ChromaMetropolis: Colorized Glimpses of Early 1900s New York City

April 23, 2024

Window Washing the Empire State Building in 1936

Take a trip through the streets of early 1900s New York City, where the iconic skyline was just beginning to take shape against the city's urban landscape. Picture the Empire State Building piercing the clouds, the Brooklyn Bridge spanning the East River, and the Statue of Liberty finding its home. But beyond the architectural wonders, the city teemed with life: the aroma of roasted peanuts wafting from street corners and the clang of the newly built subway cars. Here's a look at life in the early 1900s in New York City.

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Window washing in the 1930s was not for the faint of heart. Equipped with little more than sturdy ropes, buckets of soapy water, and sheer determination, these workers scaled extreme heights to ensure that every pane of glass was clean. Theirs was a dangerous undertaking as the window washers experienced gusty winds hundreds of feet above the city streets.

Each day, window washers dangled from the building's exterior, using their brushes and squeegees to clean. Theirs was a profession that demanded not only physical agility but also nerves of steel. This photo captures a window washer at work on the Empire State Building as he poses during a brief break from his duties on March 24, 1936.

The Empire State Building Rises Out of the Great Depression, 1931

New York Public Library

The construction of the Empire State Building began in 1930 during the Great Depression. The idea for such a monumental structure emerged from a competition among architects to design the tallest building in the world, with the hope of boosting New York City's economy.

Once the plans were finalized, the job of actually erecting the skyscraper fell upon thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers. These workers, many of whom were immigrants or descendants of immigrants, worked tirelessly in harsh conditions and without the help of modern safety equipment. They faced extreme challenges, such as dizzying heights, strong winds, and tight deadlines. Despite these obstacles, their dedication and craftsmanship ensured the successful completion of the building in a remarkable 13 months.