A few weekends ago, my dad and I went to Manhattan to visit the Tenement Museum. It was my first whole day away since Edwin was born, and while I was nervous to be away from him for so long, it was completely worth it. I’ve been wanting to visit this museum for a long time, because it’s the perfect way for me to see with my own eyes how the characters in my novel would have lived. My main character, Rachel, comes to the Lower East Side in 1908, and lives in a tenement apartment for the duration of the book. I’ve done a lot of research about life during that time, but nothing compares to seeing the space and experiencing the details of life back then- the amount of space they had, the way they slept, the number of back-breaking steps it took to clean clothes or cook meals. Apart from the valuable research for my novel, I left the museum with a profound sense of gratitude for the comparative cushiness of my 2013 life.
In the typical tenement apartment in 1905, for example:
- Families, generally of 5 or more, lived in three very small rooms: a living area/parlor that might also be used for a work space; a kitchen area; and a bedroom. The bedroom was generally reserved for the adults, so the children slept in the other two rooms, on couches, pallets, mattresses, even the kitchen table.
- Toilets were down the hall and shared with several other families. (Before 1905, the toilets weren’t even inside the building.) Bathing was done weekly in bath houses, with male and female facilities on opposite ends of the street. Children were bathed in the kitchen sink.
- Fuel for cooking and heat was coal, delivered to the basement of each building and divided up in equal shares for each apartment. If a woman needed fuel for the fire, she had to go down several flights of stairs to retrieve the coal with her coal bucket. Imagine doing that with a baby strapped to your chest and toddlers at your heels.
- There were barely a few square feet for children to play inside the house. Outside, there were too many dangers: overcrowded streets, pushcarts, and trampling horses (see picture below). A mother had no way of entertaining her young children- all day, every day- with more than a few pots and pans or a ball of yarn.
- Laundry was back-breaking and tedious. A washboard was used in the kitchen sink to scrub, and laundry dried outside on the clothesline, no matter the weather. Iron and starch were needed for working men’s shirts; the iron needed to be repeatedly heated on the stove, and the pressing could take hours.
- In any given building, there could be people from 8 different countries, speaking 10 different languages. It wouldn’t have been easy to get to know your neighbors, even if you had the time to socialize.
My day-to-day in 1905 would look a whole lot different. There would be no time for writing, that’s for sure; no time for reading, creative thinking, or spending time with friends. It would take literally every single minute of the day simply to feed, clothe and care for my family. I’m sure that kind of life would have made me into a completely different person.
I’m very grateful for the societal and technological advancements that allow my current lifestyle and sense of self.
What advancements are you most grateful for?
This post is part of a mini-series on gratitude. You can find previous posts here: