From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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February 18, 1885

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The Chicago Health Department in 1878 used New York City's official definition of a tenement, "a dwelling occupied by more than three families keeping house in separate compartments." In that year it was estimated that there were 4,896 such tenements in Chicago. In this type of housing lighting, ventilation and plumbing were generally woefully inadequate even by the standards of the day. Quarters were cramped with whole families and additional boarders sharing common sleeping rooms, which in the daylight hours served as living areas as well. Half of the children of Chicago in 1885 died before reaching the age of five. And the death rate of those living in tenements outnumbered those in more healthy neighborhoods by three to one.

Single family dwellings were a rarity in tenement districts. In a few instances families purchased homes and lived in the less desirable rear portions while renting out the outer portions to two or more other families. Eventually the mortgage might be paid at which time the owner family could take over all or a large part of the property. Unlike the slum dweller, those who found housing in the suburbs could afford the streetcar fare to and from their places of employment.

Although this amendment to the city's code was not passed, existing regulations allowed the Health Department to establish rules regarding lighting, drainage, plumbing and ventilation in new construction.

Points to Consider

Give the floor dimensions of a living area with an air space of five hundred cubic feet.

Why were living and sleeping rooms described synonymously?

How would this proposed amendment have affected the living conditions of the poor?

How would a living and sleeping room of one hundred square feet have been furnished?

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