Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Love What You've Done with Your Tenement Flat

I have no idea why this 1911 book, Housekeeping Notes: How to Furnish and Keep House in a Tenement Flat, is in print, but I'm so glad it is! It reminds me of my visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

It seems to be an instructional book for teachers in Housekeeping Centers who were to teach young women from the tenements (I'm assuming they were women), how to keep house. It lists what one needs to set up a home in a tenement, how much it would cost, and how to maintain everything. It is also full of things to be grateful for (i.e. that I don't need to keep coal for a stove, etc). It also defaults to a family of five, and addresses both units with or without shared bathrooms.

I like the frank approach the book takes:
Shelves for china in the dining-room are better than a sideboard, the latter being too large for an ordinary tenement room. Cheap sideboards are also very ugly.

Book shelves are a necessity in the living-room…
These courses dealt with the reality of living in the tenements. Tenements were notoriously crowded, poorly maintained, and were built with the absolute minimum regard for human comfort and safety. They were such unhygienic fire-traps that they essentially spurred lawmakers to create building code laws. Tenement landlords were eventually forced by law to upgrade all their buildings to have indoor plumbing, and they argued at the time that it was too costly and not worthwhile.

After the first Tenement House Act, landlords tried to get legislation passed to undermine it. Check out this New York Times article from 1896. (Viewing the full article is free.)

There are probably lots of current books regarding public policy on low-income housing, and plenty of material on organizing social activism, but I can't imagine anyone publishing something like this now. It would be like publishing "Your Home in the Projects: How to Keep It Clean and Gorgeous". There are plenty of websites to tell you how to live frugally, or make furniture from Fed-Ex boxes, but I'm not sure if it's quite in the same spirit.

These types of courses were what eventually became public school Home Economics courses (I think). They were gone by the time I got to junior high. Unfortunately, I really needed this kind of training - I'm a pretty lousy housekeeper! I wish Home Ec and Auto Mechanics had been mandatory. However, with tuberculosis and bedbugs on the rise in T.O., perhaps we may as well look to 1911 for help.

Photos of 97 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, NY, from Tenement.org

No comments: