Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mulberry Street, again

A couple of years ago I did a post on a favorite photo. It shows Manhattan's Mulberry Street on a warm Spring day at the turn of the twentieth century (1899-1901). The photographer placed the camera on a support about twenty feet off the ground near the center of the street. He was placed about where Hester Street crosses Mulberry and he faced south toward "The Bend," where Mulberry turns to its terminus at Worth Street. The big cross street in the middle of the photo is Canal.

The photo I showed then was digitized from a print that had been prepared using the photochrom colorizing process. It was a one-off special prepared by the publisher, Detroit Publishing Co., to use in a catalog in its office.

This post shows a black and white version of the same view. It comes from an eight by ten inch glass negative and, having higher resolution, shows somewhat better detail.

Here's the photo. Click the image to see a larger version.

{Mulberry St., New York, N.Y. c1900; Detroit Publishing Co.; source: Library of Congress}

Here are details of this image paired with ones from the color print.
This first pair illustrates the main advantage of the monochrome version: it has much greater clarity.

This pair illustrates an obvious advantage of color: it's a colorful scene.

Here is a map from the same period showing the location of the camera and the direction in which the lens is pointed. Little Italy was then bounded on the north by Houston Street, on the south by Worth Street, on the west by Broadway, and on the east by the Bowery.

{The is from a ward map of Manhattan made in 1899; the dashed lines show ward divisions; click to view full size.}

Directly below you'll find more detail views from the monochrome image. There's much to see. The street has shops at ground level and in some cases offices on the second story. The buildings are mostly given over to tenement-type occupancy: high-density living quarters renting for small weekly sums.

Mulberry Street, then the heart of Manhattan's Little Italy, was being rapidly transformed by an immense volume of immigration. Many arrived and settled in, many quickly moved on to other parts of the U.S., and many spent enough time in New York to earn a bit of money, then returned home. Most kept their language and regional heritage alive in the new environment and in doing so transformed the environment so that it took on much of the character of the places they called home. This preservation of strong ethnic identity seems obvious to me from looking at this photo. Compare these images to the photos of nearby Fifth Avenue that I've shown recently;* the two places seem hardly to belong to the same nation much less same (relatively) small area of city blocks.

The people we see in this photo are mostly engaged in some form of commerce, both social commerce and the commerce of buyers and sellers. The density of people and the ease and cheerfulness they show one another are festive, but I don't see evidence that the photograph was taken on a holiday. Notice, for example, that boys have schoolbooks and that many adults seem to have work-day occupations, not just the hucksters, but the draymen and laborers, and the women in their work-a-day aprons and smocks.

Here are more detail images from the shot.

1. Look at the man entering the dry goods shop; with so much to see outside, it's surprising there's an inside to be explored. I suspect the young man seated below the boot sign is there to watch for shoplifters as well as to call out to passers by and haggle over prices.

2. It's interesting that the crowds have formed various affinity groups; this one is strangely focused on a boy holding what looks like a glass of beer. A few of the children in this detail have noticed the photographer; others seem to have something else in view, something that's presumably taking place at the intersection of Mulberry and Hester.

3. These guys are interested in what's going on below; notice the potted plants. If you look closely, you can see lots of flowers on fire escapes, window sills, and balconies.

4. The guy on the left is evidently about to toss something small, but you can't tell what his target is; I like the haircut and bow tie of his companion.

5. There's much to see here. The boy, not much older than a toddler at the curb, the woman seated with her back to us working on something in her lap, the polkadot blouse on the woman standing to her left, and to the left of her a pile of stuff outside the Banca Malzone. The men to the boy's right seem to be working on the box at which they stand. I can't tell what's being carried in the goods wagon whose back we see. On the left side of this image is a furniture store with chairs piled high, both on the sidewalk and on a curb-parked wagon.

6. Notice the modern touch: a sign advertising the local Bell System telephone and telegraph office; yet looking to its right yu can tell the street lamp hasn't yet been converted from gas to electricity. The teeming crowds continue into the distance as Mulberry makes its bend to the south at Bayard St. You can't miss the quilt hung out to air, but looking closely there are other buildings where laundry is hung out from the fire escapes.

7. On the left is a street salesman with a tray of small objects held by a strap around his shoulder; to his right is what appears to be a waiter from a nearby restaurant (white shirt and apron); It looks like the hand cart is displaying old books for sale. I like how the young girl in white is concentrating on something in her hands and ignoring the hubbub around her.

8. Here, a young guy gives the photographer a streetwise skeptical eye. The man next to him has a typical Sicilian or maybe Neapolitan mustache.

9. I like this view of women's heads, most engaged in conversation, but two standing a bit apart, observing.

10. Arms akimbo, this guy attracts the eye in both the color and monochrome photos. The world-weary expression on the face of his neighbor contrasts nicely with his challenging pose and the guy with the carefully blank face seems to complete this little triangular composition.

11. Looking a bit more closely at the kids around to boy with his beer glass, you see that most are looking back at the cameraman, including the boy with a big baby in his arms. It's an interesting mix of boys and girls.

12. Another baby; if you're looking for them you can see quite a few toddlers and babies.

13. With the tenement buildings out of sight, this looks more like Southern Italy than Manhattan.

14. Your attention leaps to the nose picker, but the guy brushing his derby is as interesting and I like the arty composition made by the heads of men, women, and baby.

15. A barefoot child and one with a handkerchief for headgear.


This image shows Mulberry Street from its turning, "The Bend," looking back toward Bayard and Canal. It was taken in the late 1880s by Jacob Riis and appeared in How the Other Half Lives.


See also:

How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob A. Riis, With Illustrations Chiefly From Photographs Taken By The Author (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890)

How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (The Authentic History Center)


Here are some previous posts on Mulberry Street.

five-cent den on Pearl St.

a tenement on Mulberry Street

Mulberry Street 1900



* Here are links to recent posts that show fashionable Fifth Avenue in the period before World War I.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. I saw the same picture in wikipedia page of NY city. By the way comparing the street view[using google map] of today's mulberry street and building number (it didn't change since 1900, only a few building was rebuilt) I think the camera was placed on the intersection of Beyard(Not Hester) and Mulberry Street.