Vintage Photos Reveal the Spirit of the Holiday Season in New York City 100+ Years Ago

old pictures of New York Christmas

Christmas in New York has always been a special time of year. From shoppers bustling about to the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the city buzzes with activity. And this glimpse of New York City in the early-20th century shows that much of that spirit was alive even in the past. In fact, the nation's first public Christmas tree was installed in 1912 in Madison Square Park, complete with bulbs donated by the Edison Company.

The tree was a charitable act, envisioned by Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff, wife of a chemical scientist, who wanted a public tree that everyone could enjoy, regardless of social status. Through these vintage images from the 1910's, it's clear that charity was an important aspect of the holiday season. The sight of Salvation Army collecting funds to provide Christmas dinners is familiar even today, while an image of volunteers packing a ship full of gifts for European children during World War I is a distinct act of the era.

By contrast, shop windows filled with gifts and street peddlers selling toys shows the commercial aspect of the holiday. Even then, shoppers filled the streets and children longingly stared at the toy displays, hoping for that special gift under the tree. The photographs are just part of the Library of Congress' images from the Bain News Service. One of America's first new picture agencies, they specialized in life in New York City.

These vintage photographs of Christmas in New York during the 1910's show the holiday spirit that has always engulfed the city.

early twentieth century New YorkChristmas in New York - 1910sold photographs of New York ChristmasChristmastime in New YorkChristmastime in New Yorkphotographs of early twentieth century New Yorkphotographs of early twentieth century New York

The photographs were taken by the Bain News Service, one of America's first news pictures agencies, and now belong to the Library of Congress.

Christmastime in New YorkChristmastime in New YorkChristmastime in New YorkNew York during the holidaysold pictures of New York Christmasold pictures of New York Christmas

New York City was the first place in America to display a public Christmas tree, with the first going up in Madison Square Park in 1912.

photographs of early twentieth century New YorkChristmas in New York - 1910s

Charity has always been an important part of the holidays in New York, whether donating toys to less fortunate children or taking collection for Christmas meals.
old photographs of New York Christmas

Christmas in New York - 1910sphotographs of early twentieth century New Yorkearly twentieth century New YorkChristmastime in New York

How much do you think the holiday season in New York has changed since the early twentieth century?

New York during the holidaysNew York during the holidaysNew York during the holidaysold photographs of New York Christmasold photographs of New York ChristmasChristmas in New York - 1910s

h/t: [Vintage Everyday]

All images via the Library of Congress.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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