House Hunters: Historical Edition

Originally posted on Gossiping about Dead People. Reposted with permission of the author.

John and Bridget O’Donnell are fresh off the boat at Ellis Island. These newcomers are looking for a cramped tenement apartment in Manhattan’s hip Lower East Side, where their already large family can continue to grow. Their wish list includes: enough space for a separate mattress for their children; a spot for a chair in the kitchen, where Bridget can pursue her part-time contract seamstress job at home; and a local pub, so John can indulge in a pint with his fellow unskilled laborers after a hard day at the factory.

Apartment number one is located in the heart of the Five Points district, or “FiPo.” Its many charms have attracted a number of other Irish transplants already and even caught the eye of an award-winning photographer. Situated off Mulberry Street, this one bedroom, one room total apartment is right in the middle of it all.

The single room features an open-concept layout and absolutely no countertops whatsoever. There are two barred windows, allowing some dim light to reach the interior. Bridget “can’t stand the paint color,” but that is an easy cosmetic fix.

Apartment number two is just around the corner. It offers very similar accommodations at slightly lower rate, but it comes with a different price tag: allegiance to the local Boss, who subsidizes newcomers’ rents in exchange for votes. Also there do not appear to be any windows and ventilation is poorer than usual.

Apartment number three takes the couple out of their comfort zone and desired neighborhood. Situated in a coal camp in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, this company-provided housing actually has more than one room.

The relatively fresh air and wide open spaces of coal country are completely different from what John and Bridget would find on the Lower East Side. There are plenty of fellow Irish to keep them company here, too. Unfortunately moving here would mean a life in the mines for John and presumably all of their sons. “I just can’t be down in the dark all day, every day. The house is tempting, but no.”

And they chose…

Apartment number one.

“In the end, it came down to location, location, location,” the Irishman explained. “We just couldn’t resist its proximity to all the local sweatshops and nightlife.”

His wife added, “It is at the top of our budget, but we still have plenty of square footage left on the floor to take in a boarder or two.”


About the Author:  

Kelly O’Donnell is a PhD Candidate in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. She is a scholar in the history of American medicine and the 20th century, with a special focus on women’s health and health activism. O’Donnell is the founder of the history blog Gossiping About Dead People and is currently working on a historical novel and another book on floatation therapy.

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