Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
August is a time for traveling, and so with the city full of visitors this month, we’re turning our attention to the outsider lens on New York, circa 1930. Recently, the museum completed processing its pamphlet collection, thanks to the generous support of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. The pamphlet collection contains printed materials from the late 18th to 21st centuries on a wide variety of topics: history, museums, commerce and economy, and New York City infrastructure, neighborhoods, and landmarks. While processing, I came across two souvenir guidebooks from the early 1930s published by the Manhattan Card Publishing Co., and was interested to see how the tourist’s experience of New York has changed – and what has stayed the same – over the past 80 years.
Visitors to the city arrived in much the same fashion as today, by land, air, or sea. Those traveling by rail, however, encountered a much different Penn Station upon arrival. The “original” Pennsylvania Station was built by famed New York City architects McKim, Mead, and White, whose plans were inspired by Roman Classical architecture. The marble building featured a façade of columns, and the main, vaulted hall was modeled after a Tepidarium of a Roman bath.
Penn Station was linked by underground passages to The New Yorker Hotel and the Hotel Pennsylvania, which at the time was the world’s largest hotel. Rooms with private baths in both hotels would run visitors as little as $3.50 per day, or approximately $50 by today’s standards. Other options for accommodations included club hotels, which offered planned social activities, women’s hotels, and YMCAs and YMHAs.
After a rest, visitors could hit the town. Times Square was a popular attraction then as now. Although it was nicknamed the “Great White Way” for its abundance of lights, it wasn’t quite as bright as 21st century Times Square. Its character was much the same though, and is best described by the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City, “Here, too, in a permanent moralizing tableau, appear the extremes of success and failure characteristic of Broadway’s spectacular professions: gangsters and racketeers, panhandlers and derelicts, youthful stage stars and aging burlesque comedians, world heavyweight champions and once-acclaimed beggars.” (p.167)
If in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of midtown, visitors could travel north along Broadway to Columbus Circle and enter Central Park. On the way into the park at Merchant’s Gate, they might stop to overhear an intellectual conversation at Gaetano Russo’s Statue of Columbus, the site of many gatherings and outdoor forums.
Or perhaps shopping was more to a visitor’s taste. Fifth Avenue began changing from a residential street for the rich and famous to a shopper’s paradise in the early 1900s. Altman’s, Oppenheim Collins, McCreery’s, Best and Company, Tiffany’s, and Lord and Taylor catered to big spenders. By the 1930s, more mid-range stores had opened on the avenue, such as S.H. Kress and Company in 1935, and F.W. Woolworth Company in 1939. Visitors could also simply take in the lavish views: “The top of a Fifth Avenue bus provides one of the best views of the avenue, with its endless flow of well-dressed pedestrians and its conglomeration of architectural styles and signless [sic] show windows.” (WPA, 1939, p.217)
For those looking for the wilder side of the city, the New York Aquarium was another popular attraction. At the time the aquarium was the 2nd largest in the world, and situated in Battery Park in the converted fort of Castle Clinton. The eight-foot-thick walls housed around 8,800 fish in addition to reptiles, amphibians, and birds, and attracted an average of 7,000 visitors a day. According to the WPA guide (1939) the aquarium did not have a budget for acquiring new specimens, and relied on other means, “wireless operators on ocean freighters obligingly carry to far-off corners of the world castoff clothes, whiskey, and other goods given them by the aquarium, and barter them for rare fish to add to the aquarium’s collection.” (p.310)
Before it became the New York Aquarium, Castle Clinton served as New York’s main immigration entry point. In 1890 immigration duties moved to Ellis Island. It remained an active immigration point in the 1930s, but also functioned as an attraction, just as today the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration is a major tourist destination. Back then, a staff of 500 attended to immigration matters; although the number of people entering the U.S. through Ellis Island was just 23,068 in 1933, compared to nearly 327,000 in 1915. Visitors were welcome for just two hours each weekday, and could only enter with a pass acquired from the U.S. Department of Labor, Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Before wrapping up their visit to the Big Apple, tourists of the 1930s might chose to catch one of New York’s ever-popular sports teams in action. New York City was then home to three professional baseball teams – the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants. Visitors to New York in the 1930s would watch the Yankees take on rivals in what was the largest baseball stadium in the United States. Located at River Avenue and 161st Street in the Bronx, it was built in 1922 for $3 million and had a seating capacity between 60,000 and 70,000. By contrast, the newest Yankee Stadium opened in 2009 at the same location, with a seating capacity of only 50,000 and cost $2.3 billion to build. New York Giants fans could take in a game at the Polo Grounds, located in Washington Heights, where football games were also played.
The New York of 2016 looks quite radically different from the New York of 80 years ago. But the character of the city and its landmark sites and attractions have persisted through the ages much the same, welcoming tourists through the decades. And one never had to stop by for long to feel connected to the city. As Tom Wolfe has said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
Federal Writers’ Project. (1939). The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York. New York: Random House.