Posts Tagged ‘tuberculosis in New York City’

The “tuberculosis windows” in city tenements

March 29, 2012

You’ve probably seen photos of these interior windows in old tenement apartments.

 They divide the kitchen or parlor from a back bedroom, letting a little light and air into the dark tunnel that was the  typical 19th century slum apartment.

These windows have an appropriate name: tuberculosis windows. They were mandated by a 19th century city law requiring that tenements have cross ventilation to help reduce the spread of diseases like tuberculosis—the deadly “white plague” not uncommon in poor neighborhoods.

Landlords figured it was cheaper to install an interior window rather than design an apartment building with real windows in every room that actually allowed for decent air flow.

By 1901, however, the city passed the New Law Tenement Act, requiring exterior-facing windows in each room of new residences.

But just like bathtubs in the kitchen, some city apartments still have tenement windows—like this one on Avenue B.

New York City’s novel anti-spitting law of 1896

May 16, 2011

The nasty habit was commonly done on sidewalks and in streetcars. But health officials knew that spitting spread lethal diseases, especially tuberculosis, a leading cause of death in crowded, dank neighborhoods.

So in 1896, forward-thinking New York became the first city to outlaw “expectorating,” as the practice was delicately called in the gay nineties.

Signs went up on public transportation and other spitting hot spots, warning of arrest and a $500 fine. But the new ordinance generated controversy and wasn’t always taken seriously.

“In New York, of the 2,513 arrested, there were 2,099 convicted, one of every seven escaping,” writes a 1910 New York Times article.

“The total fines were $1,936.80, an average of less than $1.”

Even citizens vehemently against the habit railed that the ban was understandable, but unenforceable.

Not allowing people to spit might even be dangerous, according to one letter writer to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in February 1896, before New York adopted its law:

“No law can be made strong enough to prohibit public expectoration. The health of the individual might often suffer from such a restraint. But it is easy for the many who must spit to do so in the street instead of on the sidewalk.”

[Brooklyn Tuberculosis Committee clipping courtesy of J. Warren]

Fighting the “white plague” on Cherokee Place

February 17, 2009

The charming Cherokee Apartments on 77th Street and Cherokee Place—a sliver of a block between York Avenue and John Jay Park—have wrought-iron balconies, tiled tunnels leading to a central courtyard, and large windows. Another lovely 20th century apartment complex, it seems.

Not exactly. They were originally built as the Shively Sanitary Tenements (some sources call them the East River Houses) in 1910 for poor New Yorkers suffering from the deadly white plague—tuberculosis.

cherokeeapts Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt put up the money for the tenements. She got the idea from a doctor who ran the TB clinic the Vanderbilts funded at Presbyterian Hospital, Henry Shively. 

At the time, the only treatment for TB was fresh air and light. So the tenements were built close to the East River, where residents could catch cool breezes. All windows faced outward for maximum air and light exposure. 

The balconies encouraged the sick to be outside; wide corridors and stairwells made it less likely that healthy family members of the sick would catch TB too. Chairs built into landings at the top of each set of stairs helped easily winded residents go up and down.


 The whole idea was great in theory. But by 1912, the tenements were declared a failure, mainly because the rent was too high for poor, tuberculosis-stricken families.

In 1924 they were sold to a private developer, and at some point renamed and turned into co-ops.