In Praise of Stuff: The Tenement Museum’s Collections

Everyone has stuff.  

Mementos, keepsakes, impulse buys, heirlooms, tools that help you get through the day. Have you ever wondered what this stuff says about you? What of yours might a historian, far into the future, find beneath the floors of your home and interpret about the way you lived your life? Because when pieced together, the stuff we have – whether it’s unique to us or universal to our community, our generation, or our society – are rich details that can provide insight into our lives and who we are. 

Where other museums might have in their collections priceless paintings, significant biological specimens, or paperwork belonging to some very important people, here at the Tenement Museum we have: stuff. Spools of thread. A bottle of shampoo. A deck of playing cards. Scraps of a love letter. The Tenement Museum houses one of the most unique collections in the world. 

We also have stories, detailing the exact brand of starch an Italian mother used during the Great Depression. We have an actual pair of scissors used in a 19th century garment factory. We have family photos instructing us just how to decorate a television in the 1960s.  

Our collections are built through non-traditional means – having been left in the building, physically saved by tenement families, remembered and preserved orally, or purchased in order to recreate an accurate setting. This exhibit will take you through the spaces of three different families in three different time periods: the Levine family in the 1890s, the Baldizzi family in the 1930s, and the Saez Velez family in the 1960s.  

Through each family, you will discover what gets left behind, what gets passed down, what gets remembered, and what gets let go. These objects hold immeasurable significance to us here at the Museum, as they help us to immerse you in the stories of real-life immigrants and migrants who lived on the Lower East Side in the 19th and 20th century. You will find out how the Tenement Museum takes all that stuff and brings these stories to life. 

This digital exhibit is designed to be viewed sequentially, but for those of you who would like to jump around, you can access each section using the exhibit map above.