Monday, November 17, 2014

A Home for Esperantists in New York City

If Esperanto can make it in NYC…
I saw on Facebook recently that the cafe where the Esperanto group in New York City meets is closing, leaving them without a meeting space. Of course, many small groups have similar problems; finding a place to meet can be tough. Either places are too noisy or too difficult to get to or too expensive (and that’s just talking about my own experiences).

This problem is nothing new, and in 1907 the Esperantists in New York had solved the problem, at least for a while. It certainly didn’t become the permanent home of Esperanto in New York, or the current group wouldn’t be looking for somewhere to meet. What is interesting is that this is all happening in the shadow of the Ido schism, only a few days after this article, the New York Times would carry an article on a split in the Esperanto movement in New York.

The article in the Sun of November 17, 1907 is a fairly long one, and there is a hint in it that there is some dissension in the Esperanto ranks. But let’s start with the location.
Now that the New York Esperanto Society has rented a club room of its own at 80 East 116th street its members have assumed an air of dignity quite different from the apologetic manner in which they explained last season that they were bathing in turn at one another’s apartments. With growth comes, of course, some natural feeling of elation, for that this society is becoming larger is evident to the visitor who makes his way to its room any Friday evening.

The older members get there first, about 8 o’clock, in order to bid the stranger welcome and to congratulate the newer members on their sustained interest in Esperanto. The room is large and three classes can be held in it at the same time; the adepts who converse more or less fluently in the language on any subject that interests them for the moment, the learners who receive instruction from one of the experienced, and the group of newcomers, sometimes large and sometimes small, who are rounded up by another experienced member and to whom are explained the most elementary rules of Esperanto.
The article goes on with a paragraph explaining the basics of Esperanto, but notes that this lecture drives some people off, typically people who didn’t realize just what office they were stepping into.
Indeed one young man in evening dress and an undershot jaw, who was escorting a pretty girl under a large red hat, seemed to resent not hearing the band play after both visitors had stood around wonderingly for a few minutes, but it developed in short order that the pair had mistaken the room of the Esperanto society for a newly opened dance hall. The girl under the large, red hat when the thing was explained, and she is not expected to become an applicant for membership of the club at any time.
Others do stay. However, just about any Esperantist of many years standing will recognize the following. It seems to happen at about the five-year mark.
Almost invariably one of these beginners has a suggestion for the improvement of the language, and here the tact of the instructor comes in. He knows, form his own experience, that the first steps in Esperanto, because of its simplicity as a whole, suggest to the thinking student what seems to be a more direct translation of a single idea, a plan which admitted would spoil the principal scheme.

He therefore assures the eager proposer that suggestions for the improvement of Esperanto are like measles in childhood. We all have them, feel better than before after they had disappeared, are usually immune against the same trouble henceforward, and become converts to what the Esperantists poetically call “the untouchableness of the fundament.”
Most certainly not. “The fundament”? It sound like we’re quaintly suggesting that people’s buttocks should not be touched. Well, certainly not without permission, and it’s a little intimate for an Esperanto meeting (at least the sort I go to). The Esperanto Fundamento is better as “the Fundamentals,” and in 1905, two years before this article, the Fundamentals were decreed untouchable. That has never stopped people from wanting to touch them. (There’s actually an exception to this. The escape clause is that once the language becomes the international auxiliary language, should one of the basics prove to be a problem, or should widespread usage change, the world-wide governing body of the language can authorize a change.)

The article concludes that the beginners classes end at about 10 o’clock, at which point those who can, join in on the conversation as best they can. The treasurer collects the 25¢ per month dues from those whose dues have come up. Can you imagine this: renting a space in Manhattan on funds raised by the aggregation of quarters? I’m going to guess that whatever the space is currently being used for (and the building is still there), monthly rent in quarters would probably be more than I could lift.

No one is named in the article, though the treasurer is noted to also be a member of “a big Esperanto club of his own in Brooklyn,” though he lives in Tenafly, New Jersey. Note the implication that there are Esperanto groups all over. The article concludes by describing the variety of individuals in a typical gathering:
One evening there were present two doctors, three newspaper men, a broker, a proofreader, a brewer, several clerks, a pretty artist’s model,[1] a typewriter[2] and fully a dozen school teachers. The last are still in the beginners’ classes, but they are progressing with rapidity and evidently enjoy the whole affair hugely.
And, who knows? Maybe in the future there will again be Manhattan offices of a Esperanto society where people come to learn and to talk. But they won’t be paying for it on 25¢ a month dues.

Minor correction: I re-read the Facebook post; they used to meet there. They had stopped meeting there. Now the cafe is closed.

Update: I need to keep this one in mind; I suspect that this was not the home of the New York Esperanto Society for long.

Further Update: By 1909, the New York Ilo Society (same leadership) was meeting three blocks away at 27 W 115th St. At the same time, there was another group in Manhattan headed by Henry James Foreman.

  1. How did the reporter know that the artist was pretty?  ↩
  2. That is, one who uses a typewriting machine. A typist, we would say.  ↩

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  1. We have been using the Unitarian Church at 35th St for several years for lectures….and probably will continue doing so. I did mention that 2 restaurants used for Sunday meetings, courses and snacks after Friday lectures have gone out of business.

  2. Thank you for the update on Esperanto in New York. The news gets to me late, as you can see.


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