Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

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13 Responses to “Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age”

  1. John Jansen Says:

    In Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham he devotes several pages to Dreiser as well as Edith Wharton. I have read quite a bit of Dreiser but none of Wharton. I have ordered the House of Mirth and eagerly await its arrival.

    Wallace’s new book is a magnificent sequel to Gotham sequel which I highly recommend.

    • Beth Says:

      House of Mirth isn’t very mirthful but is a good book. Her most famous, Age of Innocence, is also good. Tead also Time and Again by Jack Finney.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I can’t wait to read Wallace’s new book, in which he focuses on those pivotal years just after greater New York consolidated into one city. Dreiser doesn’t get his due as a writer but if you can find a copy of The Color of a Great City, I urge you to grab it and read! Such wonderful glimpses of the anonymous people of the city.

  3. John Jansen Says:

    Thanks.

    I stumbled upon this blog several months ago and love it

  4. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    A marvelous post, thanks! For more on Dreiser’s presence in New York one way or the other read http://newyorkwanderer.com/the-trilogy-of-desire/

  5. peopleplaceswords Says:

    Beautifully redolent of the past, a lovely post. Thank you and those who enriched by suggesting related sources.

  6. Zoé Says:

    This is such a beautiful post Ephemeral.

    This reminds me of something my grandmother told me. Her mother had eleven children (inc. my grandmother). She (my greatgrandmother) did this kind of work described here at home – only a bit more skilled – sewing heavy coats.

    My grandmother never owned a doll; aside from homemade cloth dolls. They could not afford a bar of chocolate; so would pay 5c (German) to buy a paper bag full of broken chocolate pieces. (Which the chocalatier had left over at the end of the day or week). This was because my greatgrandfather had died & left my greatgrandmother a widow.

    All year long she saved her money from sewing coats for Christmas; for presents & food & evergreens & candles etc. One year she went out to do the Christmas shopping mentioned in this post & was robbed of all her Christmas money by a skillfull unseen pickpocket. Berlin was full of them then. This was around the turn of the last century also.

    My grandmother said they all sat in a circle staring at each other – w/ no gifts & nothing to eat – & crying.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Zoe, that is heartbreaking. Poverty is everywhere of course but few Americans today can relate to that kind of poor. Wow.

    • Zoé Says:

      She would appreciate your empathy & your storytelling & your love of history – I am very sure Ephemeral.

      They were all very happy & adored their mother. My grandmother shared a bed w/ the other two eldest sisters so those three were very close. (Lol – like the grandparents in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory). And when she was fourteen she had to stop attending school & follow her two older sisters into the seamstress trade. But because of that they all had really beautiful modern clothes & parasols.

      They were all very close & happy. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the endless consumerism which sometimes seems to imprison us now. I really love how the neighbourhood chocolatier went out of his way to save the chocolate for children; because of course he could have melted it again. It says so much about the whole scene there then; apparently not very different from the side by side wealth & poverty in NYC then & now.

      She told me they used to look at the toys in the window that they would never have. (So similar to that recounted in your post). The silver lining was she could make dolls out of acorns w/ toothpicks for me & flower chains for my hair & whistles from grass & enjoyed playing the cloud game of telling what they look like. I think the world was their toyshop.

      Still I hope that Berlin Artful Dodger man (or woman?) had a great Christmas! Hopefully for their own even worse off children. But you are right about “Wow”. Lol – it’s straight out of Dickens.

      The part I love is that they all sat *together* & cried. They’re like the Whos down in Whoville. Lol. ‘Dr.Seuss’ was the child of German immigrant parents; maybe his family had had a similar experience. London & NYC were thick w/ pickpockets then also – not only Berlin – weren’t they?

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Very true Zoe.

  9. EV Grieve Etc.: Lead-dust nightmare on 12th Street; more vendors for the new Essex Market ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] From the Gilded Age, Christmas in the tenements (Ephemeral New York) […]

  10. David H Lippman Says:

    This was how Tammany kept its power…delivering toys, turkeys, and coal to impoverished families at Christmas.

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