Life In The Tenements: 1899

Our friends of the tenements live in every block in the city where apartments can be found for six, eight, or ten dollars a month. By taking a lodger or two, some of the ambitious among the poor are able to pay twelve or fourteen dollars a month, but the majority prefer the lower rents. Many of the crowded districts are separated by a few blocks only from the mansions of the wealthy, and the relative positions of house- owners and tenants make the interests of the rich and the poor one. Every wealthy woman has her circle of friends among the poor, and she takes a kindly interest in their welfare. She visits them occasionally when in and if she is absent, or when social demands prevent her going in person, she sends a visitor to them, who keeps her informed about their pleasures and pains, and particularly about the condition of the children.

Under ordinary conditions the tenement people are happy, and they get more pleasure out of life than the privileged classes. Their greatest care is the monthly rent. All of the visitors know that the terrible landlord, or his agent, will call on the first of the month, but none of the visitors know about the nice little sums of money that some of these people have laid away in the bank. Many a poorly dressed old woman has two or three bank books in her possession. The men and women of the tenements were educated under the old system, and they are perfectly satisfied with their knowledge. The customs that were satisfactory to father and mother are good enough for them, and they have no sympathy with those who would educate the children out of the old groove. The theories and the fads of educators the people leave severely alone. The laws of health and precautions to prevent the spread of disease are absurd. "God sends disease to them that fly from it, " and, "Shure, no wan kin die afore their time," are time-honored opinions and all-powerful against the rules of the Board of Health.

These people have an educational standard of their own, and any attempt to raise the standard for them is resisted as an impertinence. All who would elevate them morally must meet them on their own ground, and win their confidence by drawing out their best traits and giving due recognition to the great good that is in their natures, before trying to raise them a step higher.

Improvident habits in the old cannot be changed, but the children may be trained to form more thrifty habits. The friendship of the people is too easily gained, for the average tenement housekeeper is chatty and very glad to talk with any one who may call on her. A pleasant greeting and a slight compliment are enough to loosen her tongue, and the history of the family, with all the good woman's joys and sorrows, are quickly told. These women show a great deal of tact in trying to draw out a visitor in order to learn whether anything can or cannot be made out of her.

The tenement districts are the fields where the philanthropists and the mission workers try to scatter bits of brightness and pleasure. Many of the poor are self-respecting, and would rather suffer quietly than make their wants known. All conscientious workers should respect this spirit, and not give pain to sensitive natures system, and they are perfectly satisfied with their

There are too many of the half-pauper Bort, who are always on the lookout for any crumbs that may fall in their way. A visitor who has had a little experience can easily pick out the mission rounders. All of them are very liberal in their religious views, and very sure that God is good to us all. They never allow sectarian prejudice to stand in the way of getting a little clothing, or two weeks in the country for the children. The spirit of toadyism is found everywhere. A visit from "a grand lady, sure an' she was awful nice to the children," gives more pleasure than a five-dollar bill. It is this spirit that makes the missions that are supported by wealthy people
so popular. The meetings that are led by prominent men are always well attended. The children are glad to hear stories about the great man's early life, and the hand-shaking at the door counts for a great deal among the parents.

If one would live in peace in the tenements, one must be neighborly. This means that one must not be above talking with one's neighbors in the hall, or at the door, in the grocery or the market, or on the way there and back. A wedding, a funeral, or an accident, calls for a discussion of the family affairs of the fortunate or the unfortunate one, and a history of all the families who
can be dragged in. A woman who is not neighborly is sure to be left alone when sickness or any trouble hie comes to her. It is true that the gossip often hurts the feelings of some one, and that neighbors will be "bad friends with one another," but something unexpected is sure to happen, and the excitement restores the general good feeling. Friends from a distance must be
served with beer when they call, for to fail to offer this form of hospitality would cause one to be called mean and stingy forever after. A housekeeper would rather borrow the ten cents for beer from one of the neighbor, than allow an acquaintance to say, "Ain't she the mean woman; she never asked me if I had a mouth on me or not."

A beautiful spirit of helpfulness is found throughout the tenement districts. "Only the poor help the poor," is the general opinion. The crowds that fill the rooms where there is sickness or death, are prompted by a more kindly feeling than curiosity. In case of sickness, every one offers help by finding fault with what the doctor has done, and by suggesting some other course. All of them offer their services, and half a dozen take hold of the same thing together. Wakes and funerals are not gloomy, as one would expect. Friends meet and have a pleasant chat, the young people enjoy themselves, and there is always some one present who is "awful comical an' makes us all laugh."

The tenement people are below the prosperous middle class, and the young have a chance to rise up and out of the crowd ; but the old are content to remain where they are. The underpaid laborer, the unskilled laborer, and the never-do-well, go to make up their numbers. There are always some who have seen better days, and who hold aloof from the others. Happily for all interested,
the poor lady has disappeared. Poor ladies were painfully interesting, and the wealthy ministered to their wants as much as the wasp-like tongues of the ladies would allow them to. The times were always out of joint with them, and the present time is too practical to acknowledge "lady" as a profession. The aristocracy of the tenements claim to be of "gentle birth," but this means that they were saleswomen, or some one of the poorly-paid tradeswomen, who were obliged to live in a genteel way upon a small salary. The cases that I have met have all proved to be women who were trained in institutions in their childhood. They certainly had more a "elegant home" than their poor neighbors. Members of the poorly paid professions to-day, saleswomen, dressmakers, and others who are kept by economic conditions from earning more than a living, must eventually drop into the tenements. The happy-go-lucky spirit of the old residents helps to brighten the newcomers. When work is plenty, feasting is the rule. The little old lady on the top floor has many a bowl of broth, or nice little bit of meat or fish sent to her by the ladies on the other floors. Good-natured women call in the little children whose mothers are out at work, and give them bread with butter and sugar, or a penny to buy a cake or candy. I have known the children of the very poor spend ten cents a week for candy. One who would suggest that apart of these pennies might be saved to help pay for shoes and stockings, would be told that children cannot be young but once. The beggar who asks for "a penny for the love of God, " and stray dogs and cats are seldom turned away. The more dirty and ill-looking the dog, the more the boys love it. One woman gives a home to nine cats that came to her. She leaves a window open, where they run in and out, and they sleep with the children. I asked her if boarding the cats was expensive and she said, "Yes; but the neighbors all feed them." When work is scarce these people never charge want of money to want of prudence. Perhaps "the bread cast upon the waters returns again," for, if one is out of work this week, there is sure to be a payday for another, and no neighbor refuses the loan of a quarter or a drawing of tea. The small grocers are kind, and most of them give credit for provisions amounting to less than one dollar.

The coal dealers, and the furniture dealers, keep the tenement people poor. The amount of money necessary to pay for one-half a ton of coal cannot often be spared from the weekly earnings, and if it could be spared, there is no room to store the coal, for a box behind or beside the stove is the only receptacle that can be kept in the small kitchen. Housekeepers have to be content with a bushel of coal for a quarter, or a scuttle full for ten cents. Furniture is never bought until it is wanted, and always upon the installment plan. The fifty cents a week seems easy enough, but the poor pay two or three times the market value of coal and furniture. The custom of taking a life insurance policy for a small amount is universal. The marble palaces built by the companies that collect premiums of five or ten cents a week from the very poor are sufficient testimony to the extent of the custom. The primary reason is undoubtedly the desire for a decent burial, for the poor object to entering their long home as paupers, and, if the amount of the policy is fifty dollars, or two hundred dollars, it is generally spent upon the funeral.

Statistics prove that, among the poor who profess a belief in Christianity, the negroes receive the least help from public charities, and investigation shows that they are comparatively much better fed. They are obliged to pay higher rents, and they are paid lower wages. Many of the thrifty among them have bank accounts and some of them own building lots in' the country. These are fleeced by the fraudulent building and loan associations, and often lose their small savings. The income of the prosperous darkies does not always come from a reputable source. Many of them are employed in what they call "de sportin' houses," and they are necessarily silent about where the five and ten-dollar bills come from.

The respectable class are obliged to do odd jobs of work, and they never refuse any present of cast-off clothing or cold meat "de madam" may offer them. The clothing is sold, and the meat is never so hard and dry that they cannot make some use of it. They show their talents for catering by the many ways in which they serve the odd bits. Seven cents will pay at the market for enough clippings of meat to make a stew, and two cents will buy all the vegetables they want. Such stews are flavored with a little bit of bacon fried brown and cut up in the fat, and a pork soup is sometimes made. A little rice, "I never measures it, but I allus takes jest enough," a cup of milk and a little water, with an apple sliced in, is "deingrediencies," for a baked pudding. The negroes are the prey of unscrupulous agents who have anything worthless to sell. These agents hang around until the women allow them to leave their wares, then they follow them up for their pay. Rugs, clocks, and lace curtains, worth ninety-eight cents, will bring ten dollars from a poor negress, who makes a weekly payment from her small earnings. Industrious negroes are always able to make out, but how the men and women who spend their days and nights on the sidewalks live, none but themselves know. All of the men and many of the women play policy. The wrong gig generally comes out, but frequent losses foster a love for the game.

Beer has become a necessity for the laborers, and though the Irish and the Germans agree upon politics and beer, they differ in the manner of furnishing their homes. The Germans love bare floors and the stuffy beds they brought from home, while the Irish will sacrifice something else in order to carpet their rooms. German women are economical housekeepers, while the
Irish are notoriously wasteful. Their daily routine and their social life are much alike.

The clock must be turned ahead at night, for father must eat before going to work in the morning, and the children must be up and ready for school. Coffee, well boiled, and bread and butter, are all that the family will eat for breakfast. Father takes his lunch pail with him, and the coffee pot is filled and left on the stove, where it will stay until the children return for lunch. This leaves the mother free from care until the time when she must prepare the evening meal, and she can attend to her social duties in the block. Corned beef, or ham and cabbage, are often "done to death" because the mother is too polite to break away from a friend who stands and talks to her from the opposite door. Children are the principal stock-in-trade of the poor. They will value them as wage-earners later on, but they neglect them entirely too much at present. The mothers know nothing of self-restraint, and they would " scorn" to teach anything so mean to the children. The baby is given whatever it cries for, and many babies drink coffee and beer before they can walk. Its fits of temper are laughed at. As soon as it can toddle the older children take it into the street, and they often forget to look after it. It picks up its language there, and learns to fight its way without regard to the wishes of any other child. Selfishness soon becomes a habit. At first the child is called very smart, but it is too soon master of the house, and then the mother declares that she can do nothing with it. I am sorry to say that such lack of training is not confined to the tenements. A regular hour for retiring is unknown to these children ; they play until they are tired out, and after they have fallen asleep on the floor or the table, they are dragged off to bed. Freedom from restraint is the ideal state of the children of the tenements. They would be pained if they were obliged to change places for a day with the children in cultured homes. They are not contented with quiet pleasures. To listen to music or stories for an hour would oblige them to stop talking the most cruel punishment imaginable. Their favorite treat is something to eat, let it be cream and cake, or candy ; talk can be suspended while it lasts.

Many of the girls and boys are intellectually bright, and all of them are getting a good education in the public schools. The bright ones are encyclopaedias, filled with facts about every conceivable subject ; but the entire crowd could live by their wits without any schooling. They are happy when they can outwit their natural enemy, "the cop." Next to mischief, they are interested in society gossip, politics and history. They have not yet mastered the art of suspending their judgment. To seem to know a great deal about everything, and to talk louder than the others, make a boy great among his fellows.


Website: The History
Article Name: Life In The Tenements: 1899
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 Our Brethren of the Tenements and the Ghetto by M.J. McKenna J.S. Ogilvie Publishing Co. copyright 1899.
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