A newly-launched online mapping system called 1940s NYC makes it simple for anyone to find historical images of the city captured from 1939 to 1941 by the New York City Tax Department in collaboration with the Works Progress Administration. The photography initiative involved capturing images of every home, shop and other buildings in all five boroughs, the result being an incredibly detailed time capsule of the city as it existed decades ago.
These historical photographs were already available to the public, but getting them — particularly ones of specific buildings — was time-consuming. Things got a bit more simple in 2018 when the New York City Municipal Archives finished digitizing the full collection, a process that also involved tagging each image so that it could be more easily found online using the right details.
Despite that improvement, the process of browsing these images was still limited. Users must go to the NYC.gov website’s city map tool and enter the exact address for the building of the photo they want. This makes it difficult to casually browse these historical images, something the new 1940s NYC mapping tool solves.
The new and far more capable mapping tool comes from NYC-based software engineer Julian Boilen, who notes on the website that an automated process was used to place the images on the map and, therefore, there is the potential for some ‘imperfections.’
The mapping tool is exceptionally simple to use. Every black dot on the map represents a photo of that location; users can zoom in on individual streets and neighborhoods, which appear to be overlaid with historic city zoning maps. Users can also enter an address to go right to a particular building. This is quite a bit more robust than the mapping tool offered by the city itself.
Users located in New York City also have the option of clicking a location icon that will pull up their current location on the map, making it easy to see what their neighborhood looked like decades ago. As well, the map provides an ‘Outtakes’ section that is a large gallery of browseable photos. Many of these images feature black dots and NYC.gov watermarks.
In addition to serving as a portal to the 1930s – 1940s NYC images, the mapping tool also includes a link to a similar map that features the same variety of imagery, but one captured in the 1980s.
This dataset features 800,000 photos of buildings, according to the tool, as well as more than 100,000 ‘street segments.’ This mapping tool includes a ‘Stories’ feature that provides a series of images alongside the stories behind them.
These stories include things like pointers on spying interesting elements in the photos, details about whether certain buildings still stand and if they were remodeled, notable events that took place at these locations and similar information.
The website is not affiliated with the New York City Department of Records, which is the agency that owns the historical photos. Anyone can order the high-resolution digitized copies or prints of images they like from the city’s Municipal Archives, otherwise, the public is limited to the watermarked and low-resolution versions made accessible by the NYC Department of Records and Information Services.
Including these images, the NYC Municipal Archives Digital Collections website offers the public access to more than 1.6 million digital items, including photos and videos.