Thursday, April 16, 2009

Come Away, You Bummers!

The Tenement Museum is currently working on an exhibit to reconstruct 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard.

For the first 42 years of the building’s existence, the rear yard was where residents of 97 Orchard Street‘s twenty apartments used toilets in outhouses and retrieved water from a hydrant. In its purest form, the rear yard served as an extension of the tenement household, providing access to essential water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing; a space to wash laundry; and a facility for the disposal of human waste. Yet, when indoor toilets, or water closets, were added to 97 Orchard in 1905, it did not spell the end of the building’s rear yard.

According to Irving Cohen the wooden outhouse structure or shed may have been present in the rear yard long after 1905. Born in 1913, Cohen, whose grandmother Fanny Rogarshevsky (pictured on the left) served as the building’s janitress from 1918 - 1941, remembers that, when visiting his grandmother as a young child, she would yell at the “bummers” who snuck into the outhouses to sleep to “come away.”

A Place to Socialize

In addition to being the site of the building’s outdoor toilets, 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard played an important role in residents' everyday lives. Before water was brought into the building sometime between 1895 and 1905, female tenents typically washed laundry in wooden tubs outside by the water hydrant in order to save the labor of hauling it up or down dark tenement stairways. Serving simultaneously as a social space, the rear yard was a place where the diverse women of 97 Orchard often met and interacted with each other. Once women had access to water in their apartments, and no longer needed to do laundry in the rear yard, opportunities to socialize decreased.

The rear yard also served as a gathering place for children. With few parks and playgrounds in Lower Manhattan, young tenents frequently found a place to play under clotheslines strung up by their mothers. When nearby Seward Park was completed in 1903, however, many of the neighborhood’s children used its state-of-the art playground facilities for recreation.

The Reconstruction Process

With a wooden privy shed and water hydrant, the recreated rear yard will look as it might have shortly after 97 Orchard was constructed in 1863. We're covering the floor with paving stones, and enclosing the area with a wood-plank fence. Clothes will be hung on lines above the yard, and a wooden wash tub and water buckets will sit on the ground near the hydrant. Visiters will be able to explore the space on their own, after browsing the Schneider’s Saloon exhibit or as part of a tenement tour.

Weaving the stories of 97 Orchard Street’s former residents throughout, the exhibit will cover the history of the building’s rear yard from a number of angles, such as public health, gender roles, the experiences of immigrant children, and notions of privacy. In keeping with the museum's interpretive approach, the exhibit will communicate the process of researching and recreating the rear yard.

Above: Irving Cohen visits 97 Orchard decades after his grandmother served as the building's janitress

1 comment:

  1. Wow, fascinating. I studied tenement living in Glasgow, and there are almost identical narratives about the back court, the outhouse ("the dunny"), and women socializing in the wash houses. Although, there was a large municipal wash house in Glasgow Green that only closed in the mid 20th century, but communal back court washing facilities were common as well.


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