For unskilled immigrants coming to the United States in the late 1800s/early 1900s, life could be very hard. For those laborers on New York City’s Lower East Side who were chasing the “American Dream”, piecework and sewing were methods of survival. One hundred years ago, much of the clothing in the United States was made in New York City instead of overseas (like China, for instance) today.
For visitors to New York City, the Tenement Museum offers five tour subjects of the lives faced living in a tenement. A tenement is really the first word for an apartment building and means nothing more than three or more unrelated families living in a building.
At the Tenement Museum, all tickets (which run 22 dollars per tour) should be pre-booked to ensure a spot. The museum offers an opening thirty minute film on Lower East Side life, including the influence of neighborhood settlement houses.
I was very lucky as I didn’t realize how popular this museum had become, happening on one remaining ticket for the “Sweatshop Workers” tour. The Tenement Museum refers to each guide as an educator and our educator, Elly, was excellent. Tour groups are roughly fifteen people each and most tours are an hour. Our tour examined the Levine and Rogarshevsky families who both came from Europe to better their lives.
Tours begin in a tenement house at 97 Orchard Street, which was built in 1863, and visitors will be taken to the entrance and one floor. Life in these buildings was extremely hard, and with the battered ceilings and dingy rooms, visitors get a glimpse of what life was like. With a lack of light, the smells of sewage, horses, smoke and foods cooking in the streets, daily living was a struggle. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, infant deaths and influenza ravaged Lower East Side tenements. Privacy was non-existent and with tiny apartments filled with eight to twelve people, conditions were horrible. For instance, in the Levine apartment, the kitchen was used to prepare laundry, cook, bake, iron and sleep. The best room was generally the parlor which had windows, providing light and a breeze. In this specific building, there were five floors with four apartments per floor. The entire building had four outhouses and one water faucet.
Pay was minimal. Our educator raised a good point when she asked our group what it must have been like to be able to produce something so beautiful that the maker would never be able to afford.
Conditions in this museum are hard to fathom and it’s sad knowing what many immigrants endured. Some of the artifacts shown to visitors were actually found when the building was bought in the 1980s, stored in rats’ nests hidden in the walls!
Tour guides and staff at the Tenement Museum are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and very happy to answer questions. Children eight and older are welcome on some of the tours while other tours require a minimum age of twelve. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside and only one tenement floor will be visited, because of preservation reasons. I had been to this museum several years ago when you could visit the entire building.
The Tenement Museum also includes an excellent gift shop (including a library) with all sorts of books and information about life on the Lower East Side. Even today, this neighborhood is roughly 40 percent immigrant-based.
This museum provides first-rate information and is one of my favorite museums in New York City. Be sure to book early as the daily tours will sell out. Subway lines to the area are a little confusing (I took the M train to Delancey Street), but the J, Z, F, B and D lines are also in the area.
Immigrants in the 1800s-1900s came from overseas to try to better their futures. The Tenement Museum is sobering reminder of the struggles and squalor ordinary people had to face to pursue their dreams, working to improve their lives for both themselves and future generations. I love this museum.
The Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street
New York, New York 10002