Roller Skates and All-of-a-Kind Family both take place in New York City near the turn of the 20th century, but the worlds they inhabit are very different. Roller Skates’ Lucinda is an upper class society girl who spends a year in less-fashionable mid-town. All-of-a-Kind Family is about eastern European Jewish immigrants living in the tenaments of the lower east side.
In Roller Skates, Lucina meets a “Rags and Bottles man,” a trash-picker who lives in the same cellar where he sorts his rubbish. He is described thus: “His face was covered with stubble growth, his clothes were the pick of rag heaps. He was dirty. . . . He smiled, and over the smile his eyes showed friendly, like a dog’s. . . . Here was kin to the earth, the sun, the creatures; someone benignly elemental.”
“Old Rags-and-Bottles” is not of the same world as Lucinda. To her he is a curiosity, almost an animal.
Pop quiz: If you ever read All-of-a-Kind Family, do you remember what the father does for a living? Yep, he’s a junk dealer. He’s fortunate enough to be the guy who sits in the cellar and buys the rags from the rag-pickers, and sorts them and bundles them. But his friends are the rag-pickers themselves, and they come and sit around his warm stove on rainy days.
The parents in All-of-a-Kind Family are not as youthful as they look in the illustrations. They’re drawn to look like they’re in their 20’s, but they were almost 40 at the time of the first book.
I found this photo of the family on Ancestry.com. It must be from a few years before the book is set, since the youngest (that would be Gertie) can’t be more than 2 in the photo and in the book she is 4.
What is most striking to me, though, is how small the two oldest children are. I’m hazarding a guess that the oldest, Ella, is the one on the far left, only because her hair is longer than the girl on the far right, who would be Henrietta. In this photo, Ella would be about 10, and she is not much taller than Sarah/Sydney (standing in front of the mother), who would be only 6. (Consider the position of their feet, in thinking about their height.) Ella was born while the family was still in Europe, and made the difficult passage to the U.S. as a baby. Henrietta was born a year after arrival.
Returning to the rag-picker issue, All-of-a-Kind Family is set about 1912, a couple of decades later than Roller Skates; but I like to imagine that Old Rags-and-Bottles might have known some of the men who hung out around the Papa’s stove on rainy days.