Category: Historical Fiction

Posts and links about historical fiction topics.

1910: Newspapers, Nickelodeons, and Nickel Weeklies

thumbnailOne of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a historical novel is getting glimpses of how ordinary people led their lives in times gone by. Standard biographies of famous people, traditional accounts of history—these rarely include such information, so if you want to discover more, you sometimes have to get inventive with your research techniques.

For my current WIP, I needed to know what people knew about what was going on in their city and the world, how they got their information, what they read on a daily basis and what they read for entertainment. Because I’m working in the early 20th century, information like this is a great deal easier to find out than it would be in, say, the 17th century—partly because of the wealth of searchable newspaper archives online, and plenty of period photographs.

Here’s a little of what I discovered:

New York had several well-established daily papers by 1910. Some of the more famous include The New York Tribune (founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Horace Greeley), The New York World, The New York Sun, The New York Times, and The New York Journal (Hearst’s paper). All of them published morning and evening YellowKideditions they sold for a penny, making them affordable to all but the poorest residents. The World and the Journal engaged in a circulation war, writing sensationalist headlines and even sometimes fictionalizing their news reports, in the late 19th century. This was the origin of what was called Yellow Journalism.

Investigative journalism was also born during this period At the time, politicians and others who found themselves the target of this practice called it muckraking. A particularly famous example is the investigation into Standard Oil’s practices under John D. Rockefeller by the progressive woman journalist, Ida Tarbell.

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell

When it came to more entertaining options, New Yorkers enjoyed the Nickelodeon. These were store-front moving picture theaters that cost a nickel to enter, and where viewers could watch a series of ten-minute or so films in a wide variety of genres—comedy, drama, documentary, and more. Their heyday in New York was from 1905 to 1907, but they remained very popular in the poorer neighborhoods for several more years.
New Yorkers also bought Nickel Weeklies,the precursors of the Dime Novel, in the thousands. These heavily-illustrated publications served up serialized fiction and adventure stories to many different age groups. Readers came back week after week to get the next installment of their favorite tales. Their colorful—almost lurid covers are now highly collectible.

Secret_Service_COLORAs with all research, knowing what to leave out is just as important as what you put in. My characters won’t sample all these forms of news and entertainment on the page. But I’ll know all these things are a part of their lives off the page.

What’s different about writing historical fiction?

fig26I love my writing critique group. Smart writers, talented, and we are honest in our criticism. None of us are in it for adulation and reassurance. We’re in it to face the firing line, get real reader reactions to what we’ve written, show ourselves as vulnerable on the way to crafting a finished product.

So when I get a similar response from several members of the group about a weakness in what they’ve read of mine, I pay attention to it. (I also pay attention to the individual responses, but they can be more matters of taste and preference.) And this past week, several group members found that I was too wordy, too explaining, adding too much detail in the scenes, that what I’d written would gain in strength by heavy use of the blue pencil.

I’m sure they’re right, and I’ll go in and doubtless find many instances where less is definitely more that I was blind to when I first drafted those pages. That’s so often true, it almost goes without saying.

But one of the members raised the question as to whether the additional detail, or over-elaboration, is something that is expected/necessary because it’s historical fiction (which he doesn’t normally read), and that made me think too.

Basically, historical fiction has to obey all the same rules as any kind of fiction. And yet, we are creating worlds that are unfamiliar to our readers. We want them to be able to picture what we picture, to be in the period.

For instance, a novel set in modern times can assume a lot more than one set in the past (and I suspect that fantasy and science-fiction also share some of this). You can say “She got dressed and went to work,” and we’ll all have a pretty good image of what that would entail. But what about in a past where, in some social milieus, one didn’t dress oneself, where it was impossible, in fact, to do so because of all the fastenings at the back, completely out of reach?

That’s an oversimplified example, but I think it’s a little to the point. I think the same group member questioned why I would specify that my heroine was driven somewhere in her father’s new Pierce-Arrow motorcar, instead of just saying she was driven. I didn’t have a ready answer, but on thinking about it, I felt that automobiles are still so new in 1910 that anyone who had one or rode in one might be hyper-aware of the novelty, and automatically think in those terms.

Of course, the real trick is to convey all that detail, all that evocation of a period and place, and not make the text feel overburdened with words. And then, you have to make sure that you don’t lose the reader for the opposite reason, because she lacks the period vocabulary to paint that mental picture. A crespine, for instance, mentioned as an item of clothing, needs to somehow be put in context as something that goes on the head. In a modern context, there’s no need to explain what you do with a hat.

I think this need of historical fiction, of drawing the reader into a world she’s completely unfamiliar with, is partly why people will read multiple books set in the same time period, or concerning the same people. Over time, they’ve built up a “vocabulary” of images that put them in that place and era, and they don’t have to work quite as hard to find their way back as they had to work to get there in the first place.

Communications, 1909 Style

kg-grabaphone-1909-th-300Today I wrote a scene in my work in progress in which my heroine receives a telephone call. The year is 1909. Of course, I knew that there were telephones, and she is from a wealthy family in New York City, so they would undoubtedly have one. But then I wondered how common it was to speak by telephone, and how many households actually had them. I stumbled upon this wonderful encapsulation of the United States in 1909:


  • The average life expectancy was 47 years.
  • Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub.
  • Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone.
  • There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!
  • The average wage in 1909 was 22 cents per hour.
  • The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year .
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
  • A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME .
  • Ninety percent of all doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!  Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as ‘substandard. ‘
  • Sugar cost four cents a pound.
  • Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
  • Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • Five leading causes of death were: 1. Pneumonia and influenza 2. Tuberculosis 3. Diarrhea 4. Heart disease 5. Stroke
  • The American flag had 45 stars.
  • The population of Las Vegas , Nevada, was only 30!!!!
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  • Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write.
  • Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. Back then pharmacists said, ‘Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind,regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health’
  • Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE ! U.S.A. !
  • Read more:

That’s a pretty good snapshot to compare that time to ours in a meaningful way. And yet, it still isn’t enough to give me a sense of how my heroine would feel about getting a telephone call, where the telephone would be in her house, what kind of telephone she would have, or even what she would say when she picked it up and before she hung up. In my mind I pictured the archetypal Candlestick phone. But Rose could have used one of the early “grabaphones,” phones where the mouthpiece and receiver were in one handset. Although dial telephones had been invented by 1909, in New York, the exchange was a manual one, where calls were completed by operators, not by patrons dialing a number. So Rose’s phone would most likely not have had a dial. Then there is the issue of how people used phones. One blog features a series of postcards showing how having a telephone could help one out in any number of emergencies. In these days of ubiquitous cell phones, it is hard to imagine that anyone would need to have the use of a phone explained. Already by that time telephones featured in silent films, in the media, and in the iconography, and the job of telephone operator was well established as a female occupation. I wonder how that came to be, exactly. Perhaps the servility of the job was seen as suitable for women, or there were some who were simply smart enough to see a good opportunity and cornered the market. At the time, textile worker, domestic servant, shop girl, teacher, nurse were the most common occupations. Of course, the story of how Edison suggested saying “hello” instead of “ahoy” to answer the telephone is pretty well known. I can easily imagine people shouting when they spoke, too, not quite believing that the person so far away could hear them. I’ve assembled lots of images of 1909 phones on my Pinterest page. Nowadays, when even the idea of a dial is fairly antiquated, I always find it refreshing to dig around and really try to put myself in the mindset of someone for whom a phone call was a momentous occasion.

Suffrage and Marriage

Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16
Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16

There’s no way I can write a novel set in New York in 1909-1910 and not touch upon the women’s suffrage movement. Although it was before the famous march on Washington in 1913, votes for women was a hotly debated topic at all levels of society. There were rallies, petitions, parades and more. Although the early heroines of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were both dead by the time of my novel, Alice Paul was honing her skills as a suffragist at the feet of the Pankhursts in Britain and preparing to bring what she learned back to the United States.

Like my heroine, Paul was a college graduate—from Swarthmore. She went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at Penn, and eventually went to law school as well. And accounts of her describe her as a quiet, Quaker woman, capable of persuading without coercion, utterly dedicated to the cause. She led nonviolent protests here, and was among those imprisoned in the infamous Occuquan Workhouse in Virginia, where she went on hunger strike and was force fed.

Paul lived to the age of 92. Among her many accomplishments was that she was one of the original authors of the Equal Rights Amendment—which has still not made it into law.

One of the many things I cherish about writing historical fiction is how it forces me to delve into history in a way that’s different from simply studying facts and events and biographies to gain a broad historical grasp of their importance. I am forced to discover—or invent—their importance in the lives of my characters, who are very particular individuals who don’t always react the way I would expect them to.

In order to write a story in which my heroine is touched by the major social movement of the time, I have to dig up details that aren’t always available in historical studies. For instance, I have to know not just that women went to prison, but how they were conveyed there, what exactly was the process by which they ended up behind bars. What did they say, how did they act when they were arrested? Was there a women’s prison for them, or were they simply incarcerated in a part of a men’s prison? Or was the workhouse the only alternative? Were the poor women treated differently from the wealthy ones? Are the stories of bravery and self-sacrifice countered by stories of cowardice and fear that have not been handed down as part of the legend? And of course, were there only the famous, recorded

Alice Paul with Helen Gardener
Alice Paul with Helen Gardener

instances, or smaller indignities by local authorities?

I remember a wonderful British series from the ’70s called Shoulder to Shoulder, about the Pankhursts. I would love to watch it again now, but it isn’t to be had anywhere online. Instead, I have contented myself by reading Jailed for Freedom, a 1920 account written by Doris Stevens, in the heady days after women finally won the vote in the U.S. It’s a political treatise, a broad-brushed account, and its documentary tone does not mask the fervor of the author.

That said, it’s a rich resource of the strategies and tactics the suffragists, led by Alice Paul, engaged in. What is truly fascinating to me, and something I was aware of but hadn’t considered recently, was that the woman suffrage matter was deemed to be something each state should decide for itself. It was the then Democratic government’s way of avoiding taking a stand on a hot-button issue. The result was that even when there was no constitutional amendment permitting women to vote, women in several western states were voters, and there were about 4 million of them. The suffragists used the power of the women as voters to put pressure on Wilson’s government.

This reminds me very much of today’s Gay Marriage fight, where it is being left to the states individually to make policy, rather than being debated on a national level. Our own Democratic government is sidestepping the issue. Unfortunately, gaining the right to marry in some states doesn’t automatically give the LGBT community any added political strength, as it did the women. It’s hard to fathom what greater pressure could be put to bear that would hasten the granting of this moral right.

Alice Paul
Alice Paul

Both issues—the right to vote and the right to marry—seem related to me. They are fundamental human rights that a democracy should support. Researching and writing this novel reminds me that many people in the past have fought very hard so that I can enjoy the life of freedom I currently lead. I hope that it won’t be long before people look back at the pre-universal marriage days and wonder how on earth we, as a free, secular democracy, could have justified such a policy.


Linear vs. non-linear

1185285_10151665709908347_285380305_nI’ve decided I have to face it: I’m a linear writer. I may have isolated bits in my mind as I write, but I have to get through a draft step by step, in logical increments. That doesn’t mean I see a straight line ahead of me and I follow it. Far from it. I only see as far as a scene at a time, and even then I don’t always know where I’m going until I’ve written it.

This may be especially true when I’m writing in the first person, as I feel that I must discover things along with my protagonist, feel what she is feeling as the story moves from scene to scene.

I know there are writers out there whose approach is totally different, but I can’t really imagine how that works. What would happen if, say, you’re stitching all the bits together, or have decided to insert a scene somewhere, and it doesn’t make sense? I’m sure those writers have ways to deal with that eventuality. And I guess it’s not too big a leap of the imagination to understand that rewriting, for them, is just as much a part of the process, but perhaps one that comes earlier in it than for me.

My joy is in getting to the end of where the story thread and the characters lead me, being somewhat surprised, and then going back and tightening, adding, deepening, when I finally understand what the novel is about.

Strong Women

Anne Morgan

I’ve been talking a lot about craft lately. Craft makes achieving a novel possible, in my view. But before I even get to that point, there’s something else I have to have: Passion.

I have to want to tell a story, I have to feel that the story is not only worth telling, but that I am willing to devote months or years to the process without losing that essential passion.

As any author of historical fiction knows, research is primary and ongoing. If doing the research doesn’t get your juices flowing, then historical fiction isn’t your genre. In fact, when I feel myself bumping up against a wall in my writing, my first instinct is to go back to the research. It’s astonishing how often I then discover some tiny fact, or uncover an event or a historical figure, that begs to jump onto the page and becomes a catalyst to get me to the next plot point, or stage.

What does this have to do with strong women, you ask? I guess because when I look back at everything I’ve written, my books published or not yet published, I see that common thread. Whether I’m writing for adults or young adults, showing women with courage and who dare to stand up for what they want, or stick by their friends, or try something they’ve been told is impossible for them—this is what fuels my passion for writing.

Elisabeth Marbury
Elisabeth Marbury

Not that I don’t also want to people my novels with men who make a difference, who push the boundaries themselves. Pierre in Liszt’s Kiss is a dedicated doctor in cholera-ridden Paris. Marc-Antoine Charpentier in Emilie’s Voice seeks musical perfection in Louis XIV’s court. And Zoltan in The Musician’s Daughter risks everything for the sake of the Hungarian serfs in 18th-century Vienna.

I like to create strong female characters, flawed perhaps, but capable of growing. This creation is fostered by uncovering strong, iconoclastic women who really lived in history.

My new novel in progress takes place in 1910 New York City, a time when labor unions were on the rise, women were working in factories and in department stores, and fabulously wealthy industrialists were creating their empires.

Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe

Against this backdrop, I’ve found three amazing women who have roles to play in my novel: Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan; Elisabeth Marbury, and Elsie de Wolfe. That Elisabeth and Elsie were in all probability gay, and possibly Anne Morgan as well, is interesting, especially at this time when social boundaries are being broken down. I wonder what they would think about the Supreme Court’s decision to call DOMA unconstitutional? They’d undoubtedly be thrilled.

Stay tuned for some great tidbits about this women who led lives of passion and accomplishment at a time of ferment and change.


Why Does Beverly Swerling Write Historical Fiction?

534123_10200187767909454_121388436_nMy guest today is the wonderful novelist, Beverly Swerling. Her new book, Bristol House, is available in bookstores and online as of today! It’s had great advance reviews, including from the almighty Kirkus, praising her novel: “An intricately woven plot with voices from the past give Swerling’s latest historical thriller an otherworldly aura.”

Here is her take on why she—and the rest of us who dare—take on the challenge of writing historical fiction.


People sometimes ask me why I write historical fiction  I always feel the urge to say because people want to read it, but I can see where that could be interpreted as snippy.  Instead I say something about the fun – for writer and reader – of bringing to life such sights and settings.

That’s true, but writing about a dinner party that takes place in Downton Abbey with legions of footmen and an all-seeing butler, or in a legendary 19th century New York restaurant like Delmonico’s, perhaps in a velvet-draped private room obviously intended for seduction as well as sustenance, is hard work.  Much harder than simply saying, as you can do in a contemporary novel, that after leaving the gym the heroine went into MacDonald’s and ordered a Big Mac with a side of fries.

DelmonicoLogoIn the contemporary example, you don’t need to explain the setting, or the food, or the clothes your character is likely to be wearing.  Moreover, you don’t have to research it.  Your reader instantly pictures the place, smells the smells, she even gets some notion of how this particular character feels about such things as health or the politics of fast food, and maybe a hint about her economic circumstances.   As the writer you can count on that automatic knowledge, and play on the thoughts and feelings such impressions create.  Best of all, you typed that sentence in under a minute.   You could easily spend a day or longer researching the minutia of dining at Downton or Delmonico’s.

I’m not saying writing any kind of fiction is easy.  It definitely is not.  But those of us who who find our inspiration among crinolines and corsets have definitely fashioned ourselves a higher bar.  Successful writers of novels set in the past pride themselves on historical accuracy, whether it’s about the politics of aparticular monarch’s court, the cut of a famous dictator’s coat, or the kind of fans women were fluttering in 17th century Madrid.  Why do we do it when more often than not the plot we’ve imagined, the characters we’ve dreamed up, and the problem we’ve set them to deal with could just as easily fit in a modern time, or maybe even a future time, or some time other than the one we’ve decided to explore?

Consider for a moment Susanne Dunlap’s EMILIE’S VOICE. A young woman of modest circumstances is gifted with an exquisite voice. A powerful musician discovers her, begins to train her, and both are co-opted into a royal drama where everything – not just Emilie’s voice but her life – are threatened.  Susanne chose to set that novel in 17th century Paris and the court of Versailles.  Delicious.  You shiver just thinking about that angelic voice soaring over the slate rooftops and cobbled alleys of the city in the gray-blue night…the transformation when it’s heard in the rose-flushed marble hallways of a palace, beneath glittering crystal chandeliers sparkling with the light of a thousand candles.  Then another woman, jealous of Emilie and with an agenda of her own, determines to bring her down… Fabulous stuff.  But you can easily see how that tale of talent and treachery could be set in 21st century Washington D.C., or 20th century Hollywood.

My new novel, BRISTOL HOUSE, is the story of a conspiracy that begins in the sixteenth century, and extends its tentacles into the twenty-first in ways that are potentially fatal for a number of people. The novel lingers in Tudor times as well as our own, and examines the nature of belief and despair, how both can be triggered by terror, and the bigotry that has often accompanied religion.

Annie, the heroine of the contemporary story, has options available to her that Rebecca, the woman at the heart of the Tudor story, could not even dream. But they are both desperate for love, yearn after their sons, and confront men who wish to use and discard them.

571px-Elizabeth_I_George_GowerFrom the moment four years ago when I first conceived the story I knew about both those characters and the connection between them.  It never occurred to me to write the novel as if Rebecca did not exist, but Annie did.  For me, both women were alive and present.

So we come full circle:  Why do some of us feel the compulsion to set our stories in times gone by?  Why do others want to read such stories?  I have a theory.  I think we do this to rip apart the shadows, get behind them and see what’s really there.  We can sense them, these people who “lived before us.”  They lurk in our dreams and our imaginations, and sometimes we know that they’ve never truly disappeared and time is not really a straight line.

One view of such a slant on reality is based in scientific speculation.  Einstein theorized that time was like a river, with past, present, and future existing simultaneously, but out of sight of each other.  Another truth, my truth, and the one I think I’m always writing about, comes from poetry.  In Burnt Norton T.S. Eliot says, “Time present and time past are both perhaps contained in time future. And time future contained in time past.”



Thanks Beverly!

Changing Tastes

TFC1-218-9_Vanderbilt's_'Marble-House'-interiorI confess, these blog posts about my research for my next novel are entirely self-serving. Not only do they give me a chance to organize what I find out, but there’s always the potential they’ll reach someone who knows more and can help me!

This is particularly true for today’s topic. I’m fortunate that Downton Abbey has raised interest and awareness in the period around which I’m currently working, but there are plenty of differences between the pattern of life in a great English estate, and in the bustle of early 20th-century New York City.

Today’s topic is food and entertaining. I’ve got my heroine about to set foot inside the Astor’s (or maybe someone else’s, but that’s who for now) town house in New York for a dinner party. Before I can take her across the threshold, I need to know a few things:

942741. What would they do at a dinner party? Do they start with cocktails in this period? Is there music? How many people?

2. Would hors d’oeuvres be served first? And what would they be?

3. How many courses? How much would people actually be expected to eat? How many servants would wait at table?

4. What would their topics of conversation be, aside from the obvious?

5. What time would it start, what time would it end? Would people go out afterwards for dancing?

PieHarewoodEven if I don’t use any of that information, I feel I need to know it in order for my heroine to have a genuine experience. It’s pretty easy to figure out what everyone would wear: the Web is full of wonderful resources for fashion. Much harder to get beyond that, to the details that really bring the period alive for a reader.

I did find a blog, Downton Abbey Cooks, where a Downton Abbey style dinner was recreated, and that has given me some ideas. What I don’t know is how much of that would transfer to my setting. New York had already seen such a huge influx of immigrants. How much was Italian food finding its way to the tables of the high and mighty, for instance?

There’s a good food history resource on the web (aside from the numerous typos:) that gives general information, called The Food Timeline. it tends to concentrate on earlier periods, but it’s fascinating to browse. I also found a resource that describes some of the food available in grocery stores at the time—a lot of canned vegetables and corn flakes! But that information is probably more pertinent to the poorer characters in my novel.

barataria-shrimp-label8If you’re really curious about true epicurianism, another wonderful blog is Food History Jottings, by food historian and chef Ivan Day. It’s a British resource, but I for one could get stuck reading his extraordinarily well-researched and illustrated blog posts for days. I’ve actually emailed Chef Day to ask him about American resources for my period. We’ll see if I get an answer!

So, this post poses more questions than it offers answers. However, I did find out that Shrimp Cocktail had been invented by 1910, and that it was more common that it should be an oyster cocktail than shrimp.

All this talk of food is making me hungry! Bye for now.

The Shirtwaist

There are two things most people think of when they hear the word “shirtwaist”: 1) Those natty tailored dresses with full skirts from the fifties, and 2) the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

This post has nothing to do with either of them, although the shirtwaists I’m talking about are the type made in that ill-fated factory.

shirtwaistA shirtwaist is a long-sleeved blouse that nips in at the waist and extends a little below so that it can tuck in, invariably in a light color, most often white.

In the early decades of the 20th century, shirtwaist was often shortened to just “waist,” because it was such a common staple of clothing among the working classes. Why? It’s simple, really: a girl could own one skirt and several waists to go with it. Her perceived outfits would be more, and her laundry would be less.

standard.waistAnd shirtwaists came in many varieties, from the very simple, to the quite elaborate. At anything from about 90 cents to $1.25 a piece, even girls on fairly small incomes could afford a few. One account I read had a working girl purchasing twenty waists in a year, because she bought cheap ones that wore out. When that’s what you wear every single day, and they must be washed, starched and ironed every day, it’s not surprising they might suffer some wear and tear.

The waist was worn with a skirt—dark in the winter, lighter in the summer (if one could afford more than one). For working girls, the skirt had to be practical. Although 1910 saw the advent of the infamous hobble skirt, no working girl could manage having to mince around in small steps, and so their skirts—although of a slimmer cut than earlier in the decade—allowed ample room to stride.

shirtwaist_small1Waists could be left as they were, or embellished with a tie or bow. A lot depended on where a girl worked, for instance. Some employers insisted on a tie. Jewelry was almost never an option, also because of cost.

In effect, the shirtwaist and long skirt was a kind of uniform for working girls. It both labeled their class, and gave them a common identity that didn’t distinguish too much among them. Girls in shirtwaists were respectable, but not fashionable.

16372a.previewSometimes I think I’d like to go around in a shirtwaist and long skirt! But then, I’d probably have ink-stained fingers and a stooped back from long hours spent peering at pages to write my stories.

For more images of shirtwaists and other 1910 ladies’ clothing, check out my Pinterest board!

Getting around New York—1910 style!

One of the biggest pleasures of writing historical fiction is discovering amazing things I never knew before.

Even though I’ve spent chunks of my life living in New York City, setting a novel there in 1910 has opened my eyes to some pretty incredible facts and insights. There would be too many to put them all here, so I thought I’d start with a relatively simple one: transportation.

1911-Rush-Hour-on-Queensborough-BridgeNew York has always been a walkable city, and people did perambulate in 1910. A huge number of people walked to work every day, not just from where they lived in Manhattan, but also from the outer boroughs—as this photo of rush hour on the Queensboro bridge shows.

But the city was also already in the vanguard of various forms of public transportation by then. In fact, figuring out how people got around is one of the biggest challenges of historical fiction. It’s a delight for me to have found a resource so rich in actual photographs. It’s the blog of a site called Fine Print NYC. They have a series on the evolution of New York through pictures. It’s priceless.

Here are a few treasures I found.

The main way people got to New York in that era was train, of course, but Grand Central Station was only just being built. On the other 1910-Old-Penn-Station-Concoursehand, Penn Station was in all its glory, an architectural masterpiece, now sadly replaced by one of the ugliest train terminals in the U.S.

Steam trains from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and other points came to the city via Penn Station.

But the era of electric trains and trams was in full swing by now as well.

The city streets were scored with trolly tracks—sometimes on very worn surfaces you can still see vestiges of them today. And even then, trolley accidents, pedestrians getting hit by them, were all too common. Imagine if today’s crowded NYC streets had to accommodate trolleys!

1908-Hudson-River-Subway-CarA little safer were the new subways, the initial lines of which were constructed during the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike the sleek, metal tubes passengers ride in today, these had some of the elegance of regular train travel, as the picture of a subway interior shows.

Trolleys also shared the streets with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles. At first typical cab was drawn by a single horse and sat two people in an open carriage that a passenger could easily hop in and out of. But gas-powered cabs painted yellow started in New York as early as 1907.1905-New-York-Taxi-Cab

Automobiles were probably the least common vehicles, but that didn’t stop New York hosting its first Auto Show in 1905! The names on the signs in the photo are mostly remnants of the past.


Then, as now, what form of transportation you chose was a matter of economics. Walking was the cheapest thing.

Trolley and Subway fares were 5 cents, which would be about a dollar in today’s currency values.

Taxi fares are harder to figure out, but in 1912, they were 50 cents a mile. That’s a whopping $10 at today’s values—so only the wealthy would probably take cabs.

And as to privately owned cars and carriages—those involved the typical expenses of maintenance, plus often a driver’s salary, and therefore would only be owned by the very rich.

Want to see some more early New York transportation photos? Check out my Pinterest board!