Friday, April 27, 2012

What the Other Half Paid: Part One

This is the first of two posts by author Thai Jones exploring the history of how working New Yorkers have struggled--and fought--to make ends meet. Thai will join us for a Tenement Talk on May 3 to discuss his book "More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy"

In 1907, the New York Times reported that “Much is heard in a general way…of the greatly increased cost of living in New York, especially among workingmen.”

The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were marked by financial panics, business collapses, and widespread unemployment. Earning enough money to pay for food and rent presented a perpetual crisis of survival during this time period. And it was a full time job – usually for every member of an entire extended family – to make ends meet. While journalists and social reformers scrambled to quantify the problem and consider solutions, the everyday people of New York accomplished a great deal on their own behalf. They devised a protest for every grievance: organizing boycotts, pickets, and strikes to secure their demands and ensure that their voices would be heard in all matters affecting the life of the city.

Protesting prices at a butcher shop c.1910; Image courtesy Library of Congress

“How Poor People Live”: One Man’s Testimony

A remarkable interview that appeared in the New York Times in 1872, under the headline, “How Poor People Live,” tallied the wages and expenditures of a printing-press machinist living on the Lower East Side. With an income of $24 a week, this unnamed informant earned more than the general mass of laborers.

Nevertheless, he found his wages wholly consumed by necessary expenses. For $12.50 a month he and his family rented a three-room flat on the second floor of “rather a respectable” tenement house. Apartments on upper stories were two dollars cheaper, but, he explained, “The lodgers higher up are always changing, and inclined to be noisy.”

“It ain’t the rent, $150 a year, that troubles me,” he continued, “it is the price of food.” His appetites were moderate. “I don’t hanker after canvas-back ducks and fruit-cake,” he said, “but I want good meat and bread,” and “an extra kind of a spread on a Sunday.” For this, he spent $45 each month on food. A few more dollars went for ale and pipe tobacco, and then there were “clothes, and shoes, and coals, and doctor’s bills, and the cost of a newspaper, and some other luxuries.” At the final reckoning he had precious little left over. “Yes, it is hard,” he concluded, “that, working day in and day out all the year round, and living carefully, I can’t put up anything for a rainy day.”

Hager's Grocery in New York City, c.1865-1885; Image courtesy NY Public Library

“But We Must Have Meat Every Day”: The Food Market

The year 1863 – which witnessed the Civil War Draft Riots, as well as the construction of the tenement house at 97 Orchard Street – was as bad as any the city has known. Wartime conditions had led to an “enormous addition to the cost of living.” Eggs sold for as much as 40 cents a dozen, flour – and even cornmeal – became luxury goods, and meat was but a memory. “When the struggle between North and South was in full swing,” a survivor recalled, “there were several hundred thousand housewives here in New York who sat up nights wondering how they were ever going to feed their children.”

Although the year 1881 is not recalled as a time of recession, in the moment it seemed catastrophic. “Poor folks can have no luxuries this year!” a mechanic complained, as he paid $10 for a barrel of flour that had cost only eight the previous autumn. “We can get along very well without other things,” a housewife declared, “but we must have meat every day.” Sirloin steak was selling for 20 cents a pound and veal had risen to the outrageous figure of 35 cents. Prices for cheese, butter, potatoes, apples, and turnips were all grossly inflated.

A butcher and his customer c.1871; Image courtesy NY Public Library

By the early twentieth century, these costs had not changed drastically – and neither had the anxiety they caused to consumers. From 1893 to 1906, food prices had increased seven percent, so that a family with an income of $835 per year was dedicating $362 to groceries.

This modest increase had serious consequences, and the people took action. Lower East Side women formed boycott committees and accosted offending butchers. “Armed with sticks, vocabularies, and well sharpened nails,” a reporter for the Tribune noted, they “made life miserable” for those who refused to lower prices. This activism often spread beyond a single class. In 1911, the Housewives’ League – a group of middle-class homemakers – started making tours of the city’s markets in order to scrutinize sanitary conditions and enforce price limits. Violators would be boycotted. “We want every woman,” a spokesperson explained, “to be her own inspector.”

-- Posted by Thai Jones

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