Tenement buildings of the early 1900s were the primary dwellings for the poor, and mostly immigrant, urban residents. The buildings held multiple apartments, and were noted for their poor air and light, danger from fire, lack of separate water-closet, overcrowding, and foul cellars and courts. In 1900, New York City's 82,652 tenement buildings were home to 2,372,079 people.
Typical tenements were five to seven stories tall. They were 25 feet wide and 90 feet deep, and sat on a plot of land not much bigger. An unlit wooden staircase ran through the center of the building. Typically, three-room apartments were arranged four to a floor, two apartments in front and two in the rear. Only four of the 14 rooms at the front and back of each floor received direct sunlight. Extremely narrow air-shafts supplied ventilation to the inner rooms. The indentations of the air shaft created a building footprint that resembled a dumbbell weight, earning the buildings their "dumbbell tenements" name.
The room receiving direct sunlight was called the parlor or front room. It was the largest and typically measured 11 feet by 12 feet 6 inches. Adjoining it was a kitchen and small bedroom. The typical tenement bedroom was an 8 feet 6 inches square and had neither natural light or fresh air. The entire apartment totaled 325 square feet. There was no running water. Toilets were located in the tenement's backyard. Not all tenement privies were connected to sewer lines.
Living in a Tenement
More than one family would cram themselves into the small apartments. There was no water to bathe or shower. The air was foul. In summer, the rooms were stifling, and people took to sleeping in the corridors or on the roof. Garbage piled up in the front of the building and in the air shafts. Bad sanitation, poor ventilation and unsafe construction made tenement life dangerous. Filth brought disease and tuberculosis was rampant. Nearly half of New York City's fires occurred in tenements, yet they did not have fireproof cellars or stairways, and fire escapes were very difficult to use.
The Tenement House Act of 1901 improved tenements. Dark interior rooms were required to have a window cut into the partition that separated them from front rooms. Flushable toilets had to be installed. There had to be one for every two families. The toilet had to be ventilated. Tenement life had been recreated by New York City's Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St.
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