The Tenement Museum: A Bounty Of Stories

Daily Bread is my middle-grade historical novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1911. The story follows eight-year-old Lily, an American-born child of Sicilian immigrants, who loves to sing out her artist heart and prove she is not a little kid. She learns that it is not easy to be a big kid in the crowded tenement neighborhood, skirting old-world traditions, tackling bigotry, disasters, and screwy bakers, and learning to cross the street by herself.

Daily Bread was inspired by one of my grandmother’s stories. As I bring Daily Bread to publication, I will share the story’s character and plot developments, the fun research adventures, and my writing process. Get comfortable and join me on the journey. You may need to get something to eat. Share your impressions and your stories. 

The Tenement Museum: A Bounty Of Stories

photo by Wikipedia

The Tenement Museum is a living time capsule chronicling the values and roles of immigration in the American story. The backs and passions of many peoples from the entire world built our country. No other nation can claim such a rich, diverse heritage. 

I am lucky to live not too far from the Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street, New York City. It is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island, where the beginning chapters of so many American stories originated. I had visited this gem several times for pleasure and while researching for my book, Daily Bread. The books and short shows on display and for sale offered the visualizations I needed to write Daily Bread. Murals of street scenes, people working, and children’s living and play conditions line the walls. But the best part of the museum is the tours. 

The owners of 97 Orchard Street boarded up the building since it was less costly than investing in mandated upgrades. The building stood lifeless for over fifty years until historian Ruth Abram and social activist Anita Jacobsen discovered it. They founded the Tenement Museum in 1988 to preserve the American stories of immigrants, migrants, and refugees in the ongoing creation of our nation.

 Daily Bread takes place in 1911, a time of explosive population growth, education reform, and worker unrest. I needed to experience a sense of place for my protagonist. The Tenement Museum tours offer a glimpse of life that was not so long ago. It was the next best thing to time travel.

One of the best tours I took was The Sweatshop Workers. I went with my mom, sisters, and cousins. The guide took us to 97 Orchard Street and first explained the installed safety accommodations for the tours. Once I looked beyond electric lights, sprinklers on the ceilings, and stair treads, the reality that this place was home to multitudes of hopeful pioneers came into view. 

Each of the five floors housed four three-room apartments. The residents on each floor shared one toilet closet. And that was a modern convenience! Before in-house plumbing, the outhouses and a water pump were in the ground floor courtyard. Sanitation was a full-time job. The apartments were tight, with the only natural light coming from one set of windows in the living room. A TB (tuberculous) window between the living room and kitchen improved the lighting and purported to help circulate the air. Artifacts—a tea kettle, sewing machine, boxing gloves, report cards, told the stories of perseverance, tragedy, and hope. Fascinating! 

During the tour, Mom’s recollections of her mother’s and aunt’s childhood memories emerged. My grandmother, the eldest of the five sisters, immigrated with her mother from Sicily. As the family grew, they lived in Mott Street and Mulberry Street flats for almost 18 years. The sisters slept in the living room on a bedroll that was kept behind the couch during the day. The parents slept in a small bedroom, and a cot for a sick child remained tucked beside the coal stove. Water constantly boiled on the stovetop for washing, cleaning, and cooking purposes. 

Many of the 325-square-foot apartments crowded with large families, newly arrived family members searching for their American dream, and borders sleeping on crates and in shifts. Home sweatshops with sewers, pressers, and fasteners buzzed all day until there was no light. Young schleppers ran piecework and dresses to and from the garment factories.

My grandmother’s tenement home was not a sweatshop, but they took in piecework. Grandma called it homework.  Finishing for collars and cuffs filled baskets and kept money, as little as it was, flowing for the family. 

I marveled at how sound vibrated through the apartments and hallways. The streets, voices, and footsteps must have been deafening. Smells—food, body, vermin, must have wafted through the walls and halls constantly. I imagined children racing down the staircase and out into the streets. It must have been a dangerous place to play, considering the traffic and congestion of the street vendors, horse-drawn carts, and motor cars rumbling down the street. Mom said her mother and aunts were not allowed out of each other’s sight. They could play on the stoop in view of the upstairs front window. 

The Tenement Museum Sweatshop Workers tour provided the scenes, information, and sensory experiences to extrapolate my characters’ home life, giving Daily Bread depth and credibility. It was better than any book or internet search could provide. The rooms and artifacts also jarred my mom’s memory of her mother’s and aunt’s snippets of their childhood.

I was also fortunate to meet the director of education services, Julia Mushalko, who helped guide me to information about school conditions and requirements, the politics of law enforcement, unionization, and the rise of women’s suffrage. I had planned on joining other tours, but since the pandemic closed the city, I have discovered the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be An American and other resources that filled in the details for Daily Bread.

Throughout my research, I am struck by how so many of the stories and background histories reweave into today’s complicated American landscape. Hope for the future is rooted by learning, retelling, and appreciating the struggles and courage of our past. The Tenement Museum embodies this motto. Stay tuned for more adventures.

Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.

5 Comments on “The Tenement Museum: A Bounty Of Stories

  1. I look forward to reading your upcoming book. Your description of the streets of NYC at the time reminds me of a large photo my grandmother had in her living room of one of her sons on a three-wheel bike. He was about four. He had been run over while playing in the streets. She lost a second son to rheumatic fever. It was not an easy life.

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    • Yes, life was a tightrope walk back then. Knowing the stories provides some explaination of relatives I knew when they were old.

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  2. Hi, Antoinette – The Tenament Museum sounds fascinating. I have added it to my list of places that I would like to visit. I agree that hope for our future IS deeply rooted by appreciating the struggles and courage of our past.
    I look forward to reading Daily Bread!

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    • Thank you, Donna. The museum is fascinating. When you come to NY, give a shout out.

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  3. Antoinette, Our ancestors and immigration plays a huge role in everyone’s lives. I live where I do today because of all of this history. A huge wow on all of your memories and research. I look forward to reading more.

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