France’s Louis Daguerre perfected the earliest form of commercial photography in 1839. It didn’t take long for others to seize the new technology and create daguerreotypes of New York City street scenes.
These surviving early photographs offer a fascinating (if faded) glimpse into the city during an era when images were generally recorded with paint or ink, not copper plates.
At top is the Unitarian Congregational Church of the Messiah, which once stood on the east side of Broadway at the end of Waverly Place, surrounded by small free-standing houses.
The photo was taken in 1839 or 1840 from the rooftop studio of Samuel F.B. Morse and John Draper, who worked together at New York University. (Draper also took what might be the first daguerreotype portrait in 1840—of his sister, Dorothy.)
The second daguerreotype captures Chatham Street (now Park Row) northeast of Chatham Square. It dates back to 1853-1855 and shows a commercial, working-class section of the city known for its shops, taverns, and dance halls.
“Unlike the period’s printed views, which were generally designed for clarity and filled with drafting table anecdote, this photograph shows the city as an inelegant confusion of traffic, commercial signs, and pedestrians,” explains the link to the photo (which can be enlarged for careful study) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.
And though it doesn’t necessarily count as a street scene because the street at the time was rural farmland, the third daguerreotype is an 1839 image of a lovely house and white fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a part of today’s Upper West Side.