Next time you are in Manhattan's lower east side, be sure to plan enough time for a visit to the Tenement Museum. The museum has purchased an 1860s tenement building which had been condemned in the 1940s when the landlord decided to boot the residential tenants rather than make improvements to the building to meet new building codes.
The museum researched the building and through census records was able to identify over 7,000 people who'd lived in the building between 1860 and 1940. They were able to contact descendents of many of the tenants and piece together what the apartments looked like at various points in time.
My cousin and I toured two of the apartments last weekend. One had been re-created to look like it had when German-Jewish immigrant family moved in around 1870. At that time, the building would not have had electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. Families would have provided their own coal burning stove. Ideally, they would have purchased it from the previous tenants. If not, they would have had to schlep it up to which ever of the five floors they lived on. They also would have needed to haul up the coal necessary for cooking and heating their space.
Four outhouses behind the building provided relief for the twenty families in the building, as well as, the patrons of the saloon and garment shop on the first floor.
The second apartment that we toured had been inhabited by Italian-Catholic immigrants in the 1930s. By this time the building had been upgraded with electricity and indoor plumbing had been introduced. Each floor had two toilets in the hallway. The museum was able to connect with a woman who'd lived in the tenement as a child. Audio recordings of her recollections add a intimate glimpse into the challenges of raising a family in 325 square feet of space.
The museum offers tours of other apartments and I hope to make it back there on a subsequent trip to New York. There is also a gift store which offered many interesting and unique gifts . You can visit the Tenement Museum's website here.