Steeped in history, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St., offers visitors, young and old alike, a glimpse of what life was like for immigrants on the bustling Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 19th and early 20th century. The five-story building contains apartments for visitors to tour and “meet” some of its inhabitants whose stories are told through costumed interpreters.
The museum offers several tours where kids can interact with the former residents and hear their stories of hardship and acclimating to a new culture. Based on the subject matter and the ages of my accompanying children, the Meet Victoria Confino tour was the perfect introduction to learn about immigration. Confino was a 16- year-old Jewish girl who came from Kastoria, Greece to New York in 1913 and lived in one of the tenements along with her parents and extended family. The building housed 7,000 working class immigrants from 20 countries from its opening in 1863 to its closure in 1935.
The Journey to America
Our tour began up a flight of fire escape stairs into the tenement’s dark, narrow hallway featuring sheet-metal ceilings and several apartment doors with peeling paint. Before we met Victoria, our group’s educator told us about the challenges which immigrants like Victoria faced on their voyage overseas. She made the story relatable to young visitors, asking them questions such as what objects would they bring with them on a long journey. Her story clearly resonated with my 4-year-old daughter who replied “a teddy bear.” My 8-year-old son enjoyed hearing about the first-class passengers who had “Disney cruise-like” amenities versus Victoria who had to ride in steerage.
We learned that 5,000 passengers were processed daily at Ellis Island when Victoria emigrated. All passengers were subjected to a six second medical check-up. My children loved hearing about the gruesome eyelid check-up where a button-hook instrument was used to flip the eyelids and check for trachoma, an eye infection that was rampant at the time. While their parents were processed by immigration officials, the children and teenagers were fed snacks by immigrant aid workers that were wholly unfamiliar to them such as Jello and bananas, which my children found hard to believe.
Inside An Immigrant’s Apartment
The excitement was mounting as our group huddled outside Victoria’s doorway and asked to enter her apartment. Victoria’s entire tenement totaled only 325 square feet with two tiny bedrooms and a kitchen area. My suburban children couldn’t fathom that 20 people had to share one toilet on each floor.
Victoria engaged our group showing us items that my children could see and touch such as a bar of soap, explaining that her family went weekly to a bathhouse on Rivington Street. My daughter loved trying on Victoria’s mother’s fancy “American” velvet hat with feathers. “This is the type of hat that a society lady would wear in Central Park,” explained Victoria.
Jon Pace, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s Communications Manager says that “the museum’s educators use several techniques during the introductory talk and are specifically trained in adjusting the programs for audiences of all ages.”
Beyond The Tenement Tours
In addition to tenement tours, the museum offers a variety of neighborhood walking tours ranging from 90 minutes to two hours focusing on such topics as immigrant foods and the labor movement. The walking tours are recommended for children ages 8 and up and strollers are permitted.
The museum also contains a gift shop with children’s books, toys and art projects so that children can appreciate the immigrant experience and learn about their many contributions to American society. This summer the museum is scheduled to open a new exhibit at 103 Orchard St., on contemporary immigration in the post-World War II era focusing on the lives of Jewish refugees, Chinese immigrants and Puerto Rican migrants that helped shape today’s Lower East Side.
Stacey Pfeffer is a first-generation American who lives in Chappaqua with her three children and husband. Her articles have appeared in New York Family magazine, Inside Chappaqua and Kvell
When You Go…
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
97 Orchard St., New York, N.Y.
The museum must be seen by guided tour which begin and end at the Visitor Center at 103 Orchard St. All children under age 6 are not permitted on building tours except Meet Victoria Confino. Strollers are not permitted in the building. Day lockers are available for a 25-cent rental fee.
The museum’s tours are most suitable for visitors ages 8 and up and range from one to two hours. Recommended tours for this age group are Meet Victoria Confino, Hard Times, Irish Outsiders and Tenement Inspectors.
Hours: Tour times and days vary. Purchase tickets online, in-person or by phone. 877-975-3786. Best to purchase in advance.
Admission: $25 adults, $20 kids except the Foods of the Lower East Side Walking Tour.
Family-Friendly Bites in the Area: If your crew gets hungry, Katz’s Delicatessen (205 East Houston St.) and Russ & Daughters Café (127 Orchard St.) are nearby beloved neighborhood institutions. Top off your day with a stop for sweets at Economy Candy (108 Rivington St.).