Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Rugs in Tenement Apartments

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Would the residents of 97 Orchard Street have had rugs? How much would a rug have cost, and was it something that the landlord provided?

During the building’s early history, some of the families who lived at 97 Orchard Street appear to have had rugs in their apartments. For new immigrants, rugs were among the range of amenities available for the first time in the American commercial marketplace.

Historian Richard Stott has written, “Most amazing to immigrants was the presence of rugs in workingman’s apartments… Rugs, in act, were more than just furnishings; to many of the city’s workers, they were a symbolic representation, an icon, of the high standard of living.”

Several of 97 Orchard Street’s front room floors feature extant paint around the perimeter of the room. The front room floor of apartment 8 (the Rogarshevsky apartment), for example, shows evidence of paint around the perimeter of the room, and a bare section in the center, as if there had once been carpet.

Interestingly, in apartment 8, the paint also appears inside the parlor closet, indicating that the floor was painted prior its installation, a change that may have occurred circa 1895. In addition, tacks are visible in the surviving wood floors.

It is possible, however, that elsewhere in the building, paint around the front room perimeter and tacks left in the floor may date from a later period in its history, when linoleum became more common. It also appears that many of the floorboards were replaced over time, suggesting that they too may date from a later period in the building’s history.

While there is little evidence to suggest who was responsible for providing rugs, the landlord or the tenant, it seems likely that tenants brought their own floor rugs with them when they moved. Just as each tenant was responsible for bringing and installing their own cast-iron stove, they may have been expected to carry floor coverings from residence to residence.

During the 1870s, carpets and rugs could be purchased nearby at Lord & Taylor department store on the corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets, where “tenement houses could be fitted up in twenty four hours.” Although figures are difficult to obtain for the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, the 1890s Sears & Roebuck Catalogue offered carpets that ranged in price from 35 cents per yard to $1.25 per yard.

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