A vanished New York, in film

The Library of Congress recently made available for online viewing a vivid set of historic films of New York City. The collection, “The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906,” can be viewed at the Library of Congress YouTube channel. You can also download some or all of the 43 films for repeat viewing (I did it using iTunesU).

The clips are black-and-white, and silent, naturally. While the longest clip clocks in at just over 11 minutes, most are only one or two minutes long. But the brevity doesn’t spoil the joy of seeing New York as it looked at the turn of the century, when my dad’s ancestors were moving there from the Capital District. (And also when my German ancestors began arriving, too!).

The gems include the arrival of immigrants to the Ellis Island depot, taken by the Biograph Company in 1906.

Here is an Edison Company clip of a so-called “Street Arab,” a young street performer doing his thing in 1898:

The second clip is noteworthy in that it shows a child. For the most part, women and children are scarce in these clips. There are exceptions: a lovely skating scene, for example. But most of the clips show Events of Note: skyscrapers a-building, war heroes’ funerals, bridge openings in which mostly male dignitaries parade the span.

This is hardly surprising, if frustrating to the family historian who’d like to see more of the city’s entire population. But the filmmakers weren’t really documentarians — they were pioneers in an infant industry, flexing their muscles by training their cameras on a busy, crowded city. And we certainly benefit from the record.

(h/t to the Open Culture blog.)

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5 Comments on “A vanished New York, in film”

  1. Linda Bonavita says:

    So interesting for me especially since 3 of my grandparents embarked on Ellis Island.

    Was “Street Arab” a name given then to street performers ?
    Great talent !

    …..and I also loved the NY Harbor Police patrol capturing pirates.

    Great stuff, Liz ! Thanks !

  2. Saw Lady says:

    Amazing how in 1898 there was a street perfomer doing similar moves to the B-boys street performers of today!
    Wonderful videos – thank you!

  3. LilacFestival says:

    Very interesting – can’t wait to explore more of those videos.


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