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Tenements and Toil

Urban life was often filled with hazards for the new immigrant, and housing could be one of the greatest dangers. At the turn of the century more than half the population of New York City, and most immigrants, lived in tenement houses, narrow, low-rise apartment buildings that were usually grossly overcrowded by their landlords. Cramped, poorly lit, under ventilated, and usually without indoor plumbing, the tenements were hotbeds of vermin and disease, and were frequently swept by cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis. The investigative journalist Jacob Riis, himself a Danish immigrant, launched a public campaign to expose and eradicate the exploitative housing new immigrants were forced to endure.

In a room not thirteen feet either way slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor. A kerosene lamp burned dimly in the fearful atmosphere, probably to guide other and later arrivals to their beds, for it was only just past midnight. A baby’s fretful wail came from an adjoining hall-room, where, in the semi-darkness, three recumbent figures could be made out. The apartment was one of three in two adjoining buildings we had found, within half an hour, similarly crowded. Most of the men were lodgers, who slept there for five cents a spot.
--Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 1889.

For a closer look at Jacob Riis’ photographs of tenement housing, visit the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog and search for “Jacob Riis photographer”.

For Italians, this way of living came as an enormous shock. In Italy, many rural families had slept in small, cramped houses; however, they spent most of their waking hours out of the house, working, socializing, and taking their meals in the outdoors. In New York, they found themselves confined to a claustrophobic indoor existence, using the same small room for eating, sleeping, and even working. A substantial percentage of immigrant families worked at home performing piecework—that is, doing work that paid them by the piece, such as stitching together garments or hand-assembling machinery. In a situation like this, an immigrant woman or child might go days without seeing sunlight.

Immigrants’ work places could be as unhealthy as their homes. A substantial number of southern Italian immigrants had only worked as farmers, and were thus qualified only for unskilled, and more dangerous, urban labor. Many Italians went to work on the growing city’s municipal works projects, digging canals, laying paving and gas lines, building bridges, and tunneling out the New York subway system. In 1890, nearly 90 percent of the laborers in New York’s Department of Public Works were Italian immigrants.

By no means was all Italian immigrants’ work grim and hazardous. Italians found work throughout the city, in many of the improvised trades that have long been a haven for immigrants, such as shoemaking, masonry, bartending, and barbering. For a time, some observers felt that Italians operated every fruit-vendor’s cart in the city. For many immigrants, though, and especially women and children, work could only be found in sweatshops, the dark, unsafe factories that sprang up around New York. When a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, killing 146 workers, nearly half of the victims were young Italian women.

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