Fourth Ward, New York City

Map of Fourth Ward, New York City, 1865.

In poor neighborhoods of 19th-century New York City, like the Fourth Ward shown on the map below, people lived in high densities under primitive conditions. The clean water came from a single tap, often in the yard, and the toilet was a backyard privy that often overflowed. Consequently, residents of such areas suffered appallingly high rates of illness and mortality.

In 1864, New York's most prominent physicians undertook a comprehensive, block-by-block investigation of sanitary conditions in the Fourth Ward, one of the city's poorest areas where conditions were among the city's worst. Appended to the published report was this detailed map that dramatically demonstrates the correlation between overcrowding, poor sanitation, and disease.

For each building, the map shows the number of floors, domiciles (although some were only one room), families, and total persons in every single dwelling. Black stars mark especially unhealthy buildings, and multiple stars outbreaks of typhus and smallpox. The map also shows what you couldn't see from the street: the large number of small houses wedged behind other homes. White circles indicate hydrants—the single water tap for the houses. White squares with an "X" mark privies, and solid black squares indicate privies in particularly offensive conditions.

In 1866 the state legislature established the Metropolitan Board of Health with broad power to regulate public health in the city. The Board was the first effective board of health in the country and the legislation was a model for other cities.

Roger Simon
Professor of History