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Tenement Slums
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Life in a Slums of Old New York

On January 1, 1892, the first boatload of immigrants streamed into the newly opened immigration center at Ellis Island. Everyone on board was competing for the bragging rights of being the first to step onto the island.  The lucky winner was a 15-year-old Irish gal named Annie Moore. Pretty, young, and possibly because it was her birthday, Annie Moore was handpicked by the steamship company to be the face of the new Ellis Island immigrants.  After going through the inspection that all (well, almost all) immigrants had to endure, Annie was presented with a $10 gold coin, the equivalent of about $200 in today’s money. She even got her story printed in a side column of the New York Times. A nice welcome to "the land of opportunity". 

So what happened to Annie Moore?  Well, according to legend Annie docked in New York City where she and her two younger brothers met up with their parents who had moved from Ireland a year before. But then Moore’s trail goes cold until one day, decades later, she pops back up in Texas where she gets married and dies after being run over by an ox cart. It’s the ultimate American dream (going west that is, not getting 86’d by an ox cart).  Well, it would be if the story were true. To most Americans, in those days the west meant wide open tracts of cheap land waiting to be settled. Until recently Annie Moore was a symbol of the immigrant making a new life for herself in the American West. Sadly, Annie Moore is a common name and the two Moore’s got mixed up. In a 2006 article by the New York Times, researchers have traced the real Moore and found that her story was far more common for poor immigrants. Moore’s family lived on Madison Street on New York’s Lower East Side.  120 years ago this was a crowded, slum infested section of New York dominated by immigrants from Ireland. The notorious Five Points districts, one of the most dangerous slums in America is less than a mile north of where Annie’s parents settled.  Our Annie grows up poor, marries a baker and lives and dies not far from where she disembarked.

The Industrial Revolution did a whole lot more than change the way people worked and the stuff that they bought. It totally changed the way people lived. In the year 1920, America did something that no country had ever done before. It became the first country on the planet (as far as we know) to have a majority of its people (51.2% in that year) living in cities. Until that time, city life was not possible. That is until the Industrial Revolution came along and changed all that.

An American family living in 1800 would hardly be able to comprehend the life of an American family living in 1900. In those 100 years, America went from a nation of farmers growing their own food, sewing their own clothes, and churning their own butter to a bunch of citified softies with electricity, streetcars and buying their household goods from department stores and mail order catalogs. For the first time, America (and much of Western Europe) had a true middle class of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers who could afford to buy the factory-made goods that were being produced cheaply and in mass quantities. In 1800, only the very wealthy could afford houses with separate bedrooms, carpets, and heat on a regular basis. You might have heard someone use the term wearing your “Sunday best,” which comes from this earlier time period when Americans had two changes of clothes. One outfit they wore all week and the other one they wore to church or on special occasions. The Industrial Revolution flooded the American market with cheap factory-made goods that everyone could afford - everyone except for the workers, that is.


Prior to the end of the 19th century, the mega cities of today were impossible. Before the invention of streetcar (later the automobile) and people had to rely on their own two feet or a horse-drawn vehicle to get them around town. This kept the size of cities small as people had to live close to where they worked and shopped. Then in the 1840s, someone hooked up a trolley car to a horse and called it the omnibus. Public transportation was born. A few decades later in the 1880s, the horse was swapped out for a motor and the result was the streetcar. In 1869, someone in London thought of laying railroad tracks underground and the world’s first subway was carrying Londoners under the Thames River.  The first subway lines were laid in New York in 1904.

With everything from shoes to candy to breakfast cereals now being manufactured in some far off factory, the way people acquired these goods was changing as well. In 1800, you either made what you needed (candles, bread, socks) or you bought it from your local general store. By 1900, most Americans were buying their products from grocery stores or a new innovation in shopping - the department store - such as Sears or Macy's. Entrepreneurs also figured out new ways of spreading the word about their products through advertising campaigns. Typically, because women did the shopping, most ads would be in ladies' magazines. Americans in the 20th century had become a nation of consumers. Shopping became the new "in thing" to do, especially for middle class and wealthy women.


People flocked to the cities to work in factories or shop in department stores by the millions. Take for example America's largest city - New York City. In 1800, it barely had a population of 60,000 people, which would be a large town by today's standards. By 1860, the population shot up to 800,000. Within the next 40 years, the population of the Big Apple was almost 3.5 million people! Immigrants from Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, France, and Ireland packed into major cities like this one. Most of these immigrants docked at Ellis Island in New York Harbor and simply stayed there to find work. These people came to the city with barely more than the clothes on their backs and maybe $20 in their pocket. The first thing on many immigrants’ mind was “Where am I going to live?'

Most immigrants were poor and had few skills, so they went to work in some factory making 10 cents an hour, 12 hours a day, six days a week. Near the noisy, dirty factories were the homes of the factory workers. A decade ago, these neighborhoods were places where the middle class lived in a two-story row house. But the middle class moved farther away from the city center to a nicer part of town. Many of these middle and upper class people continued to own land where the poor were taking over. So many poor people were moving in that the old row houses were being torn down and replaced with six-story dumbbell tenement apartments.  Demand for housing was so high that a landlord could throw up a shack in what used to be the backyard of a middle class home and charge high rent for it. Soon there was hardly any green space left. Every available space was turned into housing that crowded up against one another. Many landlords were greedy and dishonest. They subdivided apartments meant for one family into units for three and four families. You could consider yourself lucky if your tenement included running water, electricity, heat, or a window.


Even as apartments were getting smaller, rents were still getting higher. After all, when one family moved out, there could be three more to take its place. As rent went up, poor families would take in a boarder who would pay a part of the rent in exchange for a place to sleep. This just made the apartment even more crowded. Children slept three to four to a bed if they got one at all. Sometimes strangers would share beds. The guy working the day shift would use the bed at night and vice versa for the guy working the night shift.

To escape from the dark, dingy tenements, children hung out on the streets. Street gangs with names like the Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits were created by boys and girls from the same ethnic neighborhoods. Italian gangs fought the Irish. Irish gangs fought the blacks. Crime was a huge problem in the slums and it always has been. The most dangerous neighborhood in all of New York City existed between 34th and 59th street on the lower east side of Manhattan. The neighborhood was so bad it was called Hell’s Kitchen and for 150 years, it was a place where murder and prostitution were as common as tan lines in California.

One New York woman sent her two year old child out into the street with a sign that read, "Take care of me because I cannot."  


Meet the Middle Class Family

The Industrial Revolution gave the world more than just polluted rivers and exploited child workers. It led to a whole range of new opportunities for a whole lot of people. Starting in the 1700s and stretching back as far as the beginning of time, the powerful people tended to be the wealthy landowners. Land equaled wealth and you were either born a land owner or you weren’t. End of story. In a few cases, some enterprising people climbed the social ladder by becoming bankers and merchants and in time their family joined the ranks of the landowning nobles. But until the Industrial Revolution, it became pretty difficult to move beyond the social class you were born into.

Fast forward to the mid-1800s and a brand new middle class is forming of doctors, lawyers, business owners, and government clerks. These people came from families that lived on some farm not too long ago. But then their sons and daughters were awed by the bright gas lights of the big city and went off to get some fancy education. This new educated class earned a decent living and wanted more out of life than their parents were accustomed to. They used their middle class wages to buy their clothes, they ate out at restaurants, traveled in a modest carriage, and lived in a nice two-story brick town home on the outskirts of town. These people decorated their homes with comfortable furniture, their floors were carpeted, and maybe the whole thing was cleaned by a servant or two.


The Industrial Revolution redefined the way people in America and Great Britain saw themselves. In the old days, having a big family living under one big roof with all those noisy kids and aunts and uncles and grandparents was necessary to keep a farm going. In those days everyone pitched in with the chores. The wives not only did all the housework, but they also had to help in the field, too. The children were out picking weeds practically as soon as they could see over them.

A modern middle class family wanted to prove that it was different from that. The father was the one who brought home the bacon from his office job downtown. With his new salary as an office clerk or factory manager, his wife could afford to stay home and take care of the cooking and cleaning.  After all, a working woman was seen as an embarrassment.  

In this new age, people had more time to kill. Middle class people were expected to be educated – even women. In the old days having a family Bible and a Farmer’s Almanac was a pretty good selection for a farmer’s family. Now many homes had a library built into one room. The children headed off to school each morning and the boys eventually went off to college to become a doctor or a lawyer or some other respectable profession. On Sundays, the family would put on their nice clothing bought at a department store and head off to church. After that they would spend the day in the park, at the museum, or catch a play at the theater in Midtown.


family in a tenenment slum
New York City 19th century
immigrnt famlyin a tenenment slum
New York City slums 19th century
New York City Tenenment

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

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