New York City Architecture, New York City History

Tenement Pests

September 9, 2020


For as long as New York has been a city, people have been trying to control the thriving rodent and insect populations.

Archeological evidence from 97 Orchard Street, home to immigrant and migrant families from 1863 to 1935, offers abundant proof that the former residents required extermination services. In 1993, the Tenement Museum underwent an excavation of the rear yard where the sewer-connected privies once stood. Among the findings preserved in the museum’s collection are the skeletal and mummified remains of 40 rodents. Every time the museum undergoes a preservation project and an apartment’s floors and walls are removed, the remains of rodents are found. In addition to the physical remains, evidence of past rodent activity can also be seen in the nibbled damage to edges of paper and food scraps uncovered during these projects.

Left: Handbill showing mouse damage found in 97 Orchard in January 2006 during staircase stabilization. Right: Rat Skeleton found in Apartment 14 ceiling in January 2008. (Both from Collections of the Tenement Museum)

Left: Handbill showing mouse damage found in 97 Orchard in January 2006 during staircase stabilization. Right: Rat Skeleton found in Apartment 14 ceiling in January 2008. (Both from Collections of the Tenement Museum)

Historically, the building’s superintendent, the person responsible for its repairs and maintenance, would have overseen general pest control. However, if there was an infestation in a specific apartment, residents would have likely needed to hire their own rat-catchers and exterminators, or would have dispersed lethal poisons themselves. Many New York City newspapers during the nineteenth and early twentieth century describe accidental (and purposeful) human deaths caused by the improper use of these toxins in the home. 

97 Orchard Street hasn’t been an active residence for several decades, but rodent and insect infestations are still a concern for their potential to damage the historic structure and museum collections. 

The Tenement Museum’s Curatorial team works to prevent new infestations in the exhibit apartments while also uncovering evidence of the past lives of pests. Clothes moths and carpet beetles threaten furnishings and textiles made from animal fibers like Victoria Confino’s woolen manta (blanket) or Rosaria Baldizzi’s embroidered dish towels (seen left). Omnivorous American cockroaches thrive in the damp basement and, like silverfish, will chow down on books and papers if given the opportunity.

Museum staff, however, use a completely different strategy to control rodents and insects than the rat–catchers and heavy poisons of the past. Rather than responding to each infestation by calling an exterminator to eliminate pests, the Tenement Museum contracts with a professional pest management company that uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to monitor the building and guide decisions.

Influenced by the environmentalist movement and the ecological consequences of years of wholesale pesticide use, IPM became national pest control policy under Presidents Nixon and Carter in the 1970s. IPM is used in a variety of industries from agriculture to museum management to zoos. It is a decision-making process that focuses on finding solutions to pest infestations by fixing the reasons why pests are there in the first place instead of automatically exterminating them with toxic pesticides. Each museum space at the Tenement Museum has discrete insect sticky traps which are monitored for potential infestations by the Collections Manager and Pest Management Contractor every month. This monthly pest monitoring information is evaluated against environmental monitoring information to guide treatment and prevention decisions. IPM gets to the root source of the infestation by altering the conditions that attract pests to the resource and by changing human behavior. Chemical controls may be used as a last resort, but the museum’s IPM plan guides which pesticides may be used, and tracks every time they are deployed.

Rats and mice still occasionally make 97 Orchard Street their home. However, by using the IPM process to monitor their presence, control access, and inform decision-making, the Tenement Museum prevents damage to its collections and buildings while protecting the health of visitors and staff.

Stay tuned for more interesting discoveries when we begin our next preservation project, stabilization work inside 97 Orchard Street, slated to begin in 2021!

Written by Lana Dubin, Tenement Museum Collections Manager


Further Reading 
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitantsby Robert Sullivan. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2005.