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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9 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.

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