The misery of trying to sleep during the New York City heatwave of 1882

When the city is in the grips of a punishing heatwave, and you live in a tenement with almost no ventilation (let alone a cross breeze), you do what you can to get some rest.

For the roughly two-thirds of New Yorkers who lived in old-law tenement buildings in 1882, that meant resorting to dangerous options like climbing out on the flimsy roof, hanging out the window sill, or even catching rest on the back of an open wagon.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1882

In 1882, an artist working for Frank Leslie’s illustrated Newspaper captured this scene of East Side misery. Turns out there was a terrible heat wave in July 1882, and newspapers covered the toll it took, reporting the daily count of people who suffered “heat prostration” and either died or were brought to hospitals.

“The atmosphere continued to retain its scorching quality even after darkness came on, and those who fancied that nightfall would bring some relief were disappointed,” wrote The New York Times on July 12.

[Illustration: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper/LOC]

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11 Responses to “The misery of trying to sleep during the New York City heatwave of 1882”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    I notice the man in the upper left corner on the roof with his arms outstretched. I hopehe was just trying to catch a breeze and not getting ready to jump!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I don’t know if anyone ever jumped, but people fell off roofs and fire escapes in heatwaves. And while researching this post I was shocked to see the number of infants who died because of excessive heat. The woman is carrying an infant, and I wonder if the artist was making a point about that.

  2. moogoo gaipan Says:

    My great, great grandson told me about his travails during this era. We are long-lived people.

  3. Lady G. Says:

    That’s sad, I’ll never take the A/C and fans for granted. I imagine the horses had one awful time as well sweltering and carrying people and loads all day. Dehydration must’ve gotten to everyone with the limited access to fresh, clean water.

  4. 1 of 7.96 Billion Says:

    I know a Bulgarian family of four who had won the coveted ‘Greencard Lottery’ They arrived at JFK in July. Stepping out of the terminal, they were hit by a wall of heat and humidity and said “We made a mistake!”…..they stayed

  5. pontifikator Says:

    When I was a child, I remember one summer night sleeping on my grandmother’s fire escape on the upper west side (around 85th bet Columbus and Amsterdam), hearing sirens at night. Later, sleeping on my roof on Lafayette near Spring. Lowering the window from the top usually gave me some relief, especially if I had cross ventilation. Now, I live in San Francisco where we have natural air conditioning and the summers are usually chilly at night.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The roof on Lafayette and Spring would have been relatively quiet, right? 85th between Columbus and Amsterdam sounds rough!

      • pontifikator Says:

        There was a fire station across the street from me on Lafayette and Spring (in the 70s and 80’s) but other than that, it was more quiet than the upper west side (in the 50’s).

  6. lmerdmann27 Says:



    It was fantastic to see and hear you on the American Inspiration interviews a few minutes ago. I’ve loved Ephemeral NY for years now (have written to you periodically, in fact), and I suspect you’ve added many more subscribers to your blog. (Parenthetically, you look 15! I’m just delighted that you’re not so old that you don’t have the possibility of many productive years ahead of you.)

    Well done. Congratulations!

    Luise Erdmann (a Cantabrigian with an in-law family of established New Yorkers)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks so much Luise! I’m so glad you enjoyed the show; I think we all learned so much and had fun talking about these fascinating Gilded Age women. Please keep in touch and feel free to comment/write in anytime. Reader participation makes ENY a vibrant and insightful space.

  7. Pity the tenement dwellers outside on a sweltering summer night in 1883 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] month I posted an illustration that captured the suffering in the tenements during the heat wave of 1882. This image by illustrator W. A. Rogers, “New York: Heat Wave, […]

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