A New York City We Rarely See

by Gabrielle DeMarco on April 8, 2009

Taking a photo in the mid-19th century was not an easy task. The event required not only a professional photographer and expensive camera set up, but a whole lot of standing around and attempting not to scratch your nose or poke your sister while the photo exposed. This exercise in self-restraint usually resulted in a photo of many stern-faced individuals decked out in their Sunday best and very few photos of everyday people moving about their daily routines. One inventive alum set out to capture those often unseen movements in one of the most dynamic places on the globe – New York City.

George B. Brainerd earned his civil engineering degree from Rensselaer in 1865. He went on to spend years as deputy water purveyor in New York City, spending hours traversing its boroughs. Along with him he carried a multitude of homemade cameras. The cameras were among the smallest and most sophisticated of their kind at that time. His handmade dry plates exposed quickly, crisply capturing gentle movement during exposure, and one camera, patented the “detective camera”, was so small it could be concealed as a book. With his cameras, Brainerd proceeded to build one of the most candid and complete pictorial histories of New York City and its surrounding areas.
A glance through his gallery shows aspects of a grittier and more endearing city full of the cobbled roads, street vendors, and ragamuffin children. He documents a time when children actually rode donkeys through Central Park, Coney Island boomed, and chestnuts were sold on street corners literally roasting on an open fire.
A full story on the unsung photographic pioneer appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
More Brainerd photos can be viewed and ordered on the online gallery of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Enjoy a few of my favorites: