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In my world the technology is around the mid 1800s or a bit earlier, and I have a big city with an empire and all sorts of colonialism problems that are minorly irrelevant to this question. What is relevant is that in and around major cities in those colonies there are slums and shanties.

I am trying to figure out how those might be built in a mid northern clime using urban materials of the period. It’s a bit of a reverse India with the European climate place being colonised and the more equatorial colonising. The slums are similar to some of what exists in the Indian subcontinent in the poorest areas.

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    $\begingroup$ Shanties are considered temporary in temperate climates, since they generally lack adequate heat to keep folks (and their children) alive through a winter...or trying to heat them adequately will destroy them or asphyxiate the inhabitants or have other unpleasant results. Oh, and fire spreads easily in tight wooden warrens... $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 30 '18 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ In early modern times houses in slums in temperate Europe were built in brick and timber, just like houses not in slums, only with less quality. Sometimes mudbricks were used, mostly in eastern Europe. There has never been a time when houses in Europe at temperate latitudes were built with the kind of materials used in modern tropical shanty towns; we need reasonable thermal insulation. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 30 '18 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Could you please give an example of a shanty town in early modern temperate Europe? I cannot find one off the top of my head. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 30 '18 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP there isn’t, which is why I am asking instead of just looking at history. $\endgroup$ – Tanzanite Dragoness Dec 30 '18 at 16:31
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Have a look at Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city in Mongolia has an average annual temperature of -0.4C with winter temperatures falling to -36C to -40C. 60% of the 1.3 million people live in the large ger districts - basically tent cities. Gers (Mongolian, aka yurts in Turkik languages) house hundreds of thousands of the residents in these districts, although there are (strongly resisted) plans to replace the gers and wooden shacks with apartment blocks.

So, if you are looking for a real-life, contemporary shanty town in the coldest national capital city in the world, look at the ger districts. The traditional gers are made up of a circular wooden frame with a felt covering and a conical roof. See the linked article for more details. These have been used for hundreds of years (at least) and are still used today.

One of the predictable consequence of a large concentration of people in a cold climate with primitive heating is a serious air pollution problem. This problem may be mitigated in the OP's world by placing the shanty town in a warmer climate (requiring less combustion for heating) and/or geography more conducive to air flow through the city.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yurts are the traditional dwellings of Mongols. They don't live in yurts because they are poor, they live in yurts because they have always lived in yurts. Actually a yurt is moderately expensive, quite confortable, and thermally well-insulated. (And a yurt is more in the nature of a transportable home than of a tent.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 3 at 23:08
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In early modern times houses in slums in temperate Europe were built in brick and timber, just like houses not in slums, only with less quality. Sometimes mudbricks were used, mostly in eastern Europe. There has never been a time when houses in Europe at temperate latitudes were built with the kind of materials used in modern tropical shanty towns; we need reasonable thermal insulation.

Since building shanty towns was not practicable, what they did was agglomerate in slums. It was not uncommon for a bed to be shared between a day worker and a night worker. Even cheaper high-density sleeping arrangements included four-penny coffins and penny sit-ups.

Four-penny coffins

Men's sleeping quarters in London's Burne Street hostel. Circa 1900. Photograph by an anonymous photographer, public domain; available on Wikipedia).

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Among the materials which come to my mind, there are

  • wooden planks, or leftover of them. Used for the frame, walls or the roofing
  • pottery or stony roof tiles, mainly for the roofing
  • vegetation branches, in lack of anything better, to make for walls or doors
  • cow dung or mud: mixed with straw or other vegetable fibers, sun dried, can make for something resembling a brick
  • felt or leather: can make for some temporary roofing
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People would scavenge for any building material they could get.

That's primarily wood to construct a shanty with. Charred beams of burned-down buildings, a broken door for a wall, worm-eaten planks of furniture as a roof. If the vegetation nearby is not completely destroyed, they would collect green wood as well.

Since big pieces of wood are hard to come by, people would build only part of their shanty above ground level and dig out the interior until an adult could stand barely upright in there.

Next are textiles. Forget fur and leather, these are too valuable to be thrown away in a still-usable condition. Cotton was historically very expensive, too. Clothes were traditionally made so they could be deconstructed and the pieces used for a new item of clothing, so the only fabrics available for the poor were threadbare rags with holes in them or gunnysack.

Due to the cold climate they would avoid any windows in a shanty. The door would be hung as thickly as possible with old bedsheets or drapes to keep the cold outside.

As roofing, people could use grass sods (as did the vikings), mud caced straw (using garbage from stables or barns) or twigs and leaves from local vegetation.


You should keep in mind that the general lack of food and hygiene and the cold winter would prevent the slums from growing to a size comparable to modern Indian slums. Most infants would die of malnutrition or infection and the old and weak would freeze to death every winter.

For the same reason, communal shelters run by charitable organizations like a church would replace those shanties. Brick buildings increase the chance of survival in winter and no honorable citizen would accept shanties constructed of garbage to spoil their city.

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