Library of Congress > Collections with Film and Videos > The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906

New York City at the Turn of the Century

At the turn of the century, New York was the preeminent American city; it represented the "new metropolis." The great waves of European immigrants coming to New York, the consolidation of the five boroughs into one vast city, the development of the city's infrastructure, and the incredible construction boom of the next thirty years all contributed to the city's prominence. In many of the New York films there is a sense of pride, or perhaps a celebration of the emergence of the great metropolis. The best of these films convey the sense that the already sprawling city was in the process of becoming something much more than a squalid, chaotic urban center; there are skyscrapers going up -- the tallest in the world; a great suspension bridge being opened -- the largest in the world; and a new subway system -- the longest in the world. We see a proud police force marching in front of a large crowd, orderly columns of street sweepers parading in clean white suits, and the most powerful fireboat in the world blasting jets of water from all of its nozzles simultaneously.

Notable among the New York actualities is a recurring theme of garbage disposal methods and equipment, showing that the city government had developed the administrative ability to provide basic services on a scale never before attempted anywhere. In Once Upon A City, Grace M. Mayer notes Charles Dickens's warning, made in 1842 to visitors of New York City: "Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half a dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner...They are the city scavengers, these pigs." (1)

The herds of pigs were, in fact, the first New York street cleaners, and while there was some progress, little headway was made against the filth of the city until Colonel George E. Waring and his army of "White Wings" came on the scene. In 1900 Jacob Riis observed in A Ten Years' War, "it was Colonel Waring's broom that first let light into the slum. That which had come to be considered an impossible task he did by the simple formula of 'putting a man instead of a voter behind every broom.' The streets that had been dirty were swept. The ash barrels which had befouled the sidewalks disappeared... The trucks [more than 60,000 strong] that obstructed the children's only playground, the street, went with the dirt...His broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors. It did more: it swept the cobwebs out of our civic brain and conscience, and set up a standard of a citizen's duty which...will be ours until we have dragged other things than our pavements out of the mud."(2) Little wonder then that the "White Wings" paraded proudly in April of 1903, and that there was an Edison cameraman there to film them.

  1. Grace M. Mayer, Once Upon a City (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1958), p.472.
  2. Jacob A. Riis, A Ten Years' War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York, (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), pp. 172-175.
Back to top: Back to Top