The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

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4 Responses to “The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers”

  1. Jason Lempieri Says:

    I’ve adored these covers since my time at Pratt. So much so I’ve developed a series based on them. See them here:

  2. The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers — Ephemeral New York – Naked Cities Journal Says:

    […] The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers — Ephemeral New York […]

  3. Chris Fletcher Says:

    I recall years ago one of my gallery clients featured an artist who made their own paper, painted the covers in a variety of colors, and then used a garbage truck which would basically roll over the paper/paint/cover to create their own lithograph which, when dry, would be beautiful and sold rather well!

  4. smbabbitt Says:

    Nice vault light survivor at 23rd near Fifth Avenue!

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