One of the most fascinating museums in the United States stands at the corner of Delancey and Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Stepping into the Tenement Museum is time travel into the lives of hardworking American immigrant families.
You pick your year. Would you like to see 1873? What about the depression of the 1930’s? Or a visit with an Irish family in the 1860’s, when a common line in employment ads was: Irish Need Not Apply. When you step into 97 Orchard street, you step back into a vital part of American history.
Joseph was off to work.
The coal stove was smoking a bit, but at least the kitchen was warm. Bridget put her hand on the baby’s forehead for a moment, then picked up the pail. Agnes had been sick for days, and was now weak from the dysentery. And it was wash day. She sighed. The weather was too poor to do the laundry outside, and that meant hauling a number of buckets of water up four flights of stairs. She opened the door and nearly ran into Mrs. Stein in the dark hallway.
If you immigrated to New York in the 1860’s, this could have been part of your living experience on the Lower East Side.
Approximately 30 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, many of them coming through the port of New York — either to Castle Garden (Castle Clinton), or to Ellis Island which opened in 1892.
The population of New York city exploded — increasing more than 50 times over during the 19th century – going from 79,000 in 1800 to more than 3.4 million by 1900.
The demand for housing was extraordinary.
The nineteenth century answer to this problem? The American tenement.
They were narrow buildings, 25×100 feet, and in New York, predominantly five or six stories tall. The apartments were normally three, sometimes four rooms, depending on the tenement, and around 350 square feet total. They were crowded and dark, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and poorly ventilated. There was no indoor plumbing until the early 1900’s.
It’s important to understand that living conditions in the tenements of New York varied dramatically.
The worst of the tenements were horrible — and were documented by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. However, there was a tendency for social activists of the day to lump all of the tenements together, focusing on the worst to help achieve change.
Of course things aren’t that simple — and understanding this may be one of the great gifts of visiting the Tenement Museum.
From 1863-1935, more than 7,000 people from 20 different countries called 97 Orchard Street home.
The Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of Manhattan brings this history to life for 220,000 visitors annually, more than visit many of the larger history museums in New York. It is an affiliate of the National Park Service, linked with the immigrant landmarks of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Castle Garden (Castle Clinton).
When I mentioned visiting the Tenement Museum, one of my friends envisioned glass cases with artifacts and dioramas. But it’s not that kind of museum.
The museum did research on residents of 97 Orchard Street, a combination of census data and genealogy, and then information, photographs, and recorded oral history from current families whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had lived there. A group of apartments has been renovated to different points in the building’s history to represent the families that occupied them.
The only way to visit the Orchard Street tenement is one of the tours, which are interactive and story-telling in the way they are conducted. On both of my visits, there was animated discussion between the guide and the visitors, sharing history and discussing what life would have been like for the families whose homes we were visiting.
Current Tenement Museum Tours:
- Hard Times (available in 1 and 2 hour versions)
- Irish Outsiders
- Shop Life
- Sweatshop Workers (available in 1 and 2 hour versions)
- Tastings at the Tenement
- Exploring 97 Orchard
- Coming Soon! 103 Orchard
- Explore the tours in more detail
I’ve visited the Tenement Museum twice now.
When my daughter Catherine was fifteen, I brought her to NYC for her first visit. I’d read about the Tenement Museum, and I thought it would be a way to give her a true sense of the history of the city, something to juxtapose with the grandeur of, say, the Metropolitan Museum.
We took the Hard Times tour, which focused on two families: the Gumpertz family (from Germany) during the crisis of 1873, and the Baldizzi family (from Italy) during the depression of the 1930’s.
Just last weekend, I returned for the Irish Outsiders tour. This time I visited the apartment of Joseph and Bridget Moore who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1869.
My advice is to start with the Hard Times tour. Since it addresses two different time periods and families with different ethnic backgrounds, I think it’s a great introduction to the museum.
If you live in the United States, your family immigrated – unless you happen to be native American.
All of our families have interesting stories. Mine came to America in the 1700’s, Hugenots escaping religious persecution, and then a Scots-Irish family looking for a better future. Listening to different immigration experiences connects us on a deep level.
It just depends on when your ancestors arrived as to the types of hardships they faced. It is estimated that 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
Tenement Museum Shop and Bookstore
On both of my visits to the Tenement Museum, I was impressed by their shop. My readers know I love small, independent bookstores, and this is a fine one with a focused collection.
I brought home two books this time, A Tenement Story: The History of 97 Orchard Street, and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.
I am particularly taken with the 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History by Jane Ziegelman. Here is an excerpt of her book:
“Our visit with Mrs. Gumpertz begins on a Friday, late morning, over a steaming pot of fish, a carp. The fish lays snugly in an oblong vessel, like a newborn in a watery cradle. From our vantage point, it looks intact. In reality, however, the fish has been surgically disassembled and reassembled. It is the kind of culinary operation worthy of a trained professional, yet the responsible party is standing in front of us, an ordinary home cook.
The process begins with a slit down the backbone. Mrs. Gumpertz opens the fish the same way one opens a book. Carefully, she scrapes the flesh from the skin, chopping it fine so it forms a paste, what the French call a forcemeat. Reduced to a mere envelope, head at one end, tal at the other, it is now the perfect receptacle for stuffing. Mrs. Gumpertz fills the skin with the paste and sews it shut. She lays the reconstructed carp on a bed of fish bones and onions — sliced but unpeeled — then puts it on to simmer.
Just now, she is standing over the open pot, wondering if it needs more time. She prods it with a spoon; the fish is ready. She lifts the pot from the stove, moves it to a chair in the parlor, and leaves it there to cool by an open window. Moments before sundown, start of the Jewish Sabbath, she slices her carp crosswise into ovals and lays them on a plate. The cooking broth, rich in gelatin from the fish bones, has turned to jelly. The onion skin has tinted it gold. Mrs Gumpertz spoons that up too, dabbing it over the fish in glistening puddles. To a hungry Jew at the end of the workweek, could any sight be more beautiful?” — Jane Ziegelman
If you want to buy these books, please do it through the Tenement Museum Shop online, since proceeds go to benefit the museum.
I encourage you to visit the Tenement Museum. I found both of my tours not simply interesting, but moving — a way of connecting to this important part of American history in a very personal way. I look forward to returning on my next trip to NYC!
When I visited last weekend, the Tenement Museum Shop was surrounded by a scaffolding, which made for a poor shot. Then I found that photographs inside of 97 Orchard Street is not allowed — which of course I respect. A big thank-you to the Tenement Museum of New York for sending the photographs!
Update note: One of my Facebook readers went to the Tenement Museum during the summer. Of course, there is no air conditioning in 97 Orchard Street. Just something to keep in mind if you are thinking about going on a really hot day!
Thank you for visiting — for other articles on life and travel, browse the home page:
Blackmar, Elizabeth. Manhattan for rent: 1785-1850. Ithaca: Cornell U Press, 1991. Print.
Blanck, Maggie. “Life in New York.” Life in New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. History.com Staff. “Ellis Island.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 03 Feb. 2017. Plunz, Richard. “A History of Housing in New York City Reprint Edition.” N.p., 1990. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. Seitz, Sharon. A tenement story: the history of 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. New York, NY: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 2004. Print. Stamp, Jimmy. “Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 7 May 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. “The Tenement.” WTTW Chicago Public Media – Television and Interactive. N.p., 03 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.
History.com Staff. “Ellis Island.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.
Plunz, Richard. “A History of Housing in New York City Reprint Edition.” N.p., 1990. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
Seitz, Sharon. A tenement story: the history of 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. New York, NY: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 2004. Print.
Stamp, Jimmy. “Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 7 May 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. “The Tenement.” WTTW Chicago Public Media – Television and Interactive. N.p., 03 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.
“The Tenement.” WTTW Chicago Public Media – Television and Interactive. N.p., 03 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Print.