Contextualizing the New York City Subway 110 Years Later




The inaugural run of the New York City subway was 110 years ago today.

One of our main jobs as educators is to not only present content to our students, but to foster critical thinking skills. Analyzing this milestone in technology and transportation is an opportunity to do just that. Conventional wisdom tells us urban life in the early 20th century was defined by poverty, slums, disease, unsanitary conditions, unsafe factories, crowded living quarters. Many of us picture the haunting photos Jacob Riis published in his muckraking classic How the Other Half Lives.












This conventional wisdom, that urban life in the United States 100+ years ago was doom and gloom, is not necessarily false. The working conditions depicted in The Jungle, the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and the barbarous lynching of African Americans all corroborate that narrative. But that narrative needs contextualizing.

Scores of “new” immigrants came to the United States in the early 20th century. Despite conditions we view as deplorable today, American cities represented arguably the highest standard of living in the world at the time.

Some quick primary and secondary source analysis about the New York City subway helps students wrestle with these seemingly contradicting narratives. (Secondary sources aren’t evil, they help corroborate primary sources and help sharpen historical interpretation skills.)

Here’s a secondary source from 2004 on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the New York City subway:

One hundred years ago next Wednesday, at precisely 2 p.m., a wall of sound shook New York City from Battery Park to Harlem. Church bells and the sounding horns of ferryboats competed with the steam whistles of hundreds of power plants and the firing of salutes. Cheering citizens flooded the streets, creating what this newspaper described as a “carnival” atmosphere that had the city “in an uproar from end to end.”

The cause of celebration was the completion of the first section of the New York City Subway, a 9.1 mile route from City Hall to West 145th Street operated by the private Interborough Rapid Transit Company. New Yorkers, who had suffered from the traffic jams of a city with 3.5 million residents, could now travel beneath the crowds. Businessmen, who in those days before the telephone was ubiquitous had to meet clients face to face, traveled to meetings with newfound freedom. And residents of crowded tenements near their downtown workplaces were freed to move to the rapidly growing suburbs along the subway route.


Sounds fantastic! The source helps students understand how the subway improved the lives of New Yorkers. It also helps teach the extent of private enterprise in public infrastructure, during a time when the debate between laissez-faire economics and government regulation was quite robust.

A primary source from 1905, a year after the subway opened, adds a layer of complexity:


Click image for a clearer, larger view.

The subway is portrayed as some sort of monster. The platform is crowded, and the sign tells us a ride to Harlem would take 3 hours. The clothing of the people also raises an eyebrow. The woman in the foreground challenges the everyone in the cities were poor misconception. And is that Ben Franklin? Huh?

Corroborating both sources yields some higher level analysis:

  1. American cities had arguably the highest standard of living in the world, but…
  2. That standard of living was rapidly changing due to new technologies and business practices.
  3. The changing infrastructure had trouble keeping up with the increasing population.
  4. Discontent with railroad business practices was not exclusive to rural farmers and the Populist movement.

These points could easily be covered in a lecture, but providing these sources to students allows them to #ExperienceHistory and do some of this detective work themselves.

Here are some contextualization prompts that can be used to help students analyze these and other documents.

  • The excerpt/cartoon/artwork/etc. best reflects which of the following historical patterns/trends/etc.?
  • The excerpt/cartoon/artwork/etc. was most likely a reaction to which of the following events/processes/etc.?
  • The idea/development/event in the excerpt was most directly associated with/serves as evidence of which of the following occurring in the United States at the time?
  • The idea/development/event in the excerpt most strongly suggests which of the following about that time?

Source: Bill Polasky & Michael Kim

Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes multiple source-based investigations that help students analyze the costs and benefits of early 20th century industrialization: