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[Detail] Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. 1905.

Collection Overview

The forty-three films in The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906, represent the earliest period of film production in the United States. The collection features "actuality" films which capture everyday life scenes from the turn-of-the-century. This group of motion pictures highlights the growing metropolis of New York City at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

All of the films in the collection have a bibliographic record. Along with other information, each bibliographic record includes a comprehensive summary prepared by the Edison Company describing the footage in the film. You may want to review these summaries before accessing a film, since the large file sizes may cause a lengthy download time.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Subject Index or a List of Film Titles

For help with search words, go to the World's Transportation Commission Subject Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

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.


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking

The collection focuses on the narrow time span from 1898 to 1906. To develop chronological thinking skills, students can compare New York City of the early twentieth century with the city today. Students can compare specific aspects of city life, for example, work, buildings, transportation, or city services. Students can use other resources to create a complete picture of the turn-of-the-century New York versus modern day New York City.

Historical Comprehension Skills

Younger students can use the collection to imagine themselves in early twentieth century New York. They can review parades, watch shoppers at a market or on "Bargain Day," and see the hustle and bustle of city streets. Students can identify visual clues that indicate the films are from the past (such as clothes, transportation, and skyline).

Middle school and high school students can use the collection to develop their historical observation skills. Most of these films are rich in detail. Students can use observation skills to gather visual data about city life at the turn of the turn-of-the-century.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Students can use the films as a spring board for studying topics such as class, labor, leisure, immigration, innovations in transportation, and the changing urban landscape. Using the films and other sources, students can analyze changes in the industrial United States, and the effect those changes had on social structure.

Students might study the melodrama "The Skyscrapers of New York" to examine prejudice and stereotyping of the day. In this film, "Dago Pete" (teachers will want to discuss the ethnic slur with students) fights on the job, is fired, steals from his employer, tries to blame his foreman, deceives the foreman's family as he hides the stolen property, and is ultimately brought to justice-- all in less than 12 minutes.

Students might discuss questions such as;

  • Why do you think this melodrama was produced?
  • How does this film show prejudice? against whom?
  • What is the moral of this film?
  • What would modern day movie goers think of this film?


Historical Research Capabilities

The collection makes an excellent launch pad for research on turn-of-the-century America. Students can combine the visual data of the films with other sources of historical information such as print documents, cartoons, photographs, and newspaper accounts. Students can select a topic covered in the films, such as transportation, urbanization, immigration, or industrialization, and create a multimedia presentation of the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Older students can research the two film companies that produced these early motion pictures, The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and the Edison Company. Then, students can use other sources to trace the history of film production in this country. Students might answer questions such as;

  • Why were the actuality films made?
  • What messages were the films intended to convey?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Are the viewpoints presented by these films unbiased? Why or why not?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

The films can serve as a platform from which students consider a variety of historical dilemmas.

For example, with the help of other sources, students can examine problems facing a new metropolis in the early twentieth century. Students can examine urban issues such as overcrowding, development and construction, distribution of wealth, new immigration, sanitation, transportation, and the need for police and fire protection. Students can compare how New York city handled these concerns at the turn-of-the-century, with how the city handles them today.


Arts & Humanities

Literature Comparison

Students can compare life in New York City as captured in the films, to life in New York City portrayed in works of fiction and nonfiction. Students might study nonfiction accounts written at the turn-of-the-century (see Lincoln Steffen's McClure's Essays or The Shame of the Cities). Or, students might read more recent fiction that uses early twentieth century New York as an historical backdrop (see E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Caleb Carr's The Alienist, or Jack Finney's Time and Again).

Creative Writing

After viewing one or several of the short films, students can write descriptions, news stories, and personal letters about the content of the film. Students can adopt different points of view for their writing, either as a participant in the scene or an outside observer. For example, students can assume the role of someone in the films and then write dialogues, monologues, and poetry from that person's point of view. Using that point of view, students might also write journal entries, character sketches, and personal anecdotes.

Speaking Skills

Because the films in the collection are silent, they present a good opportunity for students to build their speaking skills. Students can develop a script for a film, and then either read it aloud or record it to play along with the film. Students might assume the role of documentary narrator for a film or create imagined conversations between characters.


The films lend themselves to the common literary theme of "growth and change" in an urban environment. The short films can help students understand how changes in the physical environment influence social change. The film of newly-arrived immigrants illustrates another common literary theme -- "self-reliance." Students might answer questions such as,

  • What strengths must someone have to step onto the shores of a strange, new land?
  • What questions might the new immigrants want to ask?
  • What conditions will the immigrants find when they enter the city?
  • What might the immigrants find unsettling or comforting in their new country?