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.