The Startling Changes in New York From 1873 – 1923

Robert Underwood Johnson Tells Of New York In 1873 and How It Changed Over 50 Years

Everything today seems to be moving at the speed of light. Changes of all sorts have greatly altered our everyday living in ways that might have been unimaginable 20 or even 10 years ago.

Some might argue there was more change at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century than there is today. All the people who lived through and witnessed that change are long dead. Maybe if you heard it from someone first hand, it might make a greater impression upon you.

Fortunately we have people like Robert Underwood Johnson (1853-1937) who put down his memories in his book, Remembered Yesterdays (Little, Brown & Co., 1923) which serves as a living time capsule of that period.

Johnson was a long time editor at The Century Magazine, a leading monthly periodical which covered news art and literature. Johnson also wrote regularly for Scribner’s Magazine.  Along with John Muir, Johnson was one of the main forces behind the creation of Yosemite National Park.  Johnson personally knew every major personage imaginable during his lifetime and his memoir reflects that.

What I found particularly interesting was a brief chapter entitled “New York in the 70’s” (meaning the 1870s). In that chapter, Johnson compares the New York City he arrived in, in 1873 with the present (1923).

This is what had occurred over 50 years. Below is an excerpt from the book:


LOOKING back it is difficult to identify the New York of that time, just beginning to feel its strength, with the brilliant metropolis of to-day. Think of the points of contrast! In 1873 there were no electric lights, no skyscrapers, no trolleys, no blazing, twirling or winking signs and thus, of course, no Great White Way, Broadway being preéminently the street of business and there being little or no shopping on the cross streets above Fourteenth.

There were no automobiles, no big, beautiful railway stations, no traffic congestion, no subways, no river tunnels, no museums of art, save the collection at the New York Historical Society and the meagre beginnings of the Metropolitan, and only one or two accessible private galleries such as the Blodgett or the Vanderbilt, largely of European paintings now long out of fashion. There were no modern hospitals, no telephones, no-typewriting machines, no special delivery, no movies,no “leviathans of the deep”, no sporting page, no rotary supplements, with pictures from every corner. of the world, and no blatant and studied exploitation of personality. There were no big department stores, if we except Stewart’s. There were only three apartment houses in the whole city; no Madison Square Garden, no bridges to Brooklyn, merely ferries; no aeroplanes or radio; no great Woolworth building. If I remember rightly, there was only one newspaper with a Sunday edition, the New York Herald. The elevated railways had not been finished and It was not yet the era of great national expositions, the one of 1850 in the Crystal Palace, on what is now the site of Bryant Park, being the only memory of the sort, and the Philadelphia Exposition being only yet in the planning. The Civil War was hardly ten years away, and those who wished to impress you told of Lincoln’s great speech at Cooper Union, or of the marching of the Massachusetts and New York troops down Broadway to the ferries on the way to Washington. The Tweed rascality, exposed by the New York Times, was shamefully fresh in the public mind and Nast, who had done effective work against Tammany in Harper’s Weekly, was still the satirical cartoonist of the day, and this feature had not yet reached the staid newspapers, that never dreamed of 100-page editions. Even with the Bond Street murder and the killing of Jim Fisk there were not scandals enough to go around. There were no colossal hotels with their luxury, of the sort that made Howells fear to put out his shoes at night for fear they would be gilded. The old Astor House was the best hotel, Delmonico’s the conspicuous restaurant, and Charles O’Conor the leading lawyer. William Travers, who stuttered, was the wag of the town, being to New York what Sam Ward was to Boston.

Other things were not. Artistically, the three great educational beehives, – Columbia, New York University, with the beautiful colonnade of the Hall of Fame (not then thought of), and the College of the City, had not emerged from the Chrysalis state. New York University was then wholly installed in the serene gray Tudor building of literary and historic associations, – the scene of Theodore Winthrop’s “Cecil Dreeme”, of John W. Draper’s experiments with daguerreotypes and photographs and of his researches in spectrum analysis, and also of the first work of Morse and Vail on the telegraph. The union of the Astor, Lenox and Tilden libraries had not yet been accomplished in the sumptuous building at forty-second Street, the Site of which was then occupied by a gray stone reservoir of city water, constructed in the flaring Egyptian style. There was no theatrical city within a city Baseball had not yet outranked
politics in public attention. Visitors from the country still went to the Eden Musée, New York’s counterpart of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, with its chamber of horrors. There was no Statue of Liberty in the harbor to thrill the American returning from Europe, and in the morning mist no impressive view of the massive, castellated, grandiose and yet fairy-like city beyond the Battery. The confusion of tongues was not insistent and the foreign quarters of to-day did not exist, the Irish being then the dominant alien element.

An anecdote is told of the hectic social life of the present day which throws into contrast the leisurely home life of that time. At an afternoon tea in an American city, an English visitor remarked upon the distrait and unreposeful expression of the ladies in the room, saying, “I find it difficult to converse with so many of your countrywomen. Is the trouble with them or with me?” “Oh,” was the response, “ they are simply not here – they are at the next place.” There was then more time and more inclination for good talk. There were few clubs for men and only one (Sorosis) for women. Homes were then inhabited, and the claims of the individual were not swamped by charitable or educational societies, or by the uneasy feeling that you were not only your brother’s keeper, but the keeper of all your brothers of every race and clime. I am not decrying the motives, usually sincere, back of the participation In the correlated effort which stamps out tuberculosis or wins righteous wars, but merely noting that neglect of the home virtues of personal culture that makes an inverted pyramid of so much benevolence. Certainly we have witnessed in America the growth of one art as old as the hills, – the art of social climbing upon the shoulders of the poor.

With all these things in mind, one may wonder what was the attraction of the New York of the seventies for the young men who flocked to it from all over the country and eventually helped to build up its power and greatness. Every now and then, articles would appear in the newspapers setting forth the danger that the trade supremacy of the city would pass to Boston or Baltimore, but perhaps that was intended only to spur Manhattan to greater efforts. Certainly its growth in the last half-century has been one of the wonders of the world. It had a repose which was scarcely interrupted by the drowsy horse cars and by the omnibuses of the
sort that Walt Whitman once drove. The little parks like Union and Madison Squares were beautiful and well-kept and were unspoiled and undwarfed by their present framing of ugly buildings of various heights, and Central Park, then neither sophisticated nor shabby, was a harbor of refuge, the Mall with its Gothic elms having the calmness of a cathedral aisle. Even before Colonel Waring and his “White Wings” demonstrated that a big city could be cleaned,
the parks and squares were kept with a tidiness and a respect in contrast with the shameful neglect of to-day. Not until the municipal housekeeping of New York is entrusted to the control of women shall we have a clean city. But the use of soft coal must again be prohibited or be supplanted by some other fuel to be discovered by science, or New York will lose its prestige as a city of unpolluted atmosphere.

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