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Tenement Kitchen: 1905

Tenement Kitchen: 1905

New York circa 1905. "Interior of tenement." All the conveniences, including a somewhat incongruous couch on wheels. 8x10 glass negative. View full size.


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That amazing sofa!

The "kitchen sofa" is an American Empire or Greek Revival recamier, also called a Grecian sofa or "fainting bed." This one was probably made in NY prior to 1855, when Victorian furniture came in vogue. The tight bolster indicates a "high style" piece that would be very valuable today. Tenement dwellers often kept a cradle or small bed in the kitchen for a child's nap time, which would allow Mom to keep working at the same time. This is a pretty fancy "cradle."

The kitchen couch

My parents have a couch in their kitchen too. Used for watching TV, using the internet, talking on the phone, napping, or just socializing in the kitchen area.

But they don't have a radiator, especially not a work of art radiator like that one!

The kitchen as bedroom

I am reminded of my first historic house tour, Naperville's 1883 Martin Mitchell Mansion, when I was in the third grade. All of the beds had the pillows propped up against the headboard, and we were told that people slept with their heads more or less upright, lest lying flat should result in pneumonia or consumption or whatever. The construction of this couch would be consistent with such a belief.

Occupants of the Martin Mitchell Mansion had no need to sleep in the kitchen, but I remember a vacuum cleaner powered by a pair of bellows strapped to the user's feet!

Re: Homeless heads

You may want to check this out, sackerland, someone is already running with your idea.

Re: Hammered

Not only is plaster impossible to get nails to stick in--in some places, they used to mix horsehair in with the plaster, which actually gave it a springy quality. I remember talking to the owners of an old home once and they described the first (and last) time they tried to drive a nail in--it came shooting back out at them.

The "lowly" tenement

As noted elsewhere on Shorpy, the meaning of "tenement" has changed over time. Far from being synonymous with "slum dwelling," it originally connoted a dwelling in any tenanted building, or the building itself. Its root is the Latin word tenere, meaning "to hold."


I feel the need to straighten those pictures on the wall!

Similar kitchens

They certainly do look like the same room, and I was going to suggest that the two photos were taken at different times with different wall decor - but then I noticed the floorboards. Definitely different rooms.

More a napping couch

Most families living in tenements used the kitchen as a bedroom at night.

This family appears to be working-class English. The glass and ceramic knick-knacks seem very urban North of England to me - Leeds, Newcastle, etc.

Lowly can certainly be a relative term

Especially when you consider what tenement housing was like just a few years prior to this, and still was in many parts of New York. The tenement act that sought to create places like this one had only been passed in 1901. Prior to that, this apartment probably would not have had gas fixtures, heat, or windows to capture light to take this photo.

That Sofa

In "Ann of Green Gables" there's casual mention of someone sitting on the kitchen sofa, which gives us a pretty good hint about what wintertime home heating was like in PEI, Canada. Maybe the same thing here?


Does anyone know why pictures were hung like that in the early 20th century? I have seen the exact same hanging mode for pics ranging from middle class folks to European royalty so it was clearly THE way to do it--but why not just hammer a nail in like we do nowadays?

[Ever try hammering a nail into plaster? - Dave]

Kitchen differences

This one has half as many gas lamp jets. The sink is out of view in each photo (assuming there was one actually located in the apartment, rather than down the hall), but it's safe to say that the concept of the work triangle had not occurred to anyone yet.

Elegant is as elegant does

There's no denying the inherent elegance of the family that lived here, regardless of its fiscal condition, and the artistic care someone showed in decorating this kitchen. Note the symmetrical arrangement of the pictures on the wall, the busts on the shelf, etc., and of course the spotless wood floor. Lovely.


Definitely Edward VII (eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert). Quite probably modelled after this one (Nov. 9, 1901)

Unusual radiator

The radiator likely appears unusual because of its context. It is of a design that is typically hung horizontally from a ceiling. This style of rad only requires about five inches total clearance from the wall, which is likely why it was selected for this location. One can tell that it's the original installation because foot valve it too close to the wall for there to be room for a conventional rad.

Homeless heads

This shot reminds me of all the photos I see for sale in antique stores today. Some of the photos are even fairly recent (1960s-'70s). It breaks my heart that so many don't keep their family photos! If I ever become independently wealthy, I'll spend my time "rescuing" these photos & posting them to Shorpy!

Coronation Souvenirs

The white bisque porcelain busts of Alexandra of Denmark and her husband Edward VII were produced circa 1902 by Robinson & Leadbetter of Stoke-on-Trent. Here is an identical pair.

Another view

of a similar kitchen in this post. At first I thought it might be the same room, but the stove-corner artwork is different.

Apt furnishing

The couch is to assist an Edwardian lady experiencing an attack of the kitchen vapours.

The Curious Sofa

That incongruous couch on wheels is a late and decidedly on-the-cheap version of the Victorian lounge sofa, now popularly called a fainting couch. Lounge sofas were a kind of casual daybed, and the cook in this very tidy tenement kitchen might have had it there to rest her back while she was waiting for the dough to rise. The shiny, pleated upholstery on this one looks like the sort of imitation leather typically used on the cheaper versions of these sofas, and the tied fringe is made of the same material, probably a nitrocellulose-coated thin canvas. Many types of 19th Century household furniture were mounted with small cast brass caster wheels. They were hell on floor finishes. Here's a similar lounge sofa that has been reupholstered in a cheery and completely non-historic furnishing fabric.

Changing markets

Pretty spacious and spiffy for a tenement! Bet it now rents for $7k a month to a junior law partner.

On the shelf

Busts of Queen Alexandra and Edward VII? Plus a photo of a magician? Never saw a radiator like that.

Immigrants from the UK?

Busts on the wall shelf are of King Edward VII (reigned 1901 to 1910) and Queen Alexandra.

Godfather Part II

All that's missing here is Vito C, Clemenza, and Tessio...all sitting around the table with a big bowl of pasta and a jug of vino.

The picture on the shelf

The one behind the clock looks like it might be a cased Civil War era half plate Tintype of a mother and her baby.

Royal Busts

I think the busts are of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. Any other ideas?

Nice place!

It was a lot more run down by the time the Kramdens moved in fifty years later.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This could be straight out of the book.

It's funny how nice a "lowly" tenement room can look without modern plastic junk all over the place.

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