“Avoid getting wet”: how historic NYC dealt with disease

This post was written by Museum intern Lila Norris.

As the novel Coronavirus continues to spread around the world, daily life in New York City has been completely upended. Businesses, bars, restaurants, schools and museums have been forced to close their doors. Although these feel like entirely unprecedented times, the city has experienced public health crises before. One hundred years ago, conditions were ripe for the spread of infections and immigrant populations often bore the brunt. Substandard housing was the norm in many neighborhoods, packing large families in tiny, dingy apartments. Globalization was increasing and people and goods were traveling more and farther. So was disease. All these factors contribute to New York City’s long and dirty history when it comes to disease and illness, especially on the Lower East Side.

Tenement style architecture proliferated in response to mass immigration to New York City in the late-19th century. During the Potato Famine, 1.5 million Irish immigrants came to America, many of them settling in New York.  As a result of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe, between 1880 and 1924, over 2.5 million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. Italians also hoped for a better life in New York, and between 1880 and 1924 4.6 million came through Ellis Island. The majority of these particular immigrant groups settled in or close to the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated neighborhood in the entire world. These immigrants came to this country in search of a better life, and better opportunities – however, conditions in tenement neighborhoods made life difficult and offered the perfect opportunity for disease to spread.

During this time, “social distancing” (the recommendation from public health officials to have as little close contact with others as possible) was simply not an option. Tenement apartments were cramped and offered very little, if any, natural light or ventilation. Most families of six or more members lived within approximately 600 square feet. Thanks to the 1901 housing reforms, landlords were required to provide a shared toilet in the hallway but before that regulation, toilets were outside in the backyard or elsewhere in the neighborhood in the form of shared bathhouses. Hot running water was a luxury. According to the architect and tenement reformer Ernest Flagg, the “New York system of tenement-houses” was “the worst curse which ever afflicted any great community.” It was well known at the time that these living conditions were horrendous and unhealthy.

A cramped 19th century boarding house.

One of the first major outbreaks to hit New York City was Cholera in the 1800s. Throughout the 1800s, cholera outbreaks sporadically attacked the city and were responsible for the death of over 3,500 New Yorkers. These types of outbreaks were a direct result of the jump in population that the city had been experiencing. They also served as the first test to the newly formed health department, which had been enacted in the late 1700s as a response to Yellow Fever crisis.

While many of us are currently under “self quarantine” it’s interesting to note that Cholera was the disease which prompted the establishment of legislation which gave the government the authority to enforce a quarantine. While city officials have not yet release a plan for strict quarantine orders, they do have the ability to do so and that is due to this early Cholera outbreak. One of the main courses of action against Cholera was to quarantine ships in the harbor, preventing them from coming ashore until they were decidedly healthy.

This is the wedding photo of a Museum staff member’s great-grandmother. She had recently recovered from the flu but had lost her hair during the illness – she wore a wig on her wedding day.

If you’ve been paying attention to the media, you may have noticed many experts comparing the Covid-19 outbreak to the famous “Spanish Influenza” or the flu of 1918. The particularly strong strain of influenza virus that hit the world in 1918 has become known as the “Spanish Flu”  – but that’s a misnomer. The outbreak did not originate in Spain, rather it was one of the only countries accurately reporting on the numbers of ill and dead at the time, making it seem as though Spain was the outbreak’s epicenter. The outbreak killed approximately 55 million people worldwide and is considered to be one of the worst health crises in modern history. New York City was far from spared. At the time, it was not uncommon for there to be a handful of yearly deaths due to the flu – the New York City archive states that about 14 deaths were reported the year before the great pandemic. However, the Flu of 1918 was drastically different. The disease hit the city in two major waves, the first was during the normal “flu season,” winter, when approximately 10,000 people were killed. The second wave, more unusual and more of a threat to the public, came during the summer and killed about 21,000 people. In all, the death toll was slightly above 30,000 in a population of 5.6 million.

The flu spiked a massive modernization of the New York Health Department that was primarily based in education. City officials spent a considerable amount of effort simply teaching New Yorkers to cover their coughs and their sneezes and urging them to stay out of crowds. This sounds pretty familiar, right? However, immigrants on the Lower East Side and other dense neighborhoods would have had a hard time avoiding crowds and close contact with others.  Not unlike today, there were many people not fortunate enough to shelter inside a warm home and wait out the crisis relative safety.

It is interesting to compare the reactions of historic New Yorkers and New Yorkers today. During the first big flu outbreak, the Health Department forced shops to stagger their opening and closing times in order to alleviate heavy crowds traveling on public transport during rush hours. This is similar to policies enacted by many New York offices at the start of the Coronavirus outbreak, encouraging employees to work staggered hours in order to avoid packed subways. Similar restrictions on grocery store hours and capacities have also been enacted across the country.

The Health Board urged New Yorkers to wear masks during the flu outbreak, reasoning, “Better ridiculous than dead.” Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via 6sqft.com.

Home quarantines were a method used by the Health Department in 1918. If a case of influenza was found in a building or home, all residents would be confined to that space. Just another way that our preventative methods have not changed so much in a century! I have to say though, I would rather be quarantined in my apartment with windows and hot water than in a pre-1901 tenement apartment! Let’s give some thanks for modern conveniences.

Hopefully we learn from history. But one thing that’s clear is that it does repeat itself. What feels unprecedented today felt that way 100 years ago, too. Although loss of life is always tragic, New York, the country and the world will emerge from this tragedy. And while there are plenty of people struggling right now to find childcare, to pay bills, or to maintain a semblance of normalcy, we can be thankful for modern conveniences like better regulated living conditions and a robust Health Department. And who knows – perhaps this latest health crisis will birth more innovations that help keep us safer and healthier.

Lila Norris is a sophomore Anthropology major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School. 

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