Fig 1. The economy and history of the USA would never have been the same without its immigrant population in the 19th century. However, How much do you know about how they lived and how that changed over a few decades? (Source: Pictures of American Cities, National Archives)

Much of New York City migrants between the 19th and 20th century lived in Tenement housing, which was “any building or part thereof which is occupied as the residence of three families or more living independently of each other and doing their own cooking on the premises.” (Tenement House Act, 1867). These houses were monumental in the history of New York City—by 1900, they housed 2.3 million people, which was more than two thirds of its population (History, 2010).

Laws were passed in 1867 to regulate these living spaces, following a cholera epidemic in 1849 and riot in 1863, which were believed to be caused by unsanitary and unsatisfactory conditions of these tenement houses. However, various departments in the government were in charge of different aspects of regulating these houses, leading to inefficiency.

Fig 2. Typical dumbbell tenement houses built in the time of “Old Law Tenement”. This deep and narrow architectural form enabled many houses to be built in a small area, but led to ventilation and illumination problems. (Source: Library of Congress Prints, United States)

In 1901, in light of this inefficiency, the government stepped up and formed the Tenement House Department (THD), which was to be in charge of all aspects with regards to tenement housing. The THD strives to regulate the structural, sanitary and sociological aspects of existing new tenement housing, what they call “prevent(ing) evil conditions” (Murphy, 1915).

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Efforts in improving tenement housing included enacting laws to increase ventilation and illumination, both for to-be accommodation and the preexisting ones. These measures were meant to reduce occurrences of epidemics and fire hazards. They were reasonably successful in doing so, as death rate caused by fire was zero under the “New Law Tenement” as of 1915 (Murphy, 1915). This also indicates that the THD monitored the population by taking census, besides conducting

Remember how tenement houses contained two-thirds of New York City? How then was the state able to convince the other third of the population to invest in the maintenance of these quarters?

The appropriation for the maintenance of the tenement house department may therefore be regarded entirely as insurance; apart from the humanitarian considerations which enter into the saving of lives from destruction by disease and fire, the work of the department tends in other ways effectively to diminish crime and vice. (Murphy, 1915)

Fig 5. Of course, New York City should look like this, classy and forward-looking. Nothing should threaten the safety and habitability of this wonderful first-class city!

Original Images’ titles and sources:
Fig 1. Row of men at the New York City docks out of work during the depression. Photograph by Lewis Hine, 1934. 69-R-1L-3. Retrieved from

Fig 2. Yard of tenement at Park Ave. and 107th St., New York. Detroit Publishing Co., c1900. Retrieved from

Fig 3. Two officials of the New York City Tenement House Department inspect a cluttered basement living room, ca. 1900. 196-GS-32. Retrieved from

Fig 4. Overcrowding. Seven beds found in room by THD & ordered removed. Retrieved from

Fig 5.The Eighth Avenue trolley, New York City, shar- ing the street with horse-drawn produce wagon and an open automobile. Downtown, looking north. 1904. 306-NT-762F-3. Retrieved from

Murphy, J. J. (1915, April). The Tenement Housing Department. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from staff. (2010). Tenements. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from