Old New York In Photos #78 – Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street 1903

Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street c. 1903 – Crowded Street On A Cold Sunny Day

This bustling scene was captured by a Detroit Publishing Company photographer around 1903. The view is from the southeast corner of 42nd Street looking north up Fifth Avenue.

It is obviously a cold and sunny day with most people wearing warm coats. Enlarging our photograph the first thing you may notice is that everyone is uniformly dressed. All the women have the same dress length, just past the ankle. Every man wears a suit or overcoat.  Take a look around. There is not a single person hatless.

Let’s zoom in on some of the details.

On the northeast corner of 42nd Street an elderly man stops to take a look at the work going on inside an open manhole.

As usual, at all very busy intersections, a policeman is on duty to help direct the flow of traffic both vehicular and pedestrian.

This gentleman on the left with the gold watch fob and chain looks to be a prosperous fellow, possibly on his way back to his office after lunch.

Of course other people look spiffy without being wealthy. This sharp looking mustachioed hansom cab driver holding a whip is dressed immaculately.

Crossing the street is an adventure. The teen on the left dashes past the horse drawn wagon that is making its way up Fifth Avenue. The man on the right waits cautiously looking for a break in the traffic before making his attempt .

How these three women are going to get across the street seems to be a daunting challenge to say the least.

When they finally do try and make it across the street they have to be looking up and down, because there is the ever-present horse manure everywhere.

Let’s take a look at the immediate surroundings. The main building on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue had previously been the Hotel Bristol. In business since the 1870s, the hotel was converted into offices and stores in 1903 and renamed the Bristol Building. The entire structure and many other adjacent buildings were taken down in 1927 to build the art deco skyscraper, 500 Fifth Avenue.

If you looked up at the second story window of the Bristol Building you’d see a clock. It’s 2:05 and the clock belongs to a branch office of Howard Lapsley Bankers and Brokers. Their main business location was on Exchange Place. Immediately below on the ground floor is a sign for the corner store, Acker Merrall and Condit Company. Amazingly their wine business, which now specializes in rare wine auctions is still active in 2017.

On the ground floor of the Bristol Building were some other businesses including Thomas Young Jr., florist. Besides the name on the awning and on the glass window of the store, Thomas Young Jr. put his name up in lights just above the store. It must have looked great lit up at night.

If you owned a business and had a vehicle, it would probably be a good idea to put the name of your business on a delivery truck. While we know this vehicle is related to the sale of desks, tables and chairs we don’t know which company it is. Maybe the name was on the other side of awning.

To conclude, take a look at this light fixture on the near southeast corner of 42nd Street. The time of making utilitarian objects beautiful seems to have disappeared as the 20th century progressed.

Even though it has a simple cast iron base atop a concrete pedestal did the light itself have to be so ornate? Probably not, but isn’t this fixture more pleasant to look at, even with a small amount of advertising for the American Biscuit Company on the glass?

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6 thoughts on “Old New York In Photos #78 – Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street 1903

  1. JohnMc

    What is most substantial is what is not in the photograph — cars. By 1910 in most major cities the auto will have replaced the horse and wagon. In other words in 7 short years the country went thru a major technology shift without batting an eye or requiring a new regulatory body from the federal government.

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  2. Brian

    It’s amazing how one photo can capture so much. But one thing it can’t capture is the smell. In addition to all the manure, city streets at that time were often filled with livestock, dead animal carcasses, and even raw sewerage. Today’s cities are immaculate by comparison.

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  3. Rob De Witt

    Lovely, in all respects. A wonderful post, and a beautiful subject. In fact, I have only one quibble:

    “It’s” means “It is.” Always, in every way, in every instance save the rare occurrence where it means “it has.” Think of the use of an apostrophe to denote ownership with any other pronoun, like writing “Those socks are our’s.” Looks stupid, doesn’t it?

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Every now and then we miss one like, there / they’re /their etc. We like it when people point out any grammar/spelling mistakes so thanks for the correction.

      Reply

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