Lower East Side Icon Ruth Taube Celebrates 100th Birthday
By Henry Street Settlement
On August 2, 2023, Ruth Taube celebrated a major milestone–her 100th birthday. A beloved local “celebrity,” Ruth is Henry Street Settlement’s longest serving team member, having started teaching sewing classes at the Settlement in in the early 1960s. She became director of the Home Planning Workshop in 1966 and stayed for 54 years, teaching hundreds of Lower East Siders to sew. She is also remembered by many in the community as the chaperone, for 20 years, of trips to Echo Hill Farm, originally a girls’ camp in Westchester established by Lillian Wald that transitioned during the 1960s into a place for Henry Street families to relax in nature.
Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Ruth spent her childhood in a tenement on Avenue D and East 5th Street, with three brothers and parents who immigrated from Poland. Her family was poor, but she says, “We were lacking nothing because food was on the table. Shoes we got twice a year for Passover and for Rosh Hashanah.” As a young child, Ruth learned how to sew from her mother. She even remembers her very first project–a small pillow for a porcelain doll.
While sewing continued to be a passion for Ruth, it was also a financial necessity. She married at 19 and had a daughter the next year, while her husband was deployed overseas during World War II. Her young spouse was sent home ill from Europe and died shortly after. In 1943, after moving back in with her parents, she continued to sew for herself, her family, and her daughter. Ruth became so proficient that she used to copy the clothes in the department store, because she couldn’t afford to buy them.
As a Lower East Side native, Ruth was no stranger to Henry Street, but her parents often turned down support from “welfare” programs. So, it wasn’t until her late 30s that the Settlement came to play an important role in her life. At the time, a good friend called her up on a Friday afternoon to say the regular sewing teacher had not shown up for a class of young girls in the Vladeck Houses. Ruth made her way over from her apartment a handful of blocks away to teach the class, and the rest is history.
Ruth Taube instructs two students at a sewing machine in the Home Planning Workshop
Within a few years, Ruth became the director of the Home Planning Workshop, a Henry Street program established in the early 1940s to teach Lower East Siders of all ages sewing, shoe repair, furniture building, and even television maintenance. Even as director, Ruth still taught interested students sewing fundamentals. “I had a table, and we sat around that table,” she remembers fondly. As she recently told The New York Times, “We sewed, we talked. Whatever your heart needed, you said at that table, and your heart got back opinions and ideas. People coming in with a lot of unhappy feelings walked out with very good feelings.”
“I’m affiliated with Henry Street 24 hours a day.”
As the needs of the community shifted, the Home Planning Workshop’s offerings were pared down to a weekly sewing circle taught by Ruth. She led the group up until the very last week before the Settlement closed for the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Having to end her sewing classes so abruptly was hard for Ruth, but her connection to her “home away from home” has not ceased. Coming back on several occasions to visit the studio, Ruth has been delighted to see a new generation of students learning to sew through a fashion design workshop, called Rambler Studios, taking place there. “I’m affiliated with Henry Street 24 hours a day.”