new york city photographs wallace levison

Jamie Swan jumps off a short stone wall at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. 1886.

These stunning photographs show how New York City looked like in the 1880s and 1890s. The images depict the streets of the city that never sleeps, the hustling crowds of Manhattan, swimmers at Coney Island, and people’s everyday life.

The photographs, taken by Wallace G. Levison, was a chemist, inventor, and lecturer who founded the Departments of Mineralogy and Astronomy at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in the latter half of the 19th century. He used the new photographic technology both as a scientific tool and a recreational activity.

The new developments in photography allowed pictures to be taken with faster and faster shutter speeds. And you can tell that the photographer had an obsession with motion and a delight with freezing actions that could previously only be recorded as a blur.

The economical growth and population growth radically changed the face of New York City. Noise, traffic jams, slums, air pollution, and sanitation and health problems became commonplace. Mass transit, in the form of trolleys, cable cars, and subways, was built, and skyscrapers began to dominate the skyline.

New communities, known as suburbs, began to be built just beyond the city. Commuters, those who lived in the suburbs and traveled in and out of the city for work, began to increase in number.

Many of those who resided in the city lived in rental apartments or tenement housing. Neighborhoods, especially for immigrant populations, were often the center of community life. In the enclave neighborhoods, many immigrant groups attempted to hold onto and practice precious customs and traditions.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Crowds of men outside the New York Tribune building in lower Manhattan. 1884.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Uniformed officers in riding boots walk down a street. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Mr. Stokes jumps off a wall in Fort Greene Park. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Nathan Abbott and a young girl walk through Copps Hill Cemetery. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Girls jump off a stone wall in Fort Greene. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

An elephant from the Barnes Circus walks down Atlantic Street in Brooklyn. 1891.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Isabel Harter rides a tricycle while her sister Nellie rolls a hoop in Fort Greene. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

J.M. Cornell jumps in the backyard at 314 Livingston Street. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

J.M. Cornell jumps in the backyard at 314 Livingston Street. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Zelma Levison jumps in the backyard of her home at 314 Livingston Street. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Mildred Grimwood jumps in the backyard at 314 Livingston Street as brother Victor Grimwood and pal Zelma Levison look on. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Five men compete in a walking race. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Ethel Merritt jumps in the air at Coney Island. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Zelma Levison and her aunt Jo Grimwood throw a ball back and forth on a lawn in Prospect Park. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

A group of young male bathers walk single file along the beach. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

An actor talks with bathers on the beach. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

H.B. Leckler’s dog Mace poses atop a chair in Fort Greene. 1886.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Edith Poey jumps off a wooden pole onto the sand at Coney Island. 1887.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Edgar J. Taylor jumps off a barrel. 1887.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Maggie Ward stands on the end of a diving board at Coney Island. 1888.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Miss Brown holds a cob of maize for a squirrel to eat. 1888.

new york city photographs wallace levison

A woman swings on a rope at Coney Island. 1890.

new york city photographs wallace levison

A man in a barrel does a push up at the beach. 1897.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Dr. Ernest Palmer and wife join hands to make a bar so that their dog can jump over it. 1900.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Acrobats perform a balancing act on the backs of a pair of horses as crowds watch at Coney Island’s Dreamland. 1904.

new york city photographs wallace levison

A woman swims at the beach. 1897.

new york city photographs wallace levison

Gertrude Hubbell, Ruth Peters, and Mildred Grimwood play near the water at Arverne, Queens. 1897.

(Photo credit: Wallace G. Levison / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images / Library of Congress).