Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What the Other Half Paid: Part Two

This is the second 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"

“The Tyranny of Rents”: Housing Prices

In the nineteenth century – as now – New York City was among the most expensive housing markets in the nation, and lodging costs were another perennial cause of distress.

A New York family is evicted c.1910; Image courtesy Library of Congress

“Perhaps there is no more certain index of the prosperity of people of all classes,” a real estate expert wrote in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1873, “than may be found in the amounts paid by them for house-rents.” The recession had affected everyone, even the wealthiest residents. Affluent families who had formerly paid $5,000 a year in rent moved to homes that cost $2,000. A four-story brownstone on Madison Avenue near 25th Street that had rented for $6,500 before the crash was going for half as much in 1875. 

By the start of the twentieth century, a prosperous young couple just starting out in life could expect to spend $27 a month for “good, airy, though small, apartments.” But – a society advice columnist warned – it didn’t pay to go lower than that. “Your American cannot go much under $20 a month,” she explained, without coming down to a type of apartments as odoriferous of soap suds and cabbage as the east side is of onions.”

The poorer residents of the city had long discussed “the tyranny of rents” in a far more dire tone. On average, they paid $10 a week for housing in the early 20th century “The poor may buy less food and suffer more,” explained a City official. “But there is no escape from rent. They must pay the rent or be turned out.”

When rents soared too high, working families organized mass rent strikes: refusing to pay exorbitant rates and demanding reductions and rent controls. In 1907 – at the height of the movement – hundreds of women paid house calls to encourage others to withhold payment; as a result fifty thousand families refused to pay, and thousands won reductions from anxious landlords.

Women discussing a rent strike on New York's East Side c.1910; Image Courtesy Library of Congress

“What is a Fair Living Wage?”: Calculating the Cost of Living

Journalists, social scientists, and philanthropists spent decades examining these conditions and postulating solutions. Attempts to tabulate and quantify the “cost of living” were made in an effort to establish a fair living wage.

In 1881, experts estimated that $1,000 a year – the starting salary for a policeman at the time – could support a family in New York. A decade later, in 1892, the Wall Street Journal tallied typical wages, reporting that bakers earned $12.25 for a six-day week. Blacksmiths, machinists, carpenters, and other tradesmen averaged between $12 and $18. Unskilled laborers brought home a scant $10.50. None of these trades, in other words, was bringing in enough income to approach the $1,000-a-year mark that reformers had recommended.

Although male breadwinners continuously demanded wages high enough to support their families, that ideal was far from reality. Working-class wives had to work. A Bureau of Labor report revealed them “engaged in 842 different callings, including the making of artificial flowers, awnings and tents, bookbinding, cigars, printing offices, etc.” Of course, the wages for laboring women were less than those of their male counterparts. The national average in 1889 was measured at $5.24 a week, but most women earned less. Housemaids were paid about $4 per week; manufacturers of artificial flowers made $3.25; and the starting salary for workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was $1.50.

At work making cigars c.1909; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

In 1902, the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics decided that $520 a year was the lowest income to allow for subsistence, though that was “hardly adequate.” This was too meager, replied a spokesman for organized labor, who suggested that even $600 was “insufficient to maintain a proper standard of living in New York City.” In 1914, the New York Times estimated that “an income of between $1,100 and $1,200 is probably necessary for an average family to maintain unaided a normal standard of living … and proper conditions of family life.” By then, however, the average wage for men had fallen to $10.17 a week.

Despite building codes and pure-food laws, the general plight of the city’s people seemed to be getting steadily bleaker. In 1912,  the head of New York’s largest charity organization remarked, “if the cost of living increases without a corresponding increase in earnings, the term ‘poor’ must embrace a larger group each year.”

The metropolis had made enormous progress in half a century. “The great transit system of the three boroughs has annihilated distance,” a reporter wrote in 1907, “so that houses twelve miles away from City Hall are nearer to it in point of time than were Brooklyn dwellings three miles distant a dozen years ago.” Rising into the ranks of the middle class no longer seemed like an outright impossibility as second- and third-generation immigrants began to move from the Lower East Side to Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. But for the laboring majority, the basic equation of income and expenditures remained depressingly consistent. In 1913 as in 1863, New York City was still a challenging place to feed a family and make a home.

-- Posted by Thai Jones

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! You can really see how the working classes may have butted heads with reformers on the issue of child labor, which seems likely to have been important to sustaining many families. Even if it paid very little or if it was unpaid household work such as women performed, the extra pennies and extra hands of the children to help make ends meet may have seemed far more important than attending school, where surely other costs were incurred. Great piece.


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