We Don’t Know How People Used To Live In These Historic Homes

Monica Gray - February 10, 2024
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Living wasn’t always as comfortable as it is now. Back then, people didn’t have heating, air conditioning, beds, clean conditions, running water, or even their own space. Throughout history, living conditions have been difficult, dirty, and unhygienic. Many people died from the disease at a young age, and oftentimes, sewage was seen running through the streets. Clean drinking water was hard to come by, and sanitation was nonexistent. We’re going to take a look at some historic homes that were so bad, that it seems impossible that they housed people at one point in history.

Living 1 Orig
Norwood Secondary Library

London During the Industrial Revolution

According to the Museum of London, “London’s population grew rapidly during the 19th century. This led to major problems with overcrowding and poverty. Disease and early death were common for both rich and poor people. Victorian children did not have as many toys and clothes as children do today and many of them were homemade.” Life expectancy was very short, and many people did not make it past what we would consider a young age today.

To put it simply, this was not a time you’d want to live in. Many people died from disease and illness. According to Charles Dickens’s first weekly magazine, Mary Bayly said, in a very detailed description, “There are foul ditches, open sewers, and defective drains, smelling most offensively… not a drop of clean water can be obtained – all is charged to saturation with putrescent matter. Wells have been sunk on some of the premises, but they have become, in many instances, useless, from organic matter soaking into them. In some of the wells, the water is perfectly black and fetid. The paint on the window frames has become black from the action of the sulphurated hydrogen gas. Nearly all the inhabitants look unhealthy; the women especially complain of sickness and want of appetite; their eyes are sunken, and their skin shriveled.” It’s hard to imagine people slept, ate, and worked in these conditions. At least it’s nothing like it used to be.

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Washington

Seattle’s Dust Bowl Shantytowns (1930s)

During the Great Depression, life in the United States was rough. There was economic hardship, and most families lived in shantytowns, which were makeshift settlements with rudimentary shelters that barely protected them from the elements. These shantytowns earned the name “Hooverville,” all thanks to President Herbert Hoover who was held to be responsible for this economic crisis.

But the most noteworthy of them all was Seattle’s Hooverville, which stood from 1931 to 1941. Up to 1,200 people lived there, and they even had an unofficial mayor. Sociology student Donald Roy, who had seen this shantytown, described them as “scattered over the terrain in insane disorder.” Out of 639 residents, all but 7 of them were men, thanks to the city’s sanitation rules which required children and women not to live in Hooverville (Washington).

Workhouse Washday
History Extra

Holborn Court, London

To get a clearer idea of the types of homes and squalor people used to live in, we’ll take a look at a book excerpt from the 1800s. As editor George Godwin wrote in The Builder, describing the Holborn Court in 1859, “Tyndall’s-buildings is a court containing 22 houses… the basement story of nearly all… was filled with fetid refuse, of which it had been the receptacle for years.” This was the common living situation for people living during that time, especially those who were considered to be in the lower class.

He went on to write, “In some… it seemed scarcely possible that human beings could live: the floors were in holes, the stairs broken down, and the plastering had fallen… In one, the roof had fallen in: it was driven in by a tipsy woman one night, who sought to escape over the tiles from her husband.” This was mainly in London, but the same conditions spread to Westminister and Southwark (History Extra).

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Vermonter

The Hyde Log Cabin

Originally built in 1783, this is considered to be one of the oldest log cabins in the United States, the Hyde Log Cabin is located just north of the Grand Isle Center. The one-story structure has peeled cedar logs and is only 20 by 25 feet. Ten children lived in this home, all raised by Jedediah Hyde Jr., who also built the home. For over 150 years, the Hyde family and generations after lived in this home.

The cabin only had one large room, heated by a stone fireplace. It successfully protected the families and kept them warm during the harsh Vermont winters. Not only that, but it served as a gathering space for residents, who would use the space to socialize and trade goods. Now, it’s a historic museum, and even though it has been restored, it maintains most of its original structure (HMBD).

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Edinburgh Museums

Edinburgh’s Old Town (19th Century)

Slums not only existed in the USA and London but also in the Old Town of Edinburgh in the 19th century, which had slums characterized by narrow closes and overcrowded tenements. Families lived in small, poorly ventilated spaces with limited access to basic amenities. It’s described as having an appalling, overcrowded slum. According to Robert Chambers, who in 1824 wrote,

“Edinburgh is two towns in more ways than one. It contains an upper and under town – the one a sort of thoroughfare for the children of business and fashion, the other a den of retreat for the poor, the diseased, and the ignorant.” During this time, many people flooded into historic closes looking for work. It was during this time when typhoid and cholera killed thousands of people. Many houses were divided and then subdivided, so multiple families could occupy the space of one home (Edinburgh Museums).

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Victorian Web

Notting Hill

In modern-day times, Notting Hill is a desirable place to live, with lush housing options and a beautiful neighborhood. But it wasn’t always that way. During Queen Victoria’s time, it was a filthy slum full of disease. Walking around the neighborhood today, you probably wouldn’t believe how people used to live in such squalor in that neighborhood.

One lane, in particular, earned its name as the Potteries and Piggeries, a plague spot when pig keepers and brickmakers moved to the area and lived alongside their animals. Basic sanitation did not exist during this time (Victorian Web).

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Archaeology

Peasant Houses In England

Peasants, which simply means people who had to live off the produce from their labor, in medieval times lived in simple huts with thatched roofs. These dwellings were small and lacked proper insulation. Families had to endure challenging conditions, especially during harsh weather.

According to Archeology, these houses were “Built of poor-quality materials scavenged from the immediate locality ‘fallen timber, mud, and furze’ with animals and humans living in the same structure, they would have needed frequent replacement, and would have turned to dark earth within a few years of abandonment.” Though they were largely self-sufficient, they lived in squalor and oftentimes, many families were living under one roof (Archaeology).

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Walks

Frying Pan Alley

What’s considered to be historic housing nowadays was the norm for those living during the 19th century. Jack London, an American journalist during that time, explored the poorest parts of London to experience, firsthand, the conditions of Victorian London slum living.

In his book, The People of the Abyss, he describes how he walked on “slimy pavement” and visited a “sweating den,” considering it to be an abomination of a house. The foul stairway was full of filth and refuse, and the space itself was full of tiny rooms and twenty people crammed into one room, a desk in particular where the process of shoemaking was taking place. During this time, roofs were covered in fish and meat bones and filth, and human waste was everywhere (Walks).

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NYPL

Tenements in New York City (Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries)

This was one of the worst times in history to live in New York City. Immigrant families in New York City often lived in crowded, unsanitary, dirty tenements. These were multi-story apartment buildings with small, cramped units lacking proper ventilation and sanitation, and oftentimes, people succumbed to disease. During this period, there were more than 15,000 tenement buildings in NYC to try and keep up with the booming population, which was reaching one million.

According to NYPL, “Buildings that did not occupy the entire lots often had “rear tenements” built into the yards behind them, providing even worse conditions than rooms of the buildings that faced the streets. It was all very dense, very crowded, and unregulated—conditions that fostered disease and inhumane living conditions, which soon caught the eye of reformers.” Because of these squalor conditions, eventually led to the Tenement House Act of 1867, which required fire escapes in buildings.

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Landmarks in London History

St. Giles Rookery

Close to the Convent Garden in London was one of the worst slums in Victorian London. It dates back to 1101 when Henry I’s wife, Matilda, founded a leper hospital. From then on, the area continued to breed squalor and filth, full of neglect, poverty, and disease. The St. Giles Rookery, which is slum housing, became a lawless place where gangs and prostitution ruled the area.

According to Landmarks in London history, “In the 18th century the Rookery was a home to the “Irish and aliens, beggars and dissolute and depraved characters,” which is where ” The residents in these slums were not seen as victims as we would sympathize today, but seen as victims of themselves; they had succumbed and created the destitution and deprivation they had found themselves in, and the genuine poor were viewed no differently to the criminals they shared the streets with.” It was a conglomeration of criminals and lawbreakers (Landmarks in London History).

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NJ

C. A. Nothnagle Log House

As one of the oldest surviving log houses in the United States of America, the C.A. Nothnagle Log House dates back to 1643. It’s 16 by 22 feet and was constructed using oak logs. Recently, it was for sale. The most fascinating part about this home is that it was built without a single nail.

The sellers described the house as, “A two-story Colonial home was attached to the original structure in the late 1730s, expanding the living space to 1,800 square feet. There is also a machine shop, built in the 1930s, a shed, and a four-car garage on the tract, which is graced with 100-foot-tall redwood trees.” It was open as a museum in recent years, displaying artifacts with the option to tour the property. Though it’s a much more comfortable historic house than many others on this list, it’s still not as spacious or comfortable when compared to the homes we have today (NJ).

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Jack the Ripper

Whitechapel

If you’ve ever heard of Jack the Ripper, he used to wander the streets of Whitechapel looking for his next victims. During that time, it was home to many poor people, very overcrowded, and full of crime. Lodging in Whitechapel mainly housed the homeless overnight, offering limited facilities and horrendous conditions. Over time, more and more people were packed into the small, cramped facilities, which increased the amount of disease and uncleanliness.

Entire families often shared one room, and the streets were lined with open sewers. Tuberculosis and cholera were ever-present. Because unemployment was common, many people turned to begging in the streets. In 1888, the infamous Jack the Ripper murders began. He targeted prostitutes in the area, and they never actually caught the murderer (Jack the Ripper).

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Passage Port

Adsit Log Cabin

This log cabin was supposedly built by Samuel Adsit back in 1778 and still exists in its original location. Adsit was an American Revolutionary War veteran, and he and his family of 16 all lived inside this log cabin.

The area of Lake Champlain around the cabin is stunning. Adsit built this log cabin as a place for retirement after the war. He built a new room in the house every time a child was born. The house ended up getting too large because he and his wife had 16 children, which ended up completely enveloping the original cabin. The house was in very good condition when it was purchased in the mid-1920s (My Champlain Valley).

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Walks

Devil’s Acre

This area, located in Westminister, was another section of London that was notorious for its horrendous living conditions. Charles Dickens wrote about this area and said, “There is no district in London more filthy and disgusting, more steeped in villainy and guilt, than that on which every morning’s sun casts the somber shadows of the Abbey.” In this area, prostitutes, thieves, criminals, and pickpockets thrived.

These people came from the impoverished countryside of London in the hopes of making money, where they instead lived in squalor in yet another London slum. The grim portrayal by Charles Dickens captures the grim reality of this impoverished enclave in Westminister, where destitution and despair were pervasive. In their desperate pursuit of livelihood, individuals from the impoverished countryside flocked to this urban labyrinth, only to find themselves ensnared in a cycle of poverty and degradation. Despite the allure of potential prosperity, the grim realities of squalid living conditions and rampant criminality dashed their hopes, perpetuating a cycle of hardship and misery within yet another of London’s notorious slums. (Walks).

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DCVA

Lower Swedish Cabin

Living in the Lower Swedish Cabin, believed to have been constructed between 1640 and 1650 by Swedish immigrants in Pennsylvania, would have posed significant challenges reflective of its time and setting. Built entirely from locally sourced trees, the cabin embodies the rustic simplicity characteristic of early colonial architecture, offering minimal protection against the harsh realities of the wilderness. With rudimentary construction techniques and basic amenities, the cabin would have provided scant insulation against the bitter cold of Pennsylvania winters and the oppressive heat of summer, making the task of maintaining a comfortable living environment arduous for its occupants.

Moreover, the cabin’s historical role as one of many tenant houses for mill workers underscores the socioeconomic challenges faced by its inhabitants. As part of a community reliant on agrarian and industrial labor, residents would have grappled with the demands of subsistence farming and manual labor, often under conditions of economic uncertainty and instability. (DCVA).

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Jack the Ripper

Bethnal Green

During Victorian times, Bethnal Green was the poorest area, with some of the lowest-class housing in horrendous condition. In 1863, The Penny Illustrated Paper published an article about the squalor that was Bethnal Green.

It read, “The very first house we enter contains a few sights which shook the experienced officer, who has made his way in with the brief introduction, “All right; only come to see the state of the rooms. The narrow and uneven passage is thickly covered with dirt, which makes it difficult to tell whether we are really on boards or the bare earth. Straight before us is the yard, which is flooded with foul water, and which reeks of the most offensive odors.” It was best to avoid this area altogether. Men and women would succumb to illness, and the entire area was notorious for its prostitutes and criminals (Jack the Ripper).

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Van Leer Archives

Mortonson-Van Leer Log Cabin

This cabin originally served as an underground railroad station and is also one of the last historical homes in Swedesboro, Gloucester County, New Jersey, United States. The cabin only has one small room, a single door, and no windows. It was built in 1654, before and during the American Civil War.

The cabin has tremendous historical significance. According to Van Leer archives, “Dr. Bernardhus Van Leer owned the land on where this Cabin stood. His son Samuel and grandchildren would own it through generations. Samuel and his family were documented supporting black communities and newly freed slaves.” This small dwelling housed many people throughout the years (Van Leer Archives).

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The Past

Jacob’s Island, Bermondsey

English towns during the Victorian era were not places you wanted to be. Charles Dickens seemed fascinated by yet another spot in Victorian England, a place called Jacob’s Island. It was known to be the capital of cholera and a notorious rookery. Henry Mayhew recounted what life was like in Jacob’s Island and the homes people resided in, writing ‘The striking peculiarity of Jacob’s Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping-rooms at the back of the houses, which overhang the dark ditch that stagnates beside them.

“The houses are built upon piles, so that the place has positively the look of a Flemish street, flanking a sewer instead of a canal; while the little rickety bridges that span the huge gutters and connect court with court give it the appearance of the Venice of Drains… As I passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of water. In the bright light, it appeared the color of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow – indeed, it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet I was assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.” Not only did people live in squalor, but they didn’t even have clean drinking water (The Past).

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365 Cincinatti

Miller-Leuser Log House

The existence within an eighteenth-century log cabin like this one in Ohio would have presented formidable challenges for its inhabitants. Constructed entirely from natural and hand-hewn logs, the structure embodies the rudimentary architectural techniques of its time, offering scant insulation against the harsh elements of the region. During the bitter winters and sweltering summers characteristic of Ohio’s climate, the cabin would have provided little respite from the extremes, leaving its occupants vulnerable to the whims of nature. With limited access to modern amenities, the daily tasks of sustenance and survival would have demanded immense physical exertion and resourcefulness from the pioneers who called this cabin home.

Moreover, the isolation and rugged terrain surrounding the cabin further compounded the difficulties of frontier living. Situated on hundreds of acres amidst the untamed wilderness of the Ohio River region, the cabin stood as a solitary outpost in a vast and unforgiving landscape. Far removed from the conveniences and support networks of established settlements, its inhabitants would have grappled with the challenges of self-sufficiency, contending with the demands of subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering in order to sustain themselves and their families. (Remarkable Ohio).

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Walks

Southwark

Located south of the Thames River, Southwark had a rough past that’s still present in its modern-day streets. It was the melting pot of some of the poorest people in all of London, where prostitutes and chimney sweeps would gather. It was notorious for pickpockets and street sellers who were undercover criminals. Worst of all was the body-snatching gang. In The Lancet, workhouses were described as “a miserable room, foul and dirty’, ‘the floor being simply bedded with straw” and a “den of horrors.”

People who lived in this squalor had no choice and had to deal with the horrid conditions (Walks).

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Notes from the Frontier

Sod Houses

In some pioneer regions, especially on the Great Plains, people built houses using sod (earth and grass). These houses could be cramped and lacked proper insulation. Several sod houses existed during this time, and families would often live in sod houses for six to eight years. They turned to the ground beneath their feet for shelter, instead of relying on trees, which may not have existed near where they lived. They used soil that was wet, soft, and moist. Oftentimes, the houses were infested with snakes, mice, bugs, varmints, and vermin.

One settler said, “In the afternoons, every afternoon, the rattlesnakes would come out of their hidden dens in the walls and roof, and sun themselves on the western window-sill.” Most of the sod houses leaked, turning the floor into a quagmire. Many roofs ended up collapsing because of how long it took them to dry out. Another settler said, “An umbrella is indispensable when preparing meals in the sod home,” because dirt and grass would fall like rain inside the dry house. Another settler recalled, “I had not been asleep long when I was awakened by something similar to fine hail falling on my face and hands. I called out, ‘Please get a light, something is falling on my face and hands, and all over the bed.’ This aroused the lady of the house, and she remarked, ‘It is only the dirt falling out of the sod which our house is made of, and when the wind blows, it gets dry, and it crumbles off. We are so used to it that it does not disturb us.’ But I could not sleep, as I was afraid that the whole house would fall in on us at any moment.” These conditions were horrendous and oftentimes not safe (Thirteen).

Jacktheripper
Jack the Ripper

The Old Nichol Slum

Located in the heart of East End was one of the most notorious slums in all of Victorian London. The streets were narrow, dark, and dirty, and home to some horrid living conditions. Disease and crime ran rampant throughout the streets, and many people died from the disease at a young age.

Author Sarah Wise described some of the living conditions in the Old Nichol Slum in Shoreditch as, “walls are running with damp, and the meager fire burning in the grate has drawn some of the moisture out of the plaster, creating a small local fog… This is home to a married couple with six children. There is no bed, and when you ask them how they sleep, the wife replies, ‘Oh, we sleep about the room how we can’. Walk through a hole in the wall into the second room and you’ll see the husband and two adolescent sons making uppers for boots. They are so busy they don’t even look up or gesture; they are haggard and hollow-cheeked.” (Horrid Hackney).

All
All That’s Interesting

The Streets of Victorian London

If someone couldn’t afford housing, they could pay four pennies to sleep in a coffin in a warehouse in Victorian London. In 1859, one architect recalled, “It seemed scarcely possible that human beings could live. The floors were in holes, the stairs broke down, and the plastering had fallen.” Though it might seem that these Londoners only drank alcohol and were lazy, they fought hard for their survival. If they did not fight, they did not survive. Boys usually shoveled from chimneys, and girls worked at a match factory.

The suicide rate was so high, that people would fish bodies out of the Thames river as a full-time job. Crime was also common. According to All That’s Interesting, “In the 1890s, the daughter of a wealthy family decided to visit London’s slums, wondering if they were truly as terrible as the papers made them sound. When the girl later vanished in the slums, it became front-page news. Detectives combed through the poorest corners of London until they found her being held for ransom. During her visit, the girl had bragged about her wealthy parents, which led to her kidnapping by a couple of residents hoping for a reward.” They did anything and everything they could to make a penny or two (All That’s Interesting).

High Street Slum
All That’s Interesting

Glasgow Slums

The slums of London and Edinburgh were not the sole regions plagued by deplorable living conditions during the 19th century. Glasgow, a prominent city in England, also grappled with dire circumstances akin to those witnessed in its urban counterparts. In 1868, as captured in photographs, the squalid conditions within Glasgow’s slums mirrored the appalling scenes prevalent in London. With the city’s population burgeoning, the slums expanded exponentially, exacerbating the plight of its impoverished inhabitants.

Reports from Glasgow Live depict a grim reality, where cramped rooms, housing up to eight family members, were engulfed in layers of soot and grime. Shockingly, communal facilities were shared among as many as 30 residents, underscoring the dire overcrowding pervasive throughout the tenement blocks. From the east end to the Gorbals, the landscape was marred by dilapidated walkways, dimly lit alleys, and thoroughfares strewn with refuse and entangled with barbed wire. Despite the inhospitable environment, the resilient denizens of Glasgow persevered, endeavoring to eke out a semblance of normalcy amidst the adversity that defined their daily existence. (Glasgow Live).

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