Children Sleeping - RiisIt’s hard to underestimate — it’s hard even to fully  imagine — the extremes of poverty and wealth in Manhattan in the late 19th century.

The homeless — children and adults — were legion. The city was so crowded with people who could not afford a bed that in the last quarter of the century an unusual practice was put in place. Police stations began to open their doors at nightfall and make basement accommodations available to the poor. In the light of day they were turned out onto the street again.

In the winter months especially the police station basements were very popular. In the photo below, the poor have lined up to wait for the doors to open at the Mulberry Street police station.

Waiting for a bed in the basement

Waiting for a bed in the basement


Those who worked full time — and that might mean seven days a week, twelve or more hours a day — often resided well below the poverty line as well.

Cash-girls receiving $1.75 a week for work that at certain seasons lengthened their day to sixteen hours were sometimes required to pay for their aprons. A common cause for discharge from stores in which, on account of the oppressive heat and lack of ventilation, “girls fainted day after day and came out looking like corpses,” was too long service. No other fault was found with the discharged saleswomen than that they had been long enough in the employ of the firm to justly expect an increase of salary. The reason was even given with brutal frankness, in some instances. (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives)


This section of an 1883 map correlates to multiple crimes reported in contemporaneous newspapers.  This is not unexpected, as it was one of the poorest neighborhoods and encompassed  Mulberry Bend, made famous by Jacob Riis‘s photography documenting the squalid living conditions available to new immigrants.

Opium dens mentioned in the papers in 1883 (the ones I found, at any rate) are marked here in blue ovals; red stars indicate brothels or tenements occupied by prostitutes.  Just a block and a half west of the infamous Chatham Square you’ll see the Grand Duke’s Theater at 21 Baxter.

The Grand Duke’s Theater was attached to a stale beer joint, one of the lowest of the low taverns that sold the dregs from beer barrels, and were frequented primarily by the children who lived on the street and cobbled together a living by selling papers or flowers, shining shoes, running errands and petty larceny.

It used to be a familiar sight to see the saloons of Baxter, Mott and Mulberry streets filled with these [homeless] boys. It was only a few years ago that they had their own theatre,  “The Grand Duke’s Theatre,” at 21 Baxter street, in the cellar under a stale beer dive, where really clever performances were given of an imitative character, by a company of boys; and which, by the way, was the only theatre which for years defied the efforts of the authorities to collect the license. The admission fee was ten cents, and curiosity seekers came from all parts of the city to witness the really laughable and, in many cases, meritorious character-sketches given within its damp walls. It was subsequently broken up by the police.

This paragraph is from a book by William Howe and Abraham Hummel, two criminal lawyers who dealt in sensationalism and high fees. They called their little book (1885)  Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. The Veil Lifted, and Light Thrown on Crime and its Causes, and Criminals and their Haunts. Facts and Disclosures.

Note the casual disdain  for the children, and worse, the way their survival is trivialized. No mention of disease or child prostitution,  maybe because they thought too much truth would be bad for sales.  In 1887 The Grand Duke’s Theater came down, according to the New York Times, to make room for a tenement. They provide a more sober short history:

NYT 28 July 1887


Further reading:

Once excellent source of information can be found at the historypoverty.org website maintained by the Institute for for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness:

PovertyHistory.org provides an intimate look at the experience of poverty over New York City’s history. The site investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of the poor and homeless and shows how the past continues to influence the present. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, this site is geared toward students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these intractable issues.