The 19th-century slums of New York

Beneath the glitz and glamour of one of America’s wealthiest cities, millions of New Yorkers resided in squalor, disease and misery

A 12-year-old boy with a large bruise on his face ‘pulls threads’ in a New York sweatshop

By the turn of the 20th century, New York had expanded into the bustling metropolis we know today, covering an area of 60 square miles and boasting a formidable reputation as America’s largest city. In the mid-19th century, a huge influx of European immigrants saw an explosion in the city’s population, which had quadrupled from 125,000 in 1820 to just under one million by 1870, making it one of the most densely populated cities on earth. New York was booming… at least for some.

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Among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving in New York over the course of the 19th century was 21-year-old Danish carpenter Jacob Riis, who arrived in the city in 1870. With few possessions, no money and no home, Riis lived hand-to-mouth before eventually finding employment with the New York News Association, beginning a career in journalism that would eventually seal his place in history.

Photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis, photographed in c1890s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).
Photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis, photographed in c1890s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

It was as a police reporter for the New-York Tribune, working in the city’s most impoverished and crime-ridden slums, that Riis chose to raise awareness of the plight of New York’s poorest inhabitants. Using a newly invented flash powder, which allowed him to light up even the very darkest of rooms, Riis photographed the appalling and unsanitary conditions of the city’s worst slums. In 1890, Riis published his photographs – some of which you can see over the following pages – in one of the first works of photojournalism, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. Riis’ sobering images, and those of other social documentary photographers of the day, highlighted what life was truly like in the crowded, multiple dwellings – known as tenements – that, by 1900, served as home for some two-thirds of the city’s population.


c1900: Making the best of it

Despite the cheery facade, flags and bicycles, these are the children of detained or waiting immigrants at Ellis Island immigration centre. This rooftop area was the only outside space in which children could play while they and their families waited – often for months.

circa 1900: Full-length image of children holding American flags while riding tricycles and wagons in front of women on the rooftop garden of Ellis Island, New York City. These were the children of detained or waiting immigrants. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

c1889: A city sweatshop

A 12-year-old boy with a large bruise on his face – who, according to Riis, initially claimed to be 16 – ‘pulls threads’ in a New York sweatshop. Many sweatshops were based in the tenement apartment of the contractor and children were often required to contribute to a family’s meagre income. Although the law limited the factory day to 10 hours, workers would often take their work home with them in the evening in a bid to earn more money through overtime.

(Image by Getty Images)
(Image by Getty Images)

1887: Bare basics

An Italian rag-picker sits with her baby in a small, run-down tenement room. The infant death rate in the tenements could be as high as 1 in 10.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

c1897: Daily toil

‘Old Mrs Benoit’, a Native American widow, smokes a pipe while she sews and beads in her attic room on Hudson Street. According to Riis, she lived there for four years.

(Original Caption) An elderly woman smokes while doing handiwork, in her small New York City tenement room. Photo by Jacob Riis, circa 1890.
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

1888: Bandit’s Roost

This alley, known as Bandit’s Roost, at 591⁄2 Mulberry Street, had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden places in New York.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

c1892: Hotbed of crime?

A group of women bed down for the night in a police station on West 47th Street. Police lodging houses like this one served as de facto homeless shelters for much of the 19th century. Riis condemned such locations as breeding grounds for crime and public health crises, such as outbreaks of typhus.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

c1900s: Under inspection

In 1901, the Tenement House Act introduced a number of reforms to improve conditions in New York tenements; it was the job of officials of the New York City Tenement House Department (two of whom can be seen here, inspecting a cramped basement tenement in an image by an unknown photographer), to inspect and report on what they encountered. Despite the new act, a 1902 report recorded “vile privies… cellars full of rubbish… garbage and decomposing fecal matter… dilapidated and dangerous stairs… dangerous old fire traps without fire escapes (and) disease-breeding rags…”. In its first two years, department employees made 337,246 inspections and filed 55,055 violations.

Officials inspecting a tenement in New York City, 1900. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

1888: Earning a penny

A blind man stands on a street corner, selling pencils. In his book, How The Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis writes of Blind Man’s Alley, where “dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy”. Murphy was eventually compelled by the Board of Health to repair and clean his squalid tenements.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

1888-95: School days

A crowded classroom of boys in the Essex Market School on the Lower East Side. Classes at the school continued, despite the site being twice condemned by the authorities as being wholly unfit for children to be in.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

c1890: Dusk ’til dawn

A Czech family make cigars in their tenement home. According to Riis, cigarmakers worked from 6am until 9pm, seven days a week. They earned just $3.75 for every thousand cigars made and produced around 3,000 cigars a week.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

1889: ‘Five cents a spot’

Immigrant lodgers cram into a boarding room on Bayard Street, which charged ‘five cents a spot’. Riis wrote: “In a room not 13 feet either way slept 12 men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor.”

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

1888/9: Gangs of New York

Members of the Short Tail gang, which terrorised New York’s east side, gather under the pier in what is now Corlears Hook. Known for their distinctive short-tailed jacket coats, the gang was described in a newspaper report from 1884 as being “known to police as hard drinkers, thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen”, often committing crimes on boats along the water front.

(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

Read more social history:

Who were the real Peaky Blinders?

19th-century mugshots
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This feature first appeared in the November 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine