Life In A Tenement House: When Poverty Stands At The Back Door 1877


To get a better idea of how the poor of Brooklyn live during the Winter, when all outside work is closed down, a reporter visited a large tenement house on Bond Street, which is occupied by no less than fourteen families. Not alone have the laboring man employed on streets etc., been discharged, but nearly all the factories in South Brooklyn have reduced their help, owing to the dullness of the market and the large amount of stuff they all have on hand.

In the Tenth Ward alone there are FIVE HUNDRED MEN OUT OF WORK, and the majority of these are men, who when working were unable to earn above a dollar and twenty-five cents per diem.

The house in question is a large double tenement, four stories in height, and built of wood. In the hallway were a number of small children at play, nearly all of them being barefooted. One of them was a curly haired little boy, of not over two. He ran around shouting gleefully, while his little bare legs were almost blue in the cold. Upon seeing the reporter, a girl of about twelve caught the boy in her arms. "Is he your brother?" questioned the reporter.

"Yes," answered the girl. "Then why don't you take him out of this cold hall?"

"It is as warm here as any other part of the house," answered the girl, "we have no coal."

"What, you have no fire?" "No, I was going out to pick up some cinders but for the snow storm."

"How do you manage to cook your meals?" "We have none to cook. We are too poor to have meat."

"What do you live on?" inquired the reporter.

"Bread. Mother baked bread yesterday. Father broke up the baby's stool for her to make a fire with. We had meat at Christmas, my uncle Mike sent us a large piece of roast pork, I tell you it was bully."

"Mary! Mary! come up here, you rascal, or I'll punch your head between your two ears," shouted a woman from one of the upper floors.

"That's mother calling," said the little girl, as she ascended the stairs with her baby brother in her arms, his half frozen little feet carefully covered with her shawl.

A Woman walked out of one of the apartments on the ground floor and seeing the reporter said, "And who might you be looking for, sir?"

The reporter stated his business and the woman said, "Sure I wouldn't want to have my name in the paper and the other tenants wouldn't like it. There's a Dutch woman that lives on the top floor, back room, maybe she might talk to you."

While she was talking a couple of other women came down stairs. "Are you from the Board of Health?" inquired one.

The reporter answered in the negative, and the woman continued, "I thought maybe you might be. I have A LITTLE GOAT IN THE BACK YARD, and one of the women in the next house who I had up in court for beating my little Larry, made a complaint about me keeping a goat."

The three women finally gave their names as Holland, Murphy and Schwartz. Mrs. Holland, the woman to whom the reporter first spoke, is a widow. When asked if she was married she answered, "No, my husband was killed three years ago by a bank falling on him, while he was working in a sewer excavation."

"How do you manage to support yourself, Mrs. Holland?"

"Sure, I don't live at all, I merely exist. I can earn about three dollars and fifty cents a week by washing, then my little girl that's out at service pays my rent for me, it ain't much, I have only two small rooms."

"How many children have you, Mrs. Holland?"

"Four beside Janey, who is living out: these are all small. Mike he is twelve and next Summer I think I will put him to work. Oh, I live good compared to many people down here; sure I can have meat, sometimes twice a week. Then Janey's mistress often sends me some nice things. The only thing that bothers me is trying to keep shoes on the children; it would take every cent that I could save to buy shoes for them. So I have given it up as a bad job. If they keep in the house, they can toast their feet at the fire."

"Do you have to work hard for the three dollars and a half?" inquired the reporter.

"Three days and a half I have to work at the washtub from seven o'clock in the morning until six at night and sometimes later, according to the amount of linen I have to wash. There is one family of ten persons on Henry street, that I wash for, IT TAKES ME ABOUT FOURTEEN HOURS and all I am paid is a dollar. But I am satisfied, I don't care how much work I have to do."

A man then entered, and Mrs. Murphy introduced him to the reporter as her husband. When the reporter explained his business Murphy remarked, "Indeed it wouldn't be a hard job to find down in this neighborhood a couple of hundred men who have done no work since Fall. I have been out of work for two months."

"What is your business?" "I am a laborer; the last time I worked was in Bay Ridge, making a street."

"What were you paid a week?" "I had a dollar and ten cents per day, and five days' work was counted a good week's work, that was five dollars and a half."

"Then you had to deduct your car fare." "Oh, no, I could not afford to ride in the cars, I walked both ways."

"How far is it from here, to Bay Ridge?" "About five miles. I had to leave the house at about fifteen minutes past five every morning to get to work at seven."

"How do you manage to get along, now that you are out of work?"

"That's a question hard to answer, I pick up a little going around putting in coal, have a few customers that give me me an hour's work now and then, chopping wood, or doing chores about their residences. Then my wife goes out to work when ever she can get it."

"How much do you earn on an average, con-jointly?"

"About two dollars and a half per week. Then we have to pay six dollars a month rent. I have been looking to see if I could find cheaper apartments, but I was unsuccessful, rents are very high."

"Why don't you apply to the Commissioners of Charities for relief.?"

"No, I wouldn't do that, there is persons even poorer than me who are refused help there. My wife wanted me to do it, but as long as I can earn enough to keep bread in the children's mouths I will not ask for charity."

Mrs. Schwartz said that her husband had been out of work since July and were it not for her little boy who earned three dollars per week, the family would have died of starvation.

"My husband," said she, "is a mason, and I remember the time when he had OVER TEN MEN IN HIS EMPLOY and was making money at the rate of nearly a hundred dollars per week. That was in war times when wages were high. He expects to get a position as conductor, the Alderman of the ward having promised to obtain it for him."

"Mammy! Mammy! shouted a little girl, running out of one of the rooms on the around floor where the party were assembled, "Jimmy has went and spilled the hot tea all over baby."

The child belonged to Mrs. Holland and she hastened to the scene of the disaster, closely followed by the other woman.

Murphy and the reporter made a tour of the house and everywhere the rooms were found clean, although few of the floors were covered. Women and children flocked into the halls and gazed in wonderment at the visitor.

"Nearly all the women you see," remarked Murphy, "go out to work. There are only two men in the house who are working. One of them is employed as a "longshoreman and the other has a job in the Department of City Works. He expects to get discharged every day as the force is much reduced."

Even when working there are none of the males in this house who could earn over a dollar and a half per diem, and out of this small amount many of them have to support families of six or seven; food and clothes have to be bought and the laborer must endeavor TO LAY BY A SMALL SUM PER WEEK to support him at the time he is thrown out of work. Very few of these laboring men, even in the Summer time when work is brisk, taste meat often or than twice a week, and in Winter when out door labor is stopped, if on Sunday they have a small piece of beef for dinner, they believe themselves to be very fortunate.

Very few of these men will apply to the Commissioners of Charities for relief, if they can possibly get along without it; for the reason that they are ashamed of having their neighbors see them obtain charity.

Website: The History
Article Name: Life In A Tenement House: When Poverty Stands At The Back Door 1877
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle January 15, 1877
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