Think Snowstorms Are Rough Now? Check Out These Vintage New York Blizzards
Severe winter weather was bad for the people and worse for the horses.
“Storm Played No Favorites with Men or Beasts,” an editor wrote in 1914 as part of a winter-misery photo spread titled “New Yorkers Playthings in the Blizzard’s Grip.” If you think shoveling your car out is a pain, imagine coaxing a horse from its stable into a driving snowstorm. Over the course of the 20th century, the number of horses in New York would dwindle from as many as 200,000 to just a few hundred, but in 1914, the city remained a place where the majesty and the mistreatment of horses were both everyday facets of life. Credit…The International News Service
Waiting for the first real snow of winter is an annual exercise in anticipation and dread, with the accompanying hallmarks invariably falling into place: breathless headlines, familiar checkout line chatter, readying the shovels and snowblowers, restocking the cocoa, bracing for traffic tie-ups and rail delays — or perhaps doing nothing at all.
If that all feels eternal, consider what it was like to endure a snowstorm in a time before Gore-Tex and Doppler radar, snow blowers and plow trucks, subway commutes and automobile windshields — actually, before automobiles. Instant hot chocolate didn’t become a supermarket staple until the 1940s, and it took Swiss Miss until 1972 to roll out a revolutionary cocoa mix with mini marshmallows already inside. (“What’ll Swiss Miss think of next,” the first ads asked.)
Early New York Times photographs of snowstorms really capture the havoc, misery and peril a blizzard could visit on the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Blizzard of 1888, for example, dumped 21 inches of snow on the city and killed an estimated 200 New Yorkers. But even a garden-variety snowstorm in those days would menace New York’s main form of transit — horses — and impose human suffering of all kinds, while posing the immense logistical challenge of clearing an entire metropolis of snow.
Still, then as now, snow slowed the city down in a stop-and-look-around way. It brought a serene kind of beauty and wonder, turning almost anyone into Peter, the wide-eyed child hero of Ezra Jack Keats’s 1962 ode to winter reverie,
“The Snowy Day.”
“King Winter’s Carnival,” one Times headline declared in February 1900, after a Saturday storm gave way to wintry recreation and a sun-dappled landscape of snow and ice on Sunday. “The City Filled with the Music of Laughter and Sleighbells.”
As evidenced by this view toward Wall Street, it’s hard to overstate the devastation wrought by the blizzard of 1888, an onslaught which started on March 11 and lasted most of three days. It caught the Northeast by surprise at the tail end of a balmy weekend amid a mild winter. It killed more than 400 people from Maryland to Maine, half of them in the New York area, while paralyzing commerce and grinding daily life to a frozen halt. It wasn’t just that the roads and rails were choked with snow; the innumerable fallen telephone, telegraph and electrical lines left crackling hazards hidden beneath the snow while disabling communication — for regular people, for brokers and markets, and especially for the railroads, which relied on the wired telegraph to dispatch trains safely even in mild weather. That cut off the supply of food, forcing some New Yorkers to cook frozen sparrows they scrounged from outside their front doors. Credit…Brown Brothers By the time of this picture, published in January 1913, the winds whipping around the Flatiron Building had become notorious. The clothier Gibson N. Vincent sued the building’s owners in 1903, shortly after it opened, contending that the winds in its vicinity had shattered the plate-glass windows of his store across the street twice in just two weeks. The Times attributed the death of a messenger boy to a ferocious wind coming off the building as he tried to round the northern corner, knocking him from the sidewalk into the path of a car. So it qualified as a daredevil act when the people seen here attempted to traverse what The Times called the “gale-swept crossing north of the Flatiron Building,” where Broadway slices across Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street — an intersection that, aside from the lack of streetcars, looks very much the same today. Credit…The Pictorial News Co. Today, tickets in a snowstorm tend to mean violations for failing to shovel your walk. But in January of 1909, when this undated photo first ran in the newspaper, “snow tickets” referred to something else: the pay-per-load voucher system through which the city compensated the on-call army of subcontractors who cleared the majority of New York City’s streets in a snowstorm. If that sounds like a system that might be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, it was. Finding “honest men to handle the snow checks” is one of the “most vexatious problems” confronting the sanitation and public works world, said William H. Edwards, the city’s street cleaning commissioner, in 1909. Reports of counterfeit tickets and bogus snow checks, and headlines about the latest “snow swindle,” were rife. Credit…The New York Times In 1911, there were just 36,000 registered automobiles in New York City and 58,000 in all of New York State, according to The New York Times. Those figures appear to exclude taxis, buses and trucks, but still, during the winter of 1910-11, when this photograph was likely taken in Central Park (the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle is visible in the background), relatively few in a city of 4.8 million people would have had the opportunity or wealth to take a joyride through a snowy Central Park, as seems to be the case here. It looks like there are two adults beneath the furs and detachable top of the two-seater cab, but we’re most curious about the unidentified boy in the rear rumble seat, wearing a motoring cap, car coat and knee-high riding boots. Credit…Brown Bros., N.Y. A “chain of autos caught in the storm of Feb. 6, 1920, laboriously making their way down Fifth Avenue, N.Y.,” read the original caption on this photo. “Sleet, combined with the snow, gave the thoroughfare an icy covering that speedily made traffic almost impossible.” Things would only get worse as the storm progressed. “Snow-bound City Near to Paralysis,” said the lead headline in The Times the next morning. With transportation throughout the city “badly crippled,” and with fear of a “milk famine” — a severe milk shortage, with trains and trucks impeded by the storm — Mayor John Hylan asked New Yorkers to refrain from driving for 72 hours, so the city could “free the streets from the grip of the storm.” Credit…Underwood and Underwood An undated photo of a storm at Fulton Street and Park Row. Credit…Brown Bros., N.Y. Looking south across Times Square, in the winter of 1912-13. Credit…The Pictorial News Co. The umbrella here seems to be mostly a lost cause. The scant notes on the back of this print indicate that this photograph was taken near City Hall, but not when, though the hemlines and the hat plumage both strongly suggest it was sometime before World War I, after which ostrich feathers plummeted in popularity and hemlines began to rise, a trend that would accelerate in the 1920s. Credit…Brown Bros., N.Y. If not for the familiar crossroads, this view would be unrecognizable as the future Times Square. Looking north from the southern end of what was then called Longacre Square, just about every inch of the built environment has been razed, reconstructed and repaved since the picture was taken, covered over time and again with incandescent bulbs, neon tubes and light-emitting diodes. This photograph must have been taken sometime between the construction of the Olympia Theatre (seen at right) in 1895 and 1901, when the second building on the left — the Stonington Hotel — was torn down. Don’t let the serenity of this City Hall scene fool you. It shows the aftermath of a ferocious storm that struck on March 1, 1914, two weeks after the one that inflicted such misery on the horse and pedestrians in the photo at the top of this page. This one caused substantial damage and at least 15 deaths in the New York area. They included a streetcar rider crushed on a rear platform in Yorkville when a track-cleaning car rear-ended the trolley on which the man was riding, and a sick 4-month-old in Queens, barricaded in a snowbound Woodhaven home out of the reach of doctors and hospitals. Credit…Paul Thompson Central Park was still in its infancy on Dec. 14, 1859, when a Times editorial anointed its wintertime splendor the cure for anything and everything ailing New York. “The effects for good upon the health, both moral and physical, of our City population, which we may reasonably anticipate from this development of out-of-doors entertainment, can hardly be over-estimated,” the paper stated. “What with riding down town in cars and omnibuses, and warming ourselves in-doors over hot-air furnaces, we have been rapidly educating ourselves for the last ten years into a very undesirable nervousness of body and of mind.” That was just a year and a half after Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux claimed the $2,000 top prize in a design competition for Central Park that drew 33 entries, with years of landscaping still to come. Though undated, this picture was taken sometime after December 1894, when the Hotel Majestic (the building at left in the background) opened next door to the famed Dakota, which The Times had hailed in 1884 as “one of the most perfect apartment houses in the world.”