NYPL Exhibitions

Ten Cents for Lunch

Most of the families living in lower Manhattan tenements at the turn of the 20th century had neither the time nor the money to pay much attention to lunch. Even women at home during the day were earning if they possibly could: some scrubbed the hallways in exchange for rent, while others did piecework for garment manufacturers. There was rarely enough cash on hand to buy food in quantity, and kitchens that often doubled as bedrooms and workshops had little storage space. All this meant that meals could be haphazard, and menus consisted of whatever the family could afford at the moment.

And what could they afford? According to one study, a tenement family with five children typically spent about a dollar a day on food, assuming the father was working. Social workers recorded meals that included bread and coffee for breakfast, and potatoes, bread, meat, and perhaps canned or fresh vegetables for dinner. Based on neighborhood prices at the time, the family could have spent around 85 cents a day on those two meals. A workingman could get a “free lunch” at the saloon if he spent a nickel on beer. That left everyone else with 10 cents a day for lunch. Often a child was sent downstairs with a few coins to buy the family’s meal from the pushcarts and shops. On many days lunch consisted of little more than a can of condensed milk, which everyone at the table spread on slices of bread.