Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part II

by Kate Holladay Claghorn

Another year of especially heavy immigration saw another complaint against bad housing. In 1842 there were over 100,000 foreign arrivals at all ports, and in that year was made the first detailed and comprehensive report upon housing conditions in the city. This report was made by Dr. John H. Griscom, then City Inspector of the Board of Health, at the close of his annual report of interments for the year, and in it he notes the high death-rate of the foreign-born, especially of the Irish, and attributes a large part of the evil to their crowded condition.

By this time the main outlines of a housing system developed in connection with foreign immigration had come into view, which remained practically the same until the close of the Civil War indeed, until the close of the decade following the war.

These are best seen, perhaps, in a concrete example given by Dr. Griscom in his " Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York" in 1845. Dr. B. W. McCready, reporting, at Dr. Griscom's request, certain cases of typhus that had broken out, a year or
so previously, in the rear of 49 Elizabeth Street, says:

"The front building, a small, two-story frame house, was partly occupied by the proprietor or lessee of the building as a liquor store, and partly sublet to several Irish families. A covered alleyway led to the rear building. This was a double frame house, three stories in height. It stood in the centre of the yard. Ranged next the fence were a number of pigsties and stables, which surrounded the yard on three sides. From the quantity of filth, liquid and otherwise, thus caused, the ground, I suppose, had been rendered almost impassable, and to remedy this, the yard had been completely boarded over, so that the earth could nowhere be seen. These boards were partially decayed, and by a little pressure, even in dry weather, a thick greenish fluid could be forced up through their crevices. The central building was inhabited wholly by negroes. In this building there occurred, in the course of six weeks, nine cases of typhus fever."

At the solicitation of the doctor the alderman of the ward visited the houses. As a result " the number of pigs about the establishment was reduced to that allowed by law" (!), and some other improvements were made.

In this example it is seen how the old-fashioned frame house, once occupied, perhaps, by prosperous owners, had been turned over to tenement uses; how a " tenement house," especially built for the purpose of containing several poor families, had been erected at the rear of the older building in the original yard; how the inferior rear building had been given up to the inferior that is, less prosperous race; how filth, disease, and disorder (the last not shown, indeed, in this case, but in many others) result from such conditions.

The two principal types of tenement houses thus indicated each developed evils all its own. The use of the old, one-family dwelling as a tenement was mainly responsible for the growth of that great " cellar population " which was the constant object of anxious attention on the part of philanthropists and sanitary reformers for many years.

The barrack, run up expressly for tenement purposes, and planted in every possible patch or corner of unoccupied space in the poorer neighborhoods, in the back yards of old dwellings, as in the example above, or in sets or rows, one behind the other, or side by side, along narrow "courts " and "alleys," brought darkness and dampness, with all their attendant evils, above ground, thus practically making a new "cellar population " not confined to the cellars, but placed in layers, one above the other, up to six stories in height.

That the development of a tenement house system as thus described was due to the demands for housing created by immigration, was stated again and again by contemporary observers.
An especially interesting feature in the tenement system of the time was the practice of subletting, an important phase both in the life of the immigrant and in the housing problem.

Dr. Griscom, in his report on the " Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York " in 1845, says: "

The system of tenantage to which large numbers of the poor are subjected, I think must be regarded as one of the principal causes of the helpless and noisome manner in which they live. The basis of these evils is the subjection of the tenantry to the merciless inflictions and extortions of the sub-landlord. The owner is relieved of trouble; the lessee tries to make and save as much as possible, sufficient sometimes to enable him to purchase the property in a short time.

"The tenements, in order to admit a greater number of families, are divided into small apartments, as numerous as decency will admit. Regard to comfort, convenience, and health is the last motive ; indeed, the great ignorance of this class of speculators (who are very frequently foreigners and keep a grog-shop on the premises) would prevent a proper observance of these had they the desire. These closets, for they deserve no other name, are then rented to the poor, from week to week, or month to month, the rent being almost invariably required in advance, at least for the first few terms. The families moving in first after the house is built find it clean, but the lessee has no supervision over their habits, and however filthy the tenement may become, he cares not so that he receives his rent. He and his family are often steeped as low in depravity and discomforts as any of his tenants, being above them only in the possession of money, and doubtless often beneath them in moral worth and sensibility."

In the Report of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, for 1853, it is stated that " the evils the laboring classes suffer from the enumerated causes are greatly aggravated by a species of subletting which extensively prevails in most parts of the city, often subjecting them to the merciless exactions of capricious and unprincipled landlords, and also to the influence of circumstances which cannot fail to degrade them."

Sometimes a second "sub-owner," or agent, is in evidence. An investigating committee in 1857 talked with one of these men and learned some facts which led them to state in their minutes, after reporting the talk:

"The foregoing colloquy satisfied the committee of the evils of the ' middleman' system. The buildings under consideration (Folsom's Barracks) are first built as a speculation in the cheapest manner and then the owner delegates his brother to oversee them; the brother again gives them in charge to a third party, who, he says, can I do better with them than he can.' Here we have two agents between landlord and tenant, both, of course, drawing substance from the miserable people inhabiting these filthy houses."

This system of course raised rents very materially, as each "middleman" had to have his profit. The increase was stated to be anywhere from 12 to 25 per cent, upon a total rental value already enormous.

That the sub-landlord was, more often than not, originally an immigrant himself, is an interesting feature in the situation. It is one of the difficulties the sympathizer with struggling humanity is baffled with, that the man who has just succeeded in climbing one
round of the ladder is the first to kick down, if he can, the man just below him. And so these Irish and German sub-landlords were among the hardest and most unprincipled of those who dealt with the newly arriving immigrant. They were, usually, keepers of groggeries or "groceries " (which latter seem to have been almost the equivalent of the former at that period), and so added the enticements of vice to the other evils they pressed upon the poor tenants.

From 1842 on immigration increased and the tenement house system grew. Immigration rose rapidly after 1844, and this rise was again followed by complaints about housing. The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor began a movement for the bettering of housing conditions in 1846, and in 1853, in which year immigration amounted to nearly 400,000 arrivals, presented its First Report of a Committee on the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring classes.


Website: The History
Article Name: Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part II
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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