Sunday, November 29, 2009

OT: What is a Tenement?

As I've been off on this tangent on"tenement housekeeping," I've just assumed that everyone who might stumble on this little blog o' mine just knows what a tenement is.

But maybe not, eh?

"Dumbbell" tenements proliferated in New York City during the hey-day of massive immigration from the Old Country, and they continued to be the typical working class housing in New York well into the Thirties and later. They often formed the bulk of the slum housing cleared to build the Projects that in many cased turned out to be magnificent failures that had to be blown up later on.

The floor plan above (click to enlarge) shows a typical New York tenement c. 1910. There are four dwelling units on each floor, and there are probably four or five (but sometimes six or seven) floors. There are two three room units and two four room units on each floor. The two three room units consist of a front room, a kitchen in the middle, and a back room or bedroom. The four room units have two so-called bedrooms, the rear one entered through the front one. Sometimes the rear bedroom would have a door on the public hallway so that it could be entered without going through the other bedroom.

Each apartment's main entrance is in the kitchen. The plan above shows each room with a window to the outside. The rooms in the center had windows on the airshaft that ran from the ground to the roof; the rooms at each end had windows on the street or the rear "yard."

Many tenements built before the Old Law required the "dumbbell" plan had no air shafts at all or only the most minimal slots between buildings. Consequently, the center rooms -- ie: the kitchens and back rooms -- had no direct daylight or ventilation of any kind. The kitchen would instead have an interior window opening on the front room, and the back room would be ventilated through the kitchen.

With the coal range going night and day to heat the water, the tenement apartments were, charitably, stifling. Roofs were often used for sleeping in the summertime, for there was no earthly way for residents to do much but sweat inside their tenements on those hot summer nights.

There are two toilets out in the public hall and a sink. Some tenements did not provide sinks in the individual kitchens, and most did not have toilet or bathing facilities in the individual units. Consequently, residents either made do with sponge baths as best they could or they used the public baths which by 1911 when "Housekeeping Notes" was published were fairly common in New York and other large cities. The absence of any plumbing inside a tenement unit was the source of constant discomfort, but even the New Law of 1901 only required one bathroom for each two households. Better, but still...

These units rented for $10 to $15 a month. Seems reasonable, especially given rents in New York these days, but incomes were much lower, too. If a household could earn $100 a month, it was doing very well indeed, but for that to happen everybody in the household had to work, including the children.

Lewis Hine documented some of the consequences for tenement dwellers in the early 1900's:

Children making flowers

Making doll clothes (Campbell Kids)

Working kids

Making Campbell Kids Clothes

Well-off Girl with Campbell Kid doll:

We haven't quite got back to these conditions in the United States... well, except for some of the conditions under which illegales live and work in this country, but most Americans have no idea about that, and they'd be shocked if they knew.

But given the likelihood that our rulers will continue to forcibly impoverish the masses, how long will it be before we see similar conditions accepted as standard once again?

OT: Tenement Housekeeping (cont'd)

What's missing from the Tenement Test Kitchen pictured in the previous post is all the basins and tubs and pans and such necessary just to begin to handle the tasks of the day. You need dishpans (at least two), towel pans (at least two), coal shuttle (maybe one is enough), floor cleaning pans (you need two or three -- no mops, you do it on your hands and knees with scrub brushes and plenty of newspaper), plus, of course, laundry tubs (two or three), and wash boilers. Yes, the laundry has to be boiled. But we'll get to that.

And you need a BIG kettle on the stove all the time to make hot water. Cause you won't get any out of the tap.

To continue with our lesson, the topic is after breakfast clean up (you've already washed your dishes and pots and pans and put them away and you've washed out your dish towels in the towel pans):

So not only do you have a garbage pail (which we'll discuss in detail eventually) somewhere in that tiny kitchen, you have an ash can as well, because the ash collectors are forbidden to take garbage. Sounds wise. But think about it. You're generating both garbage and ashes all the time, quite a lot of one or the other, and you've got to keep them separate; not only that, you have to make sure the ashes are cool enough they don't set the tenement on fire, and that the garbage can is always covered so as not to provide a haven for the ever present bugs. No doubt you have to take both cans out daily.

The next lesson is a cooking lesson. On stale bread and sinks. Oh joy.

There are no instructions on how to cook the griddle cakes. Are we to assume the poor little girls just know? You can imagine what a disaster the initial attempts must have been. All that batter winding up on the freshly blacked stove top. Must have taken hours with a brush and plenty of newspaper to clean up.

But let's hope when the lesson was actually given, complete instructions for cooking your cakes were provided. And nobody was burned too badly, and little batter wound up on the floor, walls, or stuck to the stove top. It's a clever way to use stale bread at any event.

I'm just barely old enough to remember when bread didn't usually come sliced in the package. You had to have the man run it through the slicing machine -- which was a wonderful device of many blades buzzing merrily through the loaf in a second or two. You could never have done it at home with a knife. And you had to use up the bread fairly fast because it would go stale in a day or two. First it would get hard, then it would get moldy. Strangely, most packaged bread seems to last forever these days...

As for daily care of the sink... get ready:

Sounds OK so far, but don't relax yet:

I don't think I've ever seen a "sink shovel." Sounds like a neat, and come to think of it, necessary utensil. Hm. Whatever happened to them?

"A handful of soda..." I'm not sure exactly what that refers to, except that I'm certain it's not the soda you drink. There were many kinds of "soda" back in the day: washing soda, baking soda, sal soda, sodas of various other substances. So which one were you supposed to throw down the sink drain... and what would happen if you threw the wrong one? Whatever it was, it must have been pretty serious soda if it would eat holes in the pipes and/or combine with any grease in the pipes to make soap and thoroughly clog them up. What fun. Then you're really in a pickle, as I suspect the tenement doesn't have a super.

And you use yet more hot water. By now you should have used up several kettles full in preparing your food, general clean up, repeatedly washing your dishes and pots and pans, and washing your towels. So now you've got to clean out your sink and your drains with more hot water. If you've only got one kettle the size of the one in the picture in the last post, it seems to me you're going to have to wait for the water to heat, yes? There would have to be much waiting for water heating throughout your day. Something many of us can relate to. If your water heater goes out or your pipes freeze (I've had both experiences fairly recently), heating water on the stove is what you have to do, and it never seems like there's enough for any given task. It must have seemed like that to our student tenement housekeepers, too, and I wonder how frustrated they must have become...


So it would seem we're referring to washing soda when we talk about throwing soda down the drain to remove grease. Now I wasn't familiar with this substance. But. Leave it to the intertubes to provide an answer:

The chemical formula for washing soda is Na2CO3, and it is also known as sodium carbonate. It is a salt of carbonic acid, a chemical which produces a wide range of salts collectively known as carbonates. One common source of washing soda is the ashes of plants; for this reason, it is sometimes called soda ash. Sodium carbonate can also be created from sodium chloride, also known as table salt.

In laundry, washing soda accomplishes several things. The high alkalinity of washing soda helps it act as a solvent to remove a range of stains, and unlike bleach, washing soda does not usually stain. It is also used in detergent mixtures to treat hard water; the washing soda binds to the minerals which make water hard, allowing detergent to foam properly so that clothing will come out clean, without any residue. Sodium carbonate is also used by some textile artists, since it helps dyes adhere to fabric, resulting in deeper penetration and a longer lasting color.

Around the house, washing soda can be used to descale things like coffee machines and bathroom tiles which may accumulate mineral deposits as a result of exposure to hard water. It can also be used to strip floors of wax so that they can be refinished, and for other touch cleaning jobs like scrubbing the stove. You should wear gloves when cleaning with washing soda, because it can cause skin irritation. Incidentally, the best way to treat some types of chemical burn is with baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, as it is a buffer and it will neutralize both acids and alkalis. To treat a hydrofluoric acid burn, apply baking soda mixed with water to the site of the burn for several minutes, flush the wound with water, and seek medical attention.

Many markets carry washing soda, typically with other laundry products. Some companies make mixed detergents with washing soda which are specifically formulated for hard water, and you can also find washing soda on your own. Since sodium carbonate can be dangerous in large quantities, make sure to keep washing soda out of the reach of children and pets, and clearly label the container to indicate that it is caustic. It can be harmful to the eyes, cause irritation to the lungs if inhaled, and may cause abdominal pain or vomiting if large doses are swallowed.

But you must not confuse it with baking soda:

Which you use to make your cookies and clean your bathtub and "freshen" your refrigerator. Except you probably don't have a bathtub or a refrigerator in your tenement. There's a toilet out in the hall that you share with all the other households on your floor. If you want to take a bath, you go down to the public baths several blocks away.

"Refrigeration" amounted to sticking stuff out the window in winter. In summer, things didn't keep. You had to buy perishables every day and hope that they wouldn't go bad before you could use them.

And wait. This instruction says to put your soda (presumably washing soda) in your hot water kettle and let it boil, then pour it down the drain to make the grease vanish, then pour hot rinse water down the drain so as not to cause soap to form or your pipes to corrode. So you really have to have several hot water containers going all the time. Or you're out of luck. Your pipes are clogged.


Enough for today. We'll continue later on.

Friday, November 27, 2009

OT: More Tenement Housekeeping

I filched the picture above from Shorpy. Anyone who's interested in photos from times gone by should bookmark and spend plenty of time paging through the site's collection of photos from many sources, including his own family. Consider joining and contributing your own pictures of the past. (Note on Shorpy: Shorpy is the name of the site, from the nickname of a boy coal miner from Alabama who is pictured in the right-hand column of the site. The blogger is "Dave".)

At any event, the picture looks like it was taken in a tenement kitchen in New York, c.1910, where Mrs Hyde Kittredge's lessons in tenement housekeeping were held and from which the lessons in "Housekeeping Notes" have been derived.

The coal range on the left looks properly blacked, and no doubt all the dampers and draughts and checks have been adjusted properly. The girl is getting hot water from the kettle kept constantly on the stove. On the right are the covered laundry tubs. There will be lessons about doing the wash in your tenement anon.

The table is covered with newspaper, and we will find Mrs. Hyde Kittredge recommending newspaper for all kinds of uses in the tenement kitchen, from wiping off the stove, to covering the kitchen table when recipes are being prepared, to polishing glassware. Did average tenement households have that much newspaper around?

Staples are kept in glass jars on the shelves above the table. This is one of Mrs. Hyde Kittredge's recommendations. The jars are vermin and dust proof, both inherent problems of tenement living. The girl on the right is getting down the powdered sugar. The girl on the left is getting down the jar of corn starch. Next to the corn starch is a jar of beans. Next to that, a jar of brown sugar. The next jar appears to be unlabeled, but I'm sure the contents are known to the students. Next to that jar is one of oatmeal. That takes forty minutes to cook on your nicely blacked range in a double boiler. The next jar is coffee, but I can't make out the label on the next jar. (Note: I downloaded a fullsize .tif version of the picture from the Library of Congress -- where this collection is housed -- and by zooming in, many of the details of the scene are quite clear.) The jar next to that one has corn meal in it, powdered sugar next to that. Not sure what's in the next jar, but the cans and boxes on the shelf include pure white pepper, White Rose Gelatine, baking powder (can't quite make out the brand, possibly "Star"), and big cans of Breakfast Cocoa.

On the shelf above there appears to be a bottle of cooking wine (!), a can of olive oil, a jar of matches, a can of tomatoes, various cooking pots and casseroles, and a tin box that may have been for crackers.

There's what looks like a portable stove-top oven on the shelf above the range. If the tenement had a gas hotplate, the presence of the portable oven might make more sense, but maybe the students were to be trained on its use, on the assumption that their own tenement homes may have or need one.

Various sized iron pots are hung from a nail beside the stove, and there appear to be either menus or task-assignments tacked to the wall next to the stove. There's a newspaper in a cloth bag hung on the door on the left. There's an aluminum pot hung below the shelf over the table. I'm sure it's a prized possession. It looks like it has never been used. There are various granite ware and chipped enamel pots, including a coffee pot, hung from the shelf along with a number of utensils.

The door on the right has illustrated instructions for housekeeping duties tacked to it. Some of it that I can make out include making a bed, taking care of a sick person, and staining and finishing furniture.

The girls are very neatly dressed and coiffed, though some of their shoes appear worn. They are wearing matching gingham aprons, but the aprons are not tied, so maybe they aren't real students, and they aren't actually making anything. Hm. Could it be a staged photo?

The teacher is surprisingly young, maybe only in her teens, and is very neatly turned out.

This is the setting in which our next lesson, "Washing the Kitchen Table", is offered.

OK. On the door on the right, there's a whole sheaf of what could be typed instructions for this and that housekeeping operation hanging from a pair of hooks. I bet kitchen table cleaning is among them.

You need a pan of hot water, two towels, a scrub brush (probably not the one you use on the floor, but that's not clear), Sapolio and/or Dutch Cleanser (what, no Bon Ami?) and your newspaper now burning in the stove -- we'll assume. The process is not as bad as I thought it would be, and if the student always covers the table with newspaper before she attempts a task, the table should be fairly clean when she starts. Except for the coal dust, of course, which is going to be everywhere.


Then you rest? By no means. Your cereal has been merrily bubbling away in the double boiler on the stove for the last forty minutes.

Think all you have to do is wring out the towels in the sink? No. Think again.

You have a "towel pan?" Didn't know that, did you? And then you need another pan to rinse them in, and by now you really need a much bigger kettle for hot water. Remember, there is no piped hot water in the building. Every drop you use has to be heated on the stove.

You hang your towels up on the rack. Which is where? You'll note the tenement kitchen in the picture is very small, and there doesn't appear to be a towel rack in view. Maybe it's behind the photographer. Maybe you could throw them over the back of a chair next to the stove. And where's that wash boiler?

And you've only just begun.

Mrs. Hyde Kittredge takes pains to urge that these lessons be given in a spirit of constant interest and even fun. Hard to imagine. Especially when this is the easy part...

More to come.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OT: To continue lessons in Tenement Housekeeping

All right, now that our tenement housekeeping student is hot and wet and very cranky, let's move on. Remember in our last lesson, the tenement student was instructed to scrape, pile, and wash the dishes from the breakfast she prepared after blacking the stove and lighting the fire.

Now what the hell is "Sapolio?" It sounds like a horrid disease, something that tenement dwellers would get if they didn't scour their knives. And we will find that kerosene is considered the all-purpose substance to put in practically everything, from laundry to supper dishes. Well, maybe not food, but still, kerosene appears all the time in the tenement housekeeping lecture series.

Having to be told to empty, rinse and dry the dishpans seems a bit redundant, but I suppose if it has never been mentioned or practiced, tenement dwellers would never think of it.

Moving on:

Yikes. Imagine all the tubs, trays, and towels necessary to accomplish these simple morning tasks. And another thing. You may have noticed that the hot water used for all this washing came from the kettle that is on the stove. It is not assumed that the tenement has piped hot water. It must have been a real luxury to have hot water actually come out of a tap. "Cold water flat" and all that. We have one of the old tin hot water kettles that were kept on the stove all the time back in the day. It's huge, probably holds two or three gallons, far more than anyone would need for tea or coffee. And we sometimes use it for humidifying the air when the weather is particularly cold and dry in New Mexico.

And as you're working away, sweat pouring down your face, strands of hair covering your eyes, you have to remember to use a skewer or matchstick to clean out the seams of your pots and pans. What? Have you ever seen a pot or a pan with a seam? Could something be more annoying? Unhealthy? Lethal?

But we have learned many things. To review:

Think about it. The Housekeeper is to make sure that there are "no cooking dishes left on the stove unwashed." The stove in this tenement, we have already established, is always on during the daytime -- that is to say, there is a coal fire burning in the firebox all day long, and well into the night. You can't really turn it off unless the coal burns out completely. So... if you leave anything on the stove, it's going to burn, guaranteed. And that kettle of water will boil dry. And of course the whole tenement is heated to incandescence. So, yes, I think it would be almost automatic to make sure that nothing was on the stove you didn't want to be there, and that you kept an eagle eye on anything that was on the stove. Which is why you will be instructed to cook your cereal in a double boiler. Because you can't really control the temperature of the stove, and if you tried to cook your oatmeal or porridge or mush in a seamed pan placed directly on the stove top, it would certainly stick and burn and make a mess, which would only make you crankier.

Life was not easy in those days, and it's not even nine o'clock in the morning.

So. Let's move on:

Now I'm really pissed off. We just went through this whole deal to black the stove, light and tend the fire, make cocoa for breakfast, clean up, wash everything, and now we have to start all over and make some cereal. You could get down a box of Post Toasties -- which wasn't around, but still -- but this lesson is about cooking cereal. No easy task.

Look at the times required:

An hour and a half for hominy, two hours or more for corn meal. WHAT? OUTRAGEOUS!!!!

Especially after you've gone through all that previously just for some cocoa.

Apparently the extraordinary cooking times have to do with the manner of cooking as much as with the recalcitrance of the cereals themselves:

And think about this. You're in a tenement. You've got a hot stove going, and you're going to cook your breakfast cereal half an hour, forty minutes, up to several hours, which means you've got to start this whole process hours and hours before breakfast is served. What time do you get up to begin? 3am?

And what dishes did you use in preparing to cook the cereal? Do they really need to be scraped, piled, and rinsed?

I don't know about you, but by this point I dread the lesson on washing the kitchen table.

More Sapolio?

To be continued....

Saturday, November 21, 2009

OT: This is Outrageous!!! (and a note on my hiatus)

I came across a book on housekeeping in the Google online library one day. A copy of the title page is appended herewith:

All well and good, except for the notorious "tenement flat" reference that suggests fierce crowding and degradation in New York during the period of heavy immigration from Europe c. 1900. Indeed, this book was copyrighted in 1911.

The implication is of course that tenement dwellers were incapable of keeping house without stern instruction from The Association of Practical Housekeeping Centers. Given some of the conditions of tenement living documented by people like Jacob Riis "keeping house" must have been an oxymoron for the multitudes crammed into the festering tenement slums.

But, that aside, comes now Mabel Hyde Kittredge to put things to right and to teach the poor unfortunates how to furnish a flat appropriately and how to do the work necessary to keep it neat and tidy.

My doG.

Let's skip the furnishing for the moment and get right to the work.

All right, then. I'm not sure anyone in the modern world of America Today has ever considered what an absolute chore it was just to get the stove going in the morning not so very long ago, and what an ongoing chore it was to keep the fires burning, without also burning down the whole block and burning your hands and any trailing bits of fabric that happened to be on your garments, let alone burning the food (and laundry -- we'll get to that) you put on the stove to boot.

We have an older gas stove at Casa Ché that requires a match to light the oven. Much work involved, compared at least to the modern ranges with all their piezo thingsamabobs and computer readouts and so forth. But compare that with the process involved in understanding let alone in firing up a coal range in a tenement in the early 1900's.

OK. Got that? You have your damper, your draft, and your check. You do not have a knob that you turn to set the temperature of the top burner and/or the oven. No sir. You have to get a fire burning in the firebox, then you have to adjust all these various gizmos to get the cooking temperature that you want -- more or less. Furthermore, the entire range is heated to approximately the same temperature. Oh joy. And it stays at that temperature throughout the cooking process. Mm. Must have been warm in the kitchen, eh? But then, in many cases, tenements didn't have "kitchens" per se. They had a center room that had a stove and a sink. Sometimes. The toilet was out in the hall. The tenement "kitchen" also served as a bathroom, laundry room, and -- usually-- an eating room besides. Work room, too, when the household had to bring in piecework to make ends meet. And keep the children busy and productive. But that's another story.

Back to the mysteries of the coal range.

Simple, eh? Didn't thing so. But that's just the operational basics once you've got the thing going. There's plenty to do before you even get to that point. To wit:

Thus the origin of the term "ashcan" which I always thought was synonymous with "trash can". It had never occurred to me that one actually had to sweep and scrape out the ashes in the stove every morning before starting ones day.

Sweep the ashes from every part of the stove. Every morning. Though it isn't let on in this passage (don't want to scare the students), apparently what this means is that you have to open up the whole damn thing, for there are ashes everywhere, not just in the firebox, and you have to sweep like a demon to get them all. But stay! You actually want some ashes on the top of your oven, but you don't want any below, for that would interfere with the circulation of hot air, by which you are meant to cook things. In your oven. Once you get it hot enough.

Of course, as you're busily sweeping out your ashes -- still with crusts in your eyes and scratching at your bedbug bites -- you're getting coal dust and ashes all over everywhere. But you'll clean it up later, so it's ok.

Next you have to build the fire and light it. OK. First paper, newspaper that you've kept for the purpose. Then kindling sticks, arranged just so. Then a thin layer of coal. Check. Well, you know what I mean. You open the drafts and the damper, but you close the check. Then? Light the paper with a match, and tend the fire until the coal is showing some red when you add more coal, but not so much that you pack the coal or make the fire come too close to the top of the range. Skill is required.

Oh but wait! You have to black the stove. Don't light your fire yet. Black your stove top first. Wipe off the dust and ashes with newspaper (ah, that you will crumple and put in the firebox after? Hmm. What a concept!)

Apparently stove blacking was quite an art back in the day. It's another thing I had no idea of. There were various stove blacking products, liquids and powders, mostly black-lead (oh, fine), mixed with other toxic or flammable substances, that you put on the top of the stove to keep it looking nice and prevent it from rusting. But you couldn't use too much or you'd get gucky-stuff all over everything, most especially you yourself, and you'd have to wipe it all off and start over. So. There was a stove blacking process involved.

You cleaned out your ashes from the day before, you wiped everything off with newspaper, you got your stove blacking out and you spread a little of that on the top of the stove, then you polished it furiously, with more newspaper, till none came off on you or your pots and pans, then you put your newspaper in the firebox, then you laid your fire, and then you lit it.

All before you'd properly woken up.

These are the things you have to have on hand:

And don't forget the coal. And the kindling wood. And the newspaper. Matches.

And that's just the beginning. Before anything else. You get your stove cleaned and going.

Then what? Well, you make your morning cocoa of course!

Here's how:

That's just getting ready. Before you begin. One thing to note is that there has to be lots of newspaper in the kitchen. For your fire, to wipe your stove with, and to spread on your kitchen table once you want to make anything. Like cocoa.

Let's continue.

After you've made your cocoa, and drunk it we suppose, you have to do your dishes.

Which in those days was a chore and a half.

By now you're exhausted, bewildered, hot, wet and cross.

But you've only just begun. There are many more lessons to get you through your tenement day. I'm sure that further episodes will appear here. Life wasn't easy, was it?

(Note: I've been away from my own blog for quite a while. This time of year is always difficult for me. Depression stalks me as the days grow shorter, and one of the coping mechanisms I've learned over the years is to change my routine, sometimes radically. Cutting back on blogging is one of changes I've made, and as you can see from the off-topic post here, subject matter may change radically, too. For now, anyway, politics is desultory. I may comment on the happenings of the day from time to time at other places (Digby's and Glenn's, primarily), but here posting will be light, and subject matter may be quite different for a while. Bear with me. Thanks.)