Income

Rudimentary Statistics

Comparison of labor statistics over time is far too complex a subject to tackle here, but some points can be made.

Manual or unskilled laborers were those who dug ditches, worked on farms, and took on any work that didn’t require training. Skilled labor was everything else: a mule spinner in a textile factory, a carpenter, shoemaker, police officer, engineer, printer, these were all skilled workers.

From the encyclopedia at tenement.org:

  • Tailors, the most common occupation among German New Yorkers, earned about $2.26 for a day’s work in 1874. But their wages continued to drop as the depression wore on, so that the family wage of some tailors had dropped to $8-$9 for a six-day, 60 hour week by the early 1880s.
  • Shoemakers, the second most common occupation in Little Germany, earned about $2.36 a day in 1874, but their wages also dropped over the decade.
  • Some of the best paid members of the working class were probably the foreman working for the parks department. They earned about $4.50 for an eight-hour day, short for the time.
  • Skilled workers in the building trades also received higher-than-average working-class wages.
  • Employment was precarious for most of the nineteenth century and there was no publicly sponsored unemployment compensation to fall back on.
  • Tailors, masons, and unskilled laborers usually could only count on about five to seven months of work.
  • The winter shut down most of the building trades from November to March.
  • Garment production was slack between June and September, and again from December to April.
  • Families could supplement their income by taking in boarders, or the women and children could take in homework.
  • A boarder could bring in $3-$4 additional income a week with relatively little extra effort or expense.
  • Many families worked together at home making everything from cigarettes to condoms.
Cigar Rollers
Cigar Rollers

Labor Organization

(Wikipedia) The Knights of Labor (K of L), officially Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. …. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected socialism and anarchism, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized, and after a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.

It was established in 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1884. By 1886 20% of all workers were affiliated with the KOL, ballooning to nearly 800,000 members.  Its frail organizational structure could not cope as it was battered by charges of failure and violence and calumnies of the association with the Haymarket Square riot. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886-87, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890.

Upper Class

Reliable information about fortunes and   holdings of the wealthiest in the city is difficult to come by. This excerpt from Godey’s Lady’s Book (July 1884) doesn’t provide any sources, and should be taken as conjecture. The inset summaries are via Wikipedia unless otherwise indicated.


A list of the rich women of New York, recently published, shows that there are eighty-seven possessed of something like $1,000,000. The richest are:

  • Mrs. A.T. Stewart $10,000,000;

Stewart had extraordinary skill in business, and by 1848 he had built a large marble-fronted store on Broadway between Chambers Street and Reade Street, which was devoted to the wholesale branch of his business, and the largest retail store in the world at that time. Stewart also had branches of his company in different parts of the world and owned several mills and factories. Stewart had an annual income of $1,843,637 in 1863. His business success is estimated to have made him one of the twenty wealthiest people in history, with a fortune of approximately US$90 billion in 2012 prices.

  • Mrs. Edwin A. Stevens, widow of the Commodore, $7,000,000;

Stevens died in Paris, France in 1868. His will left the bulk of his fortune to his wife and children, but also donated land adjoining the Stevens family estate, as well as $150,000 for the erection of a building and $500,000 as an endowment for the establishment of an “institution of learning”. Because of the Stevens family’s close ties with engineering, the will’s executors decided it would be an institution devoted to the “mechanical arts”.

This institution became Stevens Institute of Technology, which opened its doors in 1870.

  • Mrs. Moses Taylor, $6,000,000;

Moses Taylor (January 11, 1806 – May 23, 1882) was a 19th-century New York merchant and banker and one of the wealthiest men of that century. At his death, his estate was reported to be worth $70 million, or about $1.7 billion in today’s (2015) dollars. He controlled the National City Bank of New York (later to become Citibank), the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroad, the Moses Taylor & Co. import business, and he held numerous other investments in railroads and industry.

  • Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts
    Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts

    Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts,  Mrs. E.D. Morgan and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt $5,000,000 each;

  • Mrs. Sarah Burr, $4,000,000;
  • Mrs. James Brown, $3,000,000. The Brown family were financiers and bankers
These ladies all are widows. Miss Catherine Wolfe, worth $2,000,000, is the richest spinster.


Vanderbilt Family

When W.H.  Vanderbilt died in 1885, his will provided some insight into the confusion of mansions along Fifth Avenue. His  “heirs-at-law and next of kin” were

  1. Marie Louise Vanderbilt, the widow, living at No. 640 Fifth Avenue
  2. Cornelius Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 1 West Fifty-seventh Street
  3. Margaret Louise Shepard, a daughter, living at No. 2 West Fifty-second Street
  4. William Kissam Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 660 Fifth Avenue
  5. Emily Thorn Sloane, a daughter, living at No. 642 Fifth Avenue
  6. Florence Adele Twombly, a daughter, living at No. 684 Fifth Avenue
  7. Frederick W. Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 459 Fifth Avenue
  8. Eliza O. Webb, a daughter, living at No. 680 Fifth Avenue
  9. George W. Vanderbilt, a son, living at No. 640 Fifth Avenue.

vanderbilt II residence

In 1879 W.H. Vanderbilt purchased the entire block between  51st and 52nd Streets, where he built two  brownstones for his daughters (referred to in documents simply as Mrs. William D. Sloane and Mrs. Elliott F. Shepard, as if they had no first names of their own). An atrium separated W.H.’s residence from his daughters’.  In a confusing move, the two brownstones were sometimes called the “Vanderbilt Twins” and sometimes the “Triple Palace.”  Possibly because there were three households represented.

W.H.’s  son William Kissam Vanderbilt (husband of Alva) bought the next building site to the north, on the north-west corner of 52nd Street.  The Petit Chateau was designed by Richard Morris Hunt  and was under construction from 1879-1883. In March of that year Alva Vanderbilt threw a masked ball to celebrate.  Before the  new mansion was ready, they lived in the very exclusive small town of Oakdale. Note that W.K. gave his occupation as Railroad King (click on the thumbnail for a larger image).

At his father’s death W.K.’s portion of the estate came to what today would be about $1.3 billion.

Vanderbilt census 1880

Cornelius Vanderbilt II — the second son — built his mansion (designed by George B. Post and Richard Morris Hunt) on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets. In 1879leted in 1882 and later expanded. Demolished 1927.

Vanderbilt triple mansions
Vanderbilt triple mansions

Three three mansions that occupied the entire block between 51st and 52nd Street

Vanderbilt Petit Chateau
Vanderbilt Petit Chateau

Alva Vanderbilt’s obsession.

Webb and Twombly Mansions at 680 and 684 5th Avenue
Webb and Twombly Mansions at 680 and 684 5th Avenue

The Twombly residence was  on the corner with the Webb mansion beside it. Beyond the Webb house is St. Thomas’s Church.

Apartment Houses and French Flats


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