From the Spinner Archives

The selection below, “The Portuguese-American Race: early customs in New Bedford” was included in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume IV. The essay was part of a larger chapter entitled “The Portuguese in New England,” which was originally planned as a standalone book by the Federal Writers’ Project prior to World War II. To read more from “The Portuguese in New England” and view many more historic photographs and essays check out the Spinner IV eBook now available for download from the iBook Store.

The excerpt below provides a sketch of the writers’ interpretation of Portuguese life in New England. The stories, which are in no way scientific, illustrate attitudes of the time toward the presence of the many ethnic groups.

The Portuguese in New England
The Portuguese-American Race: early customs in New Bedford
by Stella Vera

In 1858, a young girl, eighteen years of age, came to New Bedford from the island of Pico to marry a young man, who had previously come on a whaling voyage. This woman related to her children that when she arrived in New Bedford there were only twelve Portuguese women.

The first Catholic baptismal register in New Bedford shows the birth of two Portuguese children, sisters, daughters of a Portuguese father and mother. One was born June 4, 1842 and the other was born April 2, 1846. They were both baptized on the same day in 1846.

The baptismal record was as follows:

Name:               John Leeschandry
Child of:            Ennis Leeschandry
and:                  Mary Catharina
Born:                June 4, 1842
Was Baptised:   May 17, 1846
Sponsors:          Histula Ennis, Mary Catharina

Name:               Lucia
Child of:            Ennis Leeschandry
and:                  Mary Catharina
Born:                April 2, 1846
Was Baptised:   May 17, 1846
Sponsors:          Julia Cais

The surname “Inacio” is today translated to “Enos” and in that epoch must have been translated to “Ennis”; “Leeschandry” believed to be a translation of the name “Alexandre”; Julia and Catharina are Portuguese names.

In an interview with a lady, a daughter of Portuguese parents, born in this city in the year 1861, it was learned that when she was about nine years of age the houses were very cold, the furniture in the houses was very simple, no carpets, armchairs or sofas; wooden chairs and the rest of the furniture also wooden. Near the houses were wells of water for the principal uses of domestic life, for other uses of less importance, like the washing of clothes, large hogsheads were placed near the houses to catch the rain water. The houses were illuminated by kerosene lamps. Bathrooms were then not known, the “toilettes” were built some distance from the houses.

The dress was very modest. The hat and the gloves were then not in vogue on Sundays. In church calico dresses were the only kind worn. One Sunday in spring of the year 1868 appeared in Saint Mary’s Church, a church which was then frequented by all the Portuguese, a Portuguese woman with a silk dress. For several weeks that was the topic of conversation. It was a real scandal. This woman was a native of Fayal and was the owner of a rooming house.

In the mills wages were from five to six dollars per week, with a twelve hour working day. The seamen on whalers did not have a certain wage. They were unable to determine their earnings until after the voyage, as it depended upon the catch of whales.

In 1870 the Portuguese in New Bedford lived more abundantly and with more money than they had in the islands, deserving compensation for the hard work and for the severe climate. But they always maintained the same simple life, totally deprived of comfort.

In 1893, twenty-three years later, the whaling industry occupied a good number of

“Family of Portuguese house painter who live in low income government housing project.” US OWI photograph by John Collier, New Bedford, Spring 1942.

Portuguese, but the principal occupation was in the cotton mills. Some of the houses were then heated by coal stoves and, as they were not well protected against the cold, doors and windows were well closed and well caulked during the winter and the cracks in the floors were covered with pieces of cloth. They now had running water in their homes, but continued to use the wells and the freshness and coolness of the water was appreciated. The bathrooms were still a privilege of the rich.

Carpets, sofas and armchairs were now being used in the homes, but of a mediocre quality, nothing luxurious. At some of the reunions in the churches a few silk dresses and hats were seen, but very few, still the calico dresses, the shawl and the mantillas predominated.

In 1902 the mode of living of Portuguese society represented only one important change, the dress of the Portuguese ladies had suffered one complete transformation. The silk dress, the hat, the gloves, the coat had completely conquered the Portuguese feminine society. At the reunions and in the churches one would gather that they were in the midst of high society, abundantly rich and much superior to those who were seen in the best of society in our Azorean capitals.

In 1910 the pressing need for comfort began to show, the exigency of the bathroom or at least the “toilettes,” the acquisition of good carpets, of good parlor, dining room and bedroom furniture. With the high salaries and business profits during the war period, that desire for comfort and luxury materialized.

At the same time that progress of comfort that took place in the houses noticeably transformed the mentality of the Portuguese people. Until 1910, it was generally their ambition to return to their native country; afterwards the feminine element, principally, had a fixed idea to become permanent residents.

“Employees entering a textile mill.” FSA photograph and caption by Jack Delano, New Bedford, January 1941.

In the last twenty-four years, the Portuguese have conquered all professions. Today we have artists in all the branches of profession, clerks in all the branches of commerce and industry, including the larger commercial houses and American banks, nurses, a profession that is considered very honorable in this country, teachers and professors, representatives in the legislature, proprietors, merchants, manufacturers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, judges. (Dr. Manuel C. Pereira, Vice-Consul of Portugal in Fall River, from an article written for “Os Portuguese em New Bedford,” edited by the Diario de Noticias, New Bedford, Massachusetts).



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