On our last trip to Manhattan, my husband and I made a beeline visit to The Tenement Museum in Manhattan at 97 Orchard Street.

Given all the European immigrant ancestors in my family, I’ve been wanting to go to this museum well before I wrote about it here last spring.

About the Tenement Museum

The museum was established in 1988 with the purchase of 97 Orchard, an 1863 five-story brick building that has housed an estimated 7,000 people over the years, until it was condemned in 1935. At that time, the building’s owners sealed off most of the 20 units rather than make changes to meet new housing codes.

On Tour at the Tenement Museum

The tour we were on featured the Irish immigrant family of Joseph and Bridget (Meehan) Moore, whose lives have been thoroughly researched by museum staff. Their fourth-floor apartment (see image above), with privies and a water spigot at the rear on the ground floor, cost half the income Joseph made working as a waiter.

The bedroom and kitchen were cramped and airless; the stairs and hallway dark and claustrophobic. The parlor, restored to how it might have looked for the wake of one of their infant children, can be seen on Flickr.

One of the things I learned on the tour was the origin of the word “swill,” which was spoiled milk that was adulterated and extended with ammonia and chalk powder. Museum researchers believe it may have been responsible for at least one of the four deaths of the Moore children.

Four girls survived to adulthood. When these descendants were contacted by the museum, none knew their immigrant ancestors had lived at 97 Orchard.

The Moore tour reflects the huge influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century to American cities. The museum has recently received a grant to research and develop a tour documenting the lives of an Asian and a Latino family.

Government Improves the Lives of Immigrants

As we stood in their dark apartment, with dozens of layers of wallpaper peeling from the crumbling walls, I couldn’t help but think about the increasing role government played in improving the lives of immigrants like the Moores. Tenant rights, housing codes, food and water purity codes, public health initiatives, schooling to increase literacy: all were desperately needed by these families.

I also reflected once again on the bravery of my own immigrant ancestors, leaving Prussia, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and Austria, for a new, if incredibly difficult, life in America. All of them headed for Chicago after their arrivals, but I think their lives in that city were very close to what we saw in the Bowery of Manhattan.

If you’re interested in what life was like for your immigrant ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tenement Museum is a great resource. In addition to lesson plans, walking tours, building tours, and presentations, the Tenement Museum also has an archives. You can search the photograph collection here and their primary sources are here. They also have a blog that’s a great read. The bookstore is exceptional and a new visitor center is about to open.

My visit to the Tenement Museum in Manhattan changed how I look at my genealogy research. Make time on your next trip to Manhattan for a tour of The Tenement Museum. Your immigrant ancestors will thank you.

First published 28 Oct 2011.