This 1850s Lower Manhattan image might be one of the oldest street photos

In the 1850s, New York City’s population reached 590,000. Central Park was mostly an idea, the urban city barely existed beyond 42nd Street, and mass transit meant taking a streetcar pulled by horses.

And at some point in that decade, a dry goods store employee turned daguerreotype studio owner captured this remarkable image of a stretch of Greenwich Street, with more than a dozen men standing with their hands in their pockets beside wood and brick storefronts.

The photographer was Abraham Bogardus. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Bogardus ran his own studio in various locations in Lower Manhattan. Two of those locations were on Greenwich Street: first at 217 Greenwich, and then at 229 Greenwich, according to the International Center for Photography (ICP).

Like the other daguerreotype studio owners congregated around Lower Broadway in those decades, Bogardus mostly did portraits. Considering how popular daguerreotypes were at the time with the public, he likely made a good living.

Yet something must have compelled him to step outside his studio door and capture what he saw, and intentionally or not create one of the oldest surviving street photographs of New York City. It’s not a daguerreotype but an ambrotype, according to Invaluable.com, which posted the image when it was up for auction. (It recently sold.)

Abraham Bogardus in the 1870s

An ambrotype involves a slightly different process than a daguerreotype but is quicker and cheaper to produce, according to the Library of Congress. “Photographers often applied pigments to the surface of the plate to add color,” the LOC stated of ambrotype producers—which could account for the red brick buildings in an otherwise black and white image.

Besides Baker & Sadler at the far left, the store signs are hard to read. Invaluable.com says one sign advertises a bakery and confectionary, others are for a cobbler, a drugstore, a cabinet making firm, and a jeweler.

Could these men be owners and employees of the stores they stand in front of—or are they practicing the time-honored New York City activity of hanging around on the street whiling away the time?

[Top image: invaluable.com, second image: Wikipedia]

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16 Responses to “This 1850s Lower Manhattan image might be one of the oldest street photos”

  1. Douglas Says:

    A relative of James Bogardus, architect- engineer of many cast iron buildings?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad you asked! I imagine he was; Bogardus was an old New York family name since the 17th century, when Everardus Bogardus immigrated from the Netherlands. I believe Humphrey Bogart is a descendant of the first Bogardus as well.

  2. countrypaul Says:

    Amazing find. Thank you!

  3. burkemblog Says:

    Thank you for posting this fascinating image–hard to imagine a New York City without pavement!

  4. richardlowellparker Says:

    The third building to the right of “Sadler” says “AMBROTYPES” and the building to the right of that says, “BRYANT & CONNELY”. In all likelihood, those people worked there.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think you’re right, but maybe a few idlers hanging around, like New York sidewalks today.

  5. Julia Park Tracey Says:

    *whiling

  6. velovixen Says:

    People who made daugerreotypes and ambrotypes essentially had to do photographic and darkroom procedures at the moment they were taking their images. That makes their work all the more remarkable.

    Burkemblog is right: It’s really difficult for anyone alive today to imagine any place in downtown Manhattan without pavement or glass and steel facades.

  7. Mark Says:

    Baker AND sadler? What a eh, unusual combination of professions.

  8. asm1962 Says:

    I think Bogardus may have been a descendant of Everardus Bogardus, an important minister in 1600s New Amsterdam aka Manahatta aka NYC. Bogardus had a longstanding disagreement with the corrupt governor, Kiefft, who was known for waging terror against native Americans in the region.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, I think he must be a descendant—it’s an old NYC family name thanks to the first settler, Everardus.

  9. alewifecove Says:

    Is that a hangman’s noose on the roof of the arched windowed building on the right?

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