Author Archives: Lissa Rivera

The Great Bygone Museum Tour

Museums of New York, July 9, 1939

Museums of New York, [Museum Map and Guide], July 9, 1939, Museum of the City of New York, 98.52.15


Verso of ticket to the National Academy of Design’s 22nd Annual Exhibit, 1917, Museum of the City of New York, 38.237.1

Ladies and Gentleman! Step this way! My dear blog readers, please accompany me on a tour to discover the unique and marvelous history of museums in New York City.  Be sure to leave your parasols and walking sticks with the attendant. We will be traveling through Scudder’s cabinets of wonder, to see the Great Ajeeb, and even into the apartment of the fabulous Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her confidant Juliana Force. My cherished, curious guests! I know you will be delighted to hear that there is a reception at the conclusion of our expedition.

Scudder's American Museum

Scudder’s American Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1895

Let me first lure you to the proprietorship of former sailor Mr. John Scudder, the preeminent naturalist, taxidermist, and scholar of the bizarre and beautiful. He had gallantly taken up the reins of the “American Museum” initially established by Tammany Hall for their very own members in 1791.  (Among other things, the collection included guillotines used during the French Revolution for the demonstration of decapitation on wax models.) Renamed Scudder’s American Museum, it was relocated by the City rent-free to the second floor of New York’s first almshouse in City Hall Park in 1812. Working late? No worries, Scudder’s stayed open by candlelight until 9pm several days a week. Visitors could take in the aroma of live mud turtles and other exotic species and then wander down the hall to rest their eyes on the bed linens of Mary, Queen of Scots. There were over 150,000 objects in Scudder’s domain, not to mention a bona fide zoo and performance hall.

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son,  Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

Another resident of a former almshouse in City Hall Park (a center for museums in the mid-19th century) was the New~York Historical Society, established in  1804. Its Board was a preeminent  assemblage of notables, socialites, and politicians whose vigorous collecting contributed to building a valuable repository of many of the United State’s most treasured documents and works of art. To your left you will see the Historical Society in its later quarters uptown on 11th Street and Second Avenue (constructed in 1857) which would remain its home until 1908.

Peale's Museum

Peale’s Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1863

Next stop: 252 Broadway, Mr. Rubens Peale’s Museum (which opened on the same day as the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825). Peale was the direct competitor of our dear Scudder and son of the great Charles Wilson Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum. Artist and eccentric, Rubens Peale assembled four floors of paintings, natural wonders, and slightly unnatural wonders (just a few two-headed sheep here and there), cosmoramas (enormous panoramas of exotic locales, one of which is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing), and wax figure displays. Peale specialized in live entertainment and lectures, with subjects ranging from animal magnetism to séances. This was not to say New York’s Peale establishment was pure frivolity and entertainment; these displays and presentations stemmed from a Linnean preservationist’s ardor for the natural world and was in spirit with popular science at that time.

Sleighing in New York

Thomas Benecke, Sleighing in New York, 1855, Museum of the City of New York, 45.271.1


Ticket to Barnum’s American Museum, 1867, Museum of the City of New York,

Let us now journey three blocks through City Hall Park to Broadway and Ann Street in the year 1841. It seems the colossus otherwise known as P.T.Barnum’s American Museum has engulfed both Scudder’s and Peale’s treasures, amassing both collections under one frenzied roof. Barnum was a master marketer both visually and audibly; his PR consisted of a live band playing on the balcony and the most fantastic typography ever to grace the wheat paste poster. The Museum literally screams at you to come in! Barnum acquired ownership of Peale’s building and kept it running just for contrast against his booming establishment of encyclopedic wonders, which at its peak was open 15 hours a day.  See here the “million curiosities”: live freak shows, bizarre and colorful animals (including “sassy monkeys”), and throngs of specimens in outrageous ‘educational’ display. Peale’s American Museum appeared modest and pedantic in comparison.

[Ruins of Barnum's Museum.]

Ruins of Barnum’s Museum, ca. 1865, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.759

Time to lower our hats and journey past dear Barnum’s in 1865, the year of the great furnace fire that shot through from the basement and took the lives of all its living animals in the most horrific spectacle of all.  The New York Times lamented the end of an incomparable collection.  “No public institution in the country pretended even to rival the geological collection of the museum either in extent or value…. Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristic of every region, and peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful curious and strange, were crowded on the dusty shelves of room after room, where they attracted the earnest attention and studious regard of the scholar and the connoisseur.” After the fire, Barnum’s would continue on as a side-show museum and move to a more mobile platform as a traveling circus.
Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1899, Museum of the City of New York, 41.420.413

Ok, enough with the depressing part of the tour. What is this here? A battleship wedged between two buildings on 23rd street?  No need to duck the cannon fire, this is the Eden Museé, an astounding palace of wax figures and automata. Their oily waxen faces were not conversational, but they were considered to be excellent listeners. Eden opened its doors in 1884 and was considered a premier establishment for family entertainment, though its reputation was somewhat diluted when it came to the basement “Crypt” (a motley assortment of execution scenes). A  New York Times review reported it “incomplete,” having only “four or five tableaus.”

Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1907, Museum of the City of New York,

Meet the Mysterious Ajeeb. He was the preeminent resident and chess champion at the Eden Museé. The wise Ageeb has played chess with Sarah Bernhardt, Edgar Allan Poe, and other notables, including celebrity chess players. Do you dare to challenge him? Be careful not to shake his clockwork hand upon defeat, you may find the warm grasp of his operator Mr. Charles Edward Hooper, who worked inside Ajeeb, quite unsettling.

Museum of Safety Appliances.

Byron Company, Museum of Safety Appliances, 1908, Museum of the City of New York,


The American Museum of Safety Exposition Booklet, ca. 1914, Museum of the City of New York, 81.146B.3

The Museum of Safety, located in the Engineering Societies’ Building on 29 West 39th Street focused on a different kind of conservation than that of artworks and artifacts. The ‘conservation of human life’ was the foremost concern. No exotic fantasies here, only the stark realities of industrial injury. As accident prevention became a big industry, the exhibitions not only educated workers, but also served as advertisements for safety equipment. The transition into an electrified city of telephone lines and automobiles was not met without some unintended tragedy for those uneducated in the dangers these modern wonders .

[American Museum of Natural History.]

Harroun & Bierstadt, American Museum of Natural History, ca. 1877, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1234

Now we proceed uptown to visit some of the city’s most beloved and ever-thriving institutions in their most rudimentary state. The 1870s was a golden era for museology in New York City. Philanthropists of the Gilded Age bequeathed great sums to create institutions that would hold their own against European models. Virtually unrecognizable, this view of The American Museum of Natural History (above) depicts the original Victorian Gothic building designed by J. Wrey Mould and built between 1874-1877. At this time the surrounding Central Park looks more like an industrial wasteland than the current wooded landscape and austere skyline, since it was still mostly un-developed farmland.

[Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Adolph Wittemann, Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1512

Here is an early incarnation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the grid system existed then, many roads remained unpaved and the landscape was largely rural. (Untapped Cities does an excellent job of  describing the secret history of the Met’s architecture). The Egyptian government gifted the obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, in 1881 and shipped it from Alexandria on the Steamship Dessoug. There was a grand Masonic ceremony attended by over 9,000 Masons and 50,000 spectators to celebrate the installation.

Buildings, Brooklyn Children's Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Plac

Byron Company, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Place, 1924, Museum of the City of New York,

Please devote a few brief moments to pay homage to this building, known once as the Adams House. This idyllic Victorian mansion was transformed into the original Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, the world’s first children’s museum established in 1899.

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York, ca. 1923, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.14217

[Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes.]

Arthur Vitols, Byron Company, Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes, The mannequins with old costumes in the Museum of the City of New York when its home was Gracie Mansion at 88th Street & East River, 1927, Museum of the City of New York,

Did you know that before Gracie Mansion became the home to New York City’s mayors, it was the original residence for The Museum of the City of New York? Preservationist Henry Collins Brown secured and restored the mansion to include domestic period rooms showcasing the blossoming collection. The City Museum differentiated itself from the New York Historical Society by focusing its acquisitions solely on New York City. Eventually the collection outgrew the historic home and the construction of the building at 1220 Fifth Avenue was spearheaded under the direction of James Speyer and completed with much celebration in 1932.

Juliana R. Force [residence]. Living room to window.

Samuel H. Gottscho, Juliana R. Force Residence. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932, Museum of the City of New York,

Time to pay a visit to the original Whitney Museum of American Art, originally situated in three adjoining Greenwich Village residencies at 8–12 West 8th Street. It was the first manifestation of The Whitney as a museum as well as the home of its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her assistant, Juliana R. Force, who amassed an unprecedented collection of contemporary American Art.

Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefel

Wurts Brothers, Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefeller Center, 1941, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.8137

Our tour now ends at the Museum of Modern Art. While still standing at the same location since the first permanent building was constructed in 1939, it has doubled in size and gone through several physical incarnations. Entertain yourself with this birds-eye of the then newly constructed MoMA  and then follow me downstairs to an opening reception.

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

It’s a Hard Knock Life: The City as Playground


Jacob August Riis, “Shooting Craps: The Game of the Street,” Bootblacks and Newsboys, 1894, Museum of the City of New York,

The image of a group of kids shooting craps in the street has for decades been a quintessential scene of growing up in New York. The history of street games is as old as the city itself but the life of children on these streets has not always been merely about a free-spirited and carefree childhood. The young have been on these streets for a variety of reasons, and little more than a century ago children dwelt there not for play but for work. In too many cases it was home. In the City Museum archives are photos that document the many different forms of street life experienced by children stretching back into the nineteenth century. They  illustrate for modern audiences the evolving notion of “childhood” in our nation, but they also served in their own time as tools for activists who sought to win rights that we all take for granted today.


Byron Company, Brooklyn Car Strike, ca. 1898, Museum of the City of New York.

Children earned their own money to contribute to family income. Due to the long working hours for all members of the family, youth who lived independent lives, with no formal education, learned from the streets. Under harsh vocational conditions, they were no strangers to violent social interactions. They often recreated these interactions in rough play and  developed their own social hierarchies in “mini gangs.” 19th century city streets teemed with “street urchins” out at all hours of the day. In New York City laws were established prohibiting playing outdoors in an attempt to tame the rampant street-culture.

Waiting to be let into playground.

Jacob August Riis, Waiting to be let into playground, ca. 1900, Museum of the City of New York,

Activist and photographer Jacob Riis championed the Child-Saving Movement to build supervised play spaces as safe-havens for children. In 1897 Riis was named secretary of the Small Parks Advisory Committee by Mayor William Strong.  Using photography, Riis illustrated the harsh living conditions of impoverished children and also documented the positive effects of the playgrounds and vacation farms that he lobbied for. These spaces were influenced by the ‘sand gardens’ developed in Germany as part of the naturalist movement inspired by Darwin and Fröbel (who introduced kindergarten) to promote physical perfection in a system of strong moral values toward a more promising civic society.


Wurts Bros., Seward Park (the first municipally built playground in the United States), ca. 1905, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.698.


Byron Company, Hudson-Bank Gymnasium and Play Ground, 1898, Museum of the City of New York,

The first playgrounds in New York City featured challenging outdoor gymnasiums, which required hired supervisors to attend.

In her report on the Henry Street Settlement (a social service organization in which she founded to service the poor immigrants living in the Lower East Side), Lillian Wald noted:

“Once, when the playground was filled to capacity, and the sidewalk in front of the house was thronged, the Olympian at the gate endeavored to make it clear that no more could enter. One persistent small girl stood stolidly and when reminded of the
condition said, Yes, teacher, but can’t I get in? I ain’t got no mother.”” (Wald, Lillian D., The House on Henry Street, p. 84)

Vacation playground at 66th Street and 1st Avenue, Manhattan.

Jacob August Riis,Vacation playground at 66th Street and 1st Avenue, Manhattan, August 26th 1902, Museum of the City of New York. 01.41.2.

Although progressive, municipally ordained playgrounds were built to protect children from dangers within the urban environment, they can also be seen as deterrents from the imaginative culture that flourishes with less regulation.  Other ‘play’ spaces included gardens and work areas known as ‘vacation playgrounds’ where urban-dwelling children could experience working with the land–which was considered superior to factory life. Fresh-air play was seen as an important therapy to combat epidemics such as tuberculosis, polio, and diphtheria. Heliotherapy (sun therapy) and hydrotherapy (water cures) were used to treat and prevent childhood disease.

MNY1465 (1)

Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Children Playing in a Vacant Lot, 1935, Museum of the City of New York,

Because of the heavy use of the playgrounds and need for municipal workers to supervise, funding was often a struggle. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned photographers such as Arnold Eagle to participate in the Federal Arts Project, specifically to document the harsh living conditions in New York City tenements. The photographs were used to support government-funded programs to build and modernize play spaces for impoverished children. Under Robert Moses’ term as Park Commissioner,  the City saw the number of its playgrounds expand from 119 in 1934 to 777 in 1960.


Roy Perry, Cops and Robbers, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.188.

At the same time, Roy Perry’s documentary photographs display the harsh conditions many youths during The Great Depression endured, they also depict the unique ability of children to overcome their situations with imagination and ingenuity. To adults, a condemned building or disheveled lot is an eyesore and a symbol of economic failure, but to a child it is an incredible opportunity for exploration.


Roy Perry, Street Scene, Lower East Side, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.168.


Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Boys Climbing the Fire Escape of a Deserted Building, 1935, Museum of the City of New York,

Unsupervised play allowed for the development of children’s street culture, a domain in which secret languages, legends, and special games were born. Stickball, punchball, skully, ringolevio, jump rope and craps are just a few of the iconic New York City street games that required nothing more than urban asphalt, a few bottle caps, or a broomstick and cheap rubber ball. The PBS documentary New York Street Games directed by Matt Levy recounts in detail the traditions and cultural importance of these pastimes.


Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Street Children, 1935, Museum of the City of New York,

MNY75684 (1)

Roy Perry, Harlem, Playing Improvised Dart Game on Wooden Street Fence, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.156.


Roy Perry, See-Saw, Third Avenue near 44th Street, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.125.


Helen Levitt, Children playing on the sidewalk, ca. 1950, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.11650.

Helen Levitt is perhaps the best known observer of New York children’s street culture. Investigating the special language of chalk drawings, she discovered a universe below the eye level of most adults. She recorded the politics, the economy, the wars, and camaraderie staged between children in city streets in her celebrated work  In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.


Joseph Rodriguez, Game of Skellie, East Harlem, 1987, Museum of the City of New York, 2007.8.1.

In a New York magazine article, artist Fab 5 Freddie re-accounts: “Man, I wish I had just one Spalding to have on my shelf—that was so key to so many games. It only cost 50 cents, and you got to play for hours and hours, or until you lost that damn ball…On almost every street you’d see either jump single rope or double Dutch. The girls did that all day. I could jump the single rope, but to do double Dutch—that was unfathomable!” Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn nostalgically depicts the freedom children had to use the city as their playground before the dangers of crack and gun violence. Although not as visible as in the past, in the outer boroughs street play continues to be a vibrant culture. It will be interesting to look back on the evolution of childhood in New York City through the eye of kids who have smart phones equipped with Facebook, video games, and YouTube, who have a secret language in Twitter instead of chalk.

Click here to see more images of children’s street culture from the City Museum’s collection.

The Mysterious Little Egypt of Coney Island

Show at Coney Island with a man "levitating" a woman on stage.

Byron and Company. Show at Coney Island with a man “levitating” a woman on stage, ca. 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

“There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance…”

Although many know this tune (there are surely hundreds of regional interpretations), few know of its origin and its importance to the New York City midway and sideshows of the early nineteenth century.  Best known as “The Streets of Cairo,” it is oftentimes connected to visions of Arabia and Egypt, to snake charmers, belly dancers, and other mysterious notions of Near East mysticism. Although not quite “a place in France,” there were certain locations in New York where the fabled song came to life. “The Streets of Cairo” sideshow was constructed on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, after the success of the Algerian Village at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Sol Bloom, the entertainment director of the Columbian exposition, claimed to have composed the melody as the theme for the “Algerian” performances. (The song can actually be traced back much further to the 1700s Arabic song “Kradoutja”). Because Bloom did not copyright the song, New York vaudevillian entertainers quickly purloined the tune.


Byron and Company. Crowd wandering through the “Streets of Cairo” show with camels at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

The Victorian taste for Oriental exoticism was insatiable. It was a time of ardent ethnographic interest; the richly illustrated National Geographic Magazine launched in 1888 and commercial photographs of the region were sold for home entertainment in the form of stereographs and ready-made travel albums. The awe-inspiring sight of the ancient, enigmatic pyramids and startlingly divergent culture was both frightening and alluring. During a time when overseas tourism was reserved for the elite, “The Streets of Cairo” transformed the sands of Coney Island Beach into that of an Arabic desert for the middle and working classes. It is likely that the Atlantic Ocean beyond its walls was a welcomed mirage on sweltering summer days.

Crowd watching a barker at the "Streets of Cairo" show at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Crowd watching a barker at the “Streets of Cairo” show at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

The above photograph depicts the carnival “barker.”  Perhaps he is shouting this enticing pitch:

“This way for the Streets of Cairo! One hundred and fifty Oriental beauties! The warmest spectacle on earth! Pre-sen-ting Little Egypt! See her prance, see her wriggle! See her dance the Hootchy Kootchy! Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire! Don’t rush! Don’t crowd! Plenty of seats for all!…When she dances, every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. Now, gentlemen, I don’t say that she’s hot. But I do say that she is as hot as a red hot stove on the fourth day of July in the hottest county in the state.”
Good Old Coney Island, Edo McCullough

Woman gypsy/dancer posing outside at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer posing outside at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

“Little Egypt” became an adopted stage name for the main dancers of the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit, the most famous of whom were Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, Ashea Wabe, and Fatima Djemille. The “hootchy cootchy” they performed was a caricature of traditional Middle Eastern dance that was more like an early form of burlesque. Although under an ethnographic guise, this risqué performance was perceived as quite provocative at the time.  This oriental cliché quickly became a fad (up to 20 “cootchy shows” would be performed at one time) and “Little Egypt” attained celebrity status. Ashea Wabe made front page news when she was busted for dancing at socialite Herbert Seeley’s Fifth Avenue Bachelor Party in 1896; the scandal came to an unfortunate end in 1906 when she was found dead by asphyxiation, leaving behind a $200,000 fortune.

Woman gypsy/dancer seated in her side-show theatre at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer seated in her side-show theatre at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

This photograph depicts a “Little Egypt” dancer smoking a Hookah in her harem. One can imagine the scent of tobacco and incense in the densely packed theatre. Even at Coney Island, the attire of the audience would have been conservative, with suit jackets and long dresses scarcely baring an ankle or wrist. In stark contrast, the dancer’s gauzy silks and potentially exposed midriff must have been startling.

Byron and Company. A woman in a carnival or side-show with three large pythons, ca 1895. Museum of the City of New York.

A precedent to “The Streets of Cairo,” female snake charmers added a touch of Eastern mysticism to the classic side show lineup. The snake charming tradition dates back to Ancient Egypt and is still practiced today at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.


Byron and Company. Arabian Acrobats demonstrating acrobatic feats on the roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, ca 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

For those who chose not to make the expedition down to Coney Island for their Oriental fix, the uniquely landscaped roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria (42nd Street at 7th Avenue) served as an alternative. Hammerstein produced a vaudeville adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé that emphasized  the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” and ran an astonishing 22 weeks. The above photograph depicts the incredible feats of strength performed by Arabic acrobats, it is possible that a similar display was presented as an opening act.


Byron and Company. The operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” with music by Richard Strauss, presented at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 22, 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 41.420.688.

 In 1907 the Near East dance fad attempted to cross over from sideshow to center stage when the Metropolitan Opera presented Richard Strauss’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It was the most elaborate and expensive production to date, costing nearly $20,000. The famous belly dance and kissing finalé was considered a disgrace and the show closed after the opening night, and would not be performed at the Met again for twenty-seven years.  The  New York Times  headline bluntly states the reaction of the upper class: “How the Audience Took It: Many Disgusted by the Dance and the Kissing of the Head.”

Byron and Company. Beggar among the crowd on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

As the first wave of British and French colonialism came to an end,  the tawdry cultural stereotypes of the Middle East lost popularity in the sideshow  circuit.  Although the Hootchy Cootchy show faded from view as if an apparition, American culture remains deeply entranced by the melody. The next time you hear the infamous tune, peer through the “hole in the wall” to old New York and, if possible, allow yourself to be seduced by Little Egypt.

Streets Of Cairo aka Snake Charmer aka The Poor Little Country Maid from O.Є. on Vimeo.

The Photographer’s Mirror


William Davis Hassler, Two Self Portraits of With and Without Hat, ca. 1917. Museum of the City of New York, and

Like a patient waiting for a miracle cure, New York City embraced the arrival of photography as the perfect elixir. It was the missing ingredient for the modern city, a tool that could record the rapidly expanding metropolis, a technology that was immediate enough to keep up with the ‘now’. The Photographer quickly became a permanent fixture within the cityscape. Entrepreneurial practitioners promptly inhabited studios and streets as brave explorers of the uncharted territories of recorded vision.


A Professional Photographer, May 26, 1923. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.13406

 Robert L. Bracklow, Photographer taking a portrait outside of a tintypes booth in the snow, 1880. Museum of the City of New York, 93.91.271.

Robert L. Bracklow, Photographer Taking a Portrait Outside of a Tintypes Booth in the Snow, 1880. Museum of the City of New York, 93.91.271.

Robert L. Bracklow. Photography Instruction School and Lab. Ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. 93.91.179

Robert L. Bracklow, Photography Instruction School and Lab. Ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, 93.91.179.

The photographer was the illustrator of society, the scientist, the investigator, the surveyor, the celebrity maker, the genealogist, and the chronicler of memory.  Demand for images opened up the floodgates to practitioners and this competition fueled ingenuity. Occupational self-portraits proclaim a new profession independent from tradition. Images of photographers taken by photographers illustrate a developing self-awareness, an inventiveness and an introspection at once calculating and as casual as the experience of noticing one’s reflection in a shop window.

The Byron Company portrait (below) taken from the roof of Marceau’s photography studio exudes industrial optimism. There is a sense that these men have found the magic looking glass, a portal to the Mythic City, the tool that connected them  to the stars of the theater, to the godlike architects, to the highest society dinners, to political parades, and then down the damp gas-lit streets to the immigrant laundresses, the street peddlers, and opium den dealings.  Studios such as Byron offered their hand to every imaginable commission; it is unknown if they foresaw the historical value that their images would hold in the future.  There are over 23,000 Byron Co. prints digitized on the Museum of the City of New York’s Collection Portal.

Byron Company, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York,

Byron Company, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York,

Byron Company, Side view of Byron Co. photographers posing together for a photograph on the roof of Marceau's Studio, 1920. Museum of the City of New York,

Byron Company, Side view of Byron Co. photographers posing together for a photograph on the roof of Marceau’s Studio, 1920. Museum of the City of New York,

Photography had weight: the weight of the glass plates, the tripod, and the view camera with all of its girth. Commercial photographers continued to use view cameras throughout the 20th century, because of the unparalleled detail of a large format negative (imaging formats 4×5 inches or larger). When the dark cloth is over one’s head, it becomes an extension of the body, merging man and machine, the tripod adding three extra legs.

Byron Company. Photographer at the Tiffany-Cameron Wedding, Staten Island. 1895.  Museum of the City of New York.

Byron Company. Photographer at the Tiffany-Cameron Wedding, Staten Island. 1895. Museum of the City of New York.

By the 1900s photographers sought out every angle; there was no height too dangerous to defeat the temptation of a perfect view. William Davis Hassler’s self portrait (below), shows Hassler confidently balancing on the steel bars of a two-story high cable car crossbeam. The following image is a view taken by Hassler atop the Manhattan Bridge from a similarly precarious point of view (remember: these are 11×14 inch glass negatives!). The image of his home studio shows eight heavy carrying cases for cameras and equipment.

William Davis Hassler, Self Portrait Standing on Superstructure above train tracks, ca. 1917. Museum of the City of New York,

William Davis Hassler, Standing on Superstructure above Train Tracks, ca. 1917. Museum of the City of New York,

William Davis Hassler. Manhattan Bridge. ca. 1917. Museum of the City of New York.

William Davis Hassler, Manhattan Bridge, ca. 1917. Museum of the City of New York,


William David Hassler, Home Studio, 1919. Museum of the City of New York,

John Albok captures himself in a mirror. To the left is a work suit that is professional and unassuming, a uniform fitting for a man who blends like a fly on the wall of brick and mortar avenues (Albok was also a tailor). His photographs hang askew on the studio walls; casual images of a young girl and the skyline at sunset can be made out. His gaze is looking slightly up toward the reflection of his room as if there is a deep sense of affinity with his work and devotion to his City. The studio, with its heavy hot lights and cables, is an appendage of his vision. 


John Albok, Self Portrait in Store with Camera, 1976. Museum of the City of New York, 82.68.35.

These later images of Arthur Rothstein (taken in 1957) and Andreas Feininger (taken in 1975) recall the Byron and Co. self-portrait. The safety-mirror ball creates a lens-like distortion similar the shape of the human eye.


Arthur Rothstein, Arthur Rothstein Photographing Buildings, 1957. Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.7552-57.75.


Andreas Feininger, Reflection, 6th Ave, 1975, Museum of the City of New York, 90.40.35.

Wurts Bros. Broadway and Exchange Place. Norman Wurts making photos from 4th-story ledge on Exchange Court Building, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.8427

Wurts Bros. Broadway and Exchange Place. Norman Wurts making photos from 4th-story ledge on Exchange Court Building, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.8427.


Arthur Rothstein and Frank Bauman, Man taking pictures of Dilapidated Buildings while Standing on an Excavator, 1957, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.7552-57.120B.

Above, a photographer climbs the bulldozer in the desperate last attempt to record a structure before demolition in Arthur Rothstein’s expose for LOOK magazine, titled Changing New York.


Bob Hansen, Everyone is Taking Pictures, Woman and Man Looking at a Camera, 1946. Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.10301.224.

After the invention of flexible roll film and smaller format cameras, the amateur photographer became a ubiquitous figure in the City. By the 1940s, the camera-laden hobbyist and the tourist became a common New York caricature. Sightseers perplexed by the vertigo of skyscrapers stopped dead still in pedestrian traffic to get a trophy image of the Empire State or Chrysler Buildings. The image above, from a tongue-in-cheek LOOK story, Everyone is Taking Pictures, depicts a professional photographer’s impression of these new image-takers.

Wurts Bros., Photographers shooting the train exhibition at the World’s Fair, 1939. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.14980.

Wurts Brothers, Photographers Shooting the Train exhibition at the World’s Fair, 1939. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.14980.

The profession would undergo many changes over the coming decades as the immediacy of photography and the increase of human intimacy with the camera would assimilate the photographic impulse in society. Throughout the 20th century, the role of the photographer expanded from the scientist-inventor to artist and social worker and then that of the citizen reporter. Over the years cameras would shrink in size, enabling mobility and making them increasingly personal objects, decreasing the specialized role of professional photographers and making the photograph a more intimate reflection of human lives. Now everyone has become a recorder of city life and the bold objective photographic visions from the past are presently the multiple subjective viewpoints of a ubiquitous technology.

A Fine Line: The Art of the Clothesline

Living in New York City, one becomes accustomed to the grey area between public and private space. Intimate details are exposed through the most mundane daily tasks. Laundry is one of those inevitable rituals that most New Yorkers have to perform in public. Before laundromats, the clothesline was an intrinsic component of the urban landscape. It is impossible to imagine the archetypal tenement building complete without several strands of white linen connecting each structure.

Sid Grossman (1915-1955), Vacant Lot between Buildings at 148th St., 1939. Museum of the City of New York.

Thompson Street Clotheslines. Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ca. 1895, Museum of the City of New York.

Overlapping in a complex network, each line of garments reads as a household census noting: age, family size, and social status. Bed sheets, undergarments, and women’s hosiery on thin strings allude to bodies not present. Starched white shirts dangle neck-down on tiny tightropes stories high above a precipice of filth-black alleys. A warm summer breeze could bring each garment to life with the weightlessness of guardian angels overlooking the city.

Photographer unknown. Minetta Alley. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2570.

“…they [clotheslines] were useful in many ways besides drying laundry: for running messages and cups of sugar from one apartment to another, or–stretched diagonally down to the ground–for conveying groceries to the elderly infirm or growlers of beer up to the corner saloon. They were characteristic of a life stretched by necessity, out of interiors of apartments as far as possible into the public space beyond.” -Luc Sante 1

Andrew Herman. Hanging laundry. 1940. Museum of the City of New York.

Chicago Albumen Works
Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Typical Tenement Fire escape, serving as an extension of the “flat”– Allen Street. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Greenwich Village Alley with Modern Art Lines. 1905-1920, Museum of the City of New York. 95.74.12

It was inevitable that the City’s great documenters would utilize the presence of the clotheslines as a visual element in depictions of poor and working class neighborhoods. It often added physicality to the frame, serving as a system of measurement of overwhelming heights. Each diagonal line became a symbol of the chaos and intersection of lives and cultures within an imposed vertical grid. The clothing was a recurring character of universal need. The photographer could either promote order or disquiet through composition. At times the wash-line appears uninvited, as unavoidable as a passing vehicle in the corner of the camera frame.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Court of the First Model Tenements in New York City. March 16, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.48.

“…Abbott documented this space as a communal laundry line: ropes with pulleys led from apartments to five-story poles imbedded in concrete. Abbott made two exposures, with the laundry and poles forming different abstract configurations. She later recalled that winter day the laundry frozen stiff and the children huddled together, too cold to move (McQuaid, 375).” -Bonnie Yochelson 2

John Albok (1894-1982). John Albok’s backyard, view of clothesline strung between windows in brick courtyard, 1392 Madison Ave. ca. 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.64.

Charles Von Urban. 505-511 Greenwich Street. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 33.173.130.

Arnold Eagle, Wooden Rear Tenements–Children Playing in Dirt. 1935. Museum of the City of New York.

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). Tudor City from 39th Street. c. 1930-1933. Museum of the City of New York. 39.20.24.

Line drying has largely disappeared from New York as so many traditions of the lower classes in the name of social progress. Industrialized laundries with delivery and drop off were introduced as a convenience service to the middle class at the turn-of-the-century. Electric dryers were developed in the 1930s, but did not become marketable until the late 40s and early 50s. Soon, New Yorkers began to haul their laundry (as most do now) in swollen bags down the narrow passages and steep stairwells of their buildings through the street to laundromats lined with self-service machines and coin dispensers.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Carolyn Laundry, 111 East 128th St., Interior, Box of Laundry. 1929. Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Laundry in Greenwich Village [Women in the laundromat.] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10875.9E

Clothesline poles do remain in the five boroughs–frequently as lanky stems shrinking to the base with rust, waiting to be uprooted by landlords. Recently, neighboring communities have gone so far as to outlaw clotheslines for being eyesores (as detailed in the New York Times article “To Fight Global Warming, Some Hang a Clothesline“). Although it is difficult to imagine anything staying clean for long when hung above the city’s streets, in the twenty-first century the poles have taken on new symbolism for environmentalists seeking their resurrection.

1 Sante, Luc, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Macmillan, 2003.

2 Yochelson, Bonnie, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, The Museum of The City of New York, The New Press, New York, 1997.