Visiting The Tenement Museum in NYC - Follow Friday

Tenement Museum Visitor Center, 103 Orchard St.
(Digital Images. Photographs Privately Held By Cynthia Shenette; Photographs and Text, Copyright (c) 2013 Cynthia Shenette) As if last year's trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty wasn't enough, this week I got to live another dream by visiting the Tenement Museum in New York City.  I always feel that experiencing things first-hand really makes history come alive.  The Tenement Museum offers a fascinating glimpse through a window back in time.  I'd like to share my visit with you and offer a few practical tips if you decide to go.

Tip 1: Plan Ahead If Visiting With Children

My husband was working in NYC for a few days earlier in the week so my son and I decided to go along for some vacation fun in the city.  Monday we visited the American Museum of Natural History and Tuesday we visited the Central Park Zoo.  Why do I mention this?  While my kid IS interested in immigrant history after a unit on immigration at school, going with Mom to the Tenement Museum on a hot July day was not high his list of "Fun Things To Do" in the Big Apple.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and occasionally I am forced to pull out what I've come to think of as my I-Did-Fun-Stuff-With-You-Now-Just-Make-Mommy-Happy Card. That said, you can make an enjoyable and (relatively) painless trip to the Tenement Museum with your kid or grandkid, but you need to plan right.

Tip 2: Buy Tickets Online, And Follow Tour Age Recommendations

You can buy tickets ahead of time online if you know exactly when and what tour you would like to take. Information can be found on the museum website.  There are several tour options for the building, including Hard Times, Shop Life, Irish Outsiders, and Sweatshop Workers tours.  Pay attention to the age recommendations on the tours if visiting with children. There are also walking tours of the neighborhood, and an opportunity for younger children to meet Victoria Confino, a costumed interpreter playing the part of 14-year-old Greek Sephardic girl who lived in the tenement in 1916.  Given that it was 90 degrees and humid the day we visited we made the obvious choice, the Sweatshop Workers tour.

We did not buy tickets ahead, but I did check online and tickets seemed relatively plentiful on the day we decided to go.  We visited on Wednesday which might be a slightly quieter day given it was in the middle of the week. The museum only allows 15 people on a tour at a time, because of building occupancy regulations, so if you do decide to buy tickets on site be aware that tickets may be sold out by the time you get there.

Tip 3:  Prepare for a Long Cab Ride

The museum is on the Lower East Side, on the corner of Delancey and Orchard.  It is a LONG cab ride in traffic from midtown Manhattan.  Make sure you have a snack and visit the restroom before you leave your hotel. There is a restroom on site and food options close by if you need either before or after your tour.

Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St.
Tip 4: Enjoy the Tour!

The young woman who was our tour guide was clearly interested and enthusiastic about her job.  She began by asking us where we were all from and at the end gave people the opportunity of sharing their personal immigration stories.  During the hour-long tour she mentioned that 7,000 people lived in 97 Orchard St. over the life of the building!

Not surprisingly, the tenement was dark, close quarters and HOT. The walls were thin and you could see through cracks in the floor boards to the apartments downstairs.  Each tenement consisted of three VERY small rooms.  It's hard to imagine a family with six children living in one small apartment.  How pleasant was it for the mother of a family to walk up and down the stairs multiple times a day to fetch water from the communal pump?  I also suspect privacy in the tenements was nonexistent.

Our tour guide asked my son how old he was.  She talked about how boys my son's age and younger worked as runners in the post-Civil War garment industry to deliver piece goods to workers in tenement sweatshops around the neighborhood. She also talked about how people lived and worked in the same small tenement.  In the early days stitchers and basters worked in the front room and the a presser worked in the kitchen near the coal stove.  Hot coals were placed inside a heavy cast iron and the presser ironed garments all day, sharing kitchen space with the homemaker of the house.  The kitchen was oppressively hot as the stove ran all day, summer and winter, because the presser needed hot coals to do his job.

Tip 5: Shop 'Til You Drop!

Unfortunately, we did not have much time to look around the bookshop because we had to meet my husband back at our hotel.  If you do have the time I suspect the shop is someplace you could lose yourself for an hour (or two).  They seem to have an excellent stock of books and items about New York, immigrants, tenements and the various ethnic groups.  The Tenement Museum does have a shop online if you run out of time on the day of your visit or have a whiny, hot kid who needs a cold drink and a snack.

Tip 6: Follow the Museum on Social Media

I follow the Tenement Museum on Twitter and discovered  that they have a blog.  Interesting posts talk about the discovery of objects under the building's floorboards and elevated trains in NYC.

Tip 7: Plan a Return Visit

My husband will probably have to return to the city sometime in the next couple of months, so I'm already planning another visit.  I would love to do one of the neighborhood walking tours, perhaps on a cooler day without the somewhat bored child in tow.  My guess is that spring and fall are probably nice times to visit, and you'll miss out on the actual sweaty part of the sweatshop experience (That's a good thing unless authenticity is seriously important to you.).

A Final Word...

Everyone I encountered at the museum was pleasant, helpful, and enthusiastic, and when we got out of the museum I asked my son what he thought.  He said, "It wasn't too bad.  It was actually kind of interesting. Except it was hot." which I consider high praise from a ten-year-old boy on a 90 degree day after a museum tour. It might not have been on his Top Ten List, but I'm happy we got to experience the Tenement Museum together.

What was the worst part of our day?  Trying to flag a cab to get back to our hotel!


Other Posts You Might Like:

My Trip to Ellis Island - Those Places Thursday
Sightseeing Around Civil War Richmond, Virginia
At Liberty! - Wordless Wednesday
Meditation: The Strength of Ordinary Women


Marian Burk Wood said...

Great advice for touring this fascinating place. I also chose the sweatshop option because my grandparents' generation worked in just this kind of apartment-based "factory" more than 100 years ago. Within walking distance is Russ & Daughters smoked fish, one of my favorite food places in the area.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Interesting about your grandparents, and good to know about Russ & Daughters. I think the museum has a food walking tour of the neighborhood. I'd love to do that on my next visit. I wonder if R & D is one of their stops. :)

Thanks for your comment, Marian!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful suggestions. I have never seen this museum, but this post really makes me want to visit it the next time I'm in NYC.

Cynthia Shenette said...

A Hundred Years Ago - Thanks for your comment! It really is a great museum. I hope you get there.

Greta Koehl said...

Thanks for the heads-up on this museum,Cynthia. I've put it on my "Things to do in NY" list (which I have kept in some form on my computer ever since a family trip there in 2002).