Sunday, October 10, 2010

Streetcar Sunday - The Bowery, New York

The Bowery in New York was (and is) a colorful place. It was originally a road that connected the city with surrounding farmland. The name comes from the Dutch word for farm: bouwerij. It is the oldest throroughfare on Manhattan Island. Although the Bowery was originally considered a respectable area, it became known for brothels, flophouses, and cheap entertainment by the time of the Civil War.
New York was the first city in the world to have streetcars, and the Bowery line was the first line in New York.  It started service in 1832, with a car called the John Mason, named after the company's president.. The original cars were horse cars, but by 1888 some of the lines were electrified.

You may notice that there are no overhead wires visible above the car. There's nothing unusual about that; you often can't see them on cards even when they were there. However, this time you can't see them because the cars didn't have them. The streetcars in New York were powered by an underground conduit instead. If you look closely, you may be able to see the line between the tracks that housed the conduit. Only a few other cities, such as Washington D.C. and London, did this, because most cities couldn't afford to do it. There is evidence that it was actually less expensive than the overhead wire system to operate once installed, but the initial installation costs and difficulties proved prohibitive to most.

The Third Avenue El (elevated railway), shown above, operated above street level from 1875 to 1955. It must have been strange to be on the street and have a train running overhead. Not surprisingly, property values shot up when the overhead rails were removed.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow for what I think may be my favorite post ever!

Oh, and here's the back of the card.  It was printed by Illustrated Postcard Co between 1905 and 1907.


  1. I really like seeing this area of NYC. It has such a vast history and the post card really shows a lot.

  2. Very nice perspective postcard. Lots going on in the Big City. Even though I can't get enough of the old cards, I wish sometimes that they were as crisp as photographs so you could really zoom in and see the "little stories" of the big picture. Great post and history!

  3. Wonder how many of our politicos and public know the origin of "third rail", used as a metaphor for an invulnerable program or politically intractable idea?You'd "electrocute" yourself, politically, by bringing up the topic.

    Come to think of it---how 'bout "on the right 'track'", as a synonym for good policies, although I guess "track", the word, existed before streetcars. Jack/Youngstown

  4. Jack, you're right - it is interesting to look at the origins of common expressions. The expression lives on, but the memory of the origin fades away. It does seem to me that a lot of expressions came from trains and transportation in general.

  5. Beautiful postcard! I'm finding that urban scenes are my favorite - it might be the variety of colors.

  6. Great card, great street, great history. That bank building on the left is still there.
    The neighborhood has been transformed, like so much of lower Manhattan. Still an el in upper Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn and Queens).



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