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

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