Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City's Historic Trash


Exploring a Hidden Archive of New York City’s Historic Trash


Fluid sloshes in glass vials when Danielle Swanson, the Tenement Museum’s collections manager, pulls open a shallow metal drawer full of little perfume bottles and other cosmetics. Even through sealed plastic baggies marked with tidy, scribbled labels, they smell vaguely medicinal, slightly floral, pleasantly antiseptic.

Like everything else in this basement storage space on New York’s Lower East Side, the perfumes were once trash—forgotten, left behind, or tossed away. The museum is known for having preserved or restored a handful of cramped living spaces and businesses in two tenement buildings—the kind that typified the neighborhood throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was a dense immigrant enclave. Today, its tours give visitors some sense of what life was like for Kosher butchers, Puerto Rican garment workers, and more. As the museum combed through these cramped, dilapidated apartments and storefronts, they exhumed plenty of debris that generations of residents had left behind.