I’m a huge fan of Shorpy – and I see I’m not alone.


From rebelmetropolis.org: Examining Street Life Before the Automobile

Exactly when I first stumbled upon Shorpy.com I do not recall. … Once realizing the treasure I’d found, it also became apparent the vast hours of time that would be needed to properly peruse these thousands of extremely high resolution images documenting urban American life over the last 150 years or so.

Some of my favorites are of the bustling street scenes prior to the invasion of the automobile.  …

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Broad street, New York City 1905


When scrutinizing these street scenes, a few things jump out right away. Of course there are no traffic signals, there’s clearly no need for them. Streetcars, bicycles, and horse drawn carriages are everywhere. Where there is high traffic, those on foot still enjoy sidewalks upwards of forty feet wide along store fronts nestled into human-scaled buildings rarely more than 5 stories high.

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Mott street, New York City 1905


But it’s also telling that there are no crosswalks for pedestrians. And why would there be? During this era – as it had been for thousands of years – you could safely cross wherever your heart desired and not have to watch for giant metal machines racing toward you. What’s more, the street here is not purely the thoroughfare – it is the essential common gathering place for demonstrations, for buying and selling food, for children to play in, for celebration, for lingering and people watching.

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Richmond, Virginia 1908


Yet just a few years later all of this would change. … Enjoy the small collection of images below as a reminder of what we used to have, and be sure to view them at full resolution. The amount of historical detail you’ll find is fairly astonishing.

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Randolph street, Chicago 1900


When you’ve got some hours to kill, dive in to the full archive at Shorpy.com. Here’s hoping someday we restore our city streets to the enriching, convivial places they used to be, before they were rendered hostile by the ‘convenience’ and ‘progress’ of the automobile.

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Empire State Express, Syracuse 1905


  1. Shorpy is also one of my favourite time-sucks, and the nature of the pre-automobile city struck me too. Many of the photos show how massively industrial cities were at the turn of the last century. But even with enormous factories, rail yards, smokestacks and soot, the cities are remarkably genteel. The car is the thing that really changed all that. And the Gilded Age mansions and bucolic neighbourhoods are like dreamlands. Of course there were horses back then, and if these were scratch and sniff photos, that gentility might fade a bit.

    Another interesting thing about Shorpy is just how poor many people were at the turn of the last century. Shoeless kids working in sweatshops. Terrible tenement housing. Shows how far we’ve come. Makes me optimistic.

    And another thing that comes to mind is seeing how the path that we trod a hundred years ago is so similar to the path being trod today by China. The manic exuberance and sheer physicality of breakneck industrialization. The differences are only a matter of style and some technological changes and of course those cars.

  2. Ah yes, the past is best viewed through rose coloured glasses. A little read on the pre-auto city:

    “..Street cleaning, therefore, remained largely inadequate, and one is thus not surprised to discover that newspapers, diaries, and governmental reports abound with complaints about the problems created in the city by horse manure left in the public thoroughfares. Manure collected into unattended piles by the street cleaners bred huge numbers of flies and created “pestilential vapours.” Offal was sometimes carried from wealthy residential neighborhoods and dumped in poor neighborhoods, where it was left to rot….

    ..As late as the 1890’s a writer in Scientific American noted that the sounds of traffic on busy New York streets made conversation nearly impossible, while the author William Dean Howells complained that “the sharp clatter of the horses’ iron shoes” on the pavement tormented his ear….

    And those human scale five story buildings? Likely tenements (incidentally Mott Street, featured in the photo, was home to the first tenement in NYC). A visit to to the excellent Tenement Museum on Orchard Street will quickly disabuse one of any idealized version of such high density living.

    1. How lucky then, Bob, that all those sanitation problems are now technologically solved. Get rid of the cars and that rose-tinted vision can appear.

  3. And London had its first subway in 1863, over 150 years ago due to congestion. Vancouver is still trying to figure out how to build a better system today. We can learn a lot looking to London: high tolls for inner city, many buses, huge subway network, higher user fares, few highrises yet dense living up to 8 stories … All that makes cities livable.

    Vancouver is far too car oriented and is just now trying to figure out what to do about it. Just learn from other cities that have done it successfully !

  4. The photo of “Broad Street” is actually Fulton Street, looking west from a point a little east of Nassau Street (I had an office in one of the buildings still seen on the right). One of the World Trade Center towers used to terminate that vista. Now 1 Freedom Tower (or whatever other silly name they’ve come up with) is at the end of the street, seen over the top of the St. Paul’s cemetery.

    “Mott Street” looks too wide to me to be Mott Street. It *might be* Kenmare / Delancey, which was later widened more by Robert Moses. Chris Gray could probably identify the church.

    1. Really? It looks like Nassau street looking south to me. The building to the right has streets on either side of it, and that is its profile along Nassau and not Fulton. On the Fulton side it only takes up part of the block. And the building after it in the photo still exists at the SW corner of Nassau and Fulton.

      And the one on Mott looks to be from the corner of Mott and Worth/Bowery looking north. Many of the buildings are still extant including the church.

      1. @yvrlutyens, you’re right. The rounded corners on 139 Fulton Street are on two corners, Nassau and Ann, and Nassau and Fulton. And the view above is looking south on Nassau. It’s not, of course, Broad Street.

        That still looks wide for Mott Street, but you’re right about the church, I think. Good catches.

        The post is right too, because the real point is tha In 1905 there were no crosswalks, stripings, street signs, stop signs, or stop lights. But in 1909, NYC was drastically narrowing the sidewalks on Fifth Avenue, and in Chicago Daniel Burnham was making a plan that promoted “auto mobility.” There are more images and a video at http://bit.ly/NYCvisionZ

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