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302 Mott Street: 1911

302 Mott Street: 1911

December 1911. Family of Mrs. Mette making flowers in a very dirty tenement, 302 Mott Street, top floor. Josephine, 13, helps outside school hours until 9 P.M. sometimes. She is soon to be 14 and expects to go to work in an embroidery factory. Says she worked in that factory all last summer. Nicholas, 6 years old and Johnnie, 8 yrs. The old work some. All together earn only 40 to 50 cents a day. Baby (20 months old) plays with the flowers, and they expect he can help a little before long. The father drives a coach (or hack) irregularly. View full size. Photo and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.


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Mrs. Mette was Maria Auletta/Avoletti Motta, who lived with her husband Joseph and eventually with their nine children born between 1896 and 1920. By the time this photo was taken Maria and Joseph were naturalized American citizens who had spent most of their lives in the US (after being born in Italy). Oldest daughter Lucy is not picture or mentioned in the caption. Baby was Daniel, born in 1910.
Joseph died in 1919 at the age of about 50, while the children eventually married and mostly moved to Long Island.

The family lived at 213 Mott Street in 1905 and 105 Thomson Street in 1915 (no 1910 listing).

I lived there

302 Mott Street, 5th floor. Small apt, typical for NYC. great location. Miss the city.


They may be poor but they do have a gorgeous opalescent vase standing on the shelf in the upper right hand corner.

Dirty? Untidy?

Thanks for the great insight, Joe. It sounds like Mr. Hine had a few quirks of his own. Don't we all?

Dirty Tenements

This is Joe Manning, of the Lewis Hine Project. Hine had a habit of commenting about the cleanliness and neatness of his subject's houses or apartments. I suspect that it might have just been a value judgment based on his own preferences. Perhaps he was very fastidious, maybe picking that up from his mother when he was growing up in Wisconsin. We can't assume that he was just trying to exaggerate for effect. I did research on a woman who was photographed in her house in Leeds, Mass. She was putting bristles on toothbrushes. Hine's caption, in part, says, "putting bristles into tooth brushes in an untidy kitchen." I interviewed the woman's granddaughter, who had never seen the photo. When she saw the caption, she said, "Untidy kitchen? Gramma was spotless. You could eat off her floor."

Point Taken Dave

Good point, Dave. Thanks for clarifying that.

[One of my many pet peeves. I could start a zoo! - Dave]


Something to remember about Hine's photos is that they are not "candid" photos. At this period of time, taking a photo like this required a big heavy camera on a tripod, and a flash powder apparatus. Probably the table had to be moved back toward the wall and sink to "get it all in." Since it is a "staged" photo, I'm sure Hine controlled what was in the photo to get his story across.

[That would be posed, not "staged." Big difference. - Dave]

Re: Not Dirty

Something we mention every now and then: The captions describing these tenement photos were written by photographer Lewis Hine almost 100 years ago. "Dirty" is his description. It helps to remember that he is trying to paint a bleak picture for his audience -- the U.S. Congress -- in his organization's effort to end the practice of child labor.

Not Dirty

Poverty is not the same as being dirty. The linoleum on that floor may be a wreck from being where one enters the house. Perhaps they don't have the money to go out and replace it. The baby's high chair may also be putting black marks on the floor as it gets dragged around. They also might have to haul some coal upstairs for the stove.

These folks lived in a world of maybe 10 people in an apartment the size of the average kids bedroom these days. They are so poor that the entire family including kids is working to keep their heads above water financially. These weren't the days of handi-wipes and swiffers and vacuum cleaners and kids laying around all day playing on their computers and listening to their ipods.

BTW, the kids clothes all look very clean. Any mess on a baby is because it's a baby. There's no washer and dryer sitting nearby to pop the kid's jammies in every time they get a little mess on them.

If you're ever in New York, you can get an eye opening introduction to how how immigrants to America lived down on "the lower east side" by going to this museum. I've been there. Take the tour of a real tenement which was purchased and "saved for historical/educational purposes.

Go read the works of Jacob Riis and look at his photos. It's a testament to the human spirit that these people left their homelands to come to a new country to try to get a better life for themselves and their kids. This is the story behind Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It's the story behind the American dream.

Dismissing things as dirty misses the point.

Thanks for sharing the photo, however. It's appeciated.

[The captions describing these photos are by photographer Lewis Hine, written around 100 years ago. "Dirty" is his description, not ours. - Dave]


If you look at the wall by the mirror you can see the "dirt" on the wall. My guess is that it is from smoke from a cook stove or coal heater. People used to scrub down their walls every spring to remove the grime accumulated from a winter of heating and cooking. I guess the comment of "very dirty" spoke to the grime on the walls as much as anything else.

Actually if you look at the table and other furniture in the room they seem pretty ornate. A family fallen on hard times? Dragging once nice stuff from place to place, each place a little more worse for wear than the last.

Making flowers

I've seen other flower photos here... who do they make the flowers for and what are they used for? Hats maybe? Also, are they real or silk? Must be fake right?

[Probably made for clothing manufacturers in the garment district. I'm not sure how they made artificial flowers back then. Although we do have some photos of real roses being dipped in white wax. - Dave]


You need to click on the full size option.
The floor is dirty, the door has small child "art", the table cloth is dirty and has numerous holes.
I'm sure they are doing their best under who knows what type of circumstances.

Where's the dirt

The notes state, "a very dirty tenement." There are some things like a wash-tub and a scrubbing-board that are in plain view. Maybe those thing cold have been stowed a bit better. But the wall cabinets have lites you can see the shelves inside and the insides seem to be in order. The floor is clean. The women's clothing seems to be quite nice. Those boys look fine with their jackets and even a scarf on one. The only thing that shows something a bit out of order is the dark blotches on the oil cloth. Most likely holes. The house keeping looks great to me.

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