Narrated by Miriam Medina, Website Administrator, Thehistorybox.com

Just a stone's throw from the wharves where the immigrants landed were the slums of the Five Points District, a breeding ground for crime and pestilence. Poor immigrants who came to New York City during the mid 1800s into the early 1900s usually lived in the tenement district amid crime, filth and disease. The tenement houses in the lower part of Manhattan and other areas were overcrowded, lacking drainage and sufficient ventilation. Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually." Garbage and slop from the houses were thrown into the streets, left to fester in the scorching sun. Along the streets, one would find in various stages of decomposition dead dogs, cats or rats.

As you entered the overcrowded tenement buildings, you were greeted with a nauseating stench emanating from unwashed bodies, rags, old bottles, stale cooking odors and accumulating garbage heaps in the rooms. Decaying grease adhering to waste-pipes from kitchen sinks added its putrid odor to the foul emanations. These tenement buildings were dangerous firetraps, as well as a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street and carted upstairs.

 

Besides living under such  horrendous and unsanitary conditions as reflected in these  images,  even into the turn of the century, the tenants had to make due of dilapidated and beyond unsanitary outhouses which the landlord provided and neglected to maintain. These outhouses were located in the rear yard of the buildings. The stench from the outhouses creeping into the building was enough to knock a horse down, as well as presenting a health issue to all of its inhabitants. 

Many immigrants themselves would convert their apartments into sweatshops, where amid the unsanitary conditions they would manufacture garments, flowers and cigars. Everyone had to do their share, even the children, who worked long hours. Sometimes these children were forced by their parents to earn their own livelihood. How many great men amassed great wealth from the blood, sweat and tears of these poor immigrants?

 

Some of the Irish who couldn't find employment lived in dirty shanties that surrounded the dumping places. They would sift through the garbage trying to find something to eat, whether decaying vegetables, bread or even bones. The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring their food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch. Italian immigrants tended to do whatever they had to do, accepting the jobs that other Americans didn't want to do, just so they could support themselves. Many of the Italian immigrants found work in street cleaning as well as public construction work. A large number went into the peddler business, selling fruit and vegetables, as well as working as waiters in restaurants and hotels.

 

Between 1881 and 1910, 1,562,000 Jewish emigrants, chiefly from Eastern Europe, arrived in America, most of them settling on the Lower East Side. Thousands poured into the needle trades of New York and other cities, creating the "Sweat Industry", where poor working conditions existed, and long hours and insufficient wages were paid.. Workshops, established in the tenements, enslaved entire families. Many immigrant Jews went into the peddler business, the city streets soon teaming with pushcarts filled with all kinds of merchandise. Throughout the ghetto the sightseers on the lower east side would have their fill of the delicious dairy dishes, knishes, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, halvah and other delicacies at the Jewish delicatessens. On the Sabbath, from Friday evening to Saturday evening, all business activity would cease, and the Jewish people would attend services in the synagogues.
 

The passage of the 1901 Tenement Act resulted from deteriorating conditions in the increasingly overcrowded tenement districts of New York and the alarm that these conditions incited among middle-class progressive reformers."

Andrew Dolkart explains this law to us in his six part series.  This information will help you to understand what measures had to be taken to correct these tenant living conditions in New York City.             

 

Table Of Contents

 

Part One: Birth of a Housing Act by Andrew Dolkart 

Part Two: Landlords Fight the Act  by Andrew Dolkart 

Part Three: The Commissioner's Survey  by Andrew Dolkart

Part Four: Let There Be Light--The Hallways by Andrew Dolkart

Part Five: Let There Be Light--The Apartments by Andrew Dolkart

Part Six: Cleaning Up The Toilets by Andrew Dolkart

 

 

Photo Credit: Whole Family At Work Taking Out the Pecan Kernels" 1911 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-91915 

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Photo Credit:   Rear view of tenement, 134 1/2 Thompson Street, New York City. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LOC LC-DIG-nclc-04148

Photo Credit: 1912  Hallway; LC-DIG-nclc-04147  Lewis Hines        photographer Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540.

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Photo Credit: "Tenement house with children in front. Possibly 36 Laight St. Location: New York, New York; Photographer: Lewis Wickes. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540.

LC-DIG-nclc-04078

 

  Photo Credit: "Exterior of rear tenement in which home-work is going on."     1912 November. Photographer: Lewis Wickes Hine. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540.

 LC-DIG-nclc-04272

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Photo Credit: "Entrance to tenements, 53 to 59 Macdougal St., N.Y., in which coats and flowers are made. Location: New York, New York " 1912 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-DIG-nclc-04190

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Photo Credit: Exterior of Home Shown November 1912 Photographer: Lewis Hines. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-DIG-nclc-04277

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Photo Credit: Row of Tenements, 260 to 268 Elizabeth St., N.Y., in which a great deal of finishing of clothes is carried on. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Photographer: Lewis Wickes Hine 1912 March LC-DIG-nclc-04208

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Photo Credit: "Yard of Tenement" Between 1900-1910  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA  LC-D4-36490

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Photo Credit: "The Tenement Bathtub" 1905 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA LC-USZ62-70893

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Tenement Backyard Digital ID: 1583577. New York Public Library

Tenement Backyard #1583577

 

 Outhouse interior Digital ID: 1583567. New York Public Library

Outside Interior #1583567

 Row of outhouses Digital ID: 1583597. New York Public Library

Row of Outhouses # 1583597

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 The Hall of an Old Tenement Digital ID: 97701. New York Public Library

The Hall of An Old Tenement #97701

 Dilapidated outhouses (1904). Digital ID: 1576439. New York Public Library

Dilapidated Outhouses (1904) #1576439

 Backyard with several people (... Digital ID: 1576444. New York Public Library

Backyard with several people (1905) #1576444

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 Inhabited kitchen. Digital ID: 1576438. New York Public Library

Inhabited Kitchen #1576438

 Tenement family, New York Digital ID: 416564. New York Public Library

Tenement Family, New York #416564

 Very clear interior of room w/... Digital ID: 1583611. New York Public Library

Interior of room #1583611

 Tenement playground, New York Digital ID: 416562. New York Public Library

Tenement Playground, New York #416562

Photo Credit For the Above Pictures: New York Public Library Digital Library

 

LC-DIG-nclc-04083 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

   

LC-DIG-nclc-04215 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Jewish Family Making Garters LC-DIG-nclc-04274  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

LC-DIG-nclc-04326  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

For a more descriptive view of the hardships and living conditions that these poor immigrants had to live through in order to survive, please visit the Photo Gallery of Early New York City Tenement Life in the NYC Main Directory at thehistorybox.com. Also there are many articles to read in this section. This information will help you to understand how the early immigrants lived in New York City during the 1800s into the early 1900s.

All comments are welcomed. Contact: miriammedina@earthlink.net   or  miriam@thehistorybox.com

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