Life in a Tenement in the Late 1800s: Have Things Changed Much?

“Knee-pants” at forty-five cents a dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop. c. 1890 Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914)

As I sit here waiting for Hurricane Sandy to arrive and bracing for the potential flooding of our basement again, I thought that I would write about my experience living in NYC over the past 15 years and compare it to the stories I heard from the guide at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.

The Tenement Museum is the wonderful experience which tells the stories of people who lived on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Back at that time, the area was inhabited with Germans Jews. The tour we went on was the Sweatshop Tour which talked about business, commerce, and employment from a familial and lifestyle perspective, or at least that was the information which I was most interested.

For those who are not familiar with tenements, they are apartment buildings which were largely built in the 1800s and early 1900s specifically for the needs of the working class. They existed in rows, with no side yards so there are only windows on the front and back of the building.

Over time, due to disease, new tenement buildings were required to have lightwells in the center of the building to allow light and air into the interior rooms. It was found that light and air decreased the spread of tuberculosis.

New Yorkers are very familiar with these types of buildings. They are narrow and long buildings which typically sits on a lot 25′ x 100′. Over the years the configuration the apartments have varied: an efficiency or studio would be a quarter of the building, with windows on one wall plus a lightwell wall. A railroad apt, which is considered very grand, with mulitple bedrooms, runs front to back of the building, broken into rooms that sometimes have 2 doors, leading from front to back of the apt.

Pike and Henry Streets March 6, 1936
Pike Street between Henry and Madison Streets, showing tenements with the Manhattan Bridge in the background.
Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

I have a few friends who live in the East Village. One has a bathtub in the kitchen. Others have shower stalls and bathroom stalls which would be comparable to airplane sized facilities. My grandmother had a friend who lived most of her life, and died in a Chinatown tenement just a few years ago. Her apartment was the top floor of a 6 floor walk-up. She was in her 90s when she passed.

New Yorkers in general find this type of living arrangement perfectly acceptable. There are many successful corporate types who live like this. Practical kitchens with dishwashers and rangehoods, bathtubs, walk-in closets, laundry in the building— these are luxuries that many do without and feel perfectly happy.

New Yorkers are social (and largely alcoholics, but that’s a whole other story.) If you don’t like people around, you’re in the wrong place.

What struck me was how much life had not changed since the 1800s in New York. Yes, we now have electricity and indoor toilets which were definitely a luxury back then. Beyond that, it seems similar.

One major difference for the New Yorkers I know is that they largely live 2 maybe 3 to an apt. I know that there are many immigrants who live more densely than that— 10-15 per apt . Often times it is “by choice” because they are sending much of their income back home to support a family who has less opportunity. But if they were to be more selfish, their incomes would allow them to live with fewer people.

Courtyard 1935
Arnold Eagle Federal Art Project

The Sweatshop tour emphasized how these meager homes, by day, would turn into places of employment. Up to 4 additional people would squeeze into the small apt to work daily, on making garments as subcontractors for fashion distributors who, for the first time, were making ready-to-wear.

The fact is, that there are many New Yorkers running small businesses on a shoe string and do the same. As corporate America has cut in-house departments and replaced them with consultants and outsourcing to firms specializing in things such a graphics, web design, accounting and finance, and many other services companies in the past ran themselves, there are many of us who have lived the sweatshop model at some point— working for or running small businesses with employees out of small apts. It’s one of those things that makes NYC relatively unique.

(Images from the Museum of the City of New York)



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