A Seamstress at 90 Cherry

by Anna Maria Bokun, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© Anna Maria Bokun 2016. All rights reserved.

Arriving in New York on October 15, 1853, Honora Garvin left a famine-ridden Ireland. The most commonly used dates for the Great Famine range from 1845 – 1852, so Honora most likely experienced the worst periods of the famine’s wrath: mass starvation, disease, and ultimately, emigration.

Born in Kenmare, County Kerry, Honora embarked for the United States aboard the British Sovereign from London. There is no record of how Honora made it to London, but there is a source describing how families “without a penny of money…made their way on foot from Kenmare to Cork…from whence their passages were paid to Liverpool, and thence to New York.”[1]

The most intense emigration occurred during the early part of the 1850s. Historian S. H. Cousens estimates that “more than 55 percent of the total emigrants leaving Ireland between 1851 and 1861 had left the country by 1854.” He argues that famine emigration was a family emigration, but by the 1850s, men and women were leaving Ireland in equal numbers, suggesting that not many young men were leaving on their own.[2] It remains unknown whether Honora’s husband died in Ireland, or traveled with her to New York, but she is listed as a widow in her 1853 Emigrant Savings Bank records.[3]

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The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank account number for Honora Garvin, 1853. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

The most telling piece of all is the Test Book, used to confirm an individual’s identity. It reveals that Honora lived at 90 Cherry Street and worked as a seamstress. According to her bank remarks, both of her parents – James and Ellen Connor – were dead, as was her husband, John. She had 5 brothers, Roger, Pat, Kean, Jas, and Jeremiah, and 1 sister, Mary. Childless and without close family, her account is also in the name of James Connor, a nephew who arrived in New York from Kenmare on April 5, 1851 aboard the Prince Albert from London.[4]


The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank test books for Honora Garvin, 1853. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

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Google Maps 2016

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Kenmare, County Kerry as mapped by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in 1846. www.osi.ie.

The below map portrays Kenmare, County Kerry as part of the Ordnance Survey between 1829 and 1842, known for its accuracy and cartographic innovation. Although a little bit before Honora’s time (she emigrated in 1853 and the map at its youngest dates to 1842), it gives a sense of the world she left behind. The other image is a contemporary Google Map to highlight how the main streets – Shelbourne and Market – remain in use today.[5]


The most credible and significant piece of evidence in Honora’s paper trial is her Emigrant Savings Bank Account, number 4962. It appears the account was opened by her nephew James Connor, as the first entry is on July 25, 1853 in the amount of $25 (Honora did not arrive in New York until October 1853), and he is the only other individual authorized on the ledger. The tabulations cover a span of two years, 1853 – 1855, with deposits being made almost every month. The last entry, or the account total, is $26.67 or approximately $754.00 in 2016, and a withdrawal in the same amount.[6] Interestingly, Honora decided not to close her account during the Panic of 1854, yet there is no activity after August 1855.

Honora Garvin - Ledger

The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank deposit-account ledger for Honora Garvin. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

Clothing was the largest industry in New York City by 1855, enveloping nearly 13% of the immigrant population.[7] It was a time between the first and second industrial revolutions, where machine-made clothing had not yet eclipsed tailored ensembles. Irish tailors and seamstresses competed with Eastern Europeans for precise needlework and designs. Historian Heather Grigg writes:

In the 1860s, however, the growing affordability of the sewing machine, and its efficiency, were putting the single outworker out of business and fueling the creation of contract sweatshops and large sewing factories for establishments like the Brooks Brothers.[8]

It remains difficult to say if Honora would have found work in a small storefront workshop, in a large sewing house like her neighbor at 116 Cherry, Brooks Brothers, or in the sweatshops that were just beginning to crystallize.

90 Cherry

Source: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “4th Ward. Plate 11: Map bounded by Oak Street, Catharine Street, South Street, Roosevelt Street; Including Batavia Street, Cherry Street, Water Street, James Street, James Slip, Oliver Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-a9e6-d471-e040-e00a180654d7


Cherry 82-96

Labeled “Cherry Street – No 82 – 96,” it is possible that one of these buildings is in fact, 90 Cherry Street, Honora’s home for some length of time between 1853 and 1855
Source: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Manhattan: Cherry Street – James Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-32ad-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

If Honora remained in the Fourth Ward on Cherry Street, she might have been a witness to, or perhaps heard about this gruesome event that rattled the neighborhood.

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NY Daily Tribune, 11 May 1860

Yet Honora makes no appearance in the 1855 New York State Census.[9] The name Honora Garvin does appear twice in the 1860 Federal Census, one in New Orleans, and the other in Massachusetts, but the names of family members do not render it a match.[10]

Given the highly mobile nature of Irish immigrants in New York, it is no surprise that the censuses are not as conclusive as imagined. In spite of this, the evidence that exists and has been archived animates the inhabitants of mid-century Cherry Street, allowing us to see them not as just names in a ledger, but as multidimensional builders of the New York we know today.

[1] Gráda, Cormac Ó. Black’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton University Press, 2000: 116.

[2] Cousens, Stephen H. “Emigration and Demographic Change in Ireland, 1851-1861.” The Economic History Review 14.2 (1961): 275-288.

[3] New York, Emigrant Savings Bank Records, 1850-1883.  Test books for Honora Garvin, account 4962. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

[4] New York, Emigrant Savings Bank Records, 1850-1883.  Test books for Honora Garvin, account 4962. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

[5]  www.osi.ie.


[6] Samuel H. Williamson, “Purchasing Power of Money in the United States from 1774 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016.

[7] Griggs, Heather J. “” By Virtue of Reason and Nature”: Competition and Economic Strategy in the Needletrades at New York’s Five Points, 1855-1880.” Historical Archaeology (2001): 76.

[8] Griggs, Heather J: 79.

[9] 1855 New York State Census. www.ancestrylibrary.com.

[10] 1860 Federal Census. www.ancestrylibrary.com.