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Harold Roth: Photographer of Everyday Life in New-York City

Harold Roth (1918-2001) was a self-taught photographer who became fascinated by photography when he was twelve years old. At that time, he received one of a half-million Eastman Kodak “Brownie” cameras given to school children by the company. He had an eye for photography, and later after stepping up to a Graflex Speed Graphic folding camera, he began documenting everyday street life in New York City in the late-1930s to the ’50s.

Today’s featured images are two of Roth’s pictures in the collection of the New-York Historical Society that include vehicles. The lead image and the expandable version of it (below) was shot from above Sixth Avenue and 44th Street in 1948. The second image (below) was taken looking towards the southwest from the Williamsburg Bridge in 1947.

Please share with us what you find of interest in these photographs and view others at the New-York Historical Society.

29 responses to “Harold Roth: Photographer of Everyday Life in New-York City

  1. Lovely shots, David.

    A couple of things catch my eye. The advertising on the roof of the coffee delivery truck, meant to be read from windows above the street, for instance. I guess this was from a time when there was far less air conditioning, and people tended to gather near open windows and on fire escapes.

    I’m also struck by how elegant cars of the mid-thirties to the late forties look — the way the body lines converge toward the grill. It’s almost as if they, too, were designed to be seen from above.

    And what’s going on with the truck near the curb to the far right in the first photo? It looks like the fenders are gone and a chain is holding the hood in place.

    • I loved you comment on how beautiful cars are from above. I’ve always believed that, and think it had a lot to do with the designers who looked at their working models from that vantage point. Hard to see with real cars.

  2. In the Lead Photo and Item 1 of 2, towards the bottom a black ’46-’48 Olds 76 or 78 (with wraparound bumpers vs a 66) ahead of three ’46-’48 DeSoto taxi Suburbans with sunroofs. At the top of the photo, a light-colored possible ’41 DeSoto with maybe a ’38 Buick to the right.

    In Item 2 of 2, possibly a ’41 Packard Clipper in the left lane. In the right lane I’m not sure about the first one, maybe another ’41 DeSoto. It’s followed by an apparent ’48 Pontiac and maybe a ’48 Olds 98.

  3. I counted 8 manhole covers ( don’t think that is politically correct anymore, who cares) in that one intersection. Can you imagine the catacombs underneath the New York streets, with all the water and sewer and electrical and gas lines? I’m sure a person working for one of the utilities would have job security.

  4. Back in the late 40’s I was a little kid living in NYC. As a car nut even back then , I wondered why most NY City taxi cabs were Chrysler products. ( First photo ). I don’t remember ever seeing a GM or FMC taxi.

    • Here’s the reason for the paucity of other makes seen on NYC streets during those years and it was due to the fact that back in 1929 the City of New York began to strictly regulate taxis and one of their requirements was that any vehicle that was used for taxi purposes had to be able to carry five passengers in the rear compartment which normally included a jump seat. Prior to World War II, most manufacturers produced these big huge taxis that had a wheelbase of around 140”, but after the war with so many people hungry to buy new cars only DeSoto, Checker, and Packard built cabs that met that requirement. The law was finally changed in 1954 with a new maximum wheelbase of 120” being established at which time both General Motors and Ford began making cabs for the lucrative New York market. Packard dealers incidentally were fuming mad that the president of their company decided to build around 30,000 cabs because they had lots of wealthy patrons who were very eager to buy beautiful new Packard Clippers but not nearly enough of them were produced to meet their demands and particularly at the high end which reaped in the best profits.

    • At one point DeSoto cabs constituted 70 % of all New York City taxis. One James Waters, a DeSoto distributor from the west coast, was the guy respondsible.
      Reccomend his biography from Coachbuilt.com.

  5. The truck with the chained hood, with the stripe on the door, looks like a Diamond T. Probably some demolition truck, and the fenders were torn off long ago. The coffee truck is also a post war Diamond T or Federal, and the Bordens truck, like the tree said to the lumberjack, has me stumped. It looks like a Mack, but has split windshield and some kind of odd folding drivers door. Apparently, clear roofs on cabs were the thing.

    • The folding door on the Borden’s truck! NYC and Brooklyn had lots of restaurants and stores with very narrow alleys alongside where the delivery wagons would back in off the street. Yes, horse and wagon days. When delivery vehicles got motorized, the same alleys were used and the trucks became wider than typical horse drawn wagons. I could see having a folding door as a benefit when parking in an alley 3 inches wider than the truck body!

      • Hi Frank, since the front is a different color than the truck body, I’m wondering if Bordens put that cab with special door and back on a newer truck front end and chassis?

  6. Three DeSoto Skyview taxis but only one Checker down in the right, and a later-’30’s model at that. Packard was just making a serious run at the taxi business with its Packard Federal operation. That didn’t end well.

    “LaPrimadora” Havana Cigars sold by the shop on the corner, Cuban cigars would be available for only another decade or so. For that matter, the corner cigar stores likely are mostly gone too.

    The second view has a nice, atmospheric quality. The Packard Clipper has the bumper extension of a 21st Series 1946-’47 model, though appears to have the 1941-’42 fine bar central grille.

    • That’s an interesting observation about the Packard. Perhaps it was a Packard Clipper that had come off the assembly line in late ’45 and before the modified design for the ’46 model had been fully implemented.

  7. In the first photo, it looks like most of the cabs, including the older one in the lower right) have roof windows.

    Do any of those cabs survive?

    • Yes, there’s still a few around though not many. They were all made by a company called Waters Mfg. which was headquartered in Detroit, Michigan and were built between 1936–1954, but all the models from ’49-‘54 just had plastic tops rather than tops that you could roll back which allowed a person to stand up in the cab. I read that those DeSoto Sky-View cabs averaged around 70,000 miles a year and many lasted for 10 or more years. Chrysler made very good engines back then and for many years afterwards their cars were the best engineered of the big three – in my opinion.

  8. Well, these photos speak to the longevity of B&W photos! Still crisp and sharp with great contrast. Brownies were not that bad either.

  9. Theyre always digging underground in NY,especially Con-Ed,the power company.Which makes me think of those kerosene lanterns called “smudge pots” that road crews used to use.Remember driving thru the Bowery with my folks
    at night and seeing the wino’s shadows thrown up against buildings by light from the smudge pots.Like the shadows moving along the walls in ghost stories.Mucho creepo

  10. The reason that Chrysler Corp. dominated taxi fleets in the late thirties and well into the forties was Fluid Drive, introduced in 1939, which eliminated most (but not all) gearshifting and clutching. It was a big hit with taxi drivers — as well as with taxi companies due to lower maintenance and repair bills than those encountered with either conventional clutches or the far more expensive, complicated, fully automatic Hydra-Matic introduced by Oldsmobile in 1940.

  11. Truck suggestions: Ehler coffee truck International K series; Bordens truck D series International; fenderless truck Chevrolet. Taxi in foreground is called a Parlemee cab made by Checker.

  12. My grandfather was a wholesale furrier with his business from the teens into the early 1950’s located in Manhattan, on 30th Street, I believe, somewhere between 8th and 6th Avenues. When I see the arial view of the intersection at 44th in today’s lead photograph, I peer closely at the men in overcoats standing on the corner in front of the cigar store or crossing the street; could my beloved grandfather, a man who relished his daily cigar, be one of them? According to the caption it’s 1948: I was five years-old and on one of my many trips to see my grandparents in New York perhaps my Grandpapa took me with him to his place of employment or even on an excursion to the corner cigar store to meet the proprietor while my grandfather purchased his cigar fresh from the store’s humidor. Ah, the smells emanating from that shop along with the smell (I’d like to call it a “fragrance” but that would be a stretch) of the street: acrid smoke from the gas from the all-leaded exhaust, perhaps the momentary scent from the display of Shrafft’s chocolates just behind the plate glass window, and the wisp of blue fragrance from the cigar of a passerby. I also carefully survey the cars in sight for what may have been my grandfather’s 1937 Buick, the car he drove in those first few years which followed the end of the war. Alas, neither my grandfather nor his Buick are in view, although I sometimes imagine that he passed by only a few moments before or after the photographer snapped his view of the street, before the cars and the pedestrians in we see frozen in celluloid vanished into what for them were the next moments of their lives…..

  13. Any 1930’s to 1950’s New York City traffic scene photo is like gold to me. The vehicles, the buildings, signs and clothing styles (e.g. men with hats!!) . Keep them coming! Cheers! Vin

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