During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was home to a plethora of immigrants, many of whom also worked either in their homes there or in nearby areas. The Lower East Side was densely populated, with whole families living in tiny spaces, somewhat similar to some areas of New York City today, although usually with more people living in these apartments. As a result, living and working conditions were usually poor–part of the so-called Gilded Age of United States’ history.
During the 1980s, one of these old tenement buildings was converted into a museum, and the establishment has since grown. Visitors today can experience what it was like to live and work in this area, giving a unique glimpse into the history of New York City. The museum cannot be visited without a tour, which are offered throughout the day and on a variety of topics–visitors can, either at the museum or online, choose what topic they would like to cover in their tour. Some of these tours focus on particular families, others on certain businesses, still others on the types of immigrants involved. We decided to take the Sweatshop Workers tour, which focuses on different families and offers a glimpse into their apartments and working conditions. However, we first visited the Tenement Museum’s visitor center, which has a variety of New York-themed merchandise, historical books and information, as well as a film that discusses the history of the Lower East Side and a bit about the museum itself.
After our stop at the visitor center, we joined our tour, which took us into one of the tenement buildings to the apartment of a family of garment workers. There, we learned about the family’s history, saw the apartment where they both lived and worked, and, more generally, the conditions of families who were in similar situations. Afterward, we went to an adjacent apartment, where a Jewish family lived. There, we looked at the way this family lived and how they experienced a new life in the United States. While the tour was a bit large for such a small space, being able to see the tenements that we had read about in our history books made history come alive.
The Tenement Museum is unique in that it focuses on the thousands of people who lived and worked in New York. Doing so enables visitors to experience what everyday life would have looked like in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We recommend visiting at least once to learn about this history.
Note: The Tenement Museum is affiliated with the National Park Service and is considered a national park site.