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Coins at NYC's Tenement Museum

Orchard Street, ca. 1898 Tenement Museum
Orchard Street, ca. 1898
Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side explores the history of immigration in New York City with a variety of tours and exhibits centered along a row of former tenement houses on Orchard Street. The museum employs an innovative approach that uses a combination of historical preservation and historical narrative to connect visitors to the experience of immigration and instill an appreciation of the role that it has played in shaping American life.

©Alan Roche
©Alan Roche

Although the museum has since expanded, it was originally housed in a five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street that was constructed in 1863. To visit, you need to sign up for one of the assorted guided tours, which will take you through a particular floor of the building that has been arranged to show how the different groups of immigrants that inhabited the neighborhood over the years lived. The “Shop Life” tour, for example, looks at the various stores that occupied the basement of the building, which has been fixed up as an 1870s-era German saloon (my review). The 4th floor tour focuses on Irish immigrants, and so on. The building was originally divided into twenty apartments in addition to the two basement-level store fronts and it is estimated that over seven thousand immigrants lived there at one time or another, so there are a lot of stories to tell!

In any case, the reason that I am blogging about the Tenement Museum here is that they posted this on their Instagram account the other day:

As the caption indicates, the museum is presently expanding and discovered an old coin in the walls at 103 Orchard Street. Intrigued, I contacted to them to find out if they had found any other numismatic material over the years.

The Tenement Museum has about 10,000 items in their collection, which includes objects discovered and preserved from the former tenements at 91, 97, and 103 Orchard Street, and historical objects that have been donated or acquired to use for its tours and exhibitions. The artifacts found range from wooden toys to animal bones. We visited to take a look at the eight coins that were found in the buildings (there are additional coins and tokens that came in as donations), which ranged in date from 1876 to 1929. The oldest, an 1876 ‘Indian Head’ cent pictured below, was found in a rat’s nest under the floorboards.


Seven out of the eight coins in the collection were pennies, which is hardly surprising given that higher value coins were less likely to go missing. There was a wooden privy in the back court of 97 Orchard Street that sat above a mortared-brick vault filled with water that was periodically drained into the sewer system. When archaeologists excavated the back yard in the 1990s, the narrow vault yielded a trove of artifacts, including a 1909 Lincoln cent.


This was the first year that this famed coin designed by Victor David Brenner was minted. Lincoln’s portrait was added at that time to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and this was the first US coin to feature a president and the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ The new penny struck a chord with the public and became a popular keepsake. How this one ended up the privy, we will never know, but it is an interesting bit of Americana. The other coins were two Indian Head cents (1893, 1906), and four more Lincoln cents (1910, 1912, 1926, 1927).

TM-LibertyHeadNickAt right is the obverse of the 1908 ‘Liberty Head’ nickel that workers discovered in the walls the other day. As work on the buildings is ongoing, we suspect that more coins will be uncovered in the future and we will update this post if and when we hear about something new (see update below). In the meantime, I would encourage anyone to do a guided tour or check out one of the many other events at the museum.


Thanks to curator David Favaloro (left) and collections manager Danielle Swanson (right) for hosting us!

Matthew Wittmann

Tenement Museum
Tenement Museum

Update: It seems that just yesterday (12/15) another coin was found under linoleum laid in one of the apartments at 103 Orchard Street and it is real classic…a 1918 ‘Mercury’ dime.