Monday, July 6, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - In Warm Weather and Cold

Curatorial Director Dave answers visitors' questions. To submit your own, send an email to press-inquiry(at)

When was the icebox invented? Would any of the families we describe have had one? If so, which ones?

The icebox was invented sometime during the late 19th century. Photographic and artifact evidence from turn of the century tenement apartments suggest that some immigrant families possessed iceboxes. According to the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue from 1897, iceboxes or ice chests ranged in price from approximately $3.00 to $20.00. On average, such a purchase would have represented a month’s rent for immigrant families. The cheapest ice chest advertised by Sears & Roebuck in 1897 was made of hardwood, lined with heavy metal throughout, and included a wooden slat rack on the bottom for ice and heavy metal shelves.

In their oral testimony about 97 Orchard Street, neither Josephine Baldizzi nor Henry (Rogarshevsky) Rosenthal recalled having an icebox in their apartments. However, the Tenement Museum holds one icebox in its collections that was found in apartment 18 on the fifth floor of 97 Orchard Street. In addition, the collections contain an icebox that was donated, and a pair of ice tongs.

Where did the residents of 97 Orchard Street get the coal needed to heat their stoves? Where was the coal stored?

Coal was purchased from a neighborhood coal yard and delivered to 97 Orchard Street where it was deposited in the cellar of the building. During the late 19th century, the Dougherty Family operated 2 coal yards on the Lower East Side, one at Avenue B and 12th Street and the other between 280 and 282 Madison Street. It is possible that these were still in operation by the second decade of the 20th century.

At 91 Orchard Street, there was a coal vault under the sidewalk that was accessible via a manhole on Orchard Street. The front of the cellar at 97 Orchard Street also juts out underneath the sidewalk, but there is not a brick coal vault similar to the one at 91 Orchard Street. At 97 Orchard Street, there was probably a chute for coal to be delivered into the cellar, which was perhaps placed into wooden bins that look similar to horse stalls.

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