery, curator of the Strawbery Banke Museum.
While most of the Russian Jews went directly to New York, Chicago, Boston and other large urban centers, ”fully one quarter of them selected homes in smaller communities,” Ms. Montgomery said.
Elaine Krasker, 70, a former New Hampshire State Senator who was born in Portsmouth and is a granddaughter of Abraham’s older brother, Shepsel, said that before the restoration project she had only a slight knowledge of the family’s past.
”The most exciting thing is that we’re bringing the family to life,” Mrs. Krasker said. ”I had only the bare outlines of their lives in Russia.”
Her grandfather Shepsel arrived in 1898 and started a scrap metal business. Simon Shapiro, another brother, arrived four years later.
Simon’s grandson, Sumner Shapiro, 71, of McLean, Va., is a retired rear admiral and a former director of naval intelligence. He, too, is fascinated by the family’s past.
”I heard about the neighborhood and house as a kid,” Admiral Shapiro said. ”My grandfather lived in a house around the corner. What makes this important is that many people think the Jews settled only in large urban areas. Not so.”
Speaking of the Shapiro House, Ms. Kotok said: ”It’s not glamorous. When you walk in this house, it will rattle some bones and shake some cages about who really lived in these old New England towns back then.”