Examining Street Life Before the Automobile

Exactly when I first stumbled upon Shorpy.com I do not recall. It may have been due to StumbleUpon, actually. Once realizing the treasure I’d found, it also became apparent the vast hours of time that would be needed to properly peruse these thousands of extremely high resolution images documenting urban American life over the last 150 years or so.

Some of my favorites are of the bustling street scenes prior to the invasion of the automobile. As rapid urbanization was pushing the very beginning of the era of the skyscraper, new also was the evolving invention of photography. Yet it was during this experimental phase that pursuit of the sharpest, lushest images seemed to peak. Shorpy is dominated by photos shot on 8″x10″ plate glass negatives. They can literally be enlarged to the size of your average interior wall before they start to blur. Taken by numerous photographers, the majority of the images on the site were shot by the Detroit Publishing Company.

When scrutinizing these street scenes, a few things jump out right away. Of course there are no traffic signals, there’s clearly no need for them. Streetcars, bicycles, and horse drawn carriages are everywhere. Where there is high traffic, those on foot still enjoy sidewalks upwards of forty feet wide along store fronts nestled into human-scaled buildings rarely more than 5 stories high. But it’s also telling that there are no crosswalks for pedestrians. And why would there be? During this era – as it had been for thousands of years – you could safely cross wherever your heart desired and not have to watch for giant metal machines racing toward you. What’s more, the street here is not purely the thoroughfare – it is the essential common gathering place for demonstrations, for buying and selling food, for children to play in, for celebration, for lingering and people watching.

Yet just a few years later all of this would change. If only there’d been a way to show the citizens of a century ago how completely mutilated the life of our streets would eventually become. Though it’s not like people didn’t put up a valiant fight against the infernal combustion engine. The very first fatalities caused by automobiles were protested in the streets as the tragedies they were. Mayors issued proclamations for public mourning. Contrast this to today, where Americans tolerate over 40,000 deaths per year from motor vehicles as an acceptable loss to be grieved in private.

Enjoy the small collection of images below as a reminder of what we used to have, and be sure to view them at full resolution. The amount of historical detail you’ll find is fairly astonishing. When you’ve got some hours to kill, dive in to the full archive at Shorpy.com. Here’s hoping someday we restore our city streets to the enriching, convivial places they used to be, before they were rendered hostile by the ‘convenience’ and ‘progress’ of the automobile.

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Click each image to view full resolution. Click the link below any image to view it’s source.

4a08135aRandolph street, Chicago 1900
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SHORPY_4a17654aNassau street, New York City 1905
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4a05273aCampus Martius, Detroit 1890
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4a23052aRichmond, Virginia 1908
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SHORPY_4a08402aBuffalo, New York c. 1900
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4a19655aEmpire State Express, Syracuse 1905
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4a22457uDock Street, Philadelphia 1908
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4a17658aMott street, New York City 1905
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4a19852aCanal Street, New Orleans 1910
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4a05618aBroadway, New York City 1902
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4a08193aLittle Italy 1900
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4a19437uMarket Street, Philadelphia 1905
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4a12608aBroad street, New York City 1905
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4a22340aSavannah, Georgia 1905
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SHORPY_Detroit_Panorama_1Detroit, 1907
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Leave a Reply

  1. I agree with your article, nevertheless, some of the streets (not the market one, not the little Italy one, but the one of Broad Street) seem so packed that that must have been fairly stressing too, not having enough room is always stressing, and bumping into people. As far as cars are concerned I agree with you, and I think the same of man/woman size buildings, but I would expect the same of cities, when a city grows too big is no longer human enough.
    Yes, there were voices who raised themselves against cars, in the same way that when we started using mobiles phones and computers someone gave the alarm, today nobody says anything anymore about important intimate conversations or activities being interrupted by the sound of a phone, We’ll see in the long term.

    • People used to live outdoors more often and travel by foot. You would be surprised by how much the hat made sense in those conditions. Cars wiped the hats from fashion

  2. I was studying the Richmond image to figure out where it was taken. It’s East Marshall Street, several yards east of the intersection of 5th Street North, looking west. The fascinating thing is the buildings on the left are now the location of the downtown Marriott Hotel, on the right is now the main parking lot for the Richmond Convention Center (behind that lot is now the Richmond Coliseum, opened in 1971). The trees in the background are now the location of the Richmond Convention Center, opened in 2002. http://rebelmetropolis.org/w…/uploads/2013/12/4a23052a.jpg

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    • I’d certainly like to think so. As a technology, streets functioned at far greater level 120 years ago by every measurement. Today, urban streets are largely a broken technology. As cities continue to embrace density and social connectivity, tolerating the oppression of the automobile will become a thing of the past. As a rural technology to travel long distances, cars still make sense in many cases. For urban streets, they make absolutely none.

  4. I notice that the Detroit photo is from 1907, just a year or two before Henry Ford introduced the Model “T” and the world changed. One aspect of the “old days” that shows up quite clearly in many of the photos is the “road apples” left behind by the numerous horses of that era. I recall one commentator of that period who thought the automobile was a wonderful advance because, even though those early gas buggies emitted smelly exhaust, they didn’t leave piles of “solid waste” that would attract flies and be a major annoyance to step in.

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