These Six Objects Epitomize the History of New York City

What’s your Rosebud? Which object defines your life? In researching my new book A History of New York in 101 Objects (this city can’t be captured in a mere 100), I looked for artifacts that were transformative, quirky, not too much bigger than a bread box, not human (that left out Ed Koch) and not all about food. (Given so many edible suggestions and declining crime, maybe the city’s motto should become “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”) My challenge was winnowing all the suggested objects down to 101. But this isn’t the list; it’s my list. It’s a portal to explore New York’s history. Let the parlor game begin!

Ticket to Abe Lincoln's speech, 1860.

Ticket to Abe Lincoln’s speech, 1860. Courtesy Legendary Auctions

It was Abe Lincoln’s audition in a city of Southern-sympathy, pro-cotton lobbyists and even talk of secession. His “right makes might” speech succeeded well enough to blunt Democratic margins in the city and deliver New York State to Lincoln that November. 

Subway tokens.

Subway tokens. Christian Hansen/Courtesy New York Transit Museum

When I first wrote about objects, I included a MetroCard instead of a token. Big mistake. Introduced in 1953 when the subway fare was raised to 15 cents, by the time they were phased out in 2003 they became a New York icon.

Woody Guthrie's song lyrics.

Woody Guthrie’s song lyrics. C. Woody Guthrie Publications

Queens calls itself The Forgotten Borough, but poor Staten Island. Woody Guthrie was in a Manhattan Hotel in 1944 when he struck its name from the second line of the lyrics of “This Land” and replaced it with New York. The ultimate dis.

A wooden water tower.

A wooden water tower. NYTCREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

New York’s water supply system is largely gravity-fed, which means it flows roughly six stories high once it reaches the city. The rest is pumped into as many as 15,000 wooden tanks largely built by two family-owned companies in business since the late 19th century.

Graffiti, East Village.

Graffiti, East Village. The New York Historical Society

The words of the prophets were written on the tenement halls, Paul Simon wrote, and before it became art, graffiti on this East Village door epitomized a city gone amok in the 1970s and ’80s. Removing it, like fixing broken windows and imposing the pooper-scooper law, helped restore the social contract.

Greek diner coffee cup.

Greek diner coffee cup. Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

It’s called the Anthora (a New York corruption of amphora, like Spaldeen is of Spalding), was designed by a Holocaust refugee long before Starbucks. As The New York Times wrote, “Law & Order” could scarcely have existed without it.

Sam Roberts has been a reporter, columnist and editor at The New York Times for 50 years.

These Six Objects Epitomize the History of New York City