When I was a bespectacled bookworm schoolgirl, I was an avid reader of books with titles like, "If You Lived in Colonial Times," "All of a Kind Family," and "The Mimosa Tree." All were books about children living in what we would now call subpar conditions. "If you Lived...." was about life in 17th Century New England. Brrrrr. Cold. Chillblains. Minimal schooling, where children would read chapbooks, write with chalk on slate tablets (from tablets to tablets in 300 years), have to weave their own linsey-woolsey clothes, and girls would learn their letters by embroidering samplers. Church was compulsary, and beadles would ensure wakeful attention to such sermons as "Sinners in the hand of an angry G-d" with knouts.
"All of a Kind..." was a series of books about the rising fortunes of immigrant parents with their five daughters and one son and one uncle, all living in a tenement apartment. The parents had a bedroom, the daughters shared two beds, the son had his private bed. The uncle slept in a front room. Everyone was optimistic: Papa worked in his own shop, mamma was a housewife, and all the children went to school and used the public library. Eventually, uncle married and moved into his own apartment.
"The Mimosa Tree" was about the urban poor, told through the eyes of young rural children who left their "tar paper shack" for the Chicago slums and befriended guttersnipes, one of whom had seizures. Depressing.
All of which is a very long prologue to my visit to the Tenement Museum last week. SUNY-Binghamton held a private tour for its alumni. Fascinating and, for my money, could easily have been a two parter.
The Tenement Museum is at 103 Orchard Street, but actually encompasses at least two tenements. We were split into two groups. My group got the "sweatshop tour" and visited 97 Orchard Street.
We learned that 97 Orchard was built in 1865 and condemned in 1935. In 1988, the founders of The Tenement Museum started excavating it and found the apartments intact for the residents of 1935. The seeds were sown.
We saw three walk-up apartments, lived in by actual families at distinct points. The first was the bare bones apartments that the original tenants lived in. Approximately 325 square feet. No closets. No bathrooms. No hot/cold water. No kitchen. The floors of the first, ur, apartment were plain wood. No electricity for the poor. Kerosene. The 325 square feet were divided into three spaces--front room, middle area, back room. Beds where you could put them. In such space would have been the original tenant family, their tenants, and the business (hence, sweatshop). The original tenants would have been running a sweatshop piece work factory in the apartment during the day. If you had time, the outhouse in the backyard would have to do. If not, chamber pots. If that. The front room and the middle room were crowded with the factory. The front room would have a dressmakers mannequin, treadle sewing machine, and a table. There would sit the baster, quickly basting together garments to give to the sewer, to sew (and better get all those seams straight lest the garment be ruined). The finisher would then put the fancy touches on (like lace) and give it to the presser (an ironer). This would go on for 12 hours, six days a week. The advantage was, if you were religious, the family sweatshop would close for Sabbath, so you worked Sunday. There were no "housewives." The housewife was an equal partner, who not only was involved in the "schmatte" part but also the financial part. The husband would say, "Give me $20 so I can bid on a bundle of muslin." The wife would reply, "What are you meshugga? Here's $10, make it work."
Then, factories left the apartments and went into, well, factories. The tenements were upgraded with such amenities as cold water sinks and a toilet in the hallway. A stove to heat the water. Electric lights. Shelves were built in. The costs of such luxuries were passed on to the tenants, who now for sure had to sublet out the front room. Mamma was now running a boarding house, as the tenant would also be fed for their rent. Floor were now covered in lineoleum, designed to ape Persian carpets. Walls were papered. Beds everywhere.
The final apartment had more amenities. A built-in kitchenette. Built in bookcases. More costs to pass onto the tenants. Fire escapes that could double for porches.
The funny thing was I learned I didn't have to pretend I was living in Old-Law tenement times. I actually lived them. For the first 10 years, I lived in various walk-ups around the Upper East Side. But instead of my six children, husband, and tenant, I just had a roommate. We had hot and cold running water and a kitchenette. Sometimes there was an actual bathroom. Once, a toilet in the closet and a bathtub in the kitchen. But the bones were the same. The backroom by now was converted into a bathroom and a closet. Sometimes the wall between the middle room and the frontroom were knocked down so it was a largish "studio." . Sometimes not. Usually, the wood floor was covered with cheap carpeting. The fire escapes were soiled with decades of uncleaned pigeon poop--so, no porch conversions for us. Walls were thin (I could hear the neighbors ululating in passion). Ceilings were constantly leaking, occasionally falling down from delayed repair. Mold set in around the bathrooms. But, like my great-grandparents, I got my start in NYC in the tenements. And I moved on up, just like the All of a Kind family.