In New York City, rapid growth and the imposition of the New York City street grid both played major roles in the look, density, and availability of housing for New Yorkers. Tenements originated from subdivided structures that originally had other purposes, such as single-family homes, with the usually substandard and small living quarters leased to the poor. In the 19th century, the primary housing available to New York’s low-income residents were those subdivided buildings and self-built shanties, clustered together in different areas of the city.

New houses were not often built for the poor, and the affluent mostly built single-family homes for themselves. Tenements constructed specifically for housing the poor originated at some time between 1820 and 1850, and even the new buildings were considered overcrowded and inadequate.

By the end of the Civil War, "tenement" was a term for housing for the urban poor, with well-established connotations for unsafe and unsanitary conditions. With the city's population nearing one million people at the time, there were more than 15,000 tenement buildings in New York City, not yet including the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island.

The Manhattan grid allowed for lots measuring 25 feet by 100 feet, and tenements tended to occupy about 90 percent of these lots, allowing little to no room for natural light or air shafts. Buildings that did not occupy the entire lots often had "rear tenements" built into the yards behind them, providing even worse conditions than rooms of the buildings that faced the streets. It was all very dense, very crowded, and unregulated—conditions that fostered disease and inhumane living conditions, which soon caught the eye of reformers.

In 1865, the "Report of the Council of hygiene and public health of the Citizens' Association of New York upon the sanitary condition of the city" (available digitally via Sabin Americana) was published. This thorough analysis of the housing conditions of the time contained extraordinary detail and classified more than 65 percent of the city’s population as living in substandard housing conditions.

The report was followed by the city’s first comprehensive housing law, the Tenement House Act of 1867. The law famously required fire escapes on buildings and windows in each room, but was largely ineffective in improving the lives of tenement dwellers. Additional Tenement House Acts brought more reforms in 1879, 1901, and 1919, with the 1901 law considered a pivotal point.

It was at that time that the New York Tenement House Department was created to enforce new building standards and document safety and health violations in New York City's overcrowded multi-family dwellings. Inspectors, including staff photographers, surveyed and documented the living conditions of the occupants, including information pertaining to light and ventilation, fire safety, sanitation, and interior layout.

Lawrence Veiller, the organizer and first Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Tenement House Department, said that the committee’s chief aim was to “make a general study of the tenement house question.” He launched a comprehensive method for documenting in a card file every tenement building in New York City—already in excess of 80,000 in 1902. Taking a cue from Jacob Riis’s groundbreaking 1890 publication, How the Other Half Lives, the Department used jarring images combined with dramatically-worded descriptions to communicate with the public to inspire public policy reform that addressed the squalid living conditions of the urban poor.

This striking image—one of 250 objects in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures—documents “one of the dirtiest and most unsanitary rooms ever found by the Tenement House Department,” and includes a glimpse of a child in the background, blurred by the camera’s long shutter speed—a phantom alerting the viewer that this seemingly abandoned space is actually very much occupied.

The photograph is part of a powerful collection of photographic negatives taken by Tenement House Department inspectors from 1902 to 1914. Comprised of roughly 8,000 glass plate negatives and 249 mounted plates, the collection includes exterior views of buildings, domestic interiors, backyards, and plumbing and sanitary facilities, as well as images of street scenes and local residents. It also includes street scenes, storefronts, fire report cards, and various employees of the Tenement House Department, together providing visual documentation of tenement conditions and life.

MORE PHOTOS: See all images from the Tenement House Department through the 1930s here

The photographs are an important part of the history of “the tenement question” in New York City which—through decades of advocacy and work—eventually led to reform, improved housing laws, and led to the demolition of many tenement buildings. In A History of Housing in New York City (also in electronic format), author Richard Plunz states that "the horrors of the tenement were perfected in New York, but most reform legislation also originated there, as did most housing philanthropy."

New York is not the only city with tenement buildings, but these particularly crowded multi-family dwellings have had a significant effect on New York City’s character and history. Tenement homes are part of the city's history, architectural look, and sociology, as well as the lifestyles of its current residents. The imprint and influence of the New York tenement are layered upon the city much like the apartments themselves are layered atop each other.

For more on the history of tenements the Tenement House Department photos, see a discussion between myself, the Library’s curator of History, Social Sciences, and Government Information Julie Golia, and Annie Polland, President of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum:

This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections. The objects and the stories behind them are meant to inspire, spark curiosity, and encourage deeper thinking about our history and world—we'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.

The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.