Tenement Buildings and Overcrowding
Frameworks for America's Past
Return to Originating Page

Tenement life in a big city

   Most people in big cities lived in a type of rental apartment building called a tenement.  These were usually narrow buildings four to six stories tall.  They had a stairway in the center and several small apartments on each floor.

   The photo shows a street in New York City around 1900 with tenement buildings side by side, block after block.  Often businesses operated on the ground floor, with the apartments on the upstairs floors.


A kitchen scene in a tenement

   This photo shows the kitchen of a tenement apartment in the early 1900s.  A mother and her children are making lace by hand, which they will sell to help add to the family income earned by the father.  The stove burns coal.  In many tenements water was only available from a sink in the hallway shared by all the apartments on that floor.  The shared bathroom would also have been in the hallway or outside behind the building.

Laundry day in the tenements

   Tenement buildings were usually built side by side on narrow city lots.  A very small open space was in the back.  On laundry day the family wash was hung out on lines to dry.

What were tenements like inside?

   Some tenements were better than others, but by today's standards they were small and often crowded.  Families did what they could, of course, to try to make their rooms as pleasant as possible. 

   The photo shows what the front room of a tenement apartment in New York City looked like in the old days.  The building is now a museum about tenement life in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A kitchen at the tenement museum

   The photo below shows the kitchen area and stove of the tenement apartment shown above.  Notice that there are no electric lights.  There is a small kerosene lamp on the table, and one on the shelf behind the stove.

A poor family in a crowded tenement

   The drawing below shows the inside of a crowded tenement apartment in a poor section of New York City.  It is from a newspaper, Harper's Weekly, dated 1883.

Tenement buildings still exist in New York City and many other big cities.  They are now usually nice places to live, because they have been completely rebuilt on the inside.

They built the cities we know!

    Keep in mind that the people who lived in the old tenements of New York left behind a legacy still visible in many famous landmarks of the city.  This drawing from 1890 shows one good example - the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.  Notice the tenements and factory buildings of the crowded neighborhood in the lower right of the picture.

All photos and images are from the Library of Congress. 
The color photos of the tenement museum rooms are from the
Tenement Museum, in the collection at the Carol M. Highsmith Archive
of the Library of Congress.  The museum is at 97 Orchard Street,
New York City. 

Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2012 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.