The Fascinating History Of NYC: From 1900 – 1960

A 60-year history of the Big Apple.

New York City exudes life, one that grows and evolves with the changing times. The city effortlessly flows in a synchronous pattern with diverse citizens who call it home; this balance allows NYC to maintain its constantly modern influence. Since the Dutch landed on Manhattan’s shores, the city has been a hub of cultural, political, and societal impact. Local history not only displays unmoving perseverance in the face of change, adversity, danger, and freedom; but it also explains why New Yorkers, tourists, and pigeons alike radiate from the cement.


The 1900s

The 1900s marked New York City’s Progressive Era. The total population was 3.4 million people and only went up from there. Much of the iconic NYC buildings were constructed during this time. The Flatiron building was opened in 1902; one year later, the New York Stock Exchange and the Williamsburg Bridge opened. Macy’s Department Store was unveiled in 1902 and remained the world’s largest department store until 2009. Multiple important subway stations were running throughout the 1900s, making significant progress for the NYC underground subway system that would solidify its place within New York culture and reputation.

flat iron building
Flat Iron Building. UNSPLASH Stan Bonke

Times Square’s iconic “One Times Square” building was finished in 1905; two years later, the first New Year’s Eve ball drop was performed atop the tower. Ziegfeld Follies made their debut on the roof of the New York Theater. NYC’s first taxi cab also began running in 1907.

Tuberculosis remained a substantial issue up until vaccination was invented in 1908. Before the vaccine, NYC utilized “open-air classrooms,” teaching students from the outside during most weather conditions. It was believed that sunshine would help to cull the effects of the disease. 

The 1910s

Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal. UNSPLASH Trevor Bobyk

New York City during the 1910s was a ball of motion with no signs of slowing down. The city grew and evolved with every passing year. In 1910, the original Pennsylvania Station was launched, becoming a central hub of transportation. Three years later, Grand Central Terminal also opened up.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire happened on March 25, 1911, and took 145 innocent lives; the fire prompted the city to establish proper fire safety regulations.

World War I began in 1914, sending the country into a wartime society. When the war ended in 1918, soldiers returned home, and a new battle emerged. The Spanish Influenza raged through the country; over 20,000 New Yorkers died from the flu.

The 1910s also marked the beginning of New York’s new nickname as the “Big Apple.” Performers from out of town began referring to their shows as “apples.” Gigs performed in any other location was referred to as “little apples,” whereas a gig in NYC was a “big apple.” At the time, New York was seen as the place to be if you “made it” then you had a golden ticket to “make it.”

The 1920s


As the Roaring 20s came into full swing, NYC evolved into a wild house of mischievous thrill. The Prohibition Era, paired with ballooning financial prosperity, created a need for partying, letting loose, and being rebellious. Speakeasies were a popular night-time attraction IF you knew how to get in. Mob activity correlated with the illegal speakeasies, which began to infect most areas of NYC with crime; this would remain the city’s reality until criminal law reformation.

The 1920s saw the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the construction of the Holland Tunnel in 1927, and the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (1924.) During this time, the Yankees won its first World Series in 1923. In that same year, Harry Houdini would perform his infamous upside down straitjacket stunt atop a high-rise.

But, the glitz and glamour of the 1920s would come to a screeching halt on October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed. The crash, fittingly dubbed “Black Monday” kickstarted a 10-year economic depression, famously named as “The Great Depression.” Two months after Black Monday, NYC’s economy had become non-existent while unemployment rate skyrocketed. Workers hired to construct the new Rockefeller Center erected a small Christmas Tree to celebrate the holidays and having a job through a difficult time. This small act of holiday joy reminded New Yorkers of the vigorous lust for a life embedded in the city’s streets.

The 1930s

Empire State Building history of nyc
Empire State Building. UNSPLASH Cathy Williams

The 1930s marked an era of financial instability and later a patriotic wartime boosterism. The Great Depression took a heavy toll on New Yorkers, with many falling homeless due to lack of employment. Hoovervilles – makeshift “communities” made out of temporary homeless housing – began popping up all around NYC, most notably in Central Park

In 1931, the Empire State Building opened to the public just as the Radio City Music Hall also commenced in 1932. A year later, the then RCA Building, now 30 Rock building, was ready for business. The inauguration of Lincoln Tunnel in 1937 allowed easier access between NYC and New Jersey.

April 1939 was a breath of fresh air for the traumatized city, the World’s Fair held in Flushing Meadows, Queens. With President Roosevelt leading the country, the United States’ economy and infrastructure finally started to make great strides towards improving the office. Things were looking up, even as World War II erupted in September of 1939.

The 1940s

Jackie Robinson
FACEBOOK Jackie Robinson

With World War II rapidly increasing relevancy, it became clear that America’s neutrality stance would not last long. Still, NYC relished the increase in financial stability; the unemployment rate had decreased from 24.9% in 1933 to 1.9% in 1943. The new prosperity brought about new political and social reformation and the beginnings of an art-fueled lifestyle.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson would go on to become one of the best baseball players of all time. Also, in 1947, a record breaking snowstorm hit NYC on December 26, leaving roughly 26.4” of snow and taking the lives of 77 people in its wake.

The 1950s

ellis island history of nyc
Ellis Island. UNSPLASH The New York Public Library

Post-war NYC started with a boom of infrastructure. The United Nations building, as well as the transportation hub Port Authority, were constructed in 1950. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death after their espionage trial in the city. The infamous case saw the couple murdered under suspicion of being Soviet spies based on moot evidence.

Ellis Island was closed to incoming immigrants in 1954, and the Fair Housing Practices Law of 1957 went into effect, protecting all renters from racial or religious discrimination. Later, all housing discrimination was made illegal in NYC. 1959 saw the debut of the Barbie Doll at the American Toy Festival, and the Guggenheim Museum was designed then constructed to the signature architecture that we recognize today.

Organized crime during the 1950s was synonymous with the New York lifestyle. Italian, Irish, German, and Spanish gangs were popular among youth, often bleeding into adulthood with illegal mob activity.

The 1960s