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Herb - social history for every classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

Life in Mid-19th Century Five Points

During the mid-nineteenth century, well over a million Irish fled their native country for the United States. Those who settled in New York City overwhelmingly lived in the Five Points, a neighborhood that achieved international notoriety as an overcrowded, dangerous, and disease-ridden slum. But the Five Points was more than that. The immigrants who lived there provided the labor that fueled the city’s emerging industrial order. They established a foothold in politics through Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic machine. And the Five Points boasted a vibrant culture that attracted New Yorkers from all parts of the city.

The materials and teaching activities in this collection will give you multiple perspectives on the Five Points and the people who lived there. The collection utilizes letters, censuses, and bank records, among many primary sources, to paint a picture of life in the Five Points. In addition, ASHP’s documentary film Five Points: New York’s Irish Working Class in the 1850s provides rich visual images of the neighborhood and puts students in the shoes of the Mulvahills, an ordinary working-class family who made its home in America’s most famous slum.

This collection is designed to demonstrate the following historical understandings:

  • Thousands of Irish men and women fled the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s and 1850s and settled in urban communities in the U.S., including New York City's notorious slum, Five Points.

  • Five Points was afflicted by poverty, disease, and violence, but was also a working-class community where thousands of Irish, Germans, and African Americans worked, raised families, built churches, and established social and political institutions.

  • Because middle-class Protestants saw only corruption, vice, filth, extreme poverty, and intemperance in Five Points, they established missions to convert Irish Catholics, "improve" moral education, and ameliorate the conditions of the working poor.

  • The Irish were often depicted in mid-nineteenth century popular media using physical stereotypes that rationalized discrimination and were similar to racist caricatures of African Americans.

In This Collection