Today, a walk up-town. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Here's an article titled, A
Walk Up-Town in New York. It's in Scribner's
Magazine, January 1900. Scribner's
has just adopted the new technology of including
photos, and they really go over the top.
Thirty-three photos illustrate the author's stroll
from Lower Manhattan up to Central Park -- roughly
a four-mile hike.
What we get is an immensely detailed look at the
technologies of upscale urban living, just over a
century ago. The photos are clearly not from a
single eighty-minute period. They show New York in
its changing faces. So let's look at pictures:
First, architecture: skyscrapers are entering New York
after their recent birth in Chicago. I can make out
one twenty-five-story building. But most are still
without elevators and limited to six or seven
stories. The author stops to visit a skyscraper. He
observes, not only elevator operators, but also an
elevator starter on the ground floor, to
regulate elevator traffic.
The caption on one photo says, "City
Hall with its grateful lack of height." It shows an
elegant two-story building. Of course, such land
use was doomed in Manhattan. Twelve years later,
the eight-hundred-foot Woolworth Building would
The photos also show us transportation. Not even
the most primitive of the new automobiles appear in
the pictures. Later that year, construction of the
subway system would begin. That would bring chaos
during the next four years.
But that lies ahead. Now we see only cable cars and an infinite variety
of horse-drawn vehicles. (New York was among the
few cities that'd put in cable cars before the more
efficient electric trolley superceded them.) Two
photos show firemen battling a blaze with
horse-drawn, steam-powered water pumps. Horses pull
heavy wagons, graceful carriages, omnibuses, and
heavy stagecoaches. It is a world about to be
blindsided by unimaginable change.
We have to digest the clothing
we see from our century-later perspective -- our
clothes are so much simpler. The women wear fancy
hats, adorned with bird
feathers. Their fitted bodices have large
shoulder pads, and they flare out over swirling
skirts that almost touch the pavement. Only young
girls wear skirts high enough to expose their
ankle-high laced-up shoes.
The author remarks that the women "walk
independently with an interesting gait." Well, the
suffrage movement was still in its infancy, and
here it was a seed beneath the snow.
All the men wear hats -- mostly bowlers, and a few
stovepipes. Only a few have the new fedoras. Most
men wear suit jackets rather like yours and mine,
although a few still have frock coats. Vests are
common. Neckties are the rule.
The author laments the steady incursion of tall
buildings into his genteel world. Well, they called
this America's Gilded Age. And, as I look
at the pictures, I think to myself, "It'd surely be
lovely to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. L. Williams, The Walk Up-Town in New York.
Scribner's Magazine, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Jan.
1900, pp. 44-59.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.