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

The Vault
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.

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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.

StreetTypes2
"Messenger boy."

Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

StreetTypes1
"Postman."

Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

StreetTypes3
"Street sweeper."

Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

StreetTypes4
"Policeman."

Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

StreetTypes5
"Organ grinder."

Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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