What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

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12 Responses to “What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    What a wonderful explication of the art. Thank you for the detail and enlightening history!

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    It looks like the painter added a story to that five-story building! Thanks for the wonderful explanation of all that’s happening in this complex image!

  3. Tom Dulski Says:

    That’s very cool. That’s by where Canal Jen used to be. How about a post about all the cool thrift stores that used to be in this area in the late 80’s and early 90’s? I would love to see pictures from that time period.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’ve thought about covering that stretch of Broadway, from Astor Place to Canal Jean, for a long time. The problem has been finding photos of the stores that were so popular then—Antique Boutique, Tower Records, Unique Boutique, etc. My old haunts!

    • kenny Says:

      https://ibb.co/album/hswxyH
      Someplace I have glossies from that time of Canal Jean’s mannequins riding their bicycles on the ceiling.
      Can’t believe I don’t have any pics of Tower Records considering we’d always wind up there; cassettes and 45s downstairs, pop on the main floor, opera and classical upstairs, flea market in the alley next door.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Canal Jean! I know that flag so well. I think it was on their shopping bags too.

      • Tom Dulski Says:

        I was never that impressed with Tower records but Tower Books which was one block over always had the coolest selection of stuff you couldn’t find at any other bookstore. we really took for granted that these places would always be there.

  4. chungwong Says:

    Chinese sailors were already residing in Corlears Hook in 1830s. 150 Chinese cooks, sailors and candy vendors then settled on Mott, Doyers and Pell in 1860, the birth of Chinatown. There were Chinese Union soldiers in the Civil War. By 1874, New York Times was reporting on Chinese New Year festivities, which had already been around 1860s in NYC. Barnum Museum would also have imported many animals (tiger e.g.) which likely would involve Chinese sailors.

  5. ironrailsironweights Says:

    I wonder what the significance may be of the man who climbed the ladder to the second story on the left.

    Peter

  6. velovixen Says:

    Fashionably-dressed folks shopping on Broadway. Blacks and immigrants doing the hard jobs. It seems that not much changed in SoHo–at least, from the time of the painting until, oh, about a year ago.

    One thing I like about this painting, and others shown on this site, is the light qualities of New York street. Looking at them and images of today’s New York, you can see how the “feel” of the city has changed by noticing the differences in the light.

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