Saturday, January 23, 2016

Montreal slums, New York Slums, 1900

Art Deco entrance to the Bains Genereux on Amherst built in 1927 to wash the masses. Montreal had at least 16 of these places at the time. Public baths were one response to the poor living conditions for many in Montreal at the turn of the last century.  Milk stations for mothers were another.

"Upon a narrow and unfrequented street in the vicinity of McCord Street, and adjoining the Lachine Canal, stands a row of tenement houses. To the passer-by, their neat and clean appearance without would attract attention in so squalid and poor a district. One thing in deed was more than noticeable : even in summer no open blinds gave the inquiring eyes of outsiders the satisfaction they craved. In winter thick curtains behind the double windows shut out the occupants of the outside world. What secret is hidden behind those brick walls? What scenes are enacted on the other side of the curtains?

Come with me and see.

Upon the ground-floor of No. 127, the first in the row, live in three rooms two families. Eleven human beings—created in the image of their Maker—eat, drink, sleep, and perhaps wash in these three rooms.

In a Christian city is this right?"

This is a bit from a 1899 book called Montreal by gaslight, showing the evils of the city, pre-mass immigration of the early part of the 20th century.

About the same year, Herbert Ames, an alderman and social reformer. wrote a landmark study, The City Below the Hill, using more statistics than this literary non-fiction book.

A pious Protestant, Ames book really got the social reform movement going in Montreal by pointing out that Montreal had the highest infant mortality rate outside of Calcutta. (Calcutta, a heathen city!)

This is the background to my ebooks, Threshold Girl and Diary of a Confirmed Spinster and helps explain much of what unfolds in  Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Montreal in 1911/12. These militants got nowhere, largely because the Canadian suffrage movement wasn't about equal rights for women, it was about social reform and especially  'saving babies.'

Julie Parker Drummond came right out and said it: "Woman Suffrage equals healthier babies." She was the Honorary VP of the Montreal Suffrage Association launched in 1913.

In November, I visited the Tenement Museum in Soho, New York City and took an interesting tour. The guide revealed how many in the tenements, often new immigrants, were meticulous in their housekeeping, despite what some 'superior' people liked to think.  One apartment had dozens and dozens of coats of paint, revealing that the apartment was decorated afresh with each new family coming in.

  Montreal by Gaslight makes a point of saying Montreal slums are every bit as bad as the ones in New York City, so I guess New York slums had a terrible reputation at the time.

The 1910 Technical World magazine contained an article showing NY citizens living in windowless apartments. Montreal had the same issue - although it was technically illegal to rent out a room without a window.

Some people in Montreal in 1900 still used privies, outdoor toilets, or just holes in the ground.

Herbert Ames, went on to be an MP in Ottawa and then work with the League of Nations in New York has gone down in history as the Privy Man, for exposing this fact in his 1899 book.

In October, 1912, a coalition of French and English Social Reformers held a two week Child Welfare Exhibit. (It's all in Furies Cross the Mersey.) It was designed after similar exhibits in Chicago and New York and even guided by an American, Dr. Anna Strong. From what I could see, Montreal's exhibit was the only one of the three to have a 'eugenics' board.

The Guaranteed PURE Milk Bottle, a heritage site, now, ironically, crammed in between billionaire condos near the Molson Center.  Tainted milk was an issue in Montreal in the early 1900s, typhoid, and PURITY was a much valued quality for everything and everybody, especially young women.


Sherbrooke Street in 1900. Many of the prominent social reformers of Montreal lived along this elegant boulevard, including Julia Parker Drummond. I noticed last week that a tiny park in Little Burgundy "below the hill" is named after her. Herbert Ames, too, has a bit of green named after him, near Atwater Market, I think.


Here's more from Montreal by Gaslight.


"Here sorrow, poverty, and hunger speak in tongues that all may hear and understand. This man, until lately a stonemason upon the works for the new Canal, was seriously injured by the falling upon him of some heavy stones. At first he deemed his injuries trifling, and was glad to accept a paltry hundred dollars from his employer in full of all claims for injuries received while in his employ. But the days

moved on, the obstinate flesh refused to heal, days became months, and he was compelled to sell his furniture and move to his present dwel ling. His wife earns an occasional dollar, which always goes the way of the corner saloon, and his three young sons sell papers.

In this way they exist. 

The second family who occupy this tenement are in even a worse plight. They are husband and wife with no children, but they are always drunk. When they cannot buy the liquor they steal it. In the third room, which is used for bed room, kitchen, and occasionally as a washroom, four unfortunates sleep as best they can.

They are the young children of a man who deserted his family, and of a woman driven to death by drink. The kind-hearted neighbors once in a while give them food and drink, and the eldest boy makes enough from odd jobs to pay two dollars a month for rent of his den. Here is squalor and misery ; in a room reeking with vile odors and foul with dirt, he and three sisters lie out upon the floor and sleep as best they can. 

Do you still doubt Montreal has no tenements where cleanliness and health are unknown? Come with me to the second story, and read another lesson from the Book of Sorrow.

In three rooms whose condition is fouler, if possible, than the apartments downstairs live a husband and wife and nine children. Again eleven persons, where there should be but five. The water turned off, the sink long ago choked up, the floors thick with dirt and a swarm of children almost naked roll upon the floor, gathering more dirt as they play. Upon a bed in the corner, a drunken man in a broken chair, a woman sobbing. It is enough. Upon the top floor tho partitions dividing the rooms have been torn down, and the floor is pile 1 with rags—foul-looking and ill-smelling. The holes in the roof have been patched up with paper and anything handy. But the room is deserted. Does no one occupy this flat or is it untenanted ? Go there at night, when the horrors of the place are made more horrible by shadows dark and forbidding. 

Upon this floor, scarce twenty-four feet long and nine broad, are stretched fourteen men and boys. Fourteen, did you say ?

Aye, fourteen and sometimes more, for this room is let to a harpy in humnn form, who in turn sublets it to any man willing to pay ten cents a night. The lowest in this poverty stricken district congregate there : disease-rid den, loathsome, and drunken lie down side by side, and snatch as best they can a few hours of heavy and unrefreshing sleep. What need to go farther ?"