How New York City’s Tenement Museum Recreates the American Immigrant Experience

Sherry Hochbaum
Sherry Hochbaum / Sherry Hochbaum

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of immigrants from around the world arrived in the United States to begin a new life in a new world. Many landed at New York City’s Ellis Island and settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Moving into cramped tenement buildings, families shared a few small rooms that often served both as living and work space for as many as 10 family members and their boarders.

In 1988, New York’s Tenement Museum was founded to commemorate the American immigrant experience and the intertwined histories of New York City and the immigrants who shaped its evolution.

The museum, housed in a former New York City tenement apartment building, recreates different eras from New York City’s history, showing how working class immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries would have lived. Each apartment represents a different family, living in a different era. But museum curators and researchers aren’t just committed to creating plausible living spaces, and the apartments aren’t just composite images of imagined families: Each apartment represents, with a breathtaking level of detail, the lives of the actual families who lived in the building throughout its history.

Mental_floss photographed some of the museum’s artifacts during its annual SNAPSHOT night—the one night a year cameras are allowed inside the museum—then talked to head curator David Favaloro about the work that went into creating each exhibit, and the stories each apartment tells. Dive into the fascinating history of the Tenement Museum and New York City’s immigrant experience below.

Back in the 1980s, museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson were looking to rent a storefront on the Lower East Side from which to operate city tours. They’d initially hoped to open an entire museum dedicated to the history of New York City’s immigrants, but had been unable to find an appropriate building. In a city where space was at a premium, finding a well-preserved tenement from the turn of the century was proving impossible.

“To some extent, they were giving up on looking, and decided to just rent a storefront and keep looking and raising money," Favaloro says. "Ruth came to look at the storefront, and asked where the bathroom was. She was let out into the entry hallway, and knew immediately it was perfect.”

The building was a perfect time capsule. Built in 1863, it had been uninhabited since 1935. Unwilling to make the renovations mandated by a new housing standards law, the building’s landlord had simply closed off the apartment building, continuing to rent out the more lucrative commercial spaces on the ground floor.

The building, when Abram and Jacobson purchased it, was in ruins. Using New York census data, factory reports, and other city records, researchers began piecing together the story of the building, finding the names of its former residents. They tracked down remaining family members, in some cases finding people who had lived in the building in its later years. From the research and oral histories collected, they began rebuilding the lives of six families.

“The evidence we use, and the physical restoration process, is different depending on the time period,” Favaloro says. “It’s a genealogy in reverse. We start with a mention of somebody or some family in a particular document that places them at 97 Orchard and work our way in both directions, but really, primarily, forward.”

“In this case, we knew a family called the Levines were enumerated in the 1900 U.S. census," Favaloro says. "Harris Levine, the patriarch, was listed as a tailor. There was a desire, on the part of the museum, to explore what was a really important history of work in tenement apartments. So not only is the first job, for many Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in the garment industry, but the ways in which home manufacturing kind of shaped all kinds of things—not only the day-to-day lives of individuals, but debates about the place of immigration in the United States.” 

Many of the tenement’s residents ran garment factories out of their apartments. Before so-called “modern” factories, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, started cropping up at the beginning of the 20th century, home “sweatshops” were extremely common. According to Favaloro, in the mid-1890s, New York State counted 23 tenement sweatshops on Orchard Street alone.

People like Harris Levine worked as subcontractors: A manufacturer would provide fabric and designs, while subcontractors provided the necessary labor. “It’s a race to the bottom. Everyone’s trying to undercut each other: 'I can sew a hundred dresses for less than this guy’ kind of thing,” Favaloro says. “According to the factory inspection report, they were working six days a week for 10 hours a day, and they were paid by the piece. We estimate that average wage was probably somewhere in the average of $9 to $10 a week.”

“To say that families used that small 325-square-foot apartment creatively is kind of an understatement,” Favaloro says. The Rogarshevsky family, whose kitchen is shown above, squeezed a large family into three small rooms in the 1910s. “One of the [Rogarshevsky] brothers was interviewed by the museum almost 25 years ago now, and he said that when they first moved in, it was a family of eight," Favaloro says. "So, mother and father, two daughters, and four brothers. Mom and dad had the back bedroom, they slept in a bed there. The two sisters shared a cot in the kitchen, and the four brothers used the sofa in the parlor as a headboard, put stools in front as the footboard, then balanced planks of wood and bedding on top to create a bed. They’d have to assemble and disassemble that on a nightly basis. What’s interesting is that the family, at various points in time, also had a boarder.”

The books chosen for the Rogarshevsky apartment are reflective both of the times and of the particular interests of individual Rogarshevsky family members. According to Favaloro, dime novels like the Western pictured above were popular among young immigrant women in the 1910s. Women like Bessie Rogarshevsky, who was a factory sewing machine operator, would have given the majority of their wages to their parents. But what they saved was often spent on cheap literature.

Keeping Fit, meanwhile, represents Sam Rogarshevsky’s passion for boxing. According to Favaloro, “Sam fancied himself a kind of boxer, and was really into keeping fit, so to speak. So we used that to tell that story.” 

Down the stairs, and half a century earlier, we find the Moore apartment. Moore’s Melodies, pictured above, was an immensely popular songbook amongst Irish immigrants in the 19th century. “Playing music together wasn’t just a form of popular entertainment: It was also a way of preserving cultural memory or history,” Favaloro explains. 

But the popular folk music of the time also encapsulated some of the discrimination Irish immigrants habitually faced. “There was also a satirical song from that time that was popular called ‘No Irish Need Apply,’” Favaloro says. “It has a whole kind of history to it—it speaks about the discrimination the Irish encountered here in the United States when they arrived in the middle of the 19th century. It was a sort of ‘you’re not gonna keep us down’ song.”

Most of the furnishings in the museum aren’t the belongings of the original inhabitants: “The majority of the items and artifacts in the museum are period, meaning they’re from the general period of interpretation for each of the restored apartments, but we’ve gone out and acquired them.”

“We conduct deep material culture research,” Favaloro says. “[Then] we create a historic furnishings plan that spells out the story we’re trying to tell.”

“Each space is restored to a particular moment in time in the life of the family,” Favaloro says. The apartments, he explains, are designed to look as though their residents could return at any minute: clothes left out to dry, a newspaper casually left on a table, or a dress laid out on a bedspread, make the spaces feel inhabited.

“The majority of historic house museums are not the homes of ordinary people, certainly not immigrants, and certainly not the working class or poor, so a lot of times for historic house museums all the furniture and stuff will come with the house,” he says.

That wasn't the case for the museum, though. Instead, historic furnishings curator Pamela Keech goes out and finds period-appropriate pieces at antique fairs, flea markets, or online (“eBay has really revolutionized this work for her," Favaloro says). Although artifacts aren’t the belongings of the actual tenement families, they are realistic approximations of the possessions they would have had.

In other cases, artifacts were donated by the real families whose lives are depicted by the museum. Descendants of the Baldessis, the family of Italian immigrants who lived in the tenement up until it was condemned in the 1930s, are in frequent contact with the Tenement Museum. Before passing away in the late 1990s, Josephine provided the museum with extensive family oral histories; she also donated the photographs above.

“They have a really close attachment with and engagement with the museum,” Favaloro says. “They’ll come down on Mothers Day and listen to our recordings. It’s very emotional.”

Researchers have also traced the history of the building itself, including its structural evolution and renovations. For instance, Favaloro explains, “Gas lighting was replaced by electric in the mid-1920s. That type of lighting became standard at that point, and inexpensive enough that it made sense to replace.”

Many of the building’s renovations were made in accordance with new housing laws that made mandatory the installation of basic amenities like electricity and running water. Others, meanwhile, were made to compete with the landlords of neighboring buildings. Above, the decorative wallpaper that lines the building’s hallways is made of burlap, meant to mimic leather.

“I think it’s important to remember that even though residents of buildings like that were working class, perhaps even poor, immigrants, as a building owner you’re still competing with the guy next door,” Favaloro says. “Why should somebody come live in your building? Or how can you charge a few cents more in rent?”

Immigrant families who arrived in the United States with nothing in the early 1900s were often making enough money by the '20s or '30s to move out of their tenement apartments, and migrate to less cramped homes in Brooklyn or the Bronx. “By the 1930s, half of the building was vacant," he says. "Part of that is a function of upward mobility for the immigrants who had settled the neighborhood.” 

In earlier decades, Favaloro explains, upwardly mobile families were simply replaced by newcomers. “But in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act establishes the kind of race-based restrictive immigration quotas that kind of govern the immigration system through the mid-1960s," he says. "So there’s far fewer people to replace the mostly Southern and Eastern European immigrants who had made the Lower East Side their first home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Families started leaving the Lower East Side, taking their possessions—and stories—with them, and leaving behind only the refuse of a past life. Over the last few decades, the museum has endeavored to piece together those stories, using little clues like the sign above, an echo of the building’s history.

All photos courtesy of Sherry Hochbaum.