Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Keeping Things Clean

We saw last week that it was difficult to keep the streets and stoops in tenement neighborhoods clean due to the near-constant pile-up of trash, manure, ashes, and other kinds of waste. What about inside the home? Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

How did the residents of 97 Orchard Street wash their dishes before running water was available in the building?
Although substantial evidence is lacking, several sources help paint a picture of how this necessary household task was carried out. For example, in 1894, a New York Times article describing the “Evils of Tenement Houses” took care to mention that the author found relative cleanliness in one Lower East Side tenement. The author noted, “Most of the women were neat in attire and person, and a pretty, rosy-cheeked girl of sixteen who was washing dishes in the yard [emphasis added], had her charms enhanced by a dainty waste and gown…” One might suspect other things besides washing had taken his attention.

In addition, according to historian Suellen Hoy, “most immigrant women found housework in America more difficult ‘with the cleaning of woodwork, washing windows, care of curtains, carpets, and dishes, and more elaborate cooking.’”

Source: Hoy, Suellen, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Where did the water at 97 Orchard Street come from? Where did the sewage go?
In 1864, as the first residents of 97 Orchard Street moved in, the water retrieved from the backyard spigot and used to flush the school sinks under the privy was delivered from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester County via the Croton Aqueduct.

Beginning in 1842, the Croton Aqueduct served as the main source of water for residents of Manhattan. By the time the Aqueduct was completed, however, the city had already outgrown it. Not only had the city’s population grown exponentially, by 1898 New York had annexed all of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. As a result, construction of the Catskill Watershed in upstate New York began in 1907 and, by 1917, was delivering water to all five boroughs.

The same water carried into Manhattan first by the Croton Aqueduct and later from the Catskill watershed also flushed the city’s wastes from sewer-connected outhouses and indoor toilets through underground pipes. Partly in response to a devastating cholera epidemic, the Croton Aqueduct Department was charged with building a comprehensive sewer system.

While over seventy miles of sewers were constructed between 1850 and 1855, one was not laid on the Orchard Street block between Broome and Delancey Streets until 1863.

Laundry day, once running water was available inside.

- Posted by Kate Stober

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