On view starting May 18 through the end of the year, a new exhibition at The Museum of the City of New York will display more than 100 photographs and objects demonstrating how New Yorkers across the five boroughs functioned before there were personal computers and the internet. Curated by Lilly Tuttle, Analog City: New York B.C. (Before Computers) is split into four sections that were particularly relevant in pre-digital NYC: Hot off the Presses (newspapers including The New York Times), Scaling the City (skyscrapers and infrastructure), Trading at the Speed of Paper (finance and the New York Stock Exchange) and A Democracy of Information (the New York Public Library). Prior to the exhibition, we were able to catch up with Tuttle to preview some of the top photos that will be on display.
This is the picture collection at the central branch of the library in Midtown. The picture collection was just one of these weird treasures within the public library. In an era before Google images or Instagram or anything like that, the library had boxes and boxes of physical pictures you could check out if there was something you needed to see. This was a very important resource used by art directors and artists. Andy Warhol was a big aficionado of the picture collection.
This is a picture of a teletype machine at The New York Times in the 1940s. The teletype was basically the precursor to email. They would have rooms full of these machines clacking and whirring away all the time spitting out news. They were on a wire system that would bring in news from all over the world from different news agencies. They had AP teletypes and Reuters teletypes and they would get teletypes from their own international bureaus. It was a very significant piece of technology that I think was much more advanced than one might think for the ‘40s.
Here are some brokers at a trading post. These giant trading posts were all over the gigantic trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The guy on the right is actually physically rolling the numbers that would display the sale price of a particular stock. The guy on the left with the big notebook was a specialist. His job was to take down a stock trade in that giant notebook. It was a very labor-intensive world and there were a lot of complicated steps to get through.
Architect Eero Saarinen designed the TWA terminal at JFK airport which has since been turned into a hotel. It was meant to be a very space age building, very swooping and aerodynamic. It looks like something you would build with really advanced software and modeling technology. In the absence of that, Saarinen and his team built a giant physical model of this building. The model was so big that they had to take on an extra room in their studio just to hold it.
As you can see here, Saarinen was actually able to climb inside of it and often did to advance the project. They weren’t entirely sure until it opened whether the building was going to fall down or not. The TWA terminal kind of represents the extreme end of all that was built and possible without the software and advanced technology engineers and architects use today.
There are two points of interest here. One is the librarian at the desk confronted by the horde of children. There was an incredible readership and audience for the services these libraries produced or offered. The other thing you’ll see is that she’s sitting at a desk full of card catalogs. It’s a stack of rows and rows of little drawers. Card catalogs were a really important key in analog technology. This picture shows the dual challenges of the library system. You see the kids eager for their books and the librarian with this giant desk of card catalogs. That was the technology she was using to manage the onslaught of patrons and the growing collection.
The Times had a clippings collection. They basically clipped all their own articles and stored them and then created an annual index of all the main news that they covered. They came out monthly and I think they would produce it as one gigantic book at the end of the year. It was a repository of their own news that was then available to researchers and students and other papers all across the globe.
This picture shows the professionalization and scaling up of architecture firms. If you look closely, this is a highly organized room filled with filing systems containing drawings and blueprints around the perimeter. That was high-tech at the time. File drawers and filing systems were really the key tools of the trade then.
This was the heyday of print journalism and we have a few examples of foreign language papers in New York City. This photo shows people in Chinatown during the Second World War reading news from the war pasted on a wall. When newspapers couldn’t be printed or people didn’t have access to them in large numbers, the news would just go up onto a board like this. That was a way in which the news was disseminated at this time.
The stock market had a crisis of paperwork. There was so much paper and so much work that went into updating and keeping up with the market that it wasn’t possible to process all of the trades and keep the market and the information going out up to date. This was just as the market was about to close. An onslaught of paper. The computer was really a salvation at a certain point.
This is a bookmobile, basically a bus full of books, in Queens. There was a giant library in the middle of Manhattan, but Queens and Brooklyn actually had their own independent library systems. As the city was growing, the library networks needed to grow to expand with it. Bookmobiles were the way that growing neighborhoods in Queens and parts of Staten Island were accessed. Today, libraries exist as digital resources that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. At the time this was an incredibly ambitious project to bring books, knowledge and information to a vast and diverse population.