America's Gilded Age, which lasted roughly from the late 1860's through the 1890's, was an era of unprecedented immigration, economic growth, political corruption, business greed and social injustice. The period was marked by extraordinary imbalances in the distribution of wealth and terrible working conditions in factories, which routinely exploited child labor. Meanwhile vast personal fortunes were accumulated by dynastic industrial families like the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one could see the contradictions of this age of stunning growth and great hardship in the daily lives of the neighborhood's inhabitants. Technological innovations like the telephone, electric light and phonograph signaled the dawn of new modern age, and engineering wonders like the Brooklyn Bridge, the city's first elevated railway, and a towering new parish church building, were popping up all around them. New immigrants poured into Brooklyn, and by 1880 it was America's third-largest city, boasting 567,000 residents. It would grow by an additional 42% during the 1880s with population soaring to 806,000 by 1890. The Diefenbach immigrants, Caspar and Catharine, contributed to both the economic and population growth of the city. Caspar would establish a family bakery business within a few years of landing on American soil, and the couple would eventually have 12 children.
The American diet had been steadily improving over the course of the 19th century. Living in a German-American community, the Diefenbachs’ diet would have included foods and drinks that were also popular in Germany at the time, such as hamburg steak (minced salted beef, seasoned with onions and bread crumb filler), frikadelle (ground beef, pork or veal, with added bread crumbs, onion, egg, milk and spices), sausage, pork, cabbage, sauerkraut, potatoes, dumplings, noodles, onions, potato pancakes and beer. Such high protein diets grew out of peasant farming traditions, where pigs were often raised on large and small farms for personal consumption. New food innovations, like margarine and ketchup, brought more flavor to the table, and in the 1880's canned fruits and meats in tins and jars became commercially available. The Diefenbachs’ diet would also have been filled with breads and pastries, usually leftovers from the bakery. The image of the hearty, simplistic, American diet of “meat and potatoes” can be partially attributed to German influences, as “German butchers, bakers and brewers dominated American cities by 1880, shaping the national taste for heavy meals.”
Though diets were improving, infant mortality was still incredibly high, as can be seen in the Diefenbach family tree. Caspar and Catherine would have 12 children, only six of whom would survive to adulthood. Their first child, John, was born in 1882, named after Caspar’s grandfather, uncle and brother, and would survive the many trials of infancy to live a full life. He was followed by William, born on July 4, 1883, but he died the following year, at the age of only seven months, struck down by an unknown ailment. Later that year, Mary Christina (Mamie) was born, and she was lucky enough to survive to adulthood. She was followed by a daughter Barbara in 1886, but she barely made it to her second birthday, dying just two days later. In 1888, Catharina was born, but she lived only three weeks. Next, Herman Andrew arrived in 1889 – he was a handsome young man who grew to adulthood. The seventh child, Catharina (Kate) was born in 1891, less than two months after the couple celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, and she was the second child to be named after her mother. In 1893, little Peter Joe was born on his mom's birthday, February 23rd (Catherine was 33), but he survived only nine months. Felix Caspar would follow in 1894, again on the Fourth of July, and he was followed in 1896 by Joseph. The two boys would both die within eight days of each other in December 1898, aged only four and two, respectively. Their next child came in 1899, lovingly named Felix after his brother who had died the previous year, to be followed by another Joseph, who was born in 1901. Even though illness and death were common in childhood in that time, it must have made lasting impressions upon the children who survived. Imagine hearing the news, attending funerals again and again. By the time he was 16, John, the eldest Diefenbach child, had buried six of his siblings.
Tenement neighborhoods were crowded, noisy places that posed many threats to the health and safety of the residents. During the day, streets were packed with people traveling to work, peddlers selling merchandise and food from pushcarts, and families loading carts with their belongings to move from one apartment to another in search of lower rents. In a short period, the Diefenbachs would move three times within two blocks. Here we will discuss the challenges they faced building a life in Williamsburg. Some of what we know about tenement life is taken not from their experience, but from that of residents in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Even though population and building densities were greater in Lower Manhattan than in Brooklyn in the 1880's, the essence of tenement life in Brooklyn back then can be closely approximated by a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, which is located just across the East River from the Diefenbachs' neighborhood.
Sanitation and access to clean water for drinking, cooking and cleaning were serious concerns for tenement dwellers during this period, and these factors contributed greatly to the high infant mortality rate. Diphtheria, a childhood respiratory illness, was the cause of death of several of the Diefenbach children. The disease typically killed 10% of victims who contracted it, but this number would jump to 25% in the crowded, unsanitary tenement conditions of the era. Death could come quickly as the disease spread through the throat, tonsils and respiratory system, causing patients' necks to swell – a condition referred to as "bull neck" – ultimately suffocating them. The disease could also attack the muscles and heart. Epidemics usually occurred during winter months, and children were particularly vulnerable. Overcrowding and pollution only added to their lethality. Williamsburg's air was choked with smoke from factories and thousands of coal- and wood-burning stoves in tenement apartments, and animal waste and garbage were strewn about the streets and alleys.
The Diefenbachs' neighborhood was packed with breweries, which seemed to bring as many troubles as benefits. The breweries brought horse and wagon traffic as teamsters delivered beer to saloons across the city. Waste in the streets and horse stalls attracted rats and flies, which were an important disease vector. A typical 1,000-pound horse would produce on average 40 pounds of manure and 1.5 gallons of urine per day, and dozens of these animals would pass by the Diefenbachs' front door each day. The family coexisted with the pollution and smells of breweries throughout the decade, but particularly from 1888 through 1891 when they lived at three different addresses on Meserole Street. At 186 Meserole Street, the view out of the front window was of Schneider’s Brewery, located across the street; when they moved across the street to 159, the brewery was practically in their backyard, and at 132 Meserole, the Fallert Brewery was within sight. All breweries had beer halls, which were liberally patronized by residents and visitors from other neighborhoods. Saturday nights were particularly noisy in beer hall neighborhoods, with drunkards sometimes in the streets well into the night. In daylight hours, the pounding and clanking of horse-drawn wagons hauling loads to and from the breweries were as predictable and common as sunrise and sunset.
By the turn of the century, neighborhood bath houses where being constructed to improve hygiene and public health. In Lower Manhattan, residents could take a shower for 3 cents. But more commonly in the 1880's, bathing by tenement dwellers was done periodically in portable tubs in the kitchen. In many households it was the practice that baths were taken once a week. Saturday was was usually bath day, as Sunday was church day, except for Jewish tenement dwellers of this era – they bathed on Friday, before the beginning of the sabbath. During the week, periodic washing out of a small wash basin had to do.
Garbage disposal was another of life’s challenges. Household trash was only a fraction of what we produce today, but with no place to dispose of it, it quickly became a problem. Brooklyn provided municipal trash collection service during the 1880's, but it was erratic and inadequate. Many residents burned their trash and threw organic waste in gutters. Some gave it to neighbors who had goats. Some carried it to vacant lots or threw it into streams and rivers during their commute to work. Some garbage was dumped in landfills or the harbor. The country’s first incineration plant was constructed on an island in the New York harbor in 1866, but that could handle only a small fraction of the growing metropolitan area's trash load. Already, garbage was washing up along the city's beaches and shorelines. The following excerpts from an article that appeared in the January 20, 1887 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle indicate that garbage collection contractors were severely understaffed:
Mrs Brady, 352 Flusing avenue -- We don't see any garbage men around here. We burn our garbage. What we don't burn we give to the chickens and goats. They're glad to get it...
Mrs. Thomas Brown, 191 1/2 Classon avenue -- The garbage men come around every week. We burn our garbage. We think that is the best plan."
Residents faced many hardships, but daily life in this realm was not universally miserable, though it might seem so by today's standards. In late 19th century America, tenement homes and neighborhoods were often vibrant and hopeful. For most, despite the longing for relatives and friends left behind, there was the sure knowledge of an even harder life back in Europe. America was hope. America was a dream. Once when Caspar and Catharine were visiting relatives in Germany during this period, they were treated to a rich lifestyle as they were hosted by Caspar’s brother, Dr. John Diefenbach, a surgeon. John, who had married into money, had a big house, servants and a carriage. He treated Caspar and Catharine to good food and travels and a royal time on this visit to Germany. Catharine, comparing John’s rich lifestyle to their life in Brooklyn, commented, “Put me in a cellar in Brooklyn, and I be happy [sic].”
Diefenbach descendants who grew up on Montrose Avenue in Williamsburg in the early 20th century describe their four-room childhood homes as “Railroad Flats.” Typically, rooms of these apartments (most often three or four) were strung in a line on a single floor. In smaller buildings, they would stretch from the front to the back of the house, and they were a common floor plan. Because many rooms had no access to exterior walls, and therefore had no natural light, some were fitted with windows facing onto adjacent rooms, and they could be draped for privacy.
Most tenements also had a housekeeper who received free or reduced rent in exchange for maintaining and cleaning the halls, stairs and the sidewalk in front of the building. As a result, common areas of many crowded tenements of the time were relatively clean. At best, they were dreary-to-modest overcrowded homes for millions of poor American families, often living paycheck to paycheck, striving to improve both their homes and their lives. While most tenement buildings were glum, some were attractive, with elaborate exterior facades and decorative tin moldings and ceilings in interior hallways and living quarters. .
Before marrying Caspar Diefenbach in 1881, Catharine lived at 137 Montrose Avenue with her parents, five siblings, and an adopted niece. Information from the 1880 census returns for this and the two adjacent buildings reveals a great deal about the people who populated this bustling neighborhood. Catharine’s father, John Herrmann, was identified as a tailor, and her mother, Maria, was identified as a housekeeper. Six families, including 40 individuals, lived in this building. Assuming two families per floor, the six families probably occupied the top three floors of the four-story tenement. John Herrmann's brother, Anton and his family, also lived in this building, as did a Mehl family; one of the Herrmann girls would later marry a Mehl boy. Of the six families, the occupations of the heads of household were as follows: a keeper of a hotel, a cigar maker, a laborer, and three tailors. Even Catharine’s 15-year old brother is also identified as a tailor. A portion of the ground floor of this building was used for community meetings. Nineteenth century articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reference various meetings of the German Taxpayer Association, the German Democratic Citizens, and the German Property Owners being held at 137 Montrose Avenue, which is referred to as "Columbia Hall" (in 1885) and "Bittner's Hall" (in 1891). Next door at number 135 (to the left in the photo above), there were 29 residents living in nine apartments in 1880. The heads of household listing followed a similar theme – three tailors, two laborers, a cigar maker, a carpenter, and two listed as "at home" and "keeping house." One of these families even had an 18-year-old son away at college, which would have been a great accomplishment for a working class family in 1880.
From 1880 Census reports for this section of Montrose Avenue, it appears that children in this neighborhood attended school through age 12, when most left school altogether – of a total of 54 teenagers recorded in this section of Montrose Avenue, only four were in school or college. Only two of the ten 13 year-olds and none of the 14 year-olds were in school. Teenagers did, however, have occupations listed; at 13 and 14, they were apprentices in cigar making, dyeing, tailoring and instrument making. By 15 and 16, they had started their careers as tailors, musicians, machine operators and factory workers.
Often tenement dwellers ran small home industries, such as sewing or factory piecework, and both men and women worked at them. Catharine Diefenbach was a midwife and earned some money assisting her neighbors in giving birth. A directory from 1891 identifies “Cath Diefenbach, midwife” residing at 159 Meserole Street in Williamsburg, and many descendants have confirmed that she was a midwife. A Diefenbach family notebook that was handed down through generations describes Catharine's work: “My mother Mary [Mamie] was the oldest girl and wound up having to care for those younger than she because my grandmother [Catharine] was a midwife and got the great sum of $5.00 for each confinement case she went out on.” In the same 1891 directory, Caspar Diefenbach is listed as a "buttonholemaker” living at the same address; it is not known whether this was a sideline home occupation to supplement his bakery work, or perhaps he was in and out of the bakery business and trying his luck at other occupations.
In the final installment of this series, which will be posted in a few weeks, Don will follow his ancestors as they leave the tenements behind and achieve the American Dream for themselves and their children. If you would like to learn more about tenement life, we encourage you to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or go on a video tour of the museum here.
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