A snapshot of tenement life

An unknown photographer captured this New York mother and her two babies in an old-law tenement apartment in 1916. 

Like most flats in old-law tenements (so named because they predate “new” turn-of-the-century laws mandating better living conditions per apartment), it’s dark, squalid, and unventilated.

That window probably looks out onto a narrow courtyard, if not just another room in the same apartment.

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8 Responses to “A snapshot of tenement life”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I could just imagine what the rent is now… Makes you wonder, she lived for this?

  2. Thomas Jefferson Says:

    That could be my grandmother and my uncles.

  3. Sally Miller Says:

    Coming from a more affluent life in the Midwest 20-30 years later (and 4 generations removed from immigrant status), I am also amazed that these people were able to survive and send their children out into America. A hard life, for sure, and it makes ours seem like country clubs! Thanks for sharing this photo, and keep up the good work!

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks. Yeah, it’s tough to complain when you see conditions like this. Wonder what happened to the little ones.

  5. petey Says:

    “she lived for this?”
    i’ve wondered something similar – were things this bad in the old country? my parents couldn’t inherit the farms they grew up on, so they had to leave, but thank god that was mid 20th-c, so our tenement was new-law.

  6. Boris Suchkov Says:

    Just to give some international perspective, in the USSR, many, many people lived like this from shortly after the Revolution until after World War II, and in some cases through the 70’s. Many communal apartments were former luxury apartments whose owners were forced out by the Communists. They were partitioned to make room-sized apartments for poor people and those coming in from the countryside (so they actually considered these dwellings very nice).

    In America, the solution was government-subsidized suburban housing; in the Soviet Union, the solution was government-built apartment high rises, but their supply never met demand.

  7. Devyn Says:

    This looks to be a true railroad tenement built during the 1850s through about 1880. The window actually looks into the next room. There are no airshafts, as they were not required until 1879. The tenements built during that time were typically three, even four rooms deep, and they would put windows in the walls to attempt to get light and ventilation in from the windows on the front or back of the building. In 1879, laws were passed requiring windows to the outside, and that took the form of the small openings in the middle between buildings, which contained windows for ventilation (but not much light). These were often called dumbbell buildings due to their shape.

    I currently live in a smaller version of a railroad tenement from 1871 (it was only two rooms deep), and although it has been completely altered from when it was built, there are still remnants from when it was first completed, including the original banisters in the hallway, and I still have the fireplace (which is now decorative).

    Brownstoner did a nice article on it a few months back.

    • Lisa Says:

      It’s said that only the insane respond to long-dead threads, so here goes:

      I always assumed that those bizarre interior tenement windows were for light/ ventilation, but the reason is much more interesting, it has to do with the 1867 Tenement House Act, requiring “windows in each room”. Builders met the letter of the 1867 law by merely inserting meaningless windows between interior rooms (!).

      Regarding the “dumbbell” design: “The 1879 Act, though well-intentioned, failed even worse than the 1867 Act. Tenement dwellers tossed garbage, bilge water and waste into these air shafts which were not designed for garbage removal. As a result, the law’s attempt to improve sanitation only created a new sanitation problem. Worse, the air shaft acted as a flue spreading fire from apartment to apartment. The 1901 law did away with the air shaft, replacing it with the large courtyard for garbage storage and removal. In later structures, the introduction of elevators reduced garbage defenestration by upper-story tenants.”


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