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Gotham City: 1908

"Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, New York." Circa 1908, horses and motorcars shared the streets. Detroit Publishing glass negative. View full size.

"Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, New York." Circa 1908, horses and motorcars shared the streets. Detroit Publishing glass negative. View full size.


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Up the ramp

To Anonymous Tipster and Dave (whatever happened to Dave?)

-- nearly all the livery stables were multi-storied, and many had elevators, but the elevators were for hay and grain. The horses ascended to their stalls on the upper floors by ramp. There are still four carriage horse stables in NYC, and all are of this design: 37th and 38th Streets between 10th & 11th, and 48th and 52nd Streets between 11th and 12th. The ramps can be seen from the sidewalk in all except the one on 37th, which faces the back of the building.

Men without hats

F. Scott Fitzgerald made the comment when he was in college that he saw a group of young men going out without their hats and he dared to do the same. So at least around WWI, a few people risked societal disapproval by going outside bare-headed.

Everything is old

I wonder what it was like to live at a time when everything in existence was old: the buildings, the vehicles, your clothes? I even asked my aunt, who was born in 1887, and she said, "Well, they didn't seem old at the time." But they look so old.

MTA Double-Deckers

In the mid to late 70's there were double-deckers in service for the MTA on Avenue of the Americas. I think they were M6s.

If you know the City, I went to "Little Red School House," on Bleeker, and took that bus every day.

That would be cool if they made a return.

[From the NY Times: Double-decker buses "returned in 1976 when the eight British-made double decker buses went into service again on Fifth Avenue as part of a test program. But the buses did not hold up well, said Charles F. Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit, and were taken off the road after about two years." - Dave]


I remember seeing an editorial, from the dawn of the motor vehicle age, to the effect that all the pollution in the streets would be going away with advancing prevalence of the motor car.


I can just barely remember double-deckers in NYC in the early '50s in regular revenue service. This is not to be confused with tourist buses of recent decades.

Now one is being tested for transit duty.

Kids These Days

I was just reading in our local paper today some things from 100 years ago, and a socialite wanted to know how long this fad of young ladies going outside with short sleeves and no hats would last!

Re: Hat pins

Another nearly forgotten use for hat pins was self defense, a purposeful jab with a sturdy and ready-to-hand hat pin was frequently enough to discourage the attentions of less polite elements.

Hansom Cab

Note the hansom cab in front of the double-decker bus. The driver sat behind and above the passenger compartment, and controlled the door latch by a lever from his seat. That way he was sure that he'd get his fare! Both of my Irish grandfathers drove hansoms in New York in the 1880's and 90's, and their experiences made their way into family lore:

SWELL DUDE: You DO know the way to the Lamb's Club, my good Man?

GRANDPA: Do you take me for a greenhorn? Why it's in the sheep, isn't it? Now, where are yez going?

Silver Vaults

New York Times, December 11, 1898

They are Coming More Into Use in Modern Houses

. . . Where safes are not used for table silver, the silver vault is built into the house, opening from the butler's pantry. A family well known in New York society, which figured not long ago in a noted burglary case, has recently had larger silver vaults put into the house. The most prominent architects now plan for these vaults in most of their most pretentious city and country houses. These vaults are small rooms fitted up much like the silver safes, though possibly with less velvet and more woodwork, as the vault is used frequently to hold fine china as well as silver. . . . The vault is built exactly on the principle of the most modern bank vaults in regard to security and outside finish. There are massive doors of the metal finished on the inside with a brass plate which shows through the heavy plate glass covering it. There is the day gate of open metal work, with a simple fastening exactly as in the banks, and used also for convenience. The woman of to-day not only has more valuables than she had a few years ago, but she uses them more frequently, and the bank is useful only for very valuable and seldom-used plate or while she is away in the Summer.


It seems so incongruous to see horses in the middle of a big city. Where did they eat? Where did they poop? Where did they stay at night?

[There were hundreds of livery stables and carriage houses in New York. Many were multi-story stables with elevator hoists. The horses went on the street, and the Department of Sanitation cleaned up after them. - Dave]

Freeze Frame

Notice something unusual about this picture? The action of moving objects is nearly frozen by the shutter speed. Most street scenes of the early 20th century have very blurred action due to the slow lenses and the even slower film emulsions. But why? I have in my hand a Seneca folding 4x5 camera from about 1910 and the fastest shutter speed is 1/200th. Why would a camera manufacturer offer such a fast shutter speed if the available films could not keep up? Maybe photographers did not choose the fastest speeds for some other reason. A clue might be in the very out of focus pedestrians in the foreground of this image. In order for the photographer to stop action using a film rated at ASA 25 or slower the lens aperture would have to be wide open resulting a blurry foreground and a blurry background. My guess is that most photographers were captured by the majesty of the scene – the beautiful new buildings or the sweeping landscape – and were less interested in the comings and goings of their fellow citizens. So faced with a decision between fast shutter speeds and long depths of field they chose to stop the lens down. Of course there were photographers that focused on people from the very beginning but it seems the street scene as a social document had yet to mature.

[Regarding "available films," this photograph, like almost all photos of the era, was made without film. It's a glass plate negative. Just about any glass plate exposed outdoors would have had a short exposure time. Stop-action street photography was nothing new or unusual, as the hundreds of similar photos here will attest. - Dave]


What amazes me is the amount of traffic in the streets. Somehow I equated this much traffic with the LA freeways of today, and not the horse carriages of lore. It makes sense, but just not something you think about.

Time Travel

Each of these street scene pictures is a window into a "lost" world--like peering back in time. And each one is just stuffed with interesting things to see and think about. The small details, things the photographer probably didn't even notice, are riveting now. The "Occult Books" is an excellent example. If I recall correctly, Spiritualism and the Fox sisters had kicked off in the late 1800s and of course as soon as photographs were possible, "ghost" and "spirit" photography became the rage.

Thanks, Shorpy. I hope you realize how much we appreciate this site and what a revelation it is. Every history class in high school should have it as required reading!


When was the exact moment that going out in public without a hat became legal in this country?

I'm guessing it was sometime in the 1950's, but it could have been in the late 1940's. Perhaps it resulted from the residue of WWII.

All I know is that every picture of Americans dressed for the public in a downtown or urban setting between 1900 and 19XX shows each man and woman with a hat. Virtually this is without exception!

What I don't know is when "XX" took place.

There were holdouts. You might see some crotchety old gent with a derby or Homburg in the 1960's, but he was a quaint relic.

What happened, and when did it happen? It just seems that the American Hat Industry went to heck in a handbasket on a given day for no apparent reason.

[The reason was JFK. - Dave]

He ain't doin' windows

It looks like he's hiding from a jealous husband or he levitated up from the occult book store.

How do the Ladies

get to the upper deck of the bus?

Armored Horse & Buggy?

There is a horse and wagon turning which has Silver Vaults 37 and what is probably the firm's address on its side. The number 37 can also be seen in the shadow under the footrest of the driver and passenger. Any idea what the name refers to?


When I opened up this picture I was practically drooling - so much to look at!!! Love these busy street scenes. Thanks again for all the great pics.

Which Direction? Clues...

In trying to figure out which direction they were looking, I first tried google maps and street view.

Since construction on the New York Public Library building started in 1902, then the photograph must be looking up 5th or east on 42nd.

You can see the banner on the right hand side says Apollinaris. Since they were located on 5th, then this photo must be looking up 5th Avenue.

1930 Blue Book
Apollinaris "The Queen of Table Waters." Apollinaris Agency, Co., 503 Fifth ave. at 42nd st., New York City.

Hat Pins

Ladies in those days kept their hats in place by pinning them to their hair with large steel pins often decorated with elaborate ends. Still sold to this day

42nd Street

Come and meet those dancing feet
On the avenue I'm taking you to - 42nd Street
Hear the beat of dancing feet
It's the song I love the melody of - 42nd Street

Little nifties from the fifties, innocent and sweet
Sexy ladies from the eighties who are indiscreet!
Oh, there side by side, they're glorified
Where the underworld can meet the élite - 42nd Street

Come and meet those dancing feet
On the avenue I'm taking you to - 42nd Street
Hear the beat of dancing feet
It's the song I love the melody of - 42nd Street

Little nifties from the fifties, innocent and sweet
Sexy ladies from the eighties who are indiscreet!
There side by side, they're glorified
Where the underworld can meet the élite
Naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty, 42nd Street

The big parade goes on for years
It's a rhapsody of laughter and tears
Naughty, bawdy, gawdy, sporty, 42nd Street

Talk about Hollywood advertising

I know Hollywood likes to tease us a year or so before a big movie comes out, but really, "Bull Durham" being advertised in 1910?

(yeah, yeah, I know, but I couldn't resist)

Busy street

I love these old pictures of NYC, especially since I work on Madison Avenue and take a daily lunch stroll down Fifth Ave. I was wondering how the ladies on the upper deck of the bus kept their hats on but I guess the bus didn't go too fast anyway.

Occult Books

In the third window from the left, top of picture... Does the sign say "Occult Books"? Bet that's an interesting store.

They Do Windows

Wow, window cleaners, top floor building on the left. No safety equipment. Don't think that would happen today.

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