Children of the Tenements 1900


There is a small world of which much is seen and little is thought, that is situated in the streets proximate to the tenement districts. Like that larger world of which it is a part, it has its joys and its woes, its strifes of race and its periods of peace, it has hard times and times of plenty, and, above all, it contains both good and evil. It is the juvenile world of the tenement children. There are but two really happy conditions in life that of the millionaire and the tenement child. No other class is so nearly independent of its fellow beings, nor so free from the arbitrary rule of custom. The bondholder or the street urchin can wear any kind of a hat that he pleases without being subject to ridicule. No other class enjoys such immunity. Beside being equally happy, the lot of the tenement youth is undoubtedly easier and more respectable than that of the millionaire. He has much less on his mind to worry him and considerably less on his stomach. The urchin's back is bent under fewer burdens and under fewer clothes. Everything taken into consideration, his station in life is happier, lighter and airier than that of anything, unless it be the sparrows among whom he dwells.

The home of the tenement child is the street. he is born in the house, and, unless run over by a street car, he dies in the house. Sometimes under great pressure he can be prevailed upon to sleep and eat in the house. In all other instances he prefers the street, and it requires considerable persuasion and force to overcome his preference. The street is his playground, and it is where he spends the major part of each twenty-four hours. It is in the streets that he enjoys his sports, and it is there that he pursues his juvenile feuds. These are not very serious, as a rule, but occasional disfigurations of the countenance result from them:

His sports are many and varied, and they conform so closely to the season appropriate for them that they would serve for a rough calendar. The spring is ushered in with marbles, and marbles fill all time and space until they are suddenly dropped for another game. No one has ever been able to ascertain the name of this game, and it is very doubtful whether it has a name. As for its method, it is probably understood by the urchins who play it, but surely no one else has been able to get any conception of its scheme or its purpose. Perhaps its purpose is to furnish amusement. The necessary implements are simple and inexpensive, which probably enhances its popularity. They consist of two sticks, one about three inches long and sharpened at both ends, the other shaped something like a ladle. If anything can be learned of the game by observation, it would seem that the object is to raise the small stick in the air by striking one point and then bat it with the ladle-like stick to some other player; he to catch it and throw it back as nearly as possible to its starting point. Further than this everything is enveloped in haze and doubt.

Following the nameless game, or rather growing out of it, is base ball. The sight of the urchin playing this game in the street is too familiar to require any description. Then comes the petty peculation of fruit as it is ripening in the fall. Not infrequently this brings him into contact with the police, who, whatever ideas they may entertain regarding some thefts, are not wholly in sympathy with fruit stealing. The tenement children make an effort to imitate other sports, and insist on accompanying the exit of autumn with foot ball, even if they have no foot ball with which to play the game. The old age of the world of sports they celebrate very much as every other youngster does. If they are fortunate enough to possess skates. It is skating or hockey; if not, they entertain themselves and their victims by snowballing whomsoever comes within range. In the enjoyment of this pleasant pastime there is no respect for sex, station, age or infirmities. It is remarkable with what nonchalance they will knick a dignified old gentleman's ten dollar tile off his bald and venerable head. The tenement youth has no reverence nor veneration, and the person whose lofty position inspires us with a feeling almost akin to fear, inspires the urchin with nothing whatever. They have no hesitancy in "soaking" anything from a mongrel cur to a president of a bank, and the latter they probably regard as the more satisfactory and honorable achievement.

As might be expected, there is a deplorable condition of squalor surrounding not only the lives but the persons of tenement children. The common fallacy that, urchins thrive on dirt displays its absurdity here. There is nothing in the anatomy of the street urchin so fundamentally different from other beings as to enable them to derive a great amount of nourishment from filth or grime. Some of the theories advanced would lead one to believe that a tenement child was equipped like a chicken instead of possessing a stomach, hence required a certain amount of gravel in order to digest its food. Its effect inside is not more deleterious than its effect outside. It is unquestionable that much harm results from their uncleanliness. Even a dog will get the mange if it is not kept reasonably clean, and a tenement child is by no means an immune to this ailment. David Harum's theory that a certain amount of fleas is good for a dog in that they keep him from dwelling on his troubles, when applied in practice to the urchin will result in keeping his mind from dwelling on anything but the fleas. This can be construed to cover other species of aptera that are accustomed to inhabit and derive their sustenance from the human body. Whatever arguments there may be in favor of squalor, it is undeniable that some of these youngsters would be incalculably benefited by a liberal application of soap, water and a weak solution of carbolic acid.

That which is the most unfortunate, which is acquired through no fault of their own and which no cleansing will remove is the legacy left to some of these children by their parents. The little unfortunates are born into the world with an ineradicable curse upon them, and they must undergo all the suffering that it entails. The effect of the parents' inebriety is also at times apparent. Involuntary twitchings of face and limbs, the first signs of incipient hysteria, unreasoning terror and the unprovoked shedding of tears all testify to a future nervous wreck. Happily these cases are rare, but that they exist at all is very lamentable.

In extremely warm weather the heat is a severe trial to the tenement children. Their constitutions are not fitted to endure the strain, and many of them succumb. They live in those sections where the heat is felt the worst, and where there is the least chance to escape from it. It is scarcely possible to believe the methods to which they resort in order to relieve their suffering. A piece of ice that accidentally falls from an ice wagon is pounced upon as though it were a piece of gold. To them the ice would be the more valuable of the two. Lemonade stands and the carts of the hokey pokey men are centers of drooping, half dead crowds of youngsters. Those who have the necessary penny are objects of the greatest envy, and the crying, begging requests to divide their colling morsels are many. They think that the hokey pokey man has reached the acme of human happiness, and it is doubtful whether these urchins would exchange such a position for that of President. Thin green slices of watermelon that have been handled by dirty venders until it has assumed a color scarcely recognizable are swallowed by the reeking, sweating children with an avidity that testifies to their pitiable condition. The heat makes it impossible for them to eat any solid food, keeps them from sleeping of nights and otherwise so debilitates them that at the first attack of sickness they succumb.

There is a current fallacy regarding the difference between children of today and those of preceding generations, but it is one that is entertained only by the unobservant. It is usually maintained by those who contend that the weather is not what it was fifty years ago, and the same reply will serve for both contentions. In a certain country grocery store the king of the cracker barrel was mounted on his throne and discoursing on the weather. Among other things he remarked that the weather was not what it had been thirty years ago, when some fresh youngster replied that it was not what it had been six months ago. So it is with the children of today. They are not what they were ten minutes ago. Their spirits, however, are not less buoyant nor their capacity for enjoying sport less keen than it has been during past generations.

A juvenile race war is more amusing than serious, nor are the causes from which they arise very appalling. Sometimes the dishonest acquisition of a marble will serve as a pretext for opening hostilities. One of these incipient conflicts may occur between any two races, but one that seems highly diverting as well as popular is that between the whites and the blacks. Doubtless this is due to the fact that the great dissimilarity of the two colors affords sufficient distinction to enable the combatants to tell friend from foe. A bystander would be surprised at the rapidity with which these "scraps" begin, develop to considerable proportions and end, leaving everything as calm and peaceful as though nothing had happened. A real or an imaginary encroachment upon some urchin's rights is committed, a few hasty words follow and they are very few and then the injured party assumes an attitude that is always pugilistic and nearly always unfortunate. In less than no time a black fist comes in violent and frequent contact with a face that would be white were it washed, and the compliment is returned. From all directions there come running recruits for the ranks of both parties. A general melee ensues, and then at its height the conflict suddenly ceases, the trouble subsides, and all is tranquil.

There is another picture besides that of the comparatively happy, comfortable tenement child. It is that of the homeless waif, and here it is: It was about 2 o'clock one morning that an under-fed little urchin lay nestled against the base of a wall of cold masonry. It was the Brooklyn branch of a New York daily, and he was waiting in sleep for his morning papers. An officer was approaching. Instinct seemed to warn the little fellow even in his sleep, and he darted around the corner as swiftly and as silently as a ghost. When the danger had passed he returned and lowly sobbed, as though he had not the strength to utter a full grown, healthy cry. In answer to an inquiry if he were cold or hungry, he said no, but that while he slept someone had taken the few pennies from his pocket. The loss was made up, but the little man gave no thanks. He was very grateful, but he was too sleepy, too cold, too hungry, too weak, too utterly miserable to speak. He merely dried his eyes, and shaking with sobs, nestled again at the foot of the masonry.


Website: The History
Article Name: Children of The Tenements
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 22, 1900
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