An Eye-Popping View of Our Gilded Past

An Eye-Popping View of Our Gilded Past

Katharine Fields, an intern at the Neighborhood Preservation Center (where GVSHP is located), peers into the past.

The “Gilded Age” in New York City – roughly 1870 through 1900 – gets something of a bad rap as a time of overwhelming inequality, when the rich basked in opulence while others were trapped in filth and poverty. (Hm, sounds familiar.)

West Villager Esther Crain, author of the historical blog Ephemeral New York, presents a new view of the time, both literally and metaphorically. Her new book and image series, New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age, supplies 50 stereographs (two photos side by side) with a special viewer, as well as a 160-page, richly illustrated book on the era. It’s co-published by the New-York Historical Society, which provided all of the stereographs and many of the book’s images too.


The back of this stereograph reads: “The arch in Washington Square Park was originally built of plaster and wood to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889. Residents liked it so much that a permanent marble arch, designed by Stanford White, was erected in 1892.”












Stereographs are cards that contain two almost identical images side by side. When you view them through a device called a stereoscope, the images become one three-dimensional photo that appears to be moving. “It must have been thrilling for viewers in the Gilded Age,” Crain told GVSHP. “Photography was a relatively new and very popular medium. But stereographs took regular photos an exciting step further — they provided depth and immediacy, a sense of motion. Viewers felt like they were right there in the image, which is a wonderful thing in a time when a not-so-great city infrastructure made it hard to get around and see these things in person.”

Today, she says, “we’ve forgotten how magical stereoscopes must have been. People collected them and showed them at viewing parties in their parlors.”


The back of this stereograph reads: “The Bowery, Manhattan’s oldest thoroughfare, was named for the Dutch word meaning farm, which were prevalent in the area. In the early 1800s, the street was lined with fine homes and theaters, but deteriorated steadily into a center of vice and prostitution. The Third Avenue El further darkened the Bowery, which was the setting of Stephen Crane’s “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” in 1893.”



Crain, who finds “enchantment in every tiny pocket of the city,” was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital, grew up in the Village of the ‘70s, and still can’t get enough of NYC. “Each block has its own energy, and every building or brownstone or cast-iron grate or park or empty lot is an invitation to discovery. Who lived here? Who built it? New York constantly inspires curiosity, which is why it always has and always will attract artists of all kinds. It’s impossible to peel back all its layers of mystery.”

Esther Crain Photo GVSHP

Author Esther Crain.

She thinks the attitudes and actions of the Gilded Age may be instructive to us today. “In the decades following the Civil War, there was a huge commitment to making life in New York better for everyone who lived here, rich and poor. Investments were made in building roads, public transportation, parks, hospitals, and schools. Tenement laws were passed that improved, at least a little bit, the conditions under which so many people lived,” Crain said. “There was a huge debate about what to do to combat poverty, a debate inspired by religion as well as a more secular sense of duty toward easing life for the less fortunate. Settlement houses were formed, and some very rich people founded charities that directly benefited the people they served. The Gilded Age as a reputation as a time of greed and inequality, but this commitment on the part of so many New Yorkers to making things better shouldn’t be forgotten.”


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Karen Loew

Karen Loew is the Director of East Village and Special Projects at GVSHP.

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