U.S. Tenement Housing in the 1800s and early 1900s
As the United States became more industrialized during the 1800s, immigrants and workers from the countryside increasingly lived in former middle-class houses and other buildings such as warehouses, which were bought and divided into small dwellings. Additionally, beginning as early as the 1830s on the Lower East Side in New York City, people lived in jerry-built three- and four-floor "railroad flats" (so called because the rooms were linked together like a train) with windowless internal rooms. The adapted buildings also were known as "rookeries," and were particularly concerning as they were prone to collapse and fire. Mulberry Bend and Five Points were the sites of notorious rookeries that the city worked for decades to clear. In both rookeries and purpose-built tenements, communal water taps and water closets (either privies or "school sinks," which opened into a vault that often became clogged) were squeezed into what open space there was between buildings. In parts of the Lower East Side, buildings were older and had courtyards, which were generally occupied by machine shops, stables, and other businesses.
Such tenements (or "walk-ups") were particularly prevalent in New York, where in 1865, a report stated that 500,000 people lived in unhealthy tenements, whereas in Boston in 1845, fewer than a quarter of workers were housed in tenements. One reason New York had so many tenements was the large numbers of immigrants; another was that the grid pattern on which streets were laid out and the economic practice of building on individual 25-by-100-foot lots combined to produce extremely high land coverage, including back building.
How the Other Half Lives
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future "muckraking" journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes. Immediately after publication, this work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, and it continues to make a lasting impact in today's society.
In January of 1888, Jacob Riis bought a detective camera and went on an expedition to gather images of what life was like in the slums of New York City. This not only involved Riis taking his own photos but also his using the images of other photographers. On January 28, 1888, Riis presented "The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York" using his images on a projection screen and taking the viewer on a journey by describing the images. In February 1889, Riis wrote a magazine article based on his lectures in Scribner's Magazine, which was a resounding success. The book version of Riis' work was finally published in January 1890 as How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.
The following is an example of Riis's description of the New York City tenements:
Enough of them everywhere. Suppose we look into one? No.--Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there. Not that it would hurt them; kicks and cuffs are their daily diet. They have little else. Here where the hall turns and dives into utter darkness is a step, and another, another. A flight of stairs. You can feel your way, if you cannot see it. Close? Yes! What would you have? All the fresh air that ever enters these stairs comes from the hall-door that is forever slamming, and from the windows of dark bedrooms that in turn receive from the stairs their sole supply of the elements God meant to be free, but man deals out with such niggardly hand. That was a woman filling her pail by the hydrant you just bumped against. The sinks are in the hallway, that all the tenants may have access--and all be poisoned alike by their summer stenches. Hear the pump squeak! It is the lullaby of tenement-house babes. In summer, when a thousand thirsty throats pant for a cooling drink in this block, it is worked in vain. But the saloon, whose open door you passed in the hall, is always there. The smell of it has followed you up. Here is a door. Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail--what do they mean? They mean that the soiled bow of white you saw on the door downstairs will have another story to tell--Oh! a sadly familiar story--before the day is at an end. The child is dying with measles. With half a chance it might have lived; but it had none. That dark bedroom killed it.
A photo by Jacob Riis
Lodgers in a Bayard Street tenement.
The "Old Law"
The Tenement House Act of 1867, the state legislature's first comprehensive legislation on housing conditions, prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was one foot above street level; required one water closet per 20 residents; required fire escapes; and began to delineate space between buildings. The Tenement House Act of 1867 was amended by the Tenement House Act of 1879, also known as the "Old Law," which required lot coverage of no more than 65 percent. The New York City Board of Health declined to enforce the regulations, and as a compromise, the "Old Law" tenement became the standard. It had a "dumbbell" shape, with air and light shafts on either side of the center, usually fitted to the shafts in the adjacent buildings, and typically covered 80 percent of the lot. James Ware is credited with the design; he had won a contest the previous year held by "Plumber and Sanitary Engineer" magazine to find the most practical yet profitable improved tenement design.
The "New Law"
The 1890 publication of Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives stirred public concern about New York tenements. The New York State Assembly Tenement House Committee report of 1894 surveyed 8,000 buildings with approximately 255,000 residents and found New York to be the most densely populated city in the world, at an average of 143 people per acre, with part of the Lower East Side having 800 residents per acre, an area denser than Bombay. The committee used both charts and photographs in their report (it was the first official use of such photographs). Together with the U.S. Department of Labor, the committee published The Housing of Working People in 1895 , a special report on housing conditions and solutions elsewhere in the world. This publication ultimately led to the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901. Known as the "New Law," this law implemented the Tenement House Committee's recommendation of a maximum of 70 percent lot coverage (with strict enforcement); specified a minimum of 12 feet for a rear yard; required six feet for an air and light shaft at the lot line or 12 feet in the middle of the building (these numbers increased for taller buildings); required running water and water closets in every apartment; required a window in every room; and instituted fire-safety regulations. These rules are still used today as the basis for New York City law on low-rise buildings.
In some cities, social reformers built "settlement houses" in poor urban areas, in which volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of, their low-income neighbors. The settlement houses provided services such as daycare, education, and healthcare to improve the lives of the poor in these areas. The most famous settlement house in the United States is Chicago's Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 after Addams visited Toynbee Hall within the previous two years. Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, "a community of university women," whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working-class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood. The "residents" (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults.
Not all new urban architecture revolved around lower-class housing. Louis Sullivan became a noted architect for using steel frames to construct skyscrapers for the first time while pioneering the idea of "form follows function." One of his earliest works was the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri. Elisha Otis's introduction of safety measures on elevators also helped buildings reach newer heights.
Early on, Chicago led the way in skyscraper design, with many constructed in the center of the financial district during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sometimes termed the products of the Chicago school of architecture, these skyscrapers— large, square palazzo-styled buildings hosting shops and restaurants on the ground level and containing rentable offices on the upper floors—attempted to balance aesthetic concerns with practical commercial design. In contrast, New York's skyscrapers were frequently narrower towers which, more eclectic in style, were often criticized for their lack of elegance. In 1892, Chicago banned the construction of new skyscrapers taller than 150 feet (46 m), leaving the development of taller buildings to New York.
New York's Flatiron Building
The iconic Flatiron Building, New York, shortly after its construction in 1903.