Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Italian Immigrant Experience (6)

Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually." The tenement houses in the lower part of Manhattan and other areas were overcrowded, lacking drainage and sufficient ventilation.

As you entered the overcrowded tenement buildings, you were greeted with a nauseating stench emanating from unwashed bodies, rags, old bottles, stale cooking odors and accumulating garbage heaps in the rooms. Decaying grease adhering to waste-pipes from kitchen sinks added its putrid odor to the foul emanations. These tenement buildings were dangerous firetraps, as well as a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street and carted upstairs.The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring their food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch.

Many immigrants themselves would convert their apartments into sweatshops, where amid the unsanitary conditions they would manufacture garments, flowers and cigars. "At home, the Italian women tended to age prematurely and many were victims of tuberculosis or pneumonia. They overworked themselves to support their large broods, took in garment jobs and rarely saw the sun as they had done in Italy. (4) Everyone had to do their share, even the children, who worked long hours. Sometimes these children were forced by their parents to earn their own livelihood. How many great men amassed great wealth from the blood, sweat and tears of these poor immigrants?

For a more descriptive view of the hardships and living conditions that these poor immigrants had to live through in order to survive, please visit the Photo Gallery of Early New York City Tenement Life in the NYC Main Directory at

To be continued: The Italian Immigrant Experience (7)

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