If You Can Make It Here: Becoming American through the Homestead Act


A photograph of Daniel Freeman's homestead, the first homestead secured through the Homestead Act. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It began as just your average New Year’s Eve party in Gage County, Nebraska Territory. With the Civil War raging on elsewhere, the folks in Gage County were trying to ring in 1863 in relative peace; However Daniel Freeman had another idea. Scheduled to leave Gage County as a Union scout, Freeman did not want to miss his opportunity to file his claim for land via the newly legal Homestead Act. At the New Year’s Eve Party, Freeman managed to convince officials in attendance from the Metropolitan Land Office to open the office a little earlier than normal  so he could file his papers before shipping out.

Just after midnight Daniel Freeman became the first participant in the Homestead Act that apportioned public lands to private citizens. Continue reading

A Century Apart, Deadly Earthquakes Bring a Diaspora Together

A image from 1908 of the "Little Italy" section of New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 28, 1908 one of the worst earthquakes in Europe’s history tore into the Messina Strait in Southern Italy. The devastating earthquake was subsequently followed by a Tsunami which pounded the adjacent coastal regions. The devastation was incomprehensible; an estimated 200,000 people were killed. Southern Italy was already a place with high instances of poverty. Many families were already leaving the region in great numbers to seek better opportunities in the United States. One such envoy was a group of about 500 Italians, who were on board a ship called the Germania when the earthquake hit. The steamer was not equipped with a wireless system, and while the officers and Captain were aware of what just happened, they purposely maintained a code of silence for fear of pandemonium among those traveling in steerage. The grief among the travelers when the ship finally reached U.S. shores was nearly as terrible as feared.

While time has passed and technology has transformed the world, unfortunately there are still echoes of the Messina earthquake in 2015. Last month, an earthquake that registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale killed more than 8,000 in Nepal and left many bereaved Nepalese immigrants here in New York. Continue reading

Bringing up Baby


Last Christmas, after dinner, I had a baby. What followed was the longest, fastest three months of my life. And while babies do not come with instruction manuals, parenting experts, mommy bloggers, family, friends, bystanders on random street corners, are all too quick with (often contradictory) advice on how to raise an intelligent, independent, compassionate, and socially-conscious individual.

This Mother’s Day, we salute moms who, for more than a century, have sifted through the fog of information, from the benign to the absurd. Continue reading

Ruined, but not Destroyed: The Beauty of Disuse in an English Castle and our New York Tenement

The 'interior' of 13th century Astley Castle. Gutted by fire, neglect, vandalism both natural and man-made, before the preservation. Photo courtesy of the Landmark Trust.


And we thought our tenement was old… what does a 13th-century castle have in common with our Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side? There is a lot to be learned from decay.

For some Museum guests, it is not the Tenement’s restoration but the deterioration that is the most exciting part of the visit. There are some spaces in 97 Orchard Street which the Museum has elected to maintain as “ruins” – spaces that have been kept pretty much as we found them when the building was discovered in 1988, after standing empty for around 50 years. For some visitors, these ruined spaces can say as much as the restored apartments about the hardship and joys of the former tenants, the importance of memorials, and the passage of time. Continue reading

Looking at the Great Migration

The first panel of Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series. Each panel features a caption written by Lawrence. This panel reads "During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." © 2008 Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. This image courtesy of MoMA.

There is one tale of American Migration that is so different from the rest, that it seems at first to bear no relation to the stories we tell at the Museum. This is the Great Migration, the immense movement of African Americans from the rural South to the cities in the Northern and Western United States, including, of course, New York City. Unlike the other newly-arrived New Yorkers we discuss, these new arrivals were not immigrants. However, they left a place where their personhood was at risk and traveled hundreds of miles to a place where they hoped their American dreams would come true. Some of these migrants had their hopes realized, while others’ hopes were deferred and are still.  As one of the largest demographic shifts in American history, the Great Migration is an essential chapter in the history of our cities and our country. What can we learn about this unique movement that can also help us understand immigration and the face of our cities today? Continue reading

The Tenement Museum Top Sellers List

The Tenement Museum Shop at 103 Orchard

The Tenement Museum Shop, located at 103 Orchard Street, is always hopping with shoppers. And one thing is clear: our shoppers are big readers. The shop has a particularly strong literary selection that includes books about the museum, immigration, New York history, and even popular fiction. With that mind, we thought we would check in with the shop to find out what our visitors are reading. So without further ado, here are the Top 10 bestselling books for the past year at the Tenement Museum:

1. How the Other Half Lives   

2. Tenement Museum Book Bundle

3. A Tenement Story: The History of 97 Orchard and the Lower East Side

4. 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement

5. The Historical Atlas of New York: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History

6. 97 Orchard St, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life

7. Biography of A Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street

8. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

9. New York City (Boardbook)

10. Five Points

So even though Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives was first published in 1889, it still is attracting readers more than 125 years later. Sometimes you just can’t beat a classic. All of these books can also be purchased online at the Tenement Museum Shop.

- Post by Jon Pace

A Door to the Past: the Photographs of Roy Colmer

A shot of Hester Street between Essex and Ludlow Streets in a series capturing the odd numbers doors. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

If government research can be respected as art, can respected art become social research? Recently, we took a look at the life and work of Lewis Hine, a photographer who used his gift to document child labor in the early 20th century for the United States government. This week we talk about Ray Colmer,  an artist whose work was not intended to be a historical document but can become one for urban observers today. Colmer was an artist who worked in painting, graphic design and film. His major project, however was a photography project, Doors NYC. Doors NYC  captured  over 3,000 doorways in Manhattan. Though the images are straight forward -each photo depicts a door on a city street- his project is semi-abstract. Colmer’s work teaches the viewer to look for sameness as well as variation. His efforts were as an artist first, but because his work meticulously captures Manhattan streetscapes, his pictures end up serving as a record of the city in the 1970s. Continue reading

Recipes for Remembrance: Victoria Confino’s Passover Seder

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is the ultimate food holiday. Unlike so many Jewish holidays celebrated in synagogue, Passover is observed at home, twice, by gathering around the table for a special ceremony, the Seder (literally meaning order), and enjoying a festive meal. The Seder is laid out in a book called the haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and provides prayers as well as explanations for some of the practices and symbols of the holiday. Intended to connect the Jewish people to the Jews of centuries past, the Seder encourages us to remember and to reenact the story of Passover with the indispensable help of several foods, mnemonic devices that symbolize everything from enslavement to sacrifice, freedom and renewal.

For the immigrant families of 97 Orchard Street and throughout the Jewish Lower Eastside, Passover Seders must have been especially meaningful. The themes of sacrifice, new beginnings, and freedom must have hit especially close to home for those who had recently left their own homes and all that was familiar in order to begin again in New York City. The meals that followed the service were likely more abundant than they had been in their home countries, but the tastes would have been bittersweet, reminding them not only of the Passover story, but also bringing back memories of homes they’d left behind.

The Confino Seder Plate

Continue reading

Tenement Reflections: The Tales of a Tortured Tenant

Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work. Photo Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

While many new immigrant families arrived in America seeking different opportunities than what their native land could offer, many were struck by the hardships of living in 19th century New York. Krysta O’Pharrow provides a fictional perspective of a German tenant residing in 97 Orchard Street.

August, 1880

It’s not what it’s all cracked up to be. I find myself slumped over, knees to chest, quietly sobbing as the children rest. Hands blackened with splinters caused from scavenging all afternoon for wood and coal for our stove. I close my eyes tightly for a few moments to escape our harsh realities. Counting the days until we can save enough to remove ourselves from these rackety pits. Maintaining my sanity, reminding myself today’s hardships would become memories of a tortured past. I recount and replay my fantasies as a child, longing to escape to the greatest city in the world. Tales of starting a new life in the land of the free consumed me. I look at my children sweating profusely as they all gather under our parlor windows gasping for air as they sleep. The wind blows a horrendous smell of manure. Endless chatter fills the walls with voices of patrons, tenants, and workers, waiting in our communal rear yard for water and toilets. Constant sobbing lingers through our bedroom of a neighbor’s child suffering from swill milk poisoning. Our connecting fire door somehow reflects an ongoing nightmare. I stare daily at our wallpaper, it often fills me with joy as it is vibrant with color and designs and somehow eases the burdens of life. It allows my family to escape the ugliness lying outside our doors. Fighting back watering eyes caused from the soot accumulated throughout our quarters. A useless broom full of twigs lies near our stove full of dirt and dust, in need of a harsh beating. The thought of chores means another treacherous adventure outside these walls. Each step becomes another reminder, another trip down four flights of stairs, which seem to lead to perdition.  My body cries in agony, the daily torture of battling my way through a hallway full of chaos. Each floor is a purgatory of dreams, each dreamer ultimately waiting for their imminent resting place. Struggling to handle items half of my body weight results in endless blisters on my chapped hands. Sleepless nights occur daily when I lay my head to rest. The aches and pains condemn my body to constant tossing and turning. Comfort is a luxury my family just can’t afford as my husband works tersely. Before Sunrise with the children already awake, I can see in his weary eyes, he’s on the brink of defeat. Freedom results in frequent visits to Schneider’s Saloon, a time capsule to our native homeland. We work relentlessly to keep our family values and children sheltered as this life is all they know. Cornered, isolated, and confined to Kleindeutschland, where culture and our native tongue lives. The loud voices of neighbors, crying babies, and the gaudy commotion in our halls wake me from my wretched daydream. Prompting, I cease these thoughts and disregard the aches piercing every limb in my body. The sun is almost set, within moments darkness will present itself. I must gather the lanterns and prepare for night. The children are waking from their naps and the chores await me. My realities are one of choice as I escaped to this country for a better life.  I trekked across the retched blue seas to live the dream for those I’ve left behind. America is now our home and so is 97 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Krysta O’Pharrow, Evening Events Assistant




Picturing Child Labor: Lewis W. Hine


A child at a North Carolina cotton mill, captured by Lewis W. Hine. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Once you have seen a photograph by Lewis W. Hine it is hard to forget it. Though Hine himself is largely forgotten, his work, which documents child labor in early 20th century United States, continues to haunt lawmakers, photographers and civilians alike, as an arresting example of the power of the photograph. Continue reading