A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

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12 Responses to “A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace””

  1. moira voss Says:

    Fantastic post! Thank you

  2. Henry Says:

    The article said Riis described the roofs as “flimsy” and the fire escapes as “shabby.” Most of those roofs built in the 1800s are still keeping the rain out better than newer roofs that are not as sloped, and therefore tend to leak more and require more frequent repairs.
    Many of the original fire escapes are still in use, which strikes me as not too shabby. People with more money lived in brownstones which still have no fire escapes and only one exit: the stairway. If it fills with smoke the people die, but at least they don’t die in a building described as shabby or flimsy.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      All fair points, Henry. My understanding though is that the tenement roofs and fire escapes we see on city streets today are largelypart of new law tenements, built after the 1901 tenement act. The new law mandated that tenements be better designed and with stronger fire safeguards. Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890, before the law was enacted. Many of the tenements he wrote about and photographed were frighteningly flimsy.

      • petey Says:

        interesting. my building is from 1883, but i have a fire escape (unusually, it runs across to the next two buildings, but does not have a stairs between floors). another item to look up – when did my tenement get fire escapes?

  3. Thaddeus Buttmunch MD Says:

    Death to Capitalism!!

  4. petey Says:

    i am juuuust old enough to remember when we got an air conditioner, which means we spent the first 5 or 6 years of my life without one. how did i survive?

  5. Buzz Says:

    Petey, I have similar memories. Originally, there was a big fan up in the attic that pulled air up through the house, which worked surprisingly well. Years later, we got a single clunky unit that cooled one room. And later more window units as we were able to afford them . . .

    Until my folks moved out decades later, there were still days when they opted for the whoosh and fresh air of the attic fan.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I too spent many hot summers with just a window fan in my attic bedroom, and then in tenements without AC. It’s brutal but toughens you up!

  6. crich12 Says:

    My God, it’s still like that today in Houston TX when a/c is broken on an off for the summer. Triple digits 112. Heat index. We still pay for the same amt. for rent and punished by fines if we talk.

  7. Henry Says:

    I believe both old-law and new-law tenements have steeply sloped roofs and have fire escapes. Fire escapes are still allowed on new buildings, but stopped being recognized as a second means of egress in I think the 1968 code, and probably earlier.
    The main difference between old-law and new-law tenements I am aware of (I am not an expert on this) is the requirement for a window in each room (no, not a window to another room, as many old-law tenements had and some still have) except for a bathroom or kitchen with mechanical ventilation. Current code says the window has to be at least as large as 10% of the floor area of the room for light, and 5% for ventilation.
    At some point, after a big fire, new wood-frame buildings were outlawed in much of NYC, and vinyl windows are still not allowed in many parts of NYC for fire reasons.

  8. Henry Says:

    One way our ancestors survived before AC was by not having as many electrical appliances putting out heat. Now we have computers, many of those black transformers plugged in and producing heat 24 hours, etc. And, yes, they were I expect much tougher.
    Before air conditioners became common, buildings were designed to be comfortable during the summer in the climate they were built in. Some features that helped were window shutters, awnings over windows, and porch roofs. NYC’s City Hall used to have awnings on the windows to protect them from direct sunlight during the summer, as did many other buildings including The Flatiron Building. It was not until air conditioning became common that houses and other buildings started to lose the “style” common to that area, which was inspired partly by the summer climate: heat, humidity, wind, sun angle, etc.

  9. A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book. […]

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