Tenement Buildings in the Gilded Age

The wave of immigration that the United States experienced after the end of the Civil War brought with it issues surrounding physical space. Due to the sheer amount of individuals who were coming into the country, cities found themselves scrambling to house the multitudes of families, as the majority of them were not moving to the rural areas of the U.S. just yet. The solution came in the form of tenement buildings, which were cheap, high-rise apartment buildings that could house handfuls of families virtually one on top of the other.

Construction within the tenement buildings was typically quick, and therefore poorly done. The buildings themselves were single-dwelling homes, usually five to seven stories high, which were divided into multiple living spaces. Families who lived in the tenement buildings were crammed into 300- to 400-square foot rooms that featured a bedroom, a kitchen, and a front room for everyone to share.

On top of the tenement spaces being poorly built, they were also not well lit nor ventilated, meaning fresh air could not easily circulate in the rooms, and there was no plumbing. Because of the overcrowding of these buildings, as well as the poor quality of materials used to construct them, diseases ran rampant as well as disasters such as building fires. The sickness and destruction would later lead people to speak out against the shabby construction methods of these cities.

Tenement buildings could be found in the larger cities and more urban areas, such as Chicago and New York City. In fact, by 1900, about two-thirds of New York City’s population lived in tenements. The people inhabiting these buildings were certainly not the rich and the powerful; rather, the families who were crammed into the tenement houses and apartments were mostly European immigrants and poor laborers who could not afford to move to a better area of the city in which they were living.

New York was one of the first cities states to introduce legislation that would improve living conditions for the immigrants and the poor families. In 1898, the Tenement House Committee was created to research and educate the public on the dangers that were present in the way tenement houses were built. Thanks to their efforts, the Tenement House Act of 1901 was passed, which required that all buildings feature an out-facing window to ensure proper ventilation; indoor plumbing to rid of the potential for sickness and diseases; and plans to protect tenement dwellers in the event of a fire.