Here’s a worthy way to blow your New Year’s resolution to be more productive. Spend some time procrastinating by browsing the latest additions to The New York Public Library’s digital archive. The library this week released 180,000 digitized, public domain photographs, postcards, maps and other items from its special collections — for anybody to download free without permissions or restrictions on use.
As a fan of vintage images of all kinds, I frittered away 90 minutes yesterday searching women’s fashion illustrations, 19th-century street views and maps of my neighborhood and historical photos of NYC cycling.
Files from the user-friendly database include information about date and origin, related search options and more. The library is actively encouraging visitors to embrace this remarkable resource in creative ways, with several examples, including a continuous image of Fifth Avenue in 1911 running alongside present-day Google street views.
I thought I’d share some of my first-pass discoveries from the realm of bicycling. Although gloriously random, the images are revealing and thought-provoking, especially when viewed against the backdrop of NYC cycling-related issues that continue to have currency. Mostly, though, they’re just fun to look at. So enjoy:
Some believe that putting more New York City Police officers on bikes would help improve enforcement of the rules of the road and promote public safety. Proof that everything old is new again resides in this group photo of bicycle-mounted NYPD officers, circa 1899.
The NYPL archive contains a wealth of cards containing dual images set up for use with stereoscopic viewers, the 19th-century precursors to today’s Google Cardboard. This card (top) of a cyclist in Central Park was converted to an animated GIF using the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator. You can use it to create and share GIFS and 3D images from the stereograph collections.
A portrait of a young bicycle messenger, circa 1896, is rooted in the era of telegram deliveries. With the growing availability of app-based, on-demand services, ranging from meal ordering to dry-cleaning pickup, urban bicycle deliver seems thoroughly modern again.
A wool cycling dress with a pleated back, seen here alongside a tennis costume, was the height of fashion in 1891. It makes me feel extra-grateful for the current athleisurewear trend that delivers on-the-go comfort and style for everyday urban living — whether or not one rides a bicycle.
Among the most talked about – and often the most controversial — issues surrounding NYC cycling is how to safely share limited public thoroughfares among cars, pedestrians and growing numbers of bicyclists. A Staten Island Drive and Bicycle Road Map, which is dated 1896 and was priced at 20 cents, hints at a more cordial history. At least on paper. The back of the map outlines a variety of cycling route options: a fine country ride, a magnificent marine view and a long-distance ride, all showcasing “The Peoples’ Playground.”
And then there’s spectacle. These images depict the performance of (top) and rehearsal for the American Jubilee show at the historic New York World’s Fair in 1939-40 in Flushing Meadow, Queens.
Finally, when it comes to catering for bicycle club meetings, it’s clearly been all downhill since the service of this menu in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bicycle Club, sadly no longer extant, which offered a feast of lobster and veal. On the upside, today’s bicycle club members are probably healthier for it.
The New York Public Library’s move represents the largest release to the public of digitized visual material since 2012, according to the New York Times, and is part of a larger trend among libraries and museums. Dig in.
All photos courtesy of NYPL