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Snapshots of Life at 97 Orchard Street


Tomorrow, October 16th, at 6:30 pm, we’ll be hosting Snapshot, a Tenement Talk that invites visitors to take photos inside 97 Orchard Street. Our restored and refurbished apartment building has beautiful architectural and personal details that would look great in a frame, on a computer desktop, or on an Instagram feed!

Even the outside of the building is beautiful!

Like our modern visitors, residents of 97 Orchard Street were no strangers to the art of photography! Photography is a relatively new art form: it was invented in the 1830’s, but not thought much of until the 1860’s, when American Matthew Brady began photographing the aftermath of Civil War battles. Luckily for us, that is about the same time that our building was built! In the earliest years of photography, it was a lengthy and expensive process to have a photograph of oneself made. Despite their lower economic status, many of the residents of 97 Orchard did have photographs of themselves and their families taken – not only because they were really cool when they were first made available, but to record themselves as new Americans.

The Tenement Museum is fortunate enough to have many of these photos in our collection, so in the spirit of Snapshot, and because none of the residents will be in the modern photos, here are some of the residents of 97 Orchard Street.

Here we have Adolph Schmager in his Civil War uniform, in the 1860’s. This is one of the oldest photos we have in our collection. Photography was not widely available in the 1860’s, but soldiers in the Civil War often had formal portraits like these taken so that they could send them home to their families.

This is Hermann (left) and Max, Minna, and Anne Queller, probably in the 1890’s. By this time, photography had become much more democratic (and better technologically as well!), which allowed for people to have photographs of themselves taken. These photos of member of the Queller family were probably made in a photo studio and have decorative paper frames.

Phillip and Olga Tereshko, both of whom immigrated from Russia with two children and lived in the building in the 1910’s. This couple isn’t not smiling because they’re unhappy to be getting hitched (we hope!) – they’re making neutral faces because in the early 1900’s,  cameras took a longer amount of time to record the image in front of them. A relaxed face is easier to keep still than a smiling or goofy one. It was also the style of the time, generally, to look like a formal portrait rather than a candid shot. It was not until home use cameras in the 1920’s that shutter speeds became fast enough to take happier looking photos.



The Fiorentino family. Originally from Italy, the Fiorentino’s probably lived in 97 during the 1930’s. This last photo was taken by an amateur photographer with a hand-held camera. While the family still looks rather formal, perhaps in an effort to look more respectable despite their less than ideal living situation, there is more of an air of spontaneity to the photo – the dog, who was probably not sitting and staying as much as its owners would have liked it to, remains in focus, and the little girl on the right is certainly not making a neutral face!

Photographs, even the ones that took a few minutes to develop, are an invaluable historical source because they show us things as they really looked, not just as the painter wanted them to look. They provide us with slices of life that we may have missed otherwise, and that’s just what we aim to do at the Tenement Museum – to illuminate aspects of tenement life that our visitors may not have noticed before.

For more information about Snapshot or to purchase tickets, visit our website here.

– Posted by Lib Tietjen