Skip to main content

Main Area

Main

What life was like in New York City 100 years ago

  • What life was like in New York City 100 years ago

    New York City is the most populous city in the United States, coming in at almost double the population of the second-largest city, Los Angeles. With this size comes an outsize influx of tourism and larger-than-life fame that compels people to visit New York from all over the world, either for a quick visit or to relocate. From Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z, countless songs have been written about the city, and from “Annie Hall” to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” dozens of famous movies have memorialized the Big Apple.

    It comes as no surprise, then, that a city as rich in culture as New York City has changed significantly in the last century. From politics and sports to fashion and transportation, some elements of life are virtually unrecognizable from the way they were 100 years ago. Case in point: While policewomen in the New York City police force today dress in uniforms very similar to their male counterparts, their 1920s uniforms featured skirts and pillbox hats. And while the New York Yankees are today considered one of the most impressive teams in baseball, they had only recently moved to the city 100 years ago and had yet to win a World Series. Neighborhood demographics are drastically different, as is the layout—most notably due to Robert Moses' influence throughout the 20th century.

    New York politics is no stranger today to scandals in its political life (just Google the names Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner), but politics in the early 20th century was a decidedly more corrupt affair, with political machines like Tammany Hall still holding outsize sway in the city, to say nothing of mob families and bosses.

    The coronavirus pandemic has changed the city yet again, wreaking havoc on the economy, forcing many small businesses to close permanently, and dropping a hush over a city known for its 24-7 hum. As businesses have begun to reopen, the metropolis has started to come back to life but the full repercussions of the shutdown and continued spread of COVID-19 remain to be seen.

    Using a combination of archival photographs and reports and news articles, Stacker curated a gallery of 30 ways in which life was very different in New York City 100 years ago than it is today. Click through for a look at just how much has changed in the city that never sleeps.

    You may also like: Can you answer these real 'Jeopardy!' questions about dogs?

  • Policewomen wore skirts

    Policewomen weren’t as common 100 years ago as they are now, but those that walked the police beat had an extremely distinct uniform. Policewomen wore floor-length skirts, along with tiny pillbox police hats.

  • Horses and cars shared the road

    While cars had become a fixture in New York City by the 1920s, there were still horse and buggies on the street, as well. Sharing the road was decidedly different from the carriages you see today parked alongside cars near Central Park: In 1920, this meant that there was a lot of horse manure—and even sometimes dead horses—on the street.

  • Harlem experienced a renaissance

    The famous Harlem Renaissance was flowering in this northern Manhattan neighborhood around a century ago. The movement saw many African American writers, activists, and artists concentrating in the neighborhood in a tremendously productive era.

  • Speakeasies replaced bars

    Prohibition went into effect in 1920, driving legitimate New York City bars underground. After five years, there were estimated to be as many as 100,000 speakeasies throughout the city.

  • The Mafia ruled the city

    The “Five Families”—Italian mob crime houses—controlled much of the city’s activity in the 1920s. The primary neighborhoods they were located in included the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and East Harlem.

    You may also like: Fastest-warming cities in the U.S.

  • The Yankees came to town

    The Yankees moved to New York in 1913. Although the team is widely known as one of the best in baseball today, 100 years ago they had yet to win one World Series, which would happen for the first time in 1923.

  • Thanksgiving streets were quiet

    Unlike today, the streets of New York were quiet on Thanksgiving Day. The famous Macy’s parade, which today takes over huge swathes of the city, didn’t get its start until 1924.

  • Fewer skyscrapers marked the skyline

    Although some early skyscrapers dotted the city landscape, the true skyscraper boom had not happened yet a century ago and the New York City skyline was notably shorter than it is today. The most famous buildings today, including the Chrysler Building, wouldn’t be built for another decade.

  • Passenger liners left for California

    Today, transcontinental flights are common. But 100 years ago, travelers to California took to the seas instead of the air, going through the Panama Canal.

  • Immigrants arrived at Ellis Island

    One of the peak immigration periods at Ellis Island took place from 1908 to 1914, with 5,000 to 10,000 people passing through each day. During World War I, suspected enemies and radicals from other countries were detained at Ellis Island. The receiving center was reopened for normal inspections in 1920; that year, 225,206 immigrants came through. Today, Ellis Island survives as a museum.

    You may also like: 1 million species are facing annihilation—inside Earth's sixth mass extinction event