Emptying the ash barrels on a tenement block

It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Sidewalks in late 19th century New York were lined with ash barrels—where people dumped the ashes from their furnaces as well as rotting food and household refuse. (And very sadly, infants too.)

Similar to the sanitation workers of today who empty trash cans into hulking vehicles, the ash men came by to empty the barrel’s filthy contents into a horse-drawn cart. The ashes would then be transferred to a dump—like Queens’ infamous “Valley of Ashes” in Corona.

Louis Maurer’s painting shows what the job was like. In “View of Forty-Third Street West of Ninth Avenue,” you can practically hear the roar of rowdy kids and the Ninth Avenue El screeching overhead.

This was Longacre Square in 1883, the center of the city’s horse and carriage trade—an area that earned the nickname “Thieves Lair” for its sketchy reputation.

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24 Responses to “Emptying the ash barrels on a tenement block”

  1. Mike Says:

    That building on the northwest corner of 9th is still there

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    That doesn’t surprise me!

  3. VirginiaB Says:

    Thanks so much for these posts. What a vivid picture. Images of the nitty-gritty seem so rare. You do a great job at finding and sharing them, along with the backs story.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Glad you enjoy them! I also love coming across these kids of pictures, glimpses of daily life and how people lived.

  5. Zoé Says:

    The best history exhibit I have *ever* seen was at the Fifth Avenue Public about trash in NYC. (Which I think was the title – ? – ‘Trash’).

    From the earliest days when it was used as landfill for building out lower Manhattan & filling in swamps; to horse manure in the streets & wealthy women having to be carried from carriages because the streets were so filthy; to Jakob Riis photos & livestock in cellars & outhouses; to ragmen; to white coated sanitation teams & early public curbside recycling; to the garbage barge that couldn’t dock anywhere & finally modern recycling. It was brilliant!

    Wealthy women wore paper thin leather soles on their shoes to prove that they didn’t have to walk in the muck* in the street. (*horse manure & trash of all sorts & even blood in the meatpacking district).

    • Zoé Says:

      *Aside from ragmen there were men who came to collect metal & all sorts of things. It was the earliest recycling. They would call out to people & women would sometimes lead things down in baskets. (Which makes me think of the scenes in Rear Window!).

  6. Lady G. Says:

    I’m serious about writing a cozy mysteries series taking place in the 19th century NYC. Along with all the neat information I’m finding through my ancestors, (who’d been in NYC since probably 1830’s) your blog is a wealth of information on the daily life and nitty gritty of the era.

  7. Zoé Says:

    Those work horse carriages were very dangerous. Children were run over by them & killed quite often in working class neighbourhoods. I suppose because they played & walked in the streets so much & were looked after by not much older siblings vs parents or nurses/nannies.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, and little kids as young as toddlers were all over the streets. A child run over by a truck wagon motivated this woman to start the first day care center for working parents:


      • Zoé Says:

        Thanks – so interesting Ephemeral… about the day care. (And very sad). When I think of NYC & day care I always think of Henry James’ ‘The Heiress’ & WashingtonSquare Park.

        I remember an episode of one of those genealogy shows on tv (Dr. Gates show or the other which was on a major network) where they researched the Brooklyn family of Gwyneth Paltrow’s father & a child in the family was killed by a commercial carriage (if I am recalling it properly). Also I think the young brother of a well known Brooklyn comedian. (I am thinking of Mel Brooks but I could be *completely* wrong).

        My father’s brother was killed in a street at age 8 by a car/driver in the very early 30s in an Ohio steel town. Someone who is a specialist in architecture & urban planning (& its newer more organic offshoots) told me that this was still really common in the 20s & 30s. Then again we have read of that terrible accident in Brooklyn recently. (Prayers).

  8. alaspooryorick Says:

    Trash has been with us always.

    Trash mounds (primarily discarded mollusc shells) were a feature of pre-historic, pre-Christian Ireland. Islands (such as Inishkea in Co. Mayo) are distinguished by a 4 meter high mound known as a “shell middens.”

    Middens may have had a sacred function as well, because early Christian symbols were placed on top of the middens to “de-paganize” the site (seen in Ireland).

    PS: Wikipedia details the contents of shell middens: animal bone, human excrement, botanical material, sherds, lithics. (The word derives from early Scandinavian; Danish: mødding, Swedish regional: mödding).

    • Zoé Says:

      Very interesting alaspooryorick. Lol – maybe they mistook the pre-Christian trash piles for some sort of sacred reliquary. (When it was simply trash).

      There are also the archaeologists who unearth the sites of old tenement outhouses in NYC. (I think that may have been included at the show I saw at the 5th Avenue Public library as well).

  9. David H Lippman Says:

    Jacob Riis took some horrific pictures of piles of uncollected garbage on New York’s streets from that time.

    • Zoé Says:

      I was surprised when I found out some of his photos were posed David. Then I looked at some of them of children again & it was obvious; as they are meant to be sleeping or look miserable & they are smiling very slightly. Lol – early ‘fake news’.

      My early life in the City resembled a Jakob Riis photo. I am not kidding. The tenement building I lived in was a mess; thanks to our money saving slumlord… I mean landlord. Finally some of us went on a rent strike & countered the eviction hearing (or whatever it is called) & the judge knew the landlord. And not in a good way. The judge was not at all pleased w/ this man’s apparently near constant presence in his courtroom. We won of course…

      My place looked like a cross between the apartment in the film ‘Eraserhead’ & Ralph & Alice’s apartment in the Honeymooners. Except Ralph & Alice had an eat in kitchen – unlike our galley kitchen.


      • David H Lippman Says:

        Very few things have changed in New York, in the long run. We still have sweatshops. We still have ruthless exploitation of the poor. We have ended police lodging houses, and instead warehouse prisoners.

        Riis DID pose some of his photos. He was trying to make a major political point, to get rid of the old-law tenements. Then they built model and new-law tenements, which proved as lousy as their predecessors. So they built housing towers. And they don’t work, either. Now it’s small one- and two-family houses.

      • Zoé Says:

        Ours was a new model tenement you’ve written about. So every room had to have a window. Only they renovated at some point & took the shared ‘water closet’ (this is a toilet bowl in a closet kids) out of the common hallway & put a bathroom in every apartment.

        So in our particular apartment they’d put a bathtub right under/next to a window (& not the tiny windows up near the ceiling); because that’s what you want if you get dizzy in the shower – to fall out the window.

      • Zoé Says:

        Left out the best part David; re. having lived like in a Jakob Riis photo when I first moved to the City. I left out that prior to taking over my friend’s apartment upstairs after they moved to SF; I stayed in the basement – w/ a lot of other people – where my brother’s musician bandmate was the super. (My friend was a musician also).

        There was a warren of ancient rooms in the cellar; one of which was a coal room w/ jagged fieldstone walls (from an older cellar foundation which predated the 1920 new model tenement) w/ a wooden coal platform (made from those remnants of shipping crates that were also used for floorboards in the top floors of the building).

        I got really tired of having zero privacy from this madhouse of musicians & artists; so my friend helped me put a mattress on the coal platform (as it just fit a twin mattress) – in this tiny separate empty coal room – to use it like a loft bed.

        One morning I thought I heard rats scratching at the wooden glass pained door in my little ‘coal room/bedroom’ that led to the slate courtyard. (Yes we had rats on the LES pre-gentrification). Later I found out it was someone trying to break in a few feet behind my half sleeping head; as they later succeeded by gaining entry to the cellar from the first floor.

        When I viewed the Jakob Riis photos for the first time I saw that he had taken many photos of people sleeping on mattresses placed on coal platforms in coal rooms in tenement cellars! My mattress was a lot cleaner & in better shape & I didn’t share the room; that was the only difference!

        That only lasted a week (thankfully!) until my platonic friend asked me to move in upstairs & soon after moved to SF – leaving me the studio apartment.

        My mother was horrified when she came to visit me on the LES & she’d lived through the Allied bombed rubble nightmare of Berlin! Next to my building was a burnt out boarded up formerly beautiful apartment house. (Renovated in the late 80s after the City sold it for a dollar. Corner of E.1rst St. & 2nd Ave.). My dad stayed for months at the Plaza & the Carlisle etc. – so she was a bit shocked at the LES in the early 80s.

      • David H Lippman Says:

        Fascinating stuff…sometimes I regret having stayed with my family until I went in the Navy and overseas…I probably would have honed my character better by living in the adversity you describe. On the other hand, nothing beat the adversity of my mother, a borderline narcissist who used suicide threats to control her family emotionally.

      • Zoé Says:

        To bring my comment back a bit closer to Ephemeral’s post: the rats in that building were made happy by the neighbours on the 5th floor of our five story walk-up dumping their trash straight out of their window into the neighbouring courtyard below (which was between our building & the aforementioned burnt out & boarded up Beaux Arts gem next door).

        Consequently there were deep layers of trash in that courtyard. There was a little Tolkien like green wooden door between that courtyard & our empty slate courtyard; but apparently the rats were not interested in property boundaries.

        One day I was having a relaxing bath in the tub under the aforementioned glass window; when a beer bottle slammed into it. Thankfully the window did not shatter.

        NYC trash collection has & is stellar; but did not extend to locked inner courtyards! Homeless people used to stay in the burnt out building next door. I had to ring the NYFD about fires raging there. Because the building was boarded up the Firemen could only see the fire by standing in my bathtub. This gave me a standing joke about having had ‘fireman in my bathtub’; which depending on the sense of humour of the specific Firefighter I told it to later – got a laugh or didn’t. (I’d moved to Bay Ridge later which seemed to be some kind of home roost for Firefighter families).

        And you are right; I suppose ‘living rough’ can happen under various circumstances. The world is full of love though. Not always found where expected.

      • Zoé Says:

        *’glass PANE door’. Not ‘pained’. I suspect predictive text is orchestrated by the devil to further divide us!

  10. The Hatching Cat (@HatchingCatNYC) Says:

    When I read the title, I immediately thought of all the stories I have written about Old New York alley cats that were found near ash cans. So I had to laugh when I clicked on the link and saw the illustration with a cat running from the can!

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