New York Public Library Wins Throwback Thursday

The digital era has already given birth to new traditions, such as the widespread practice known as “Throwback Thursday,” in which people post old photographs of themselves, friends, or family. Social media users usually post baby photos or nostalgic pictures, then tag the post “#TBT.”

This month, the New York Public Library took Throwback Thursday to an entirely different era — the 19th century. Old photo restoration has allowed the iconic institution to digitize vintage photos taken in the Big Apple almost 150 years ago.

The library partnered with tech developers and historians to launch OldNYC.org on Thursday, May 21st. The new website fuses thousands of vintage photos with an interactive map, so virtual tourists can peek into the city’s past. Current residents of the city can see what their street corner looked like in generations gone by.

A depression-era photo from 1933 shows tens of thousands of people gathered outside the library itself for a parade celebrating the National Recovery Administration. Another popular photo shows roller skaters enjoying a sunny Central Park all the way back in 1933, while even older photos show horse-drawn carriages at a nearly empty Fifth Avenue intersection.

The new map contains thousands of photos marked by a red dot, and there’s nearly enough to cover every street corner in the city. By clicking on the corresponding dot, users can see photos of that location in the past.

The pictures come from the New York Public Library’s Milstein Photography Collection. They prominently feature the work of famous street photographer Percy Loomis Sperr, who was active between the 1920s to the 1940s. However, the oldest photos date all the way back to the 1870s, the dawn of photography itself.

“Everybody knows that sharing digital images over the Internet allows vast numbers of people to see the images, but did you know that the nature of the Internet assures that these digital images will last forever?” said David Orr, President of DPSdave.com, LLC “The internet is designed to preserve information by making lots of copies as people view the images. Fast forward a few centuries, and all the physical photos will have succumbed to the ravages of time, but these digital copies will still be around.”

New York City isn’t the only metropolitan area performing old photo restoration; smaller cities are also opening up their photo archives to the public.

The city of Caldwell, New Jersey, hosted an event called “History on the Avenue” in May. Local historians and business leaders displayed 60 enlarged photos covering 125 years of the town’s history. Instead of placing the photos on a virtual map like the NYPL, the exhibit’s organizers placed photos outdoors at the location where they were originally taken.

Delighted Caldwell residents said it felt like “really stepping back in time.”

“These particular images will be the oldest images of what life actually looked like in New York, and will be some of the more valuable images on the planet in the historical and social context of the future,” said Orr.

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