Photographs from the Community Service Society Records, 1900-1920

Housing Reform > Tenement House Committee

Tenement House Committee was formed in 1898, which put through an investigation of housing conditions and a campaign of public education.  Out of this grew a state commission which drafted and oversaw the passage of the New Tenement Law and the creation of the New York Tenement House Department in 1901. The Committee was formed with the purpose of “securing the enforcement of existing laws protecting the health and safety of tenement dwellers; closely following new legislation affecting the tenement question, opposing dangerous bills and supporting beneficial measures; studying present housing problems; and carrying on an active educational campaign for better tenement conditions.”

Perhaps at the recommendation of Lawrence Veiller, the Tenement House Department employed a staff photographer from the beginning to provide legal evidence of violations and justify grounds for action.  In addition, the Department and Committee received photographs with unsolicited complaints. These photographs no longer captured the spaces in between buildings, but rather details of buildings that offered proof of violations. Captions often indicated when a flash was used so that viewers were made aware of photographic manipulation. These photographs were most often reproduced in publications such as The Tenement House Problem (1903) and Housing Reform in New York City (1911, 1912, and 1913), that sought to publicize the efforts and accomplishments of the Department and Committee while attempting to defend the current laws, which were under constant attack by lobbyists and politicians.

During the 1910s, the Tenement House Committee focused its attention on the education of tenants.  Pamphlets, home visits, and public lectures sought to inform tenants of their rights, to educate them on sanitation and health, and to teach them how to spot violations.  In 1917, COS published approximately 100,000 copies of “For You,” a pamphlet that offered didactic text and photographs to the mostly foreign-born residents of the slums. Using a before and after format, these photographs illustrated the difference between clean and dirty airshafts, toilets, sinks, and hallways that could prevent the spread of diseases and aided individuals in spotting violations.


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