Today, we went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The tenement museum is different than most museums, because it isn’t a museum with text and or displays, it is more like walking through the apartment spaces that the immigrants (tenants) lived in (read Julien’s post: Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears for more about the immigrants).
We started by looking at the hallway of the tenement building. It had some beautiful engravings on the ceiling of the hallway. But the hallway was very cramped. It was only wide enough for one person. I was getting claustrophobic in there. Plus, it would have been really dark with only two candles. Also, none of the rooms in the building had running water initially, so people would have to go down and up 1-4 flights of stairs just to get a bucket of water. If you think about it, it would be exhausting!
We then went up to the 3rd floor and saw an unrestored tenement unit. We looked at the walls and we could see layers of wallpaper because people changed their wallpapers and they didn’t take the old layers off. There were literally 22 layers of wallpaper on the walls! One of the problems with that is that you need flour and water to stick the wallpapers on the walls, and bugs like to eat this paste of flour and water.
We then went to a recreated tenement unit, and saw what it would have been like to live at that time. The family that lived there in the late 1800s were the Levines, a group a five (mother and father, three children). It was simply a three room unit, and each room was like 10×10 ft for a total of 325 square feet. Thre was a bedroom that, in the way of sleeping, only had a double bed for the family of five. There was also a kitchen, as small as could be. Finally there was the parlor. And it was quite cramped.
You see, the father of the house owned a garment factory that took up the whole parlor. In those times, it wasn’t rare or awkward to set up a business in your cramped living room. I imagine must have been frustrating for a little more than a third of your house to be taken up by a sewing factory.
Something I find fascinating about the tenement was that all of the people who lived there at the the time of the Levines were Russian (and Jewish) except for one Italian family. One problem for the Jewish people was that at that time, if you worked in a factory that used Christian practices (a lot of them did), then the holy day would be on Sunday, while the Jewish holy day (the Sabbath) is on Saturday. So, the factories had their break day on Sunday. Many Jewish people had to choose whether to continue doing the Sabbath, or to have a job. Many of them chose to go to the factories. One of the advantages about the Levines and them running a private factory is that they could choose their work days and not work on the Sabbath.
All in all, the immigrants’ lives were cramped ones. Luckily, many “Tenement House Acts” were passed, giving toilets in the building, a fire escape, gas, running water, windows, etc. Sadly, even if it’s hard to believe, tenements do still exist today.
Below: Tenement Building (No Photos Were Allowed in the Tenement Museum)