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

  • 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

The city newspapers were full of real estate advertisements then, as they are now. With the development of apartment houses — some targeted for the very rich — a new vocabulary began to creep in.

These New York Times ads from 1882 are all for named buildings, which seems to have been a marketing strategy.

NYT Ads for Apartment Houses

Note that all of these ads speak in glowing terms of plumbing and steam heat, things we take for granted now. These buildings are all located in good or even excellent neighborhoods, and are priced accordingly. None of them are furnished.

In the decades after the Civil War the city’s population began to increase at an astounding rate, to the degree that  single family homes were soon out of the price range of everyone but the wealthiest.

French Flats: The St. George on 17th Street
French Flats: The St. George on 17th Street. Photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

While the kind of  tenements documented by Riis and others were  the way that the poor — especially the immigrant poor — lived, other kinds of housing were developing. Boarding houses became an institution; smaller, better built apartment buildings (walk-ups) made their appearance; residential hotels became popular with the thousands of single men who moved to the city to work.

There were a number of such hotels around Washington Square  Park, one of which — the Bendick on some maps, Benedick on others — was cleverly  named for the marriage-shy character in Much Ado about Nothing.

On the upper end of the economic scale, the French flat was coming into its own.

In the 1880s real estate developers began working hard to establish French flats as suitable and even desirable for the well-to-do. French flats were large, with luxuries like steam-heat and elevators, door bells and dumbwaiters. The more elegant (marble, exotic woods, stone sculptures, high ceilings) the higher the rent and the more likely to draw in upper class tenants. In today’s dollars, an eight room French flat would go for about $3,000 a month in 1883-1884.

The St. George Flats building was developed just off of stylish [[Stuyvesant Square]], and named for the church that dominated the neighborhood. The church was attended by some very prominent and rich people, and the developer grabbed onto those coattails. It worked pretty well, too. Six months after it opened for tenant occupancy all but one flat was leased.



W. J. Simonton whose father had been an agent for the Associated PressJohn L. Lockwood, who dealt in mineral waters; his wife, their  invalid son, Louis, and Jennie Wilson, a servant
H. W. Humphrey Cornelius Dubois, an insurance man;
United States Commissioner Timothy Griffiths, secretary to former Senator Roscoe Conkling, his wife (visitors on April 7) Walton Burgess
Kate Forsythe, an actress Edward Sandford, a laywer and son-in-law of former Governor John T. Hoffman
 A.R. Parsons organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity
William M. McPherson salesman with H. B. Claflin & Co. S. H. Gray of Heckler Brothers, flour millers
Dr. M. G. Raefle, former Deputy CoronerDr. J. R. Hobbie of the Health Department

The real estate developer was eloquent in his advertisements, promising every luxury and safety measure. He claimed that the St. George  was completely fire proof, a big selling point in a time and place when fire was something to be especially feared.

Except he neglected to insulate the steam pipes that heated the building, and in April of 1884, the St. George burned to the ground.  This incident plays a role in the sequel to The Gilded Hour.

More information/Resources:

Daytonian in Manhattan. June 10, 2014.  The 1883 St. George Residence — Nos. 223-225 East 17th Street.

Ephemeral New York. June 20, 2010. The Bachelor Apartments of Washington Square.

“A FLAT RUINED BY FIRE; NARROW ESCAPE OF THE INMATES OF THE ST. GEORGE. FLAMES CAUSING OVER $160,000 DAMAGE IN A BUILDING WHICH WAS REPRESENTED TO BE FIRE-PROOF.”  The New York Times. April 8, 1884. [At the time this entry was written, this article was available for free on the NYT website, here.]

“THE ST. GEORGE ROBBERIES.” The New York Times. April 11, 1884.

“THE ST. GEORGE FLATS FIRE.” The New York Times. April 16, 1884.

Architectural Detail, the St. George on 17th Street

Boarding Houses

boarding house ads 1883Looking for a Place to Live

Classified ads in the 1880s will make it clear how wide-spread and well established boarding house economy was.   There were  ads in every edition of every paper for decades. From Gamber’s excellent historical study:

[,,,]  if the nineteenth century was the golden age of the bourgeois home, it was also the age of the boarding house. In cities and many towns, people of all classes were at least as likely to live in boarding houses as in homes. What historians call the market revolution, a series of related developments that included the expansion of commercial agriculture, the beginnings of industrialization, the emergence of a working class dependent on wages, the rise of a salaried white-collar middle class, and massive urban growth, could never have been accomplished without boardinghouses and the labor of those who kept them. (Gamber)


A case study

The Life and Times of E.J. Phillips is a website dedicated to documenting the way a stage actress made a life and a career for herself between the 1870s and 1890s. By working the way through her letters, an unusually detailed picture emerges.

The information on housekeeping and boarding house life is especially interesting.

Letters written to her son reveal a lot about costs:

“A new agent called for the rent yesterday, and said when our lease expired in May that the rent would be $45 and they would like to know as early as possible if we intended remaining. Hattie told him that we could not tell before April whether we should or not remain.”

Broadway between 41st and 42nd Streets. “I arrived 10:30 Sunday night and came with Mr and Mrs. Massen to this hotel where Mr. Massen thought, and tried to make terms for me, but in vain. Everything is too high for me. Nothing less than $25 per week that would be fit to live in.”

Especially interesting is this Google map that takes you on a walking tour of  Manhattan as E.J. Phillips experienced it.

The Un-advertised

Boarding or lodging houses were also popular in the poorest neighborhoods, but these were not advertised in the paper. Note that the excerpt below mentions only men in connection with these lodging houses, and the price — ten cents or less (in 1868) to stay overnight in a communal room.

Source: McCabe, James Dabney, and Charles Lawson. 1868. The Secrets of the Great City; a Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City. Philadelphia: Jones Brothers, 345-346.

The Bowery and eastern section of the city are full of cheap lodging houses, which form a peculiar feature of city life. There is a very large and increasing class of vagrants who live from hand to mouth, and who, beneath the dignity of the lowest grade of boarding houses, find a nightly abode in cheap lodgings. These establishments are planned so as to afford the greatest accommodation in point of numbers with the least in point of comfort.

The halls or rather passages are narrow, and the rooms are small, dark, dirty and infested with vermin. The bedding consists of a straw pallet and coarse sheets, and a coverlet of a quality too poor to be an object of luxury. In some houses no sheets or coverlet are afforded, but even with the best of these accommodations the lodger suffers from cold in the winter, while in the summer he is devoured with bed-bugs.

For such accommodations in a room which half a dozen may share, the lodger pays ten cents, though it is said there is a lower depth where they sleep on the floor and pay half the above-mentioned price. The profit of this business may be inferred from the fact that one hundred and fifty lodgings, and in some cases a much larger number, are sold by each house, making a net receipt of $15 per night, to which is to be added the profits of a bar, where the vilest whiskey is retailed in ‘dime nips.’ The business of a lodging house seldom commences before ten o’clock, and its greatest rush is just after the closing of the theatres; but all through the night, till three o’clock in the morning, they are receiving such of the outcast population as can offer the price of a bed.

To any one interested in the misery of the city, the array presented on such an occasion is very striking. One sees every variety of character, runaway boys, truant apprentices, drunken mechanics and broken-down mankind generally.Among these are men who have seen better days. They are decayed gentlemen who appear regularly in Wall street, and eke out the day by such petty business as they may get hold of, and are lucky if they can make enough to carry them through the night.

In all lodging houses the rule holds good ‘first come, first served’ and the last man in the room gets the worst spot. Each one sleeps with his clothes on and his hat under his head to keep it from being stolen. At eight o’clock in the morning all over-sleepers are awakened and the rooms got ready for the coming night. No one is allowed to take anything away, and if the lodger has a parcel be is required to leave it at the bar. This prevents the theft of bed-clothes.

As the expenses connected with lodging houses are very light, they are generally profitable, and in some instances large fortunes have been made at the business. The one recently burned was a correct illustration of the vices and miseries of the poor; a lodging house up stairs and in the basement a concert saloon, so that the poverty engendered by the one could be sheltered by the other.

Truth in Jest

From Gunn 1857: His take on the women who ran boarding houses.
From Gunn 1857: His take on the women who ran boarding houses.

Gunn’s 1857 The Physiology of New York Boarding-houses isn’t scholarly and doesn’t pretend to be objective. He spends a great deal of time mocking what was wrong with boarding-houses (with humorous illustrations), and as a result a pretty clear picture emerges. Here is a composite of boarding-house landladies, as he sees them. In contrast, see Gamber’s Chapter 3: “The Most Cruel and Thankless Way a Woman Can Earn Her Living.”

 The Layout of a Converted Boarding House

The following illustration is from Groth 1994.


Second-floor plan for a conjectural conversion of a large single-family row house into a rooming house. Shaded areas indicate where thin walls have been added to cut up the large rooms of this 1840s house. The warren of five rooms at the front was constructed from the two former principal bedrooms and their closets.

[zotpress items=”5J2XNHIQ,FVH2SBVE” style=”apa”] From Inside the Apple: The Era of New York City Boarding Houses