The Sanitary and Moral Condition of New York City

views updated

The Sanitary and Moral Condition of New York City

Magazine article

By: Anonymous

Date: August 1869

Source: Anonymous. "The Sanitary and Moral Condition of New York City." Catholic World: A Monthly Magazine. 53.9 (August 1869): 553-566.

About the Author: Catholic World: A Monthly Magazine is a religious publication which The Catholic Publication House in New York began printing in 1865. Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker of the Paulist Fathers founded the magazine, set in a liberal theological tone, as an outlet for Catholic writers to express themselves within the scope of their faith.


In 1865, as the Civil War ended in the United States, reformers in New York City embarked on an aggressive campaign to clean the city's streets from sewage, filth, and disease. The Association of New York issued its report on the condition of the city in 1863, and its three hundred plus page report detailed problems with the city's sanitation system, the perceived moral condition of the city's inhabitants, and the condition of housing. The three hundred page report often read like a laundry list of ills within the city, but the point and purpose of the Association's work was made clear. It wanted the inhabitants of New York City, and the city's government, to address issues of hygiene and safety so that inhabitants and visitors to the city could prosper. Additionally, the Association's remarks about urban sanitation were frequently linked with moral reform. These moral reforms referenced a higher rate of prostitution and child labor in New York City (and other urban areas). As a side note, child labor occurred in rural areas, but rural communities did not consider a child working on the farm or family business as labor. Rather, it was familial duty. But, children in urban areas often entered factories at young ages, or they took to earning money as street vendors. These jobs were noted in media accounts, and a variety of reform movements sought to halt child labor. These reforms ranged from groups focusing on family life, labor laws, to sanitary reform.

As immigration increased and urban areas continued to swell from new inhabitants and the rise of factories and industries, more reform organizations emerged. These groups varied widely in the agendas, but some of the most prevalent concerned improving sanitary conditions for Americans. New York City took the lead in the sanitary reform movement, mostly because it was the largest U.S. city and held the highest ratio of new immigrants. In the 1850s, civic reform groups (mostly led by middle and upper class white women) began actively campaigning for municipal reform, and their actions went against the grain of middle and upper class society while also acting with it. This dichotomy occurred because the middle and upper classes had selectively withdrawn from politics, particularly in large urban areas like New York City, because they felt that the rise of immigrants increased corruption in politics. Individuals believed this because the middle and upper classes tended to view immigrants as unclean, slovenly, ignorant, and without morals. Thus, there was little concern for the poor, but issues like sanitary reform obviously benefited the wealthy and the poor.

The first of these municipal reforms, in New York City, developed as the 1857 creation of the Metropolitan Board of Police, and the New York Sanitary Association formed in 1859. The Sanitary Association also received the backing of four physicians who were leaders in health reform. These individuals were John H. Griscom, Elisha Harris, Joseph M. Smith, and Stephen Smith. Municipal reforms aimed to create separate agencies for city growth and maintenance, and these newly founded offices were held accountable to the state and not the city's government. Hence, the middle and upper classes were seeking ways to over-ride the immigrant vote. Even though the Sanitary Association sought to improve the lives and cleanliness of the upwardly elite, it worked closely with the New York Association for Improving Conditions of the Poor (AICP). These two groups continued to hold the backing of prominent physicians, but they were mostly run by laypersons. The AICP desired to improve the conditions of the city's slums, but its work toward elevating living conditions of the poor and working poor also benefited the upper classes. Neighborhood improvements helped decrease filth in the streets, and the removal or repair of ramshackle buildings helped decrease the risk of fires.

As these civic organizations grew so did their support in local newspapers. The 1863 creation of the New York Citizen's Association merely reflected the growing desires and approval of the public. The Citizen's Association sought to expand the works of the Sanitary Association and the AICP by merging the agendas of both groups into a central agency. This statement does not mean that the Citizen's Association superseded previous reform organizations. Instead, all of these groups still worked as separate units, but as new groups formed they built upon previous organizations to make their causes more concise.

In 1865, New York City formed the Metropolitan Board of Health (MBH) to evaluate and handle issues concerning city health. These dilemmas concerned fires, sewage systems, running water, and adequate housing for urban residents. These organizations continued to work for city sewage systems, cleaner streets, and safer living conditions, and they made annual reports detailing their inspections of local neighborhoods—rich and poor—and of factories and streets.


A glance at New York city, embracing the entire of Manhattan Island, will show that its geological position, its advantages for sewerage and drainage, in fact for everything that would make it salubrious and healthy, cannot be surpassed by any city in this or any other country. And still, with its bountiful supply of nature's choicest gifts, many of our readers will be surprised to hear that our death-rate is higher than that of any city on this continent, or any of the larger cities of Europe….

There is one other subject we wish to mention before concluding this paper: it is, the condition of the night-lodgers at the station-houses. From the report of the Board of Metropolitan Police, we find that 105,460 persons were accommodated with lodgings at the various precincts during the last twelve months. Mr. S. C. Hawley, the very accommodating chief clerk of this department, informs us that the number this year will be much greater. Over 100,000 sought refuge in the station-houses, glad to obtain the bare floor to rest their weary limbs; but how many pace our streets nightly, poverty-stricken and despairing, but too proud to seek a shelter in these abodes of crime! It is a stigma on the fair fame of this great city that, throughout its length and breadth, there is not one refuge, established by religious or philanthropic efforts, where the homeless can find shelter from the wintry night blasts.

    "Our beasts and our thieves and our chattels
    Have weight for good or for ill;
    But the poor are only his image,
    His presence, his word, his will;
    And so Lazarus lies at our doorstep,
    And Dives neglects him still."

In Montreal, Canada, refuges are connected with the church property, and are superintended by the female religious orders, we think more particularly by the Gray Nuns. In 1860, the Providence Row Night Refuge was established in London, under the care of the Sisters of Mercy. There is no distinction made as regards religious creed, and the only requisites necessary for admission are, to be homeless and of good character. Before retiring, a half-pound of bread and a basin of gruel are given to each lodger, and the same in the morning, before they are allowed to commence another day's efforts to obtain work. What charity could so directly appeal to our hearts as this Think how many men and women arrive daily in this metropolis, in search of employment! For days they eagerly seek it without success, hoarding their scanty means to the uttermost. Finally the time comes when the last dime is spent for bread, and they wander along, their hearts filled with dread, as night covers the earth with her sable mantle, knowing not whither they shall turn their weary steps. Think of the poor woman wending her way through the pelting storm; garments soaked and clinging to the chilled form; heart filled with despair, and crying to Heaven for shelter; head aching, temples throbbing, brain nearly crazed with terror; finally, crouching down under some old steps to wait the first gleam of day to relieve her from her agony. If one in such condition should reach the river-side, what a fearful temptation it must be to take that final leap which ends for ever earth's cares and sufferings, or, still worse for the poor female, the temptation to seek in sin the refuge denied her in every other way!

    "There the weary come, who through the daylight
    Pace the town and crave for work in vain:
    There they crouch in cold and rain and hunger,
    Waiting for another day of pain.
    In slow darkness creeps the dismal river;
    From its depths looks up a sinful rest.
    Many a weary, baffled, hopeless wanderer
    Has it drawn into its treacherous breast!
    There is near another river flowing.
    Black with guilt and deep as hell and sin:,
    On its brink even sinners stand and shudder—
    Cold and hunger goad the homeless in."

What a mute appeal for such institutions is the case of the little Italian boy found dead on the steps of one of our Fifth avenue palaces last winter! Think of this little fellow as he slowly perished that bitter night, at the very feet of princely wealth. How his thoughts must have reverted to his dark-browed mother in her far-off sunny home! And think of that mother's anguish, her wailing

"For a birdling lost that she'll never find."

when she heard of her boy's death, from cold and starvation, in the principal avenue of all free America! We consider we are safe in saying that in no other work of charity could a small amount of money be made to benefit so many as in the founding of these refuges.

In the police report it is recommended that "several of these be established in different parts of the city, to be under the supervision of the police." This is a great mistake. These people always associate station-houses and the police with crime; consequently it is bad policy for them to come constantly in contact with either. This is the objection to the lodging-rooms used in the various precincts. Official charity, as a rule, hardens those who dole it out, and degrades its recipients.

There are thousands of noble-hearted women attached to our different churches, who, if they once thoroughly understood this subject, would not cease their efforts until societies were established and refuges opened. How could it be otherwise! How could they nestle their little ones down to sleep in warm comfortable beds, and think of God's little ones freezing under their windows? How could they go to sleep themselves, and feel that some poor woman was probably wandering past their doorways, dying from want and exposure? We hope, before the chilling winds of next November remind us of the immensity of suffering the winter entails upon the poor, some philanthropic persons will have perfected this design, and have the refuges in working order. If such should be the case, the founders will find an ample reward in the words of Holy Writ, "He that hath mercy on the poor, lendeth to the Lord: and he will repay him."

If we could thus, by the adoption of every possible sanitary precaution, deprive our death-tables of all avoidable mortality; and by a proper religious influence elevate the moral character of the people, we should in the first place, save thousands of lives, now necessary to develop our vast resources; and, secondly, our advance toward perfection in healthfulness and public virtues would go hand in had with the gigantic strides being made in the adornment of our beautiful island. Our people would no longer seek other places in quest of health, as none more salubrious than New York could be found; and strangers, instead of saying, as is said of that most beautiful of Italy's fair cities, "See Naples, and die!" would exclaim, "Go to New York, and live!".


The Metropolitan Board of Health, with noted sanitary reformer Stephen Smith, worked long and hard to clean the sewage and general filth from New York streets. Some of this filth derived from animal waste and by-products from factories overflowing into the streets. The work of Smith and the MBH set the framework for other cities to establish sanitary reforms. The MBH led to the formation of the American Public Health Association in 1872.

Chicago, like New York, faced a plethora of public health issues. In the 1850s, it fell prey to a series of cholera and dysentery epidemics. These health crises were attributed to the city's foor waste disposal system, and in response to the problem the city hired Boston city engineer Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, in 1855, to devise a sewage plan for the city. Immediately, he proposed a plan, and the new sewer system was laid in place. He became the city's first Commissioner of Public Works, and his sewage system reversed the flow of the Chicago River. In 1879, he resigned the position, but he continued to plan sanitary and sewage systems for other cities.

The sewage system of Chicago, and later with other U.S. cities, was only one aspect of reform that derived from the works of sanitary reformers. The most noted sanitary reformers came from New York City, but this middle and upper class movement aided in city planning and areas of reform for the poor throughout the nation. Sanitary reform helped bring issues of immigrant and working poor living conditions to the forefront of U.S. media and politics, and individuals like Jacob A. Riis captured their disparity. Riis began lecturing about the living conditions of the poor, and after the invention of flash photography he began adding images to his talks. The work of Riis shows a continuation to the public health debate and sanitary reform era. And not to be forgotten, the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906 added another catalyst to health reformers. Sinclair's book used the meat packing district of Chicago to display the horrid living and working conditions of immigrant workers and factories. The 1906 Federal Foods and Drug Act reflected the public outcry about deplorable conditions in factories.

The early twentieth century saw a number of public health reform measures pass through Congress and local municipalities, and into the modern era these reforms are still taking place. In the modern era, these reforms have evolved from the removal of sewage to the removal of chemicals in water supplies, the recycling of goods, and of how to deal with growing landfills.



Christine Stansell. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Nancy Tomes. The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1988 and 1999.


Gostin, Lawrence O. and Scott Burris. 'The Law and the Public's Health: A Study of Infectious Disease Law in the United States." Columbia Law Review. 99.1 (January 1999): 59-128.

Link, William A. "Privies, Progressivism, and Public Schools: Health Reform and Education in the Rural South, 1919–1920." The Journal of Southern History. 54.4 (November 1988): 623-642.

Web sites

American Chemical Society. "Apostles of Cleanliness." 2002. 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University. "Medicine and Madison Avenue." 2002. 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

About this article

The Sanitary and Moral Condition of New York City

Updated About content Print Article