Tenement life in turn of the century New York

An Italian immigrant family in the kitchen of their East Side apartment, date unknown, photographed by Jessie Tarbox Beals. That gas stove to the right looks awfully dangerous.


This must be an old-law tenement; the apartments in these buildings weren’t required to have ventilation in each room. The window facing the kitchen appears to look into a smaller room or closet.

Tags: , , , ,

17 Responses to “Tenement life in turn of the century New York”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Weird, we had a window just like that on 5th Street and 1st Avenue before they tore it down and put up the high rise they have now. I remember constantly crawling through window into a room of nothing and crawling back out. I never found out what that window was for…even had glass in the frames…a real enigma.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I can’t quite figure out what that window was for either. It makes no sense, with glass in the frame and everything. Does anyone know? It’s so common in old-law tenements, many of which still exist today.

  3. Thomas Jefferson Says:

    my dad was brought up in a tenement just like this. He was born in the bedroom and delivered by a midwife.

    He would talk about a window in the “kitchen” (more like and all in one room) and never knew what it was for. So the mystery of it’s use goes back at least before 1924.

  4. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    My sister Geri, who also grew up in the apartment with an odd window, wrote:

    many old apartments used to be comprised of railroad rooms (more than 3 rooms one after the other) with the middle rooms not having any windows to the outside, “fake windows” were built between the row of rooms just for purposes of light and ventilation.

    A plausible reason…

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    That makes sense. A window into another room that gets natural light is better than no window at all.

  6. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    We may have remembered a recollection that had been forgotten and laid dormant for years onto years…Very cool 😉

  7. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    And finally this came from my brother Roman

    I too remember the window between the bedroom and living room. I also remember the windows in Badiak’s apartment (1st avenue & 7th street) which was a railroad flat with a window between each room.

    Case closed.

  8. tub in kitchen Says:

    I had a narrow railroad apartment with the same window. There were also transom windows over the doorways between rooms. And there were three doors to the hallway. I’m pretty sure that before the dumbbell shape tenement, the pre-law tenement buildings did not have to have airshafts at all. So, to get a little light and air into the rooms, these windows were put in. My building was converted to a dumbbell type later, and the two tiny rooms in the back were each 7′ x 8′.

  9. Jeanne Barrack Says:

    Hi, just had to comment because my brother’s apartment also had a window like that in Brooklyn and his building was post WWII.
    If we think more about it, these windows might be considered the precursor of those fancy french doors that often separate rooms in fancy houses.

  10. Michael Rivello Says:

    Those who guessed it was to add light from rooms beyond that had natural light are correct. Here is a link to an archive from 1901 in the New York Times about the law passing and landlords trying to repeal many provisions of the new law.


    this is the actual article in PDF format

  11. Michael Rivello Says:

    Here is a link to a picture from 1845 or 46 where men are laying the cobblestones on Mercer St between Spring and Broome Sts. The small (two story) corner building on Spring St still stands. It has great resolution and by blowing it up further using a program called Genuine Fractals I was able to see so much detail it was amazing. The cobblestones are still there, one of the few dozen street where no asphalt was put over them.


  12. kd Says:

    the date is sometime in 1910, this pic is in my text book

  13. Mary Ann Says:

    There was a law that required tenement building owners to install a second window for cross-ventilation. Many owners got around the more expensive option by just placing a window inside the apartment. They were complying with the law, but it did nothing to help with the air quality of the tenement apartments.

  14. P Sutton Says:

    At the tenement museum in NYC, they refer to them as “tuberculosis windows”

  15. Alicia Rodgers Says:

    Are there any museums to visit in NY about tenement life in those days. Turn of the century living or the gilded age?

  16. Marg Says:

    The tenement museum is Worth the visit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: