What life was like in a rundown city tenement

If you were a poor city resident in the late 19th century, you may have called an old-law tenement home.

These were dumbbell-shaped buildings with four apartments to each floor, three rooms in each, one after the other.

As you can see here, your living quarters probably were probably dark and dank.

That’s because before 1901, tenements were only required to have one window per apartment or a tiny air shaft for ventilation.

The kitchen may have looked like this. It came equipped with a bathtub and stove. A spigot for water may have been in the hall.

As for toilet facilities, they were communal. You either went in the hall or in an outhouse between tenements (as seen below), or on the roof.

Tenement life improved somewhat after 1901, when new-law tenements were mandated by the city: These were required to have bathroom facilities and running water in each apartment, and a window in every room.

A major improvement, but not for the thousands of people still stuck in hot, stinky, firetrap old-law units.

[All photos courtesy of the NYPL digital collection]

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12 Responses to “What life was like in a rundown city tenement”

  1. Dale Says:

    Appropriately black and white images give a true sense of the hardship inhabitants endured. Beautiful, thank you.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Looking at these photos, it’s easy to understand why city officials thought that stacks of high-rise brick buildings set off from the street might be a huge improvement.

  3. greg chown Says:

    I’ve been to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street and to tell the truth those apartments are quite spacious even by today’s standards. I’ve lived in smaller spaces over the years and what passes now for a “studio” apartment makes these tenements look luxurious. The main problem was overcrowding. As for indoor plumbing; how many New York apartments (rich or poor) actually had indoor plumbing at the turn of the century?

  4. Jill Says:

    Hi – I could be wrong but I thought the dumbbell shaped buildings were built after old-law was outlawed – ie the dumbbell shapes allowed there to be windows in every room (new law) and prevented some of the fires that raged through courtyards that weren’t properly ventilated.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      From the sources I’ve read, the dumbbell-shaped tenements came into existence after the Tenement Act of 1879. They were supposed to have a window in every room, but the “window” often amounted to a grungy little air shaft. And the buildings were put up on such tiny lots, little light or air could come in.

      In 1901, the “new-law” tenements still had the dumbbell shape, but they were built on wider lots, and each room had to have a real window. So they allowed for more air flow and light.

  5. Chicken Underwear Says:

    Hay, how did you get a photo of my apartment.

  6. T.J. Connick Says:

    Before the “old law”, no law. Many “no-law” tenements survived in both “old-law” and “new-law” ages; the primary focus of laws was new construction. Remedies for existing buildings were generally left to the ameliorative, but usually imaginary, benefices of the marketplace.

    With their names affixed to its streets and grand institutions, plenty of New York’s foremost citizens amassed fortunes from the miserable pest holes that the powerless occupied. Rarely building or improving a thing about our beloved town, their salient achievement in life was being pulled out of the right woman. Lionized for “building” a great city, they more commonly gave what we would call long-term leases on their extensive landholdings — always “as is”. All responsibility regarding regulation, tax, sanitation, etc. was assigned to the lessees.

    The lessees were not what our current age would call “incentivized” to improve property that was not theirs. The arrangement necessarily attracted individuals with suitably limited imaginations. Business was a matter of simple arithmetic: invest as little as possible, extract in inverse proportion. In fierce competition with other rapacious characters for a thirty-year lease on a block of horrible warrens, they left the tenants to live with the consequences. Come the end of the lease, a lawyer for the society-page title holder would once again place the neglected property into the hands of the highest bidder. The cycle repeated. Thus did the nation’s mightiest center of wealth creation become notorious for persistently squalid habitation.

    The scene was part of the grindstone that fired great outrage, and helped establish a ready audience for the ideas of Henry George, and the inspiring orator who championed them: the brilliant, but doomed, Dr. McGlynn.

  7. nycedges Says:

    My first apartment in the then trendy upper east side (late 70’s) was in a tenement building with the bathtub in the kitchen and the toilet shoehorned into a closet…and that wasn’t even the worst of it. I came home one night to discover my apartment had been robbed despite three locks on the door, they had just pushed on the door & knocked the whole frame off…the landlord graciously allowed me to break my lease & move out. After that I decided to go to college rather than trying to be a career girl straight out of H.S.

  8. Bonni Elizabeth Hall Says:

    I’ve been doing some genealogy and based on the addresses/districts where my Polish immigrant great-grandparents lived (and other facts I’ve uncovered), it seems extremely likely they lived in an old-law tenement, at least early on in their residency in the United States. Later, I suspect they moved into a new law tenement. It breaks my heart on a lot of levels. They came to the United States trying to find a better life, and… well, they didn’t get it.

    Thank you for this article and the pictures. Very evocative. And the next time I feel like complaining because the house I live in (a post-war bungalow) is too small or has inefficient heating, I’m going to bite my tongue. I have a private toilet and a gas stove and a proper fridge and windows in every room, and even a small enclosed yard space. I’ve got NOTHING to complain about.

  9. 1930s posters pleading for “planned housing” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th […]

  10. New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to […]

  11. This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a […]

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