The “tuberculosis windows” in city tenements

You’ve probably seen photos of these interior windows in old tenement apartments.

 They divide the kitchen or parlor from a back bedroom, letting a little light and air into the dark tunnel that was the  typical 19th century slum apartment.

These windows have an appropriate name: tuberculosis windows. They were mandated by a 19th century city law requiring that tenements have cross ventilation to help reduce the spread of diseases like tuberculosis—the deadly “white plague” not uncommon in poor neighborhoods.

Landlords figured it was cheaper to install an interior window rather than design an apartment building with real windows in every room that actually allowed for decent air flow.

By 1901, however, the city passed the New Law Tenement Act, requiring exterior-facing windows in each room of new residences.

But just like bathtubs in the kitchen, some city apartments still have tenement windows—like this one on Avenue B.

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21 Responses to “The “tuberculosis windows” in city tenements”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    We had two in an apartment on 5th Street and 1st Avenue, two bedrooms with two windows, just facing the living room. I used to climb up and crawl into another room. It made no sense, kind of dumb, really, but when you think of it the owners got away with a lot, just as I’m sure they still are. The old apartment was torn down to make room for the high rising buildings that still stand on that site.

  2. rocco dormarunno(akafivepointsguy) Says:

    Some of the buildings in SoHo still have these vestiges from antiquity. My aunt’s place at 109 Thompson Street–a railroad apartment–has two in her apartment: one between the first two bedrooms in the front, and one between the kitchen and “dining” room in the rear.

    Another aunt, on Sullivan Street, has one between the kitchen and the living room. Neither aunt uses them for ventilation really, thank God. The glass has been removed in both cases, and the windowsill makes an excellent place for knick-knacks and photos.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Without the glass, these windows actually open up an apartment in a nice way. You get semi-private space, and you’re not cut off in a dingy windowless back room. And yes, a nice little shelf for short books and knick-knacks!

  4. deweychaffee Says:

    LOVE this blog. I am moving to NYC in the fall, have always held a fascination for its history, and am DEFINITELY going to make the Tenement Museum a must-see visit when I get there. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. deweychaffee Says:

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. I am moving to NYC in the fall (at the ripe old age of 43!) and have long held an interest in New York City history. I am adding a visit to the Tenement Museum to my list of must-see adventures for when I arrive!

    GREAT blog!

  6. Beth Says:

    Didn’t Bette Midler’s dingy little apartment in an earlier part of Beaches have a tenement window? It’s the apartment where she had to pound on the cast iron radiator with a frying pan to get her landlord to send up the heat.

  7. Beth Says:

    Sorry, I meant “tenement window.”

  8. Beth Says:

    Ok, something’s wrong with me this morning. “Tuberculosis window!”

  9. Supergr8 Says:

    I’ve known many people who’ve lived in tenement apartments, but never knew really anything about them until recently. The bathroom set-up is always really weird.

  10. Joseph Says:

    I live in a Tenement building the roof was sealed up which causes lack of cross ventilation , its a violation if its sealed up or removed by the landlords ,if the building has been renovated and its missing these windows and skylights in all floors it is a tenement building and it would be considered a violation since air and light must be coming from those areas for every floor, using an Hv/Ac will not do the job since it needs open air daylight , so these new constructions are a disaster waiting to recreate the problems of the past in a large scale , those HV/AC can get dirty and fill up with all sorts of bacteria and viruses . TB has a long life span it can survive for weeks. Just a thought of the reckless thoughtless developers who are destroying many fine homes and history and will be endangering peoples lives with future outbreaks of TB or other diseases.

  11. Joseph Says:

    by roof I meant the skylight on the roof was removed and sealed

  12. A dangerous way to sleep during a city heat wave | Ephemeral New York Says:

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  13. robert dowling Says:

    just some comments on tenement living. my old nabe west 60s off Amsterdam (gone now due to Lincoln center in the 1960s). grandmother lived on w67st. old ten. was retrofitted for bsthrooms put in hallways, eryone had key to theirs. not working but she still had gas fixtures on walls from late 1800s I guess. had tube but was in kitchen. one bedroom had back window on close courtyard and same for kit area. brick bldg. but basically 90pct of interior was wood,prob originally has out house in back yard, etc not sure if water was always inside when constructed. guess her bldg. was considered old law ten. I lived in west 69th st off Amsterdam, my other grandmother lived down block. these bldgs. were more advanced, brick, cement. my bdromm had one of those little windows thatm opened on small airshaft to wall next door, rest of apt modern for those times. my gandmothers bldgs. were called the models I believe, why? large courtyards from w 69st through to w 68 st. security risk in this day and age. dumbwaiters for garbage stopped being used for garbage years before I remember. large yards used to what was known airmail garbage, didi not want to walk it down to cellar.

  14. She carried an umbrella | the rescued photo Says:

    […] of Virginia Historical Exhibits- Early Research and Treatment of Tuberculosis in the 19th Century Ephemeral New York – Tuberculosis Windows Edward Sager’s obituary from the Boynton Index, Boynton, Oklahoma – June 27, 1919 […]

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  18. The first New York tenement is on Mott Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] wonder if any of the apartments still have bathtubs in the kitchen, or “tuberculosis windows” in the […]

  19. A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York […]

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    […] the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York […]

  21. When a public bathhouse opened on West 60th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] though the Tenement Act of 1901 mandated that all tenement apartment units have bathing facilities, many people occupying older tenements still lived without a bathtub. In […]

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