Beautiful Photo Portraits of People Doing Their Jobs on the Streets of Late 19th-Century New York

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 16 2014 2:42 PM

Beautiful Photo Portraits of People Doing Their Jobs on the Streets of Late 19th-Century New York

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Alice Austen took these street photographs in 1896, hoping to capture the kinds of people you might see out and about in Manhattan. They’re part of an album that Austen titled “Street Types of New York.”

Unlike other urban photographers who worked in New York at the end of the nineteenth century, Austen didn’t set out to document blight or poverty. Nor did she look for the more unusual inhabitants of the city. Her “types”—a boyish bike messenger, a postman in the act of retrieving mail from a box, a smiling street sweeper, a grave and rotund policeman—were meant to stand in for any number of their similar colleagues who didn’t make it onto film.


Austen employed the technique of photogravure, in which a photographic plate is used in combination with an etching process to make a print with a deep, rich appearance. The backgrounds of these images offer great historical detail, showing us intriguing signage, passers-by, and even street litter.

Austen, a wealthy Staten Islander who began making photographs at the early age of ten, traveled the world with her photographic equipment. She’s one of a few examples of turn-of-the-century women who managed to leave behind a robust body of photographic work. The story of Austen’s singular life—full of ups and downs—is well worth a read.

This album goes on sale in New York on April 17. See more of Austen’s New York street portraits in this New York Public Library digital gallery.

"Messenger boy."

Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.


Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

"Street sweeper."

Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.


Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

"Organ grinder."

Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.