When we think of modern-day New York City, we picture a bustling metropolis with huge skyscrapers, imposing concrete canyons, every kind of food and culture imaginable, and Times Square glittering with lights and possibilities. Back in the 1800s, though, New York was a very different place — and it’s difficult to understand quite how different until you see it with your own eyes. These incredible photographs of the most famous city in the world show how far its come over the past few centuries.
1. Care for a shoe shine?
Shoe shiners still ply their trade in NYC today, but the profession is very different to how it was in the late 1800s. Back then, young shoeshine boys from poor families often brought in a significant amount of their household’s income. This photo was taken in 1897 on Mulberry Street and features a shoeshine boy about to receive some business from a local policeman.
Interestingly, Mulberry Street was nicknamed the “Italian Wall Street” because it was home to several banks which immigrants used to send their wages home to their families in Italy. Maybe this boy was one of them!
2. New York’s finest
This portrait of New York’s finest was taken in 1880, and at that point the NYPD had only existed for 35 years! Formed in 1845 and modeled after London’s Metropolitan Police, the NYPD had a pretty dismal reputation at this time. It was a known hotbed of corruption, and poor neighborhoods constantly complained about the brutality of their treatment by the police.
It wasn’t until Theodore Roosevelt — yes, the future President of the United States — became head of the Police Commission in 1895 that corruption began being weeded out.
3. Suffragettes take to the streets
In the late 1800s, the suffragette movement was gaining steam all over America. Women wanted the right to vote and to not be discriminated against because of their sex, and schools like The Cooper Union helped them get their message out there. This photo was taken outside the Union, an institution formed by industrialist Peter Cooper that charged no tuition fees and accepted students of all sexes, ethnicities, religions, and levels of wealth.
Women in New York state finally achieved the vote in 1917, with these suffragettes and places like the Union being integral in pushing the issue forward.
4. Sweatshop horror
In the late 1800s, the Lower East Side was one of the world’s most overcrowded neighborhoods. A huge immigrant population settled there with hopes of seizing the American Dream, but this involved turning their tenement buildings into makeshift sweatshops. They had to sew and tailor as many items of clothing as they could handle each and every day.
Many three-room apartments would house a family of six and up to 30 workers, all crammed together in sweltering conditions. Some escaped this life and ran their own businesses, but many others died of exhaustion and disease before their dream became a reality.