Late winter was boot scraper season in 19th century New York City

In the 18th and 19th centuries, New York City roads were filthy. Garbage was tossed in gutters (sometimes consumed by free-roaming pigs, who left their own waste behind), dust got kicked up on dry days, and manure from the thousands of horses that pulled streetcars and wagons caked the streets.

Add in the snow and sleet typical of late February and early March, and the cityscape that appears so charming in old black and white photos was actually a muddy, grimy, soupy mess.

No wonder anyone who had a stoop and iron stairway railings also had a boot scraper. Built as a discreet part of the decorative railing, boot scrapers allowed people to scrape the gunk off their shoes before entering a home, business, school, or church.

These 19th century boot scrapers were all found in the West Village. The historic brownstone rows here seem to have more boot scrapers than any other section of the city, and all are still functional and quite lovely in their own old-timey way. But you’ll find them in any neighborhood where brownstones and town houses still have stoops.

Once you start noticing boot scrapers, you’ll see them every time you ascend the stairs, and you’ll realize that many of them are unique, even unusual and decorative. (A few examples can be found in this earlier post.)

Think of boot scrapers as utilitarian relics of an older New York City….right beneath your feet.

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9 Responses to “Late winter was boot scraper season in 19th century New York City”

  1. andrewalpern Says:

    Thank you for giving present-day life to these otherwise-obscure architectural anomalies from the days when brownstones’ stoops were their front porches and when the family would sit there after dinner and chat with their neighbors.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one enchanted by these relics, and the long-lost stoop life that once characterized New York City neighborhoods.

  2. Michael Z Says:

    Excellent history. Thank you. There are many brownstones in my neighborhood. I’ll take a look tomorrow morning on my stroll for exercise & fresh air. I have a sense unlike in Japan and other Asian nations after scrapping their shoes/boots they didn’t leave them in the foyer.

  3. mrappoport9f069f1bdf Says:

    My father who was a scientist and engineer noted wryly, that all the fuss made about pollution from cars in the 1960s didn’t come close to the dirt in NYC when he was growing up produced by horses on rainy streets or coal-heated tenements.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    I have to chuckle when I see old films, especially colorized ones, of street life in New York and the commenters frequently note how clean everything looks. The bootscrapers are proof that it wasn’t; people weren’t picking up after their dogs then, either, and I can remember more than one “fragrant” return home. And let’s not forget cgarette butts everywhere….

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The cigarette butts! I’ve forgotten how they littered the sidewalks until a few decades ago, when smoking was banned in bars.

  5. DAVID EVANS/upriverdavid Says:

    With my boots I need to use a hose sometimes, no horsies, just yard muck when the snow melts.Yeah for Spring!

  6. velovixen Says:

    So many things that seem like lovely touches of artisanship, or simply decoration, actually served useful functions. This post is a eloquent reminder of that.

    I’ll always be on the lookout for bootscrapers–even if it’s sunny and 90 degrees and I’m wearing sandals!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Once you start looking for them, you’ll never stop—it becomes a habit. But a very enjoyable one, hunting for these wrought iron relics.

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