The United States of the late 19th century was seen by many as the land of opportunity, a place where people of all cultural and religious backgrounds were free and equal to pursue their dreams. But as these photos of immigrant life in late 19th and early 20th century New York testify, there was a big difference between expectations and the tough reality of the immigrant experience.
It is estimated that over 500,000 new people entered New York every year between 1900 and 1914. And given Italy’s severe state of poverty at the time, Italian migrants were particularly common. This photo from 1912, for example, depicts an Italian woman carrying an unwieldy box of dry goods in downtown New York’s Bleecker Street.
The rapid rise of the city’s population meant that many immigrants had to live in cramped apartments that lacked indoor plumbing. This photo, taken sometime between 1902 and 1914, shows a man and two women next to a row of filthy, dilapidated outhouses. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the comfort of modern bathrooms.
Meanwhile, many others were not even fortunate enough to have a place to call their own. As shown in this photo, taken in the late 1800s in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, people sleeping on the street was a common occurrence. And yet, even conditions such as these were seen as preferable to the home country of many.
Indeed, many people were just glad to have a bed for the night. This photograph reveals a street peddler sleeping in a makeshift bed made from a wooden plank supported by two barrels. It was snapped in 1899 in a basement at 11 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side.
Curiously enough, though, it looks like some people were quite content to live on the street. This photo from 1890 captures what appears to be a smiling Chinese street dweller smoking a pipe. The picture was probably taken in New York’s Chinatown, which was established during the 1870s.
Given the tough living conditions, many people couldn’t even afford to feed themselves and their families. Today, bread lines are more commonly associated with the Great Depression. And yet this powerful image from the Bowery, dated 1910, shows that they happened decades earlier.
To make matters worse, many of the poorest denizens of early 20th century New York did not have access to water at home. And so for these people, curbside water pumps were a crucial source of running water. This 1902 photo shows a boy using one such water pump south of downtown Cedar Street.
And yet others had it much worse. This poignant photograph from the early 1900s shows a man with a deformed face and an eyepatch begging on the street. It’s likely that this poor chap was injured in the First World War but never received any financial assistance following his return home.
Meanwhile, newcomers who did manage to secure a job had to deal with low pay and long working hours. Worse yet, they often had to bring their work home with them, as showcased by this photo of a woman carrying a handful of washing. This picture was taken in 1912 near Astor Place.
Those who could not find standard employment often turned to peddling goods on the street. This early 20th century photo reveals one such street peddler selling items on the Lower East Side. We can only hope that he had a horse to carry the cart around rather than moving it himself.
And of course, some people also resorted to crime as their means of livelihood. This striking image from 1890 depicts a group of men in an area called Bandit’s Roost in Little Italy. And if you look closely, you can see that one of the men on the right appears to be holding a double-barrel rifle.
But while life for the average adult immigrant in turn-of-the-century New York seemed harsh, photos of impoverished children are even more revealing. This 1888 photograph, for instance, shows a group of kids gathering in Lower Manhattan’s Mullen’s Alley. And it was in these kinds of run-down places that many children spent their free time.
And given the lack of toys and kid-friendly spaces such as playgrounds and parks that we tend to take for granted, children growing up early 20th century New York were happy with whatever they could get. For example, this photo from the summer of 1912 shows a group of children happily cooling down by licking a giant block of ice.
Meanwhile, this picture does an even better job of capturing the grittiness of an immigrant childhood in 1905 New York. A group of children gather on the curbside while a dead horse lies just a few feet away. And tellingly, the children appear more interested in the photographer than the dead animal.
But if you think that looks somber, consider the fact that many children had to work as well. For example, this photo from 1912 shows a little girl carrying clothing to mend at her family’s apartment. Certainly not the kind of after-school activity you’d see kids at today.
Meanwhile, this candid 1892 photograph shows two young newspaper boys dozing during a break in the newsroom of The Sun. Selling newspapers was a popular way for boys to bring in extra income. But the job wasn’t without its fair share of controversy; newspaper boys were so poorly paid that they often resorted to strike action.
Indeed, the conditions of most child jobs were so bad that children often participated in protests. This powerful photograph portrays two girls carrying American flags and wearing signs in English and Yiddish that appear to read “abolish child slavery.” And according to one estimate, 20 percent of the workforce at this time was aged below 16.
And if you think it doesn’t get worse than child labor, consider that some children also resorted to crime. This photograph from the infamous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood shows two boys enacting how to steal from a sleeping victim.
And children were not exempt from homelessness either. This disturbing photograph from 1890 shows three kids sleeping on the street atop a metal grate. Images such as these were likely the norm rather than the exception, and stand in stark contrast to the 21st century comforts we take for granted.