While PJ and I were in NYC last week, we visited the Tenement Museum, a museum dedicated to telling “the stories of immigrants who lived in 97 Orchard Street, a tenement built in 1863 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.” We both loved this museum, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting NYC.

The museum offers guided tours of apartments in this tenement building. Each apartment recreates immigrant life in the nineteenth or twentieth century by focusing on a specific family. The tours also emphasize issues of health and the history of immigration in the U.S.

We went on the fourth-floor tour, entitled “The Moores: An Irish Family in America.” Our tour guide was great. She made the tour fun while also emphasizing the serious issues that this tour wanted to convey to visitors.

The Moores moved to the Orchard Street tenement in 1869, just six years after the building was built. One of the things our tour guide emphasized was just how progressive the building was for its time, especially in promoting sanity sewer and water conditions. Unlike many other tenements at this time, 97 Orchard Street was hooked up to the city’s sewer system, which prevented its outhouses from overflowing and contaminating the water supply, which was right next to the outhouses in the back yard.

As our guide noted, this tenement was a step up for the Moores, who had previously lived in a more crowded, less sanitary neighborhood. One of the interesting things about the tour is the information we got about the neighborhood and how immigration patterns in the nineteenth century are quite similar to the neighborhood’s current pattern, the key difference being the nation of origin for the immigrants. In the nineteenth century this neighborhood was largely German; today it’s right on the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown.

What I liked most about the tour is its emphasis on historical detail. We learned about this specific family, but we also learned about how their experiences were typical of immigrants in this neighborhood at the time. Our tour guide frequently pulled out copies of historical documents for us to examine as she talked to us about the family, the building, or the period. She showed us, for example, death certificates and census records. There was also a collection of objects, including a small medicine bottle and a pipe, that she would pass around so that we could see an important detail that she was talking about.

There was also a short slide show that accompanied recording of Irish folk songs. Seeing and hearing this presentation helped us better understand her point about how these songs were used to convey important knowledge to immigrants in the nineteenth century about life in the United States.

The most poignant example of this was about the use of swill milk. Before the ability to use large blocks of ice or pasteurization, it was difficult to get good milk from the countryside into the city. While merchants would sell milk that had already spoiled, they would also sell swill milk, which came from cows that had been fed the mash left over from making whiskey. This milk was blue instead of white, so merchants would be doctored to look and taste like normal milk. Unfortunately, swill milk provided no nutrition for babies who drank it. Since many immigrant mothers at this time were also malnourished, purchased milk was the only food source available for babies. This was a major contributor to infant mortality rates at this time. (Apparently the same thing is basically  happening today in China.) One of the Irish folk songs warned mothers about the dangers of swill milk and encouraged them to beware of vendors selling it.

Another issue our guide emphasized was how the use of flour and water as a paste for hanging wallpaper attracted rats and insects, some of which carried disease and were thus another contributer to mortality rates.

I was really impressed by the poor lighting in these tenements. Each apartment consisted of three rooms. Only the parlor had windows and therefore received natural sunlight. (Internal windows were eventually added between the parlor and the kitchen and between the kitchen and the bedroom.) When we first entered the kitchen, our guide showed us how dark it was in there when the door between the kitchen and the parlor was closed. Even with a couple of candles, it would have been incredibly difficult to see even just across the relatively small room. You read about candlelight in books, but you rarely get to see the real conditions of darkness that result from not having electricity.

One other thing I really liked is how friendly our guide was. She couldn’t answer all of our group’s questions, but she welcomed all questions and encouraged us to find out the answers to those she couldn’t answer by asking the workers in the museum shop/information center. It’s rare that you get to ask questions of substance in a museum and then get ready and substantive answers.

There were lots of other issues and information presented during our tour; I’ve only scratched the surface. Overall, it was a great tour and I felt like I learned a lot from it. There are three other tours. The first floor tour visits the apartment of a Sephardic-Jewish family. The second floor tour focuses on German-Jewish and Italian immigrants. And the third floor tour looks at Jewish immigrants working in the garment industry. We definitely intend to take other tours next time we visit.

In sum, this is one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had. It’s right up there with the Newport Mansions, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Morgan Library. I definitely recommend it.

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