Monday, August 24, 2015

A Baker's Life in 1860

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, most of the city's bakers were Scottish and Irish, but that began to change in the 1850's, as Germans flowed into New York. By the end of the decade, responsibility for baking the city's bread had passed into German hands.

The typical German bakery, housed in a tenement cellar, was a low-ceilinged room with a dirt floor and no running water. The "boss baker" often lived upstairs with his family and a handful of employees who shared the apartment as boarders. Many times, though, employees slept in the cellar next to the ovens, a sack of flour for their bed. Some slept in the dough vats. Economic survival for the small-time baker depended on every member of the family. The children worked as apprentices, while the baker's wife was in charge of the boarders, for whom she cooked and did laundry. On the most densely populated blocks in the German wards, a cellar bakery was found in every third or fourth building.

Prior to the widespread use of steam power beginning in 1882, industry in New York ran on muscle power, most of it supplied by immigrants. In a city of shipbuilders, ironworkers, and stonecutters, the baker's life was especially harsh. His shift started late in the afternoon and lasted until early morning, which meant a fourteen-hour workday or sometimes more. At the end of the long, hot night (temperatures in the bakery could easily reach one hundred degrees), the bakers hauled their goods up to the street and loaded up the delivery wagons. Now, finally, it was time to rest, just as the sun was coming up over the East River. Faces caked with flour, the bakers slept while the rest of the city went about its business. It was a topsy-turvy existence and a lonely one, too. For all his sweaty work, the journeyman baker earned between eight and eighteen dollars a week, hardly enough to support a family. The consequences were plain. More than any other tradesman, many New York bakers were consigned to a life of bachelorhood.

From 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman.  Via Jbowman.

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