The Tenement Museum on the lower east side in New York City is a wonderful place to help you learn about where your family came from. Since this is a topic we discuss so often on The Italian American Podcast, I felt obligated to write about it after a recent visit to the museum for the first time.
The Tenement Museum, according to its mission statement, “preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood; forges emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.”
The Tenement Museum accomplishes this goal by taking visitors on a tour of models of these old tenement homes, which have been re-created inside of the actual tenement buildings on Orchard Street. The exhibits tell the story of one of the families that lived in the apartment, including all of the challenges the family faced, such as living amongst rats and trudging down flights of stairs every time someone needed some water, since there was no running water in the apartments at the turn of the century and in the early 20th Century.
I visited the museum as a chaperone for my 9-year-old daughter’s class field trip. We took the “sweatshop tour.” A sweatshop in those times (around 1900 or earlier) was defined as a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers were employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. Often time these workshops were in one of these three-room tenement apartments, which caused all kinds of issues since there would be several young kids living among the business. The workers would often work 10 to 12 hours per day in these cramped conditions for very little pay.
The Tenement Museum teaches our children about how our ancestors lived
“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
In addition to actually spending some time in models of the apartments, the tour guide also took the kids into an activity room, explained to them in detail how a sweatshop worked, and then had the kids do an activity where they had to work together to produce a number of paper flower bouquets with some incentive to work as a team. This gave them even more insight as to how these young women in the sweatshops worked.
I believe that every parent should take their children to the Tenement Museum once they feel they are old enough. Not only will the parents get a lot out of the tour, but the children will get an idea of what their ancestors went through, and this, to me, is invaluable.
The Tenement museum is located at 103 Orchard Street in New York City. You can visit its website for information on tours and its photo gallery for amazing photos it has collected from immigrants over the years.
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