19th Century

From 1830 to 1890 New York City underwent massive economic and social transformations. These changes created a new industrial working class extremely vulnerable to poverty. They also created a middle class with influential ideas on how to improve the lives of poor families.

  • In 1836, the upper limit of development barely passed 14th Street; by 1862 the city had grown past 42nd Street.
    42nd St
  • Over the 1840s and 1850s, 40% of the immigrants entering New York were Irish, 32% were German, and 16% were English.
  • According to one observer, the number of homeless children in New York City fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 in the 1870s. This meant that as many as 12% of school-age children were homeless.
    Homeless Kids
  • Six times the number of immigrants entered the port of NY in the 20 years between 1840 and 1859 than had entered in the previous 20.
  • In 1857, only 1/4 of the city had access to sewer lines. Most New Yorkers still used outhouses.
  • In the 19th century, pigs roamed New York’s tenement neighborhoods eating garbage.
  • For most of the 19th century, tuberculosis was the single leading cause of death in New York. From 1881 to 1895, an average of more than 5,000 New Yorkers died of the disease every year.

James Hallahan's Story

The boy who entered the offices of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in 1855 looked older than his 16 years. The lacerations and scars on young James Hallahan, acquired during an on-the-job accident, had aged the boy, who had been working since he was 12. Work was crucial for James; wages kept him off the streets and out of children’s institutions. He had come to the CAS seeking more work, requesting to be sent out to the country to live and labor on a farm.

Where were the orphanages?

Orphan asylums and other institutions for children proliferated in the 1800s. Many of these asylums provided refuge for orphans, those who had lost one parent, or children whose families were simply too poor to care for them. Other institutions attempted to reform children who had broken laws or were living on the street. The locations of some of these institutions are shown on this map from 1860. Map courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection. Except where noted images courtesy the New York Public Library.

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