What was it like to be a tourist visiting New York City one hundred years ago?
Thanks to Google books, I’m fascinated with this 1916 tourist handbook for New York City: Rider’s NEW YORK CITY: A GUIDE-BOOK for TRAVELERS. Cities change, and yet stay the same, over the years, the decades, the centuries. This depiction of New York, as explained to visitors almost one hundred years ago, reveals as much about who we are today as it does about who we were at the beginning of the 20th century.
So here are 16 things I’ve learned from “visiting” the New York City of 1916:
1. Quite clearly, the pace and the hustle and bustle have not changed:
“The first characteristic of New York which impresses the stranger from abroad, and in a less degree from other American cities, is its atmosphere of breathless haste, its pervading sense of life keyed to an abnormal tension.
Everywhere and all the time the surge and roar of traffic goes on, varying only in degree; everywhere is the same feverish energy, the same impatience over a minute’s loss. The New Yorker makes equally hard work of his business and his pleasures. In the chief centres of wealth, the gorgeous shops of Fifth Avenue, the theatres and restaurants of Broadway, the one element that is missing is repose. It seems as though the whole brilliant crowd that frequents these pleasure palaces feared if they paused to rest they might fall out of step in the ceaseless ‘rag-time’ of metropolitan life.”
2. You talkin’ to me? New Yorkers have always had an attitude:
“One direct consequence of this unending hurry, which the visitor is quick to feel, is a certain brusqueness and lack of civility as compared with other cities. Not that the great, motley, democratic middle class is deliberately rude to strangers; it simply lacks time for the little courtesies of life, and grudges two words where one can be made to answer.
Considering the size and mixed character of the crowds they have to handle, the guards and conductors on the various city lines are probably as civil as could reasonably be expected; yet their lack of deference towards the general public is well summed up in their favorite curt injunction to ‘step lively.’”
3. Subway ridership is about the same now as it was 100 years ago:
“The street railroads of New York City, including subways, elevated lines, and surface cars, have 1,666 miles of single track… The passengers carried during the year ending June 30, 1912 numbered 1,680,914,025.”
According to the MTA’s website, in 2011, subway riders “swiped their MetroCards 1.64 billion times”. Given similar populations, perhaps it’s not remarkable to see similar ridership, but I’d suppose that most New Yorkers wouldn’t expect our predecessors of a century ago to be just-as-good at subway commuting as we are.
4. Prices are about 100 times higher than they were a century ago. Particularly for higher-end or specialty items, the prices seem to be 100x, or more, today compared to one hundred years ago. Lower-end items seem to be about 50x. Disconcertingly, the Fed’s offical inflation number indicates an increase of approximately 20x since 1916. So does that imply that New York has gotten more expensive more quickly than the rest of the nation?
The St. Regis Hotel, Double bed
“Largest salaries paid to baseball players”
Then: $10,000 to $15,000
Now: $20 to $30 million
“Chop suey” at a Chinese restaurant
Then: $0.15 to $1.00
Now: $4 to $14
Catching a show at the Loew’s Lincoln:
Then: $0.10 to $0.25
Now: $6 to $20
5. We’re still fashion victims:
“Another characteristic of New York, and one that applies to all grades of society, is the lavish and conspicuous mode of dress adopted by New York women on the public streets. The styles for street wear change more rapidly and more radically than other costumes; and no sooner has a new mode found favor on Fifth avenue than cheap imitations of it make their appearance on Fourteenth street and the lower East Side. It is no exaggeration to say that to-day the fashionable women of New York venture upon the streets clad in garments which in brilliancy of hue and scantiness of neck and sleeves would have been considered ten years ago as appropriate only for afternoon or evening receptions.
The custom adds much to the picturesqueness of the passing crowd; but it naturally is viewed with some degree of surprise by strangers accustomed to more sedate street apparel.”
6. To the disappointment of ancient Carrie Bradshaws, however, there is only one mention of “cocktail” in Rider’s Guide-book, hidden away in sub-section “J. Other Foreign Restaurants”:
“Hungarian.Little Hungary. 263 E Houston st. Known also as Cafe Liberty. Figures largely in stories of New York ‘bohemian life.’ Is patronized by sightseers and a certain sporting class. A la carte Dinner w. cocktail and 3 wines, $1.50.”
An advertising blurb for Rider’s New York City in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly.
7. Cars were just beginning to make the transition from wealthy novelty to mass transportation. ‘Driving’, apparently, was what you called it when High Society was behind the wheel, whilst ‘motoring’ was the appropriate term for schlubs-on-the-sideboard:
“Driving. In New York, as elsewhere, driving as a pastime for the wealthy is rapidly being superseded by motoring. And on 5th ave., where less than a generation ago, one of the sights of New York, any pleasant afternoon, was the long procession of fashionable equipages with liveried coachman and footman, a private carriage today in the endless stream of automobiles, is almost a curiosity. The fashionable drives, so far as the custom is still maintained, are through Central Park and along Riverside Drive.”
8. There were no Vincent van Gogh paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916.
9. Just as it is today, 16 Mott Street was a Chinese restaurant one hundred years ago. Then named Suey Jan Low, Rider notes that it is “(less prententious, but good)”.
It is interesting and somehow compelling that the same space in the city persists, on and on for centuries, as a Chinese restaurant; now under one name, later under another, now under new owners, later under different proprietors. What dramas, what scenes, what histories, what stories, go through a New York City Chinese eatery over the course of 35,000 or more days? In 2116, will 16 Mott Street house a still-yet-differently-named Chinese restaurant? What stories will its walls tell a hundred years hence?
10. We’ve always been moredemocratic, less chauvinistic:
“Contrary to the usage in many foreign theatres, there is no section of the house in American theatres from which women are excluded. In some of the vaudeville houses, where smoking is permitted in the balconies, they will probably find the orchestra seats preferable, but there is no rule debarring them from the upper part of the house.”
A movie of street scenes from 1916 New York.
11. We were the restaurant capital of the world then, too:
“The restaurant life in New York is of great interest to visitors. The eating places vary from the world famous Delmonico’s on 5th ave. to almost unknown foreign houses on the side streets, and each has its own peculiar personality. The restaurants of the larger hotels are so distinctly independent of the houses that they are here listed as separate enterprises. Tables may be reserved by telephone.
Although the distinction is properly made between American and foreign restaurants in New York, in point of fact the city practically has no strictly American restaurants, with food cooked in the native manner and served in the simple home style. The few exceptions are some of the oyster houses, dairy lunch rooms and an occasional tea room that specializes in southern dishes.
But in general, the whole New York restaurant service rests on a basis of Continental cooking. In the leading houses the chef is French; in a considerable proportion of the others, he is German, Viennese, or Italian. The waiters are almost uniformly foreign. In fact, the main distinction between the American and the foreign restaurant is that the former professes to cater to the American taste, while the latter tends to exaggerate its foreign features and make the most of their advertising value.”
(BTW, for more on American style dining in the 19th and early 20th centuries, see this collection of links.)
12. The Village was boring… too many foreigners(!!):
“The Downtown section from Canal to 14th st contains in its lower part, little of interest to the visitor. On the E. is the Jewish quarter; in the center an Italian neighborhood; and W. of Broadway a hodge-podge of small factories, shops, warehouses, and the shabby homes of people of many nationalities. The few interesting buildings are up toward 14th st. clustered about Astor Place, extending to 2nd ave. on the E., and Washington Square on the W.”
Manhattan map from Rider’s New York Guide-Book of 1916
13. For New Yorkers and visitors of this time, “Old New York” was the time of the American Revolution. The leaders and generals of that earlier time are described as real people. Even if their actions are described in the most glowing and heroic of terms, they come alive in the pages of Rider’s New York as they have not yet transcended into the mythical, distant, unrelatable figures they are today.
George Washington, for example, appears time and again in this guide, not as a statue, or a bridge, or a Square, but as a person who “landed” just south of Laight Street, bid farewell to his men in an Address at Fraunces Tavern, or was greeted on kicking-out-the-British Day (Evacuation Day) at Union Square. Same history, different level of intimacy.
14. Our obsession with ourselves predates Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City, and Mad Men:
“Since most American novelists live in New York for at least part of their lives, and since there is plenty of inspiration to be found in all the extremes the city covers, there has been enough FICTION written about New York to keep any reader supplied for more years than he would care to devote to the one subject.”
15. This advice is strictly true, even though we no longer approach visits to far-away places and tourism with this mindset:
”The most tireless sight-seer cannot hope to cover the sights of Greater New York, even in a most cursory way, in less than from two to three weeks, and only then by devoting practically all the daytime to sight-seeing, uninterrupted by shopping or social intercourse.”
16. For all the similarities, it was a very different place from the New York of today. In the entire 1916 Guide-Book, there are no mentions of Sunday brunch with the paper, bagels, the Hamptons, or pizza! Heaven forefend, what an alien land!
So that was my enjoyable visit to the New York of the past.
I wonder what it will be like to visit New York City one hundred years from now? With all their brilliance, I hope those Google boys figure out a way to get their hands on that guidebook.