Library of Congress
The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906
This collection contains forty-three rare, actuality motion pictures made between 1898 and 1906 in New York City. Actuality films capture real, day-to-day events of the time. Two early film companies produced these motion pictures which were viewed by the public in nickelodeons.
The collection also contains two films that use actors and a contrived plot; the novelty "What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City," and the melodrama "The Skyscrapers of New York." The dramatic motion pictures were included in the collection because they contain some actuality footage.
1) The collection highlights the urbanization of New York City at the turn-of-the-century. Some films document the start of the construction boom that would last thirty years in the city.
Search on skyscraper, construction, building, bridge, streets, and subway. For example, search on New York, bridge for films such as, "Opening the Williamsburg Bridge, December 19, 1903."
The Williamsburg Bridge, a combined cantilever and suspension bridge, crosses the East River from Delancey and Clinton Streets, Manhattan, to Roebling and S. 5th Streets [in] Williamsburg. Built at a cost of twelve million dollars, it held two lanes of roadway, two "L" tracks, four trolley tracks, and two promenades. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world at the time.
2) The collection evokes a sense of pride in the growing metropolis, its architecture, and its infrastructure. The collection showcases city workers and city services.
Search on police, fire, sanitation, street cleaning, waste disposal. For example, search on New York, fire for films such as, "Fireboat New Yorker in action, May 10, 1903."
Put in service on February 1, 1891 as Engine Company 57, the "New Yorker" was stationed at the Battery near Castle Garden, where her crew lived aboard. She was 125 feet long, 25 feet abeam, with a tonnage of 243. The 800 horsepower triple expansion engine turned a single screw. With a total capacity of 13,000 gallons per minute from it's Clapp & Jones and La France fire pumps, the "New Yorker" was the most powerful fireboat in the world.
3) These films feature scenes of life in New York City at the turn-of-the-century. The hustle and bustle, chaos and commerce of a growing city are depicted in many of the motion pictures.
Search on market, harbor, department stores, panorama, peddlers, sidewalk, street, crowds, pedestrians. For example, search on New York, department stores for films such as, "Bargain day, 14th Street, New York, April 1, 1905."
The film shows hundreds of tightly packed people crowding into the front door of the Rothschild Co. 5 and 10 cent store. They are so closely packed it is difficult to tell one from another. The view is from across the street, looking down from the 2nd floor.
4) The collection offers a broad view of types of transportation available in the burgeoning city.
Search on automobile, barges, bicycle, boats, ferry, horses, local transit, railroad, ships, streetcar, subways, traffic, transportation, vehicles. For example, search on New York, traffic for films such as, "Lower Broadway, May 15, 1902."
The sidewalk along Broadway is crowded with people, and the traffic in both streets is very heavy. A horse-drawn streetcar passes in front of the camera, with a sign giving its destination as the "Courtland and Fulton Street Ferry."
5) The collection provides a picture of leisure activities at the turn-of-the-century.
Search on Central Park, skating, sleighing, street entertainers, theater. For example, search on New York, skating for films such as, "Skating on lake, Central Park, February 5, 1900."
The view is of a frozen lake in Central Park crowded with ice skaters. The film is of such poor quality that it is difficult to tell if the apparent "snow" is real or just scratches on the film.
6) Celebrations and events are captured in several of the films.
Search on funeral and parade. For example, search on New York, parade for films such as, "Buffalo Bill's wild west parade, April 1, 1901."
The film shows a parade down Fifth Avenue, New York. In the foreground many children, both black and white, can be seen following alongside the parade. The participants in the parade include cowboys, Indians, and soldiers in the uniform of the United States Cavalry on horseback and riding horse-drawn coaches. Buffalo Bill can be seen on horseback, lifting his hat to the crowd.
7) Some films in the collection capture workers and labor at the turn-of-the-century.
Search on workers. For example, search on New York, workers for films such as, "Sorting refuse at incinerating plant, New York City, May 9, 1903."
The subject is a group of about thirty men and boys who are sorting combustible refuse, mostly paper, and stuffing it into large sacks. In the background a man in a hat with an emblem on it can be seen unloading trash from a large wagon.
8) The collection also offers glimpses of the immigrants that swelled the city's population at the turn-of-the-century, and of African Americans in New York.
Search on immigrant and Afro-American. For example, search on New York, immigrant for films such as, "Emigrants [i.e. Immigrants] landing at Ellis Island, July 9, 1903."
The film opens with a view of the steam ferryboat "William Myers," laden with passengers, approaching a dock at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. The vessel is docked, the gangway is placed, and the immigrant passengers are seen coming up the gangway and onto the dock, where they cross in front of the camera.