Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part III

by Kate Holladay Claghorn

Immigration fell off during the early years of the Civil War, but rose rapidly again in 1863 and 1864. In the latter year the Council of Hygiene presented its classical report on sanitary conditions in New York, showing most objectionable housing conditions in the

All descriptions and statistics of the period show that a large proportion of our foreign immigrants found their homes in tenement houses; and that practically all the tenement house population was made up of foreigners, of either the first or second generation.
No account of housing conditions in New York as affected by immigration would be complete without some mention of the "squatter" or "shanty" population. These people, pressing through the thickly settled prosperous districts of the city to the unused land beyond, covered large tracts with their little cabins, made of waste lumber, etc., and planted upon land for which no rent was paid. Such squatters were found in the twentieth ward at a very early date. Many were Germans, of the rag-picking fraternity ; but many Irish also lived in this way.

The results of this combination__the immigrant and the tenement house were notoriously bad; the question naturally arises, Did the immigrant cause the evils of the tenement house, or did the tenement house corrupt the immigrant?

Contemporary observers laid a good share of the blame for the evil conditions that had arisen upon the landlords, and upon the city government which allowed these landlords to work their will unchecked. It is obvious that the newly arrived immigrant had no way of expressing his own ideas as to what was proper and decent in the way of housing accommodations; he had to take what was provided for him. Needing a habitation at once, and without capital to build it, he was obliged to look for one already built; and being new to the country, be could not go far in that search; he was practically forced into accepting whatever was offered him. A candid consideration of the facts seems to show plainly that the desire of excessive profit on the part of landlords was the primary cause of the tenement house evil.

The original character of the tenants, however, has to be taken somewhat into account. Immigration until after the war, at least as far as it affected the tenement house population, was predominantly Irish and German before 1827 it was predominantly Irish. All of these people were poor; but the Irish showed decided traits of out-and-out pauperism. Reports of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor year after year speak of the special call upon their resources by the pauper class of " emigrants," whom they do not always distinguish racially, but whom we know to have been largely Irish. It is not to be supposed that all Irish were paupers; but, as the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor reports point out, a special winnowing process was all the time going on to draw off the enterprising and industrious from the cities to the railroads and farms of the West, leaving behind the paupers and vagrants, who were, even before the elements were thus separated, an unduly large proportion of the Irish population. Intemperance and violence were other noteworthy Irish characteristics. The German immigrant, like the Irishman, was poor, was dirty in his personal habits; but he was not criminal, not violent, not notably intemperate, not so great a pauper.

The Annual Report of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, 1860, shows the following average percentage of relief at the almshouse for the years 1854-1860:


Natives of the United States            14.2%
Natives of Ireland                             69   %
Natives of England and Scotland        4.5%
Natives of Germany                          10.8%
Natives of all other countries              1.5%

That is, nearly 7 Irish were relieved to 1 German. The Irish population at this time, however, being nearly twice that of the German, the actual ratio is about 3 1/2 Irish to 1 German, and 5 Irish to 1 American.

But although so many of the laboring population were drawn out of the city, it was not simply the paupers who remained behind. The city itself called for and kept within its limits a considerable working population; and down to the close of the war it was found that, except temporarily, in times of special commercial depression, there was work enough for every able-bodied man who chose to take it. Some such conditions may be said, with certain reservations and modifications, to exist to this day. The commercial importance of the city has to some extent overshadowed its importance as one of the great manufacturing centers of the country; but such it has grown to be, and as such it needs an army of workers within its own immediate limits to carry on its industries. Add to this the constant call for unskilled labor in the never ending course of city improvement in road making and mending, laying and relaying of tracks, cutting tunnels and so forth, and it is easily seen why the immigrant remains so persistently in the busy city that he knows, rather than strike out for a remote agricultural district, the opportunities of which he does not know.

As to the industrious classes, the report of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor for 1852 states, " A considerable part of our bakers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, tailors, etc., are Germans; many of the stonecutters, masons, pavers, cartmen, hackmen, etc., are Irish." But the largest class of workers among the Irish were unskilled day laborers; among the Germans what is regarded as a curious new industry was carried on. This was "rag-picking," and Dr. Griscom speaks of this new class of "chiffonniers " as " most filthy and degraded " in person and habits. He seems to think that they were direct importations from Paris, London, and other cities, but there is no evidence to support this.

These " chiffonniers " were largely German by race, presumably from country districts at home, taking to this occupation through their frugal habit of saving everything savable, and finding occasion for carrying it on in the general prodigality of dumping all sorts of refuse in all parts of the city. The investigating committee of the New York State Assembly, reporting in 1857, gives a vivid picture of a colony of such workers on the East Side. This was at No. 88 Sheriff Street, a rambling row of wooden tenements which was known as "Rag-picker's Paradise," and was " inhabited by Germans, who dwell in small rooms, in almost fabulous gregariousness, surrounded by scores of dogs, and canopied by myriads of rags fluttering from lines crossing their filthy yards, where bones of dead animals and noisome collections of every kind were reeking with pestiferous smells. One establishment . . . contains more than fifty families."

The report notes, however, with regard to these apparently so degraded beings, that they were really on the upward road.. "

It is said that habits of economy and constant application to their wretched business enable nearly all, sooner or later, to accumulate sufficient funds to enable them to migrate to the West. We were told of a colony of three hundred of these people, who occupied a single basement, living on offal and scraps, and who saved money enough to purchase a township on one of the Western prairies." However, the report adds, this means of livelihood is precarious, and in dull seasons the children are sent out to sweep crossings or beg.

Without doubt, people of dirty habits would be likely to have dirty habitations; and a pauperized, intemperate, and violent people would not only destroy the property they lived in, but would make it the centre of all sorts of vice and crime. But it is easy to see that the tenement house was admirably calculated to foster the most undesirable characteristics of these immigrant people, and to choke out to a very decided degree the good characteristics they might develop. It was not merely easy to be dirty in the wretched, crazy, crowded dwellings; it was almost impossible to be anything else.

Croton water was not introduced until 1842, sewerage not until later. In 1844 sewers were laid in a few streets, but no lateral drains had been made from houses, and people were gravely discussing whether a sewer was a proper means of carrying off house drainage of various kinds. The great number of tenement houses constructed during this period were, of course, without the sanitary conveniences now thought essential for decency in living; and many of these tenements exist to this day, without sewer connections, running water, or gas. There was a general negligence as to filth in the city at large, throughout all of this earlier period of growth, which added to the evil effect of the tenement house.

Especially prominent in sanitary reports between 1840 and 1865 are the undrained, uneven, and filthy streets, the pigsties and stables everywhere allowed, the manure heaps piled up for sale in many quarters of the city, the bone-boiling, fat-rendering, and soap-making establishments, the match factories, glue and varnish works, etc., and above all, the slaughterhouses, found in every part of the city. It was the general filthiness of the streets, the careless disposal of all sorts of refuse in gutters, ash-barrels, and vacant lots, that enabled the " chiffonnier " to pursue his filthy calling. Dr. Griscom, as early as 1842, says that the remedy for the evils brought about by the dirty ways of " these wretched, unwashed exotics," the "chiffonniers," is clean streets; a remedy which, simple as it was, had to wait half a century for its trial, to the complete success of the prediction.

The slaughter-houses were notorious evils. The terrible stench they generated, the droves of swine, which, allowed to run in the slaughter-house yards as scavengers, were also allowed freely to roam the streets, made them centers of filth and offence; and the cruelty, brutality, and roughness, for the men employed in them were of the most hardened and intemperate class, exposed freely to the view of all who chose to come and look on, as it was a favorite neighborhood amusement of the children to do, made them "no ordinary schools of vice."

As late as 1864 there were six of these establishments in the fourteenth ward alone, a quarter that had been for a long time thickly built up, and was in the central part of the city.

In the eleventh ward, also thickly populated, the inspector reporting to the Council of Hygiene found nineteen slaughterhouses. He says: " In most instances the condition of these places is excessively filthy, and utterly reckless of any regard to sanitary, regulations or the laws of decency. The worst class of these slaughter-pens is found in rear buildings amidst the most densely packed tenant houses. A written description can convey no adequate idea of the shameless and brutal scenes that are daily witnessed in and about these butcheries."


Website: The History
Article Name: Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part III
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Tenement House Problem: Including the Report of The New York state Tenement House Commission of 1900 by Various Writers Volume II; The Macmillan Company-New York 1903
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