Mulberry Bend, ca 1890
Mulberry Bend, ca 1890. Click for larger size.

The government of the city knew about the connection between poor health and poverty, and they knew too that the biggest part of the problem was the unsanitary conditions in tenement districts where almost all newly arrived immigrants found themselves. As is still the case, slum landlords were  adept at evading the law, and the city government was complicit.

New York Times
September 20, 1883

Miss Helen Potter telling of the needs of the tenement-house occupants.

… addressed the Senate Committee on Labor and Education yesterday… Miss Potter gave some facts as to the sanitary condition of the poor classes which have been noted during her visits. Among them the greatest evil — the one most common in the tenement house district– was a lack of water which could rarely be had in many districts above the second story of the houses.  With such poor facilities it was almost impossible for tenants to get a supply sufficient for personal uses, and wholly out of the question to obtain sufficient to wash floors, etc. Miss Potter cited a number of cases of this kind and asserted that bad drainage and sewerage, the lack of pure water, and the huddling together of large numbers of families in crowded tenements was having its effect is ruining the health and increasing the death-rate of the city.  …

Sanitary Map and Report, Fourth Ward

The Sanitary Map and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York was published in 1866 along with a detailed report on  living conditions. It is, of course, twenty years earlier than the events in The Gilded Hour, but the amount and quality of information is excellent and relevant.

Report of the 4th Sanitary Inspection District made to the Council of Hygiene of the Citizen’s Association by E.R. Pulling, M.D., assisted by F. J. Randall. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of the New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City, second edition. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1866.

The website The Fourth Ward: Life and Death in New York, 1860-70 (the work of  Peter Baldwin at the University of Connecticut) includes the entire 1866 report with additional materials including high resolution, annotated images of the map itself. A short excerpt:

insalubrious district
click for a full-sized image

The diagram on the opposite page represents an area eighty yards long and fifty yards wide, including the cul-de-sac at the termination of Cliff Street. It illustrates the proximity to crowded habitations of offensive and dangerous nuisances, often observed in the lower part of the city. The diagram presents an accurate ground plan of each tenant-house which it embraces. Within this space are 20 dwellings occupied by 111 families, and having a population of 538 persons. A soap-and-candle factory, a tannery, and five stables, in which are kept not less than 30 horses, are also wholly or partially included within its limits.

A, B, C, D, E, are tenant-houses fronting on Vandewater Street. An alley four feet wide running through C forms the sole communication with the five tenant-houses F, G, H, I, J, which open into the small court R, in which stands their common privy, f, situated within three feet of the hall door of one of the houses, which is constantly pervaded by its noisome odor; c, d, e are privies situated immediately under the windows of houses F, G, H; a, b are privies belonging to the tenant-houses A and B; K, L,M, N, are tenant-houses standing back to back with two of those in the court above mentioned and with three stables to which access is had from Vandewater Street. The position of two stables fronting on Cliff Street will also be observed. The soap-and-candle factory, whose frontage is shown in the cut, is a very extensive one, and its emanations vitiate the atmosphere for a considerable space around.

T, T, T, represent a series of tan vats, in the rear of a leather factory on Frankfort Street, which generally contain a large number of green hides in a very offensive condition. The peculiar stench from this source is usually quite perceptible through the entire area shown in the engraving.

Insalubrious: Unhealthful, not providing or promoting health.

This locality lies on the borders of a former marsh known as “Beekman’s Swamp.” The appearance of every inhabitant of this region indicates a low and vitiated condition of the system, rendering it specially susceptible to adynamic forms of fever, which, during epidemic visitations, have on several occasions spread with terrific rapidity through the entire quarter. Typhus fever has prevailed during the past year to a considerable extent in some of these houses, while small-pox has been rife in the tenant-houses on Vandewater Street. It has been observed that scarlatina is especially malignant and fatal here.

In these reports neighborhoods that were sanitation disasters were labeled ‘insalubrious districts’. The report was written more than twenty years before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, but the worst neighborhoods remained exactly as they had been.

Insalubrious Districts
Insalubrious Districts


Recent immigrants were the most likely residents in these tenements.

Photo by Jacob Riis
Photo by Jacob Riis

Madison Square

Madison Square
Madison Square


Madison Square and Madison Square Garden are, as is clear from this map, two different destinations. Madison Square was commercial, and home to many of the city’s most exclusive stores.   From Wikipedia:

On May 10, 1847 Madison Square Park opened to the public. Within a few years, the tide of residential development, which was relentlessly moving uptown, had reached the Madison Square area, and through the 1870s, the neighborhood became an aristocratic one of brownstone row houses and mansions where the elite of the city lived; Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton and Winston Churchill‘s mother, Jennie Jerome, were all born here.[1][8] In 1853, plans had been made to build the Crystal Palace there, but strong public opposition and protests caused the palace to be relocated to Bryant Park.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, a luxury hotel built by developer Amos Eno, and initially known as “Eno’s Folly” because it was so far away from the hotel district, stood on the west side of Madison Square from 1859 to 1908. The first hotel in the city with elevators, which were steam-operated and known as the “vertical railroad”, it had fireplaces in every bedroom, private bathrooms, and public rooms which saw many elegant events. Notable visitors to the hotel included Mark Twain, famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind, U.S. Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Ulysses S. Grant and the Prince of Wales.

The thing you’d most likely notice in Madison Square Park — were you to walk through in 1880 or so, is the sculpture of a huge arm holding a torch.


For fifty cents you could climb the internal staircase of the severed arm of the Statue of Liberty to stand on the torch and look over the park. Fifty cents was a great deal of money; at this time weekly rent on a room in a reputable boarding house (where most working class people lived) was about four dollars.

From Madison Square itself you could just make out the upraised arm and torch in the park. Photo ca. 1879

. This was part of an effort to raise enough money to build a base for the Statue in New York harbor.





Compare these photos looking south from about 25th  Streetand Broadway to see how the intersection of 23rd and Broadway changed between 1883 and 1902, the year the Flatiron Building opened.

Flatiron Building

This excellent photo can be found at Ephemeral New York: an 1884 shot of the corner where the Flatiron building now stands. A big, clear, detailed photo like this is a rarity.

The 1902 Flat Iron building is iconic, as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower (though on a smaller scale) or Trafalgar Square in London. Film makers use it to establish geography almost as a matter of course. But look at this corner before all that (clicking on the image will take you to the full-sized version at Ephemeral New York).

23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884
23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884