From the Exhibition:

Visualizing 19th-Century New York

Busy and brightly colored, this 1875 lithograph published by Currier & Ives brings together several quintessential symbols of nineteenth-century New York City life: traffic-laden streets, catastrophic fires, and bustling sidewalks. These features appear again and again in both visual representations of the city and in sensationalist guidebook accounts. While this lithograph presents itself as a straightforward depiction of a typical city scene, it also displays iconic imagery that nineteenth-century New Yorkers employed to mythologize their city for both local and national audiences.

Although the volume of traffic depicted in this image may be somewhat dramatized to impress the viewer, it does have a basis in fact. The artist has focused on the notoriously busy intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street: Fulton is the cross-street closest to the viewer, and Broadway is the vertically oriented street that dominates the image and recedes into the distance on the left. Because Fulton was the principal thoroughfare leading to the city’s docks and Broadway was the major north-south route in the city for the movement of both goods and people, gridlock plagued this intersection.1 The Western Union Telegraph Building, used as the vantage point for this image and located less than a block from the intersection, would have offered the artist an ideal location from which to capture this scene. In the foreground of this image, the horses drawing wagons laden with lumber, barrels, and hay are likely traveling to or returning from the docks via Fulton Street. Their prominent location attests to the importance of shipping for the city’s prosperous economy.

Several police officers stationed in the middle of the busy street bravely attempt to maintain order. A government document dated 1861 explains the essential role of the policeman in controlling the chaos of city traffic: “The capacity of Broadway to accommodate an amount of travel so vast, arises from the fact that vehicles can turn out of each other’s way, that their movements are regulated by police, stationed at all important points, and that none of them are entitled to occupy any particular portion of the street … [or have] the right to compel others to keep out of the way.”2 Another police officer is shown standing near the center of Broadway at its intersection with Fulton Street helping a well-dressed woman across the busy street. The gallant policeman assisting ladies across the street was a common theme in depictions of the city, as were exaggerated descriptions of the dangers involved in crossing Broadway unaided. For example, the 1869 guidebook written by South Carolinian William Bobo included a tale of two unfortunate young women who attempted to cross Broadway together but instead became separated on opposite sides of the street for nearly an hour.3

In the center foreground of the image, a steam-powered fire engine drawn by galloping horses belches black smoke as it races to its destination. In nineteenth-century New York, fires were a frequent and feared occurrence: the huge fire of December 16–17, 1835 leveled entire blocks between Broad Street and Wall Street.4 Fire—or the suggestion of a fire, as seen here—was also incorporated into the iconography of the city. When fire destroyed famous institutions such as the Crystal Palace in 1858 and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1865, the conflagrations themselves became popular subjects for illustration.

Finally, no popular nineteenth-century depiction of the city, whether visual or textual, would be complete without crowds of strangers rubbing shoulders on a packed sidewalk. City natives and visitors alike found that brushing past individuals of diverse social classes, ethnicities, and professions was a quintessentially New York experience. In a typically sensationalist description, guidebook author Junius Henri Browne observed: “Saints and sinners, mendicants and millionaires, priests and poets, courtesans and chiffoniers, burglars and bootblacks, move side by side in the multiform throng” of Broadway.5

These tropes of city life provided artists and authors with a means of reducing the complex, multisensory, and novel experience of nineteenth-century New York City to easily digestible narratives that became familiar to consumers of images and texts. By capitalizing on themes that rested between fantasy and reality, Currier & Ives and other artist-entrepreneurs both created and reinforced an iconic portrait of New York City life.

1.David M. Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 139.

2.Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York 105, March 20, 1861, 3.

3.William M. Bobo, Glimpses of New-York City (Charleston: J. J. McCarter, 1852), 13–14.

4.Dell Upton, “Inventing the Metropolis: Civilization and Urbanity in Antebellum New York,” in Art and the Empire City, ed. Catherine Hoover Voorsanger and John K. Howat, exh. cat. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 10.

5.Junius Henri Browne, The Great Metropolis, a Mirror of New York (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1869), 339.