Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Sanitary Improvement in New York During the Last Quarter of a Century

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 July 1891 (1891)
Sanitary Improvement in New York During the Last Quarter of a Century by Emmons Clark
1196574Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 July 1891 — Sanitary Improvement in New York During the Last Quarter of a Century1891Emmons Clark



DURING the quarter of a century (1836-1860) preceding the war for the Union, a great change occurred in the character and social condition of the population of the large cities upon the Atlantic seaboard, and especially in the city of New York. The famine in Ireland, and the extreme poverty of the people of that unfortunate country; the unsuccessful revolutions in various parts of the Continent; and the popular belief that Fortune beckoned the poor and oppressed of foreign lands to comfortable homes and to personal, political, and religious freedom beyond the Atlantic, were chief among the causes of the immense emigration at that period to the United States. Immigrants of some pecuniary means and from agricultural districts generally located upon the fertile plains of the Western States, and contributed by their industry and frugality to the rapid growth of new commonwealths. But a very large number, from choice or necessity, and especially the indigent, found homes in the large cities on the sea-coast, and New York received and retained more than its share of the immigrants who were least desirable as a permanent addition to its population. Previous to this tidal wave of immigration, the city was peopled mainly by the descendants of its staid Dutch founders, their thrifty English successors, and the active and enterprising sons of New England. Their dwellings were generally small and inexpensive, and were owned or occupied by single families of moderate income, and the habitations of the more wealthy were quite unpretentious. With the advent of Irish and German immigrants, houses constructed for the comfortable accommodation of single families were transformed to shelter many; their cleanliness and healthfulness disappeared with the numerical increase and change in the character of the occupants; and new, large, and badly lighted and ventilated buildings were erected as domiciles for immigrants from foreign lands and the native poor. It was at this period and under these circumstances that the tenement-house system of New York was inaugurated, since famous for its extent, and for a long time infamous for its character and influence.

Native-born citizens viewed with considerable apprehension and dissatisfaction this great influx of foreigners, with their diverse languages, customs, and religions; to avoid unpleasant associations they reluctantly surrendered their dwellings and found new homes in the more northerly part of the island, or beyond the East River, in Brooklyn; and this migration continued until large sections of the city were almost entirely occupied by tenement-houses. In all such districts the sanitary condition, which had been fairly good, rapidly deteriorated; the municipal government made no effort to enforce regulations necessary to insure cleanliness and to promote the health and comfort of the poor and helpless; and thus between the years 1830 and 1860 a considerable part of the city year by year drifted into a condition deplorable to the philanthropist and disgraceful to the corporation. The wiser statesmen of that period urged that universal education would be more effective than proscription in removing the acknowledged evils from this immense immigration, and that proper laws and regulations to promote thrift, morality, cleanliness, and health were the true panacea. Free schools for all the people, after a long struggle, were authorized and required by statute. Although the necessity of sanitary reform and improvement was evident, it was not until 1864 that an organized and intelligent movement was made to remove the evils which had gradually accumulated and which seriously threatened the health and permanent prosperity of the metropolis. The great draft riot of 1863, when the city was for several days controlled by the ignorant and dangerous classes, a large amount of property destroyed, many lives lost, business suspended, and the streets unsafe for traffic or passage, was largely instrumental in awakening the New York public to the absolute necessity of reform and improvement in the social condition of a considerable portion of its population.

On the 29th day of February, 1864, at a meeting of the Citizens' Association, at that time an organization of great activity and influence, and composed of the most prominent intelligent and public-spirited citizens of New York, a committee of inquiry was appointed to obtain full and reliable information relative to the sanitary condition of all parts of the city. Upon the report of this committee a Council of Hygiene and Public Health was organized, and under its direction a thorough sanitary survey of the city was made during the year. The city was divided into twenty-nine sanitary districts, and to each district was assigned a competent physician as sanitary inspector, to make a house-to-house visitation, and to report upon every possible source of preventable disease and every nuisance dangerous to life or detrimental to health. The tenement-houses of the city were a special subject of inspection, the inquiry extending to their cleanliness, ventilation, drainage, and water-supply, the disposal of refuse, location and care of water-closets, number of families and amount of air space, cellar population, and the sickness and mortality. The work was faithfully and intelligently accomplished, and in 1865 the reports of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health and of the sanitary inspectors of districts were published in a large volume. These reports were so startling in their disclosures, and the advent of Asiatic cholera was at that time so imminent, that public attention was directed to the subject, and it was not difficult to secure the enactment by the New York Legislature of 1866 of "an act to create a Metropolitan Sanitary District and Board of Health therein, for the preservation of health and life, and to prevent the spread of disease." This act clearly defined the duties of the Board of Health, and conferred upon it discretionary powers, judicial and legislative, never before intrusted to any executive body in this country. Under this law the Board of Health was organized in New York March 5, 1866, and on the 20th day of April it enacted the necessary sanitary rules and regulations for the government of the city, since known as the Sanitary Code.

To demonstrate the sanitary improvement in New York during the quarter of a century that has elapsed since the organization of the Board of Health in 1866, it is necessary to briefly describe the sanitary condition of the city as it appeared to the Council of Hygiene and its sanitary inspectors in 1861. They reported that the death-rate was largely excessive by reason of the great mortality from contagious and preventable diseases; that the tenement-houses of the city, especially those occupied by many families, were overcrowded, unclean, badly lighted and ventilated, imperfectly drained, supplied with large open privies, which were extremely filthy and offensive, causing discomfort and disease among the tenants, and that the manifold evils of the tenement-house system were intensified in many cases by rear houses in close proximity to those fronting on the street; that many dark, damp, and unwholesome cellars were used as human habitations and crowded with tenants and lodgers; that most of the public streets were paved with cobble-stone, out of repair and very imperfectly cleaned, and were a place of deposit for ashes and garbage; that a large part of the business of slaughtering animals was conducted in the tenement-house districts in dilapidated buildings and sheds, which were filthy and in some cases not sewered, the appliances used being inadequate and primitive, and the methods, especially from their publicity, indecent and demoralizing; that cattle were driven through the public streets in populous quarters with great danger to life; that the plumbing and drainage of dwellings, private as well as tenement houses, were extremely defective, allowing sewer-gas to freely escape into the apartments; that offensive odors from gas, fat-melting, and other manufacturing establishments were not uncommon; that stables were generally without proper drainage and very offensive; and that stable manure was allowed to accumulate, was removed irregularly and in an offensive manner, and was stored for sale in the vicinity of dwellings; and that the removal and disposal of offal, dead animals, and night-soil were conducted in a primitive manner disgraceful to a civilized city. It was also reported that there was no proper supervision and care by public authority of contagious diseases or to prevent their spread; that there was no public inspection of the food-supply of the city, and especially of milk, meat, and fish; that there were no regulations or inspections for the purpose of insuring to new buildings proper light, ventilation, and drainage, or to secure the correction of defects and the proper cleanliness of buildings already occupied as human habitations; in short, that the public health received no intelligent consideration from the municipal government, and that the demoralization incident to filthy streets and dwellings and to other unsanitary conditions threatened the material prosperity and the moral and social welfare of the city. Such was the situation in general, as graphically described by the Council of Hygiene, when the Metropolitan Board of Health commenced in March, 1866, the great work of sanitary reform and improvement. Sanitary reform is of slow growth; for every improvement is an attack more or less important upon the prejudices or the property of a considerable number of citizens and tax-payers, and is, therefore, vigorously resisted. The action of the sanitary authorities of New York has been conservative and conciliatory, but firmly and steadily progressive. By persuasion and explanation important sanitary changes and improvements have been inaugurated, and, when approved by the common sense of the more intelligent and public-spirited, have been completed by legal compulsion; sanitary rules and regulations have been constantly enforced by an expert and vigilant corps of educated inspectors; and thus by a faithful and persistent public service, and without excitement or startling innovations, New York has been gradually relieved of the nuisances which afflicted its people and threatened its prosperity a quarter of a century since. For several years the Croton water supply, so important and essential to the health and welfare of the people, failed to meet the wants and necessities of the rapidly increasing population, hut in 1890 the new aqueduct brought relief; and the only important particular in which no sanitary improvement has been visible is in the cleanliness of the streets and in the removal of the ashes and garbage of the city. It is not creditable to the municipal government that so simple a business problem has not long since been satisfactorily solved.

1. The Death-rate.—The death-rate of a city for a series of years fairly represents its healthfulness and general sanitary condition. During the ten years, 1851-1860, the average death-rate in New York was 33·66 per 1,000 of its population, or, omitting the year 1854, when Asiatic cholera increased the mortality to 44·36, the death-rate for the period was 32·46. For the five years previous to 1866, in which year practical efforts commenced under ample provisions of law for the sanitary improvement of the city, the average death-rate was 31·33. During the quarter of a century ending in 1890 the death-rate steadily decreased, with the variations from year to year due to climatic and other recognized causes, from 31·33 in 1861-1865 to 25·54 in 1886-1890, the rate in 1890 being 24·58 per 1,000 of the population. This decrease in the death-rate in twenty-five years of 5·79 per 1,000 represents a saving of about 3,300 lives in each year, the average population for the whole period being estimated at 1,153,646, and of over 80,000 lives during the quarter of a century. As the number of cases of sickness is estimated to be twenty-eight to each death, it is obvious that a large amount of suffering has been prevented by improved sanitary conditions, and that the pecuniary benefit to the laboring class and to the poor, consequent upon exemption from expenses attending sickness and death and from incapacity for employment incident to disease, is of great value and importance.

Although a steady decrease is shown in the rate of mortality in New York, it is, from a variety of circumstances, considerably higher than in some of the large cities of this and other countries, and the difference is likely to continue for a considerable period. In no other city is the population so dense and crowded; suburban homes for laboring people so difficult and expensive to reach; small dwellings for people of moderate means so unattainable; and large tenement-houses sheltering many families so necessary and indispensable. No other city receives into its charitable institutions so many weak, sickly, and indigent persons from foreign countries. Its extensive public institutions of charity and correction, all situated within the city limits, are largely recruited from adjacent villages and cities, and its numerous private hospitals receive persons from all parts of the country for surgical and medical treatment. These and other circumstances contribute materially to the mortality of New York, and, while they continue to exist, its death-rate can not be expected to compare favorably with that of cities more exclusive in respect to the inmates of their public institutions, with comparatively no immigration from other countries, and with the superior sanitary conditions incident to a scattered population and to small and healthy abodes for single families.

2. Tenement-houses.—Under an act of the Legislature of 1867 "for the regulation of tenement and lodging houses in the cities of New York and Brooklyn," the improvement of this class of houses commenced, and it has been continued under subsequent enactments with the following results. To improve the light and ventilation of tenement-houses, windows to the halls have been introduced in dark rooms, transom windows over the doors, and ventilators in the roofs over hallways. Privy-vaults and cesspools have been banished, and school-sinks and hopper-closets in the yards, or water-closets and kitchen sinks within the dwellings substituted, all connected with the street sewers. Defects in plumbing and drainage have been removed, iron soil-pipes substituted for imperfect earthenware drains where necessary, and new and improved appliances introduced when practicable. By frequent and thorough inspections by sanitary officers, overcrowding is prevented, cleanliness is encouraged among the tenants, and the necessary repairs and whitewashing secured from owners or agents. In addition to the inspections made upon complaints, and in the course of routine sanitary work, a wise and salutary provision of law now requires that all tenement-houses should be inspected twice yearly. The education of the inmates of tenement houses in habits of cleanliness and as to the importance of minor sanitary rules and regulations, a legitimate result of these frequent inspections and of the visits of a large corps of medical inspectors during the summer months, has been invaluable to the public health. But so long as New York remains the objective point of emigration, and until temperance, frugality, and morality are universal, the ignorant, indigent, intemperate, and irreclaimably vicious part of the population must be an extensive field for the philanthropist and the sanitarian.

The improvement in the plans for light and ventilation, plumbing and drainage of tenement-houses recently erected is the great sanitary achievement of the last quarter of a century. For a long period the standard tenement-house erected in New York was an oblong brick box upon the ordinary city lot, twenty-five by one hundred feet, covering nearly the entire space, four or five stories high, imperfectly lighted and only from front and rear, halls and sleeping-rooms narrow, dark, and unventilated, with no bath, washing, or proper privy accommodations, and generally without Croton water within the building. Not infrequently this plan of construction was modified by placing a front and rear house upon the same lot, with a narrow alley between, thereby accommodating a greater number of families and more effectually depriving them of air and light. An act of the Legislature of 1879 required that the plans and specifications for light and ventilation of all tenement-houses thereafter erected be filed with the Health Department and receive its official approval before work can commence; and in 1881 a similar requirement was applied to plans and specifications for the plumbing and drainage of all new buildings. Owners, builders, and plumbers are required to construct buildings according to the approved plans, and are vigorously prosecuted for any violation. Sanitary engineers are detailed to inspect as often as necessary every building in course of construction, to report violations of plans and specifications, to thoroughly test the plumbing, and to report the satisfactory completion of all work before the occupation of the building is permitted. As the result of this important sanitary work, the New York tenement-house recently built is a model structure and can hardly be improved. A clear, unobstructed space of ten feet is required at the rear of every such house, with open courts in the interior sufficient in size to afford light and ventilation to every room. At least one water-closet with suitable appliances for flushing, well lighted, and ventilated by a separate air-shaft, must be provided for every fifteen persons. The cellars are lighted by windows to the external air, their floors are concreted, and their ceilings plastered or sealed with boards. The old hydrant in the yard, with its cesspool for receiving the slops and liquid waste of many families, has disappeared, and water is supplied to each apartment with suitable kitchen sinks and wash-tubs. The plumbing and drainage conform to the most approved system, and earthenware pipes with leaky joints, and untrapped and unventilated waste-pipes, are unknown in the modern tenement. The old tenement-houses are rapidly yielding to the encroachments of business, and are replaced by factories, stores, and warehouses; and this fact, together with the proper enforcement of the laws and regulations in respect to the erection of new houses and the conversion of private dwellings to the use of many families, practically solves the tenement-house problem.

3. Lodging-houses.—The laws relating to the light, ventilation, plumbing, and drainage of tenement-houses in New York also apply to the numerous lodging-houses which shelter for a night at cheap rates the unemployed laborer, the homeless poor, and in some cases the vagrant and the outlaw. Twenty-five years since no supervision or sanitary control was exercised by the public authorities as to the character or condition of apartments used for lodgers of this class; and cellars, dark, damp, and unventilated, were commonly occupied for this purpose and were distinguished for their uncleanliness and foul odors, and as the prolific source of pestilential disease. All such cellars have since been vacated, and the use of apartments below the street level for lodgers is now prohibited. Without a permit from the Health Department a lodging-house can not be maintained, and permits are granted only after a careful survey of the premises, and upon official reports that the buildings and fixtures conform to the laws and to the Sanitary Code. The number of lodgers allowed in each room is proportioned to the air space, four hundred cubic feet being the minimum for each person; and the overcrowding of lodging-houses is prevented, and the condition of the permits and proper sanitary rules are enforced by frequent official inspections, often made after midnight. In no particular is recent sanitary work more commendable than in the improved condition of the premises which for a pittance harbor with decency from night to night those unfortunate persons who, from want of employment or some other more deplorable cause, lead a precarious and nomadic existence, but have not yet become objects of public charity.

4. Slaughter-houses.—In 1865 there were one hundred and seventy-three slaughter-houses in New York, and many of them were located in the most populous parts of the city. After a long controversy they were removed from below Fortieth Street, and at a later period to limited districts on the North and East Rivers, and the business is now conducted without public or indecent exposure, in suitable buildings or abattoirs constructed especially for the purpose, with tight floors and proper sewer connections, and with the most improved appliances for utilizing all parts of the animals slaughtered, or disposing of them without offense. Cattle are not driven in the public streets, but reach the slaughterhouses directly from boats, and the adjacent cattle-yards are properly paved and drained. The daily and weekly inspection of these establishments by sanitary officers have secured habitual cleanliness and the observance of the necessary rules and regulations. By these changes and improvements an important industry, which for several years was threatened with banishment, has been retained within the city limits, with benefit to the food-supply and without detriment to the public health. The number of slaughter-houses or abattoirs in the city is now about thirty, and many of them are model establishments in construction, appliances, and management.

5. Stables and Stable Refuse.—The connection of stables with the street sewers, formerly the exception, is now the rule, and cleanliness and the regular and frequent removal of manure are required. Manure-vaults are only permitted as temporary receptacles; stable refuse is not allowed to be loaded in carts upon the sidewalk or from openings in vaults beneath; the carts are required to be tight and properly covered, so that no part of their contents will escape into the street during transportation to boats or cars; and the storage of this material in any part of the city is no longer tolerated. While so large a number of horses (estimated at sixty thousand) are in daily use for business and pleasure, the necessary stables and refuse must continue to be a subject of constant sanitary care and attention.

6. Offensive Trades.—The business pursuits commonly called "offensive trades" are those which, if conducted carelessly and without the proper machinery and the necessary chemical appliances, become a nuisance detrimental to health. Twenty-five years since there were no proper public or official supervision and control of these pursuits, and they were only restrained from vitiating the atmosphere with smoke, dust, and foul odors by an appeal to the courts and by tedious and expensive litigation. Prompt attention to all complaints, frequent inspections, orders to discontinue business unless conducted without offense, and a vigorous enforcement of the health laws by the sanitary authorities, have accomplished the desired object. Mechanical and chemical devices have been successfully introduced whenever necessary, and it has been completely demonstrated that there is no business pursuit of importance which can not be conducted inoffensively in a large city, if the buildings used are properly constructed, the machinery and methods are thoroughly scientific and practical, and due care and supervision are constantly exercised. The manufacture of illuminating gas, prolific of odors if conducted without the necessary care and expense, has been a subject of frequent complaint, and although efforts for the public relief have often encountered a vigorous resistance,-fortified by corporate wealth and the necessity and universal use of the product, the business has been deprived of its most objectionable features, and is comparatively free from offense. The utilization of the various parts of slaughtered animals not used for human food and the methods employed are among the most remarkable of modern sanitary improvements. The fat, which was formerly melted in open kettles, is now rendered in air-tight tanks; the blood which defiled the public sewers, and the offal, from time immemorial a disgusting nuisance, are converted into fertilizers; and the bones and other refuse animal material, by the aid of applied chemistry, have become useful and valuable as commercial articles. It is unnecessary to enumerate the great variety of business pursuits which formerly afflicted the community with smoke, dust, and foul or offensive odors, and which are now conducted without offense or complaint. Only one trade has been hopelessly ruined by sanitary reform during the last quarter of a century; the ancient guild of hereditary night scavengers, the terror of belated, sleepless, or dreaming citizens in midsummer nights, ceased to exist, when privy-vaults were generally banished from New York.

7. Care of Contagious Diseases.—The prevalence of contagious diseases, and the absence of official care and control a quarter of a century since, is illustrated by the following extract from the report of the Council of Hygiene, 1865 (page 137), upon the sanitary survey made in the previous year:

"With typhus fever and small-pox in nearly ten thousand domiciles of the poor and the ignorant, where every circumstance favored the localization of infection and the propagation of disease, and where gross nuisances and criminal negligence of cleanliness, ventilation, and medical police demanded the presence of intelligent authority, it is justly concluded that the work of sanitary improvement should, if possible, be enforced by legal authority. The records of many a fever-nest during this survey have shown that the legislative and judicial power of an intelligent Board of Health is indispensable. In some instances the incursions of fever into crowded tenements ravaged every family, and not infrequently broke up large families, making fatal victims of the parents and pauperizing their surviving dependants; often the fever has swept through the front and rear domiciles of populous tenement-houses, and thence has been widely diffused by the constantly changing tenants."

The result of official sanitary care and of improved methods is demonstrated by the vital statistics of that period and of the present time. The number of deaths from small-pox was 78 in 1863, 394 in 1864, and 674 in 1865; and from typhus fever 420 in 1863, 764 in 1864, and 501 in 1865. With a population more than doubled, the number of deaths from small-pox were 81 in 1888, one in 1889, and two in 1890, and from typhus fever four in 1888, none in 1889, and none in 1890. The average number of deaths from typhus fever for the ten years ending with 1865 was 291, and for the ten years ending with 1890 was 30, and the average number from small-pox for the same periods were 372 and 92 respectively. These remarkable results must be attributed to the improved sanitary condition of the city generally; to the prompt reports of all cases of contagious disease by attending physicians; to the immediate removal of the sick to hospitals by the health officers, when advisable; to the sanitary inspection of the premises where sickness has occurred, and the thorough disinfection of sick-rooms and of infected bedding and clothing; and to the new and commodious hospitals for contagious diseases erected and controlled by the sanitary authorities, in which the sick are completely isolated and receive the best care and medical attendance. In cases of small-pox, to prevent the spread of the disease, the persons who have been exposed to the contagion or reside in the immediate vicinity are vaccinated or revaccinated as may be necessary, and are held for the necessary time under official observation. Prior to 1866 free vaccination was obtainable only upon application to public dispensaries; now a corps of expert medical inspectors, by constant house-to-house visitation, offer vaccination to all and urge its acceptance. With the great decrease in typhus fever and small-pox official attention has been specially directed to scarlet fever, diphtheria, and minor contagious diseases; a hospital has been erected for the reception of cases that can not be isolated and properly treated elsewhere; and the same rules and regulations have been applied in respect to reports of cases by physicians, inspection of premises, isolation or removal to hospital, and disinfection of rooms, bedding, and clothing, with results so satisfactory and promising that there is reason to hope for a continued decrease in the sickness and mortality from these dangerous diseases.

8. The Food-supply.—The frequent inspections, by a corps of experts composed of physicians and chemists, have so improved the supply of milk brought to the city and offered for sale, that this important article is now rarely found diluted by water or otherwise impure. The markets for meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables are also regularly inspected, and the large amount of these articles seized by sanitary officers from time to time and removed to the offal docks as unfit for human food have improved the supply, checked the sale of whatever is unwholesome, and secured more care and caution on the part of dealers and consumers. Chemical analyses of various articles used as food and in its preparation have also resulted in the detection of frauds and the correction of abuses which formerly were not the subject of official interference or action.

9. Plumbing and Drainage.—The plumbing and drainage of tenement-houses have already been noticed, but the improvement of private dwellings in these particulars is not less important. Sanitary engineering during the past twenty-five years has become an important branch of science; in practical plumbing there have been remarkable improvements in material, fixtures, and workmanship; householders have been educated in the importance of excluding sewer-gas, odors, and dampness from their dwellings; and competent official supervision of new plumbing, and correction of defective work in houses erected at periods more or less distant, have removed many of the dangers which formerly threatened life and health in the abodes of the rich and the poor.

Several departments of the municipal government in the performance of their duties as prescribed by law have greatly contributed to the sanitary improvement of the metropolis during the last-quarter of a century. The cobble-stone pavements have generally been replaced with block stone, and recently asphalt has been extensively introduced, thereby making clean and dry streets possible; the sewer system has been extended upon scientific principles, and antiquated and defective sewers removed; new piers have been constructed upon an established line and uniform plan, though the number has hardly increased with the commercial demand; loss of life and accidents from fire have been materially decreased by an admirably organized and disciplined department; and ample provision has been made for extensive public parks; and one of them, which is unrivaled for its beauty and perfection, notably contributes to the health and pleasure of the people.

It must not be inferred or understood, from this brief and general sketch of sanitary reform in New York during the last quarter of a century, that perfection has been reached and the work entirely accomplished. Important steps have been taken in the right direction, and wonderful progress has been made, but the field is wide and open for future activity and effort. The results can hardly be so extraordinary and revolutionary in a similar period, but the work will continue eminently useful in decreasing human suffering and the rate of mortality. To make the metropolis of the country a healthful and desirable place of residence for the rich and the poor, and attractive as a resort and a temporary abode for people of this and other lands, is an object not unworthy the energy, ability, and ambition of any American citizen.