Posts Tagged ‘tenement museum’

Imagine yourself drinking beer in 1870

Saturday, January 19th, 2013
Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a new tour: Shop Life, which includes the re-creation of an 1870s German saloon along with stories and pictures from other retail businesses that have been part of 97 Orchard Street over the decades.

The saloon is a beautiful warm space, although dimly lit—and, our guide Claudia told us, in the days of kerosene lanterns it probably would have been dimmer still. Besides a fine wooden bar and nice furniture, there’s a table in the corner laid out with the same food you find in Germany today—sausage, eggs, bread. (Unfortunately the repast was only a model—while it would be wonderful to have a live experience in the saloon, with food and drink and music, that would be too much to ask of the museum. But you can find Germans drinking beer at Der Schwarze Kölner in Fort Greene.) Beyond the saloon is a little office room, then a tiny kitchen, then a well-furnished small bedroom. 

Claudia raised some good points about the importance of the wife’s unpaid labor (a great book about female lives & labor back in the day, if you’re interested, is Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her) and the controversy about New York’s blue laws, which forbade alcohol sales on Sunday—in German culture, the day the families liked to enjoy a few beers together after church.

The last room features an interactive exhibit that offers a variety of information and stories to read and listen to. I would have liked to meet the 15-year-old girl who mastered the new typewriter model in 1900, opening up her career horizons. The onward pace of the generations comes through in this exhibit; by the 1930s, many of the Lower East Side shopkeepers no longer lived in a room behind their business, but in Brooklyn or elsewhere. In many cases, America was indeed a springboard to the middle class.

As with the other tours at the museum, it’s about putting yourself in a space and hearing stories to help you imagine. The guides are good about reminding us of things affecting life for nineteenth-century immigrants that might never occur to us today.


We had a great time at Shop Life, and then went for soup in Chinatown.




New tour at the tenement museum

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
The old Loew's Canal, built 1927

The old Loew's Canal, built 1927

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is kicking off the outdoor season April 4 with a new walking tour, Immigrant Soles.

The museum has given a walking tour of the Lower East Side since 2005, but this one has a new focus on the daily lives of neighborhood immigrants from 1863 to 1935. How did they spend their time (as much as possible, outside their overcrowded and airless apartments)? How did they create an American identity? What were their everyday struggles?

Hints come from newspaper ads; from the advice column in the Jewish socialist newspaper, The Forward; and from “the historical landscape itself,” says David Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs.

Some things haven’t changed so much: just as young people today—including the children of immigrants—often work in retail, teenage girls coveted jobs at the E. Ridley & Sons department store, where the pay was not so hot, but the work sure beat the garment factories.

Favaloro led a preview of the walk this week with VP of Education Annie Polland. The tour covers shopping, worshiping, banking, politics, education, and entertainment. And because the Lower East Side is very much an immigrant neighborhood still, it’s the farthest thing from a theme park.

New York is full of walking tours, many of which are worthwhile. What I liked most about this one is that it doesn’t focus on the famous Someones or the Major Incidents. This is about ordinary life a century ago, and the ways in which people navigated its demands and complexity.

“Historians have to pick their theme,” Polland says. “Living there, you experience it all at once.”

The 90-minute tour will be offered once a day Saturday and Sunday, starting April 6, and will expand to twice daily by summer. Admission is $17 for adults, $13 students & seniors. A discount is available if you combine it with tickets for a tenement tour and make a day of it—god knows it won’t be hard to find a place for lunch.

And stay tuned for another walking tour this fall!

The Moore family at 97 Orchard

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

First of all, you had to take the back stairs into the privy yard to use the privy—one of four to six outhouses. You also had to come down to this yard to get water for any purpose at all; it had the only spigot serving the building. On the first floor, next to the yard, was Schneider’s Saloon. If it was at all like New York bars today, you might not always be in the mood for its company.

But that’s how it was in 1869 at 97 Orchard Street, and these conditions were more generous than the law mandated—the sewer was even flushed (into the East River) once a week.

My group is standing in the back yard of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This is the new Irish family tour that the museum debuted on June 17. Our guide, Ya Yun Teng, takes us up the back stairs to the fourth floor and, first, into a “ruin” apartment. (The building was shuttered in 1935 and left untouched until the tenement museum took it over in 1988.)

In an interior window—a law passed in 1901 specified that each room must have a window, but only one room in an apartment actually opened to the outdoors—we watch slides while we listen to period songs that give a flavor of life for immigrants at the time, such as “Thousands Are Sailing,” which goes along with the “American wake” they’d throw in Ireland the night before a family left for the States, probably never to return.

Next we proceed into the new family apartment, set up to show the living experience of Joseph and Bridget Moore and their three daughters (Mary, 4, Jane, 3, and baby Agnes), who lived somewhere in the building in 1869. The afternoon light is dim; they would have had to rely on kerosene lamps. The bed takes up about half the bedroom, in the back; the rest of the room is crowded with linens and trunks.

The kitchen table, in the middle room, is spread with bread, potatoes, onions, and ceramic bottles of beer. The kitchen also holds the washbasin and a clothesline, with stockings and tiny girls’ dresses, by the large coal stove. It’s a hot day, and it’s easy to imagine how smoky and close it must have been, especially if you were wearing a long skirt.

Imagine trying to take care of two toddlers and a baby in that space.

Then there’s the central issue of the milk, which you’d have to buy every day—there’s no refrigerator. It was often contaminated; this was probably the cause of baby Agnes’s scrofula and malnutrition. She was sick pretty much from birth, and she died in the apartment before she was six months old.

Her funeral vigil is arranged in the front room, with a circle of chairs. This parlor is much lighter (having a true window) and not as cramped. The space and its careful decor seem to represent the family’s aspirations, yet now it’s a scene of sorrow. Our guide turns on a recording of a woman keening a song of mourning.

The plain white wooden coffin sits on a cloth-covered table. A rosary lies on top of it. It’s so very small, almost as tall as it is long.

The apartment at 97 Orchard was a step up for the Moores from their previous place in Five Points. But they weren’t able to stay long, less than a year. They moved from here to 224 Elizabeth Street, which the New York Times described as an “area of destitution.” Bridget gave birth to five more daughters, only two of whom survived.

Their grim story was a common one. Poor and often unwelcome, the Irish (among others) had to struggle hard in this city, and some of them didn’t make it.

Eventually, though, things got better; the tour continues in the apartment next door where the Katz family lived in the 1920s and ’30s. Milk got pasteurized. Disease became less mysterious, and hygiene bloomed. Gaslight and indoor plumbing arrived.

End of tour. Now you can check your cellphones and complain that you just had to spend an hour without air conditioning.

Questions? Take the tour yourself and learn much more! You can also see how they put it together on the museum’s Flickr page.