Manufacturing of Foods in the Tenements

Mary Sherman, National Consumer' League Charities and The Commons 15 (1906): 669-73.
The National Consumer's League, sponsor of this investigation, had been formed in 1899 to mobilize concerned middle class consumers, most of them women, in campaigns to monitor conditions under which clothing and food was manufactured in the "sweated" industries. At first the League focused on unsanitary work environments--including tenement homes--in the hope that revelations and publicity would move well-meaning citizens to demand effective regulation by the government. From anxiety for community health, the League moved on to advocate legislative measures to protect working class women and children from exploitation by callous employers. The League, like many other reform groups in the Progressive Era, found an eager ally in the official publications of the New York Charity Organization--the Charities Review], Charities and the Commons, and from 1909-1952, the Survey journal.
Many of us have watched small children on a hot summer's day eating with evident enjoyment the ice-cream sandwiches bought from the street pedlers, with a feeling of trepidation and wonder as to how many germs and how much dirt was being swallowed with the mouthful of cool pink cream.

And those of us who have lived in the neighborhood of Elizabeth or Cherry streets, or in any of the Italian districts of New York, have seen macaroni hanging in windows and doorways exposed to the dust and dirt of the city streets, thankful that we did not have to eat the macaroni on our own tables.

Those who can afford to buy their food in the cleaner and better stores feel safe when buying their nuts in glass jars, their peanut butter from a health food bureau, their cakes on Fifth avenue and candies wrapped in paper and apparently spotless.

Little seems to be known as to how much manufacturing of foods is actually being carried on in tenement houses. The two agencies in New York city which are charged with the sole authority of enforcing the laws designed to protect us from infection and contagion from impure food, are the Board of Health and the State Department of Labor.

The factory inspectors are required by law to inspect all bakeries and confectionery establishments and issue a certificate to those that are sanitary and constructed in compliance with the law. Commissioner Sherman reports that during the past year 3,000 bakeries have been inspected. "While the orders given as the result of such inspections have been generally complied with," to quote from his last report, "yet unfortunately the greater proportion of non- compliances have been among the poorer class of bakeries, especially among basement bakeries in New York city where conditions are the worst. It is believed that there are hidden away among the tenements of Manhattan Island quite a number of bakeries in which conditions are extremely bad, but which the present methods of inspection have not discovered." Mr. Sherman also complains of the inadequate number of inspectors to do this work and the impossibility of enforcing the law properly unless he is given authority to stop work in any bakery so long as orders against the bakery are not complied with. Such authority he has not at present.

This attempt to supervise the bakeries is all that is at present required of the Department of Labor in connection with the manufacturing of foods.

The Board of Health is required to inspect all foods coming into the city, milk, meats, fish, vegetables, groceries, canned goods, confectionery, etc., and the sanitary conditions of all premises and buildings other than tenement-house property. At the time of the transfer of the tenement-house inspection to the Tenement-house Department all such inspections of tenements were to be made by this department. The Tenement-house Department keeps no record of trades carried on in the tenements outside of those trades which are required by law to be licensed, so that as a matter of fact the manufacturing of foods in tenement houses is not recorded by any department.

The National Consumers' League, in consequence of its new program to investigate the conditions under which food is manufactured as well as those under which clothing is manufactured, has lately secured some accurate information on the subject. The investigation covers only those food trades which seem particularly dangerous to the health of the community and in which women and children are engaged. These are the manufacturing of macaroni, nut picking, candy making and wrapping, and the manufacture of ice-cream.


Macaroni is made in every block of the Italian neighborhoods of New York. In many streets you will find three or four little shops in one block of houses, with the macaroni drying in the doorways and windows. The front room is the shop, the family living in the middle and rear rooms, and these are invariably overcrowded. The Italians not only have large families, but keep lodgers, and the front shop then becomes a sleeping and living apartment as well as the other rooms. The paste is mixed and pressed by a machine into long strings, which are hung on racks to dry. The following case, told by a well-known physician, shows what danger there may be when such work is carried on in living apartments. A child lay sick of diphtheria in the back room where the physician visited her. The father manufactured macaroni in the front adjoining room, and would go directly from holding the child in his arms to the macaroni machine, pulling the macaroni with his hands and hanging it over racks to dry. This macaroni was then sold up and down Elizabeth street.

Within the fortnight the Board of Health disinfected a house on East Twenty-ninth street where there was a case of scarlet fever. Macaroni was drying in the yard and in the windows of the house during all the time of the child's sickness.

However willing we might be to overlook the fact that the Italians in the cities are obliged to buy food made in dirty rooms, we certainly are not willing that contagious diseases be carried in this manner, which is certainly the case, since no amount of boiling will kill the disease germ once it is in the paste of macaroni.

Picking of Nuts in Tenement Houses

A large nut factory in New York, selling nuts at wholesale to candy factories, bakeries and retail grocers, makes a specialty of health food preparations and sells quantities of nut marmalade, nut butter and nuts packed in glass jars, which sell at retail for twenty-five cents a jar. On the first floor is the salesroom, carefully whitewashed. Above this is the workroom, not whitewashed, though light and fairly clean. The nuts are piled on floor, boxes and tables about the room. They are cracked by machinery, by one girl. When I visited the factory a dozen young Italian girls were at work at a long table, seated on boxes. There were no chairs or regular seats. These girls were engaged in sorting the nuts and packing them in boxes and glass jars. They also stuff dates and fruit with nuts. The workers were, without exception, dirty. Their hands were filthy. One girl, whom I watched for sometime separating the whole nuts with her fingers, had ulcers covering the back of her hands. These workers receive from $3.50 to $5.00 a week for work done in the factory.

Above this room is another where fifteen Italian women, piece workers, clean the nuts-- that is, separate the whole meats from the broken pieces and pick the nuts from the shells--at six cents a pound. During the rush season the workers take work home, fifteen pounds at a time, paid for at the same rate. It takes two workers three hours to clean fifteen pounds.

I was able with some difficulty to visit one of the piece worker's homes typical of most of the workers engaged in the trade. The girl and her mother both work in the factory and take home work. They live with a married sister, her husband, one boy of thirteen, and three small children. They have four rooms for nine people, indescribably filthy and crowded. The house has had several orders issued against it by the Tenement-house Department. When the nuts picked in this house, lying on the tables in these rooms, go back to the factory they are not washed or cleaned but packed into jars and sold to us for twenty-five cents a jar.

This nut factory, which is one of the largest in the city, with a big trade, selling to the best confectioners and all the best retail grocery stores and health-food depots, advertises the purity and cleanliness of their goods.

An Italian living in a rear tenement on Oliver street picked nuts for a firm in his home while suffering from tuberculous joints. The rooms are small, and one of his young boys is tubercular. The man could pick fifteen pounds in three days, for which he received ninety cents. He was so ill that he had had a knee cap and some part of the arm bones removed during the time he was engaged in this work. He told me that he gave up nut picking, as it didn't pay.

Candy Making.

A candy company, which is apparently doing a thriving business, is situated on the lower West Side of the city. Its popcorn and molasses-popcorn cakes are sold in retail stores in the city. The workrooms are at the top of a tenement house, which is in a most dilapidated and dirty condition. This house also had several orders issued against it by the Tenement-house Department, but from my observation I feel safe in saying that they never have been complied with. An Italian, his wife and one man do the work. There are two rooms, the workroom, where the molasses is mixed and the candy made, and the living room. The family, consisting of the father, mother and two small babies, live, sleep and cook in this room. Several articles of clothing were strewn about the workroom and doubtless in similar ways the candy sometimes leaks into the sleeping room. Both the workers and the rooms were extremely dirty and the place quite unfit for the manufacturing of any food.

Well known candy factories give out work during rush seasons for their regular workers to take home, such as filling boxes and wrapping candies. A young girl, living on Madison street, worked in one of these factories twelve hours a day during the Christmas rush. Her regular hours are from 7.15 to 5.45, with half an hour at noon, making a ten-hour day. In addition to this work in the factory, she does work at home at night with the help of her mother and aunt. A widely-advertised cough drop which this firm makes is filled into boxes in this workers's home. During rush seasons any girl wanting additional work can fill boxes or wrap candy in paper at home. There is no inspection of the house and no questions are asked in regard to sickness. A worker receives thirty cents for filling 1,000 sample boxes. It takes an expert worker, with the help of two women, two hours and a half to make thirty cents. I said to this girl, "I suppose that you can't have the children help you with this work, as they would eat all the candy?" "Oh, yes; they help," she said; "I tell them that the candy is covered with vasoline so that they do not dare taste it."

Many of the women employed in candy factories live in the poorest class of tenement houses in crowded and often filthy rooms. The manager of one of the factories in question refused to allow it to be visited, saying very frankly that he was not at all proud of it and that it would compare very unfavorably with other factories which might be seen in other cities.

Ice Cream.

The ice cream which is sold on the push-carts and in small neighborhood shops is made without exception in the tenement houses. It is usually sold in the front store and made in the back room or inside room, where the family sleep, eat and live. During an investigation made last summer by the Mayor's Push-Cart Commission the policemen were asked to report any food sold in push-carts which, in their opinion, was unfit for sale, which they would not buy themselves. One man reported a small factory where ice cream was made in a room in which three men slept.

Such tenement ice cream factories are situated all over the city. The work is carried on from May to October and the houses are all in the poorer class of tenements. It is not only that home-work in any food trade is dangerous to the health of the community when there is no supervision or restriction by law, but like all home-work it is poorly paid and there are no limits to hours of work or to the number of children that may be engaged in it. There is not only the danger of the spread of a contagious disease among the people who are forced to buy cheap food in small neighborhood stores but to anyone buying in the best and most expensive stores in the city. As a direct result of this investigation Commissioner Sherman, of New York, has had two bills introduced in the New York legislature dealing with the subject. The provisions of these bills add certain foods to the specified articles of clothing which cannot be manufactured in unclean and unlicensed tenements. It seemed only logical that the Consumers' League, which was in large part responsible for the law restricting manufacturing in the tenements, should recommend that its scope be enlarged to include the manufacture of foods made under similar conditions. Ultimately, it would seem that the only proper protection would be to exclude all manufacture and preparation of foods from tenement houses, confining all such trades to factories where there can be proper supervision.

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