Shags of New York City; 1800s and 1900s tenements

Popilation of U.S. big cities grew tremendous in late 1800s and early 1900s, caused by urbanization, industrialization and immigration. Jobs in industry increased by 400 percent from 1880 to 1920 while 14 million people immigrated to U.S. in the same period.

In New York city, the population doubled every decade from 1800 to 1880. To accomodate this growing population, buildings that had once been single-family dwelliing were increasingly dividet into multiple living spaces. These were the first tenements, and in 1860s the first tenements were built specially to house large numbers of poor families.

Typical tenement block, with manduated fire excapes

Old-law tenements 

The conditions in the first tenements were very very poor and poeple lived in enourmously crowded situation. When the first tenements were built there were almost no law regulations. 1860s laws (the old las-tenements) mandated fire excape but little else.

A old-law tenement was  typically 25 feet wide by 100 feet deepand six stories tall. Built to accomodae 26 families in 325 square-foot apparments. (30 m2). Often these appartments had no windows, appart from the living room, which often was window looking out to a tiny light shaft or the, if not just another room in the same apartment. tenementlifeairshaftbathtub

tenement flat
Here is plan of a typcial tenement flat., from 1863 tenement, for twelve families.

 Each living room is 11 m2 and the bedrooms are  4 m2.   There were no bathrooms or actual kitchens in the apartments.  Cooking would have been done in the fireplace or coal stove in the living room.  Water for cooking and washing would have been brought up in buckets from a stand pipe in the backyard that served dozens of families, or a public water pump down the street. Privies or latrines (for the entire building) would have been in the basement or backyard, and be basically outhouses without running water, just a pit.

These were filthy and also dangerous places, so often people used chamber pots instead, especially at night, and it was common-place practice to toss the contents out the windows.

New-law tenements

There was a realization that in order to create apartment buildings for working people that were livable, they had to be larger, and there had to be larger light courts. Therefor, 1901 the so called new law passed.

The new-law appartments were still small, but there was a minium room size and earch room had to have a window.

Each apartment had a cross -ventilation, each room had a window, eahter that look out on the street or that look out into the courtyard. Note the shaft next to the stair, ment for venilitation but people used it to through their trash down.


Each appartment had a entrance was from a balcony with a stair, in case of fire.

There was running water in each apartment and there were baths in the basement.

1910 tenement kitchen class via shorpy

(a model tenement kitchen, seprate from the bedrooms, with running water and window)

Next decade tenement conditions improved, (even though people still lived in the old-law tenements cause of housing shortage)

Even though appartments were small, the kitchen, the largest living space, was seperated from the bedrooms. In earlier tenements you would have to walk through one room to get to the next, often a bedroom. In the model- tenements each room was separated, which meant you had privacy, if children was sleeping etc.

Buildings got balconies, to give people chanse to use and breath fresh air and couryards grew bigger, which was a save place for children to play  under superwise from their parents out the appartments windows.

(tenement with a courtyard).


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