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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

The Pearsall Women: Ethel Pearsall Birch

Ethel Pearsall c.1906

E. Arrell Pearsall's serial memoir This Is My Life is a formidable work written expressly for the Bryant Library Local History Collection. Toward the end of his recollections Arrell devoted individual sections to the lives of his seven older siblings, Ethel, Eugenie, Gertrude, Marjorie, Arnold, Hilda, and Myrtle. Although he was the youngest of the family and born nearly 20 years after his oldest sister Ethel, Arrell's warm narration reveals the family's closeness and reliance on each other. His words about Ethel make a splendid presentation of her glamorous persona and form the perfect accompaniment to this incredible portrait which was recently brought to us by her grandnephew, Bryan Pearsall:

Photo undated, c. 1920s

Rather than summarize Arrell's wonderfully written prose, we offer you this excerpt from This is My Life in which he describes his sister, Ethel Pearsall Birch:

"I will attempt to write what I know and what I heard about my six sisters and one brother. Ethel, my oldest sister, was born January 25, 1888, I believe, on Skillman Street across from the Hennessey home. I don't know how far in school she went. She married London Holmes from Flushing. When she was ten, I have heard that she loved to sew and at times when our mother was out, she would [be] making doll clothes on the sewing machine. Ethel and London lived in Flushing. They had one child, a boy. London was a musician, a drummer and had·a band. For years, Bertanzal, who had a large nursery on the southeast corner of Glen Cove Road & Northern Blvd., would have a large party and would hire London and his band.

London's piano player's name was Hudnel. They had three children. They used to come out to visit once in a while. The last time I saw them was on a Fourth of July. I just don't remember the year, but I think it must have been about 1914. They brought out fireworks with them and we kids had a great time. Sometime later, they moved to Los Angeles. I presume the Hudnels moved to Los Angeles because he could get more work playing the piano.

Some years later, Ethel and London divorced and a few years after that, London died. Ethel went to work in service in Great Neck. She soon opened a beauty salon in Great Neck and had two operators from New York City run it. In the early 30s, she bought a lot north of our parents’ home. She bought it from our uncle, Louis Hicks who owned up to the corner of Power House Road and Willis Avenue. She bought an office building that was down on Willis Avenue a short ways. She had it moved. She set up housekeeping and began doing what she loved best, dressmaking. She soon had a clientele of rich women from the Old Westbury Brookville area. In 1935, she married Ernest Birch. They then had the building built into a full two-story house.

Ethel could sit down and write page after page to a half dozen people with something different in each letter. She died July 4th, 1959 in Los Angeles in one of our sister's apartments. Ethel was 71 when she died."

Ethel in her later years, c. 1946

While it is unfortunate that we do not know more about Ethel, we are grateful to be able to learn about her life and the influence she had as a local Black fashion designer, business owner, and landowner. We imagine that she was a very chic, savvy woman with sophisticated taste to match her creative sensibility.

We invite you to further explore our Black History Portal and read more of Arrell Pearsall's memoir in which he recounts both joyful and tragic experiences of his and his family's lives.


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