What tenement clotheslines said about New York

Rich New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t have to bother with clotheslines.

They had in-house staff laundresses who boiled their dirty clothes in machines, then set them to dry in sunlit or steam-heated rooms on the top floor of a townhouse or mansion.

Everyone else—especially tenement dwellers, who made up two-thirds of the city population in 1900—strung their garments and linens out on pulley-powered clotheslines.

For hours, shirts, pants, underwear, and bedsheets swayed loose in the breeze, a family’s intimate items exposed to the elements and to anyone who cared to see.

(As opposed to today, when most of us toss our dirty laundry in a machine, or haul it in a bag for the corner laundry to handle.)

The clotheslines were probably heaviest on Mondays, which traditionally was laundry day.

Washing clothes was hard enough in the days before apartments had hot running water. Instead, water had to be carried upstairs from a street or backyard pump and then boiled on the stove.

After smells and stains were scrubbed out with the hot water and soap, it was time to hang them up on the clothesline—a more arduous task than washing.

How laborious drying was depended a lot on what floor you occupied. If you lived on a high floor, you didn’t have to worry as much about the clothes dye dripping down from someone else’s laundry and ruining yours, or dust and dirt soiling your clothes all over again.

And if your window faced the back, you were in luck, because clotheslines hung in the back of the building like a web crisscrossing a courtyard or alley.

If you didn’t have a clothesline you could reach from your window, you had the option of drying your clothing on the roof. That required climbing more stairs and then keeping an eye on your garments, as clothes were often stolen, explained Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points.

While tenement clotheslines represented the domestic side of life and the desire for cleanliness in a notoriously filthy city, clotheslines served another surprising practical purpose: They could break the fall when a person accidentally tumbled out the window.

Newspapers are filled with these stories. “Her Life Saved by Clotheslines,” reads a front-page headline from the Evening World in May 1903.

“Margaret Igoe, 43 years old, fell from the fire escape on the fifth-floor of the tenement at No. 296 First Avenue this afternoon and was only slightly injured….That she was not killed is due to the fact that she fell through a network of clotheslines, which broke the force of her descent.”

Clotheslines also had an aesthetic appeal, especially after the turn of the century. Artists focused on them in paintings and photographs, using them as icons of life in the slums.

Maybe the order of the lines juxtaposed against the disarray of laundry inspired artists as well. Or perhaps the clothes hanging on laundry lines represented intimacy in an increasingly impersonal modern city.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, Berenice Abbott, 1936: “Court of First Model Tenement House in New York, 72nd Street and First Avenue, Manhattan”; third image: tenement on Mulberry Street, NYPL, 1873; fourth image: laundry over backyard outhouses, NYPL; fifth image: ad, MCNY, F2012.99.509, 1865-1915; sixth image: 1935, Arnold Eagle, MCNY, 43.131.11.264; seventh image: tenements under Tudor City, Samuel Gottscho, 1930-1933, MCNY 39.20.24]

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10 Responses to “What tenement clotheslines said about New York”

  1. Tom Dulski Says:

    What is that huge building in the back of the last photo?

  2. Greg Says:

    Interesting, I never thought about what the rich did.

  3. MICHAEL MARK Says:

    “…strung their garments and linens out on pulley-powered clotheslines.”

    Nope. The pulleys never powered anything.

  4. sheryl harawitz Says:

    I remember my mother teaching me how to construct a clothes line, how to replace the worn out lines   A skill passed on from mother to daughter.I still hang my clothes to dry on my balcony —

  5. bo Says:

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog.

  6. Andrew Porter Says:

    I remember my mom doing this. When I lived In Detroit as a child, the clothes lines were in the back yard. You can still see where the pulleys and lines were anchored in the interior courtyard in my building in Brooklyn Heights.

    In England, people I visited in the 1980s still used clothes lines to dry their clothing.

  7. Tina Opines Says:

    It is a post such as this that really makes me miss being a school librarian! What a great lesson…I would have my students wash and hang a tee shirt outside!

  8. George Quinn Says:

    What a magnificent bunch of photos

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