The humble oyster is among the first items in Sam Roberts’s "History of New York in 50 Objects." Popularized by the Dutch in the 1600s, the city’s oyster beds were closed in 1927 (due to pollution, of course).

In 1657, New Yorkers from Flushing signed this petition to stop Peter Stuyvesant from torturing local Quakers. According to Roberts, the document represents "a vital antecedent of the provision for freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights."

An 1861 patent for the elevator, granted to Elisha G. Otis, enabled architects to build higher than ever before. "In 1854, during the World’s Fair, he introduced 'the first elevator wherein provision was made for stopping the fall of the car in the contingency of the breaking of the hoisting cables’ in a death-defying demonstration at the New York Crystal Palace, built in what is now Bryant Park," explains Roberts.

One of the more beautiful items: a brass door knob used in New York City schools from around 1900 on. Image via Etsy.

The ubiquitous Anthora cup (it has a name!) emerged in the '60s. According to the NYT, it was designed by "Leslie Buck, a Holocaust survivor who was sales manager of the Sherri Cup Company in Connecticut."

Is there any food more emphatically New York than bagels? Roberts’s poll suggested no.

From Roberts’s list comes a boom box, representative of the New York City depicted in Do the Right Thing.

NYT commenters also suggested an Act Up pin, reading "Silence = Death," to illustrate the impact HIV/AIDS has had on the city.

One popular commenter suggested that a crack vial represents the 1980s, when New York saw the height of the crack epidemic. Detail from Candy Jernigan’s Found Dope: Part II, found objects on paper, 1986.

Meanwhile, Williamsburg artisanal chocolatiers Mast Brothers Chocolate won out as a representation of gentrified Brooklyn.


The History Of New York City, Told In 50 Objects

"We called for objects that did not just evoke New York," explains the New York TImes' Sam Roberts, "but that also could be used to tell the story of the city."

As New York (and the whole East Coast) begins the long recovery process, now seems like an excellent time to revisit New York Times Urban Affairs Correspondent Sam Roberts’s fantastic project from earlier this fall: "A History of New York in 50 Objects."

Last summer, Roberts asked historians and curators (plus Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself) to choose 50 objects that embody New York’s legacy. As you might expect, their answers were incredibly diverse, ranging from teal-hued beads excavated from an African burial site near City Hall to a humble bagel with lox. Bloomberg seconded the inclusion of Emma Lazarus’s 1886 sonnet The New Colossus, which gave us the phrase "give me your tired, your poor." A patent drawing for an early elevator, a wooden water pipeline, and a shot of Thomas Edison’s first power station in Lower Manhattan speak volumes about the city’s unique infrastructural challenges, thrown into relief yet again this week.

But as Roberts quipped, "Ours is only a history, not the history." With that in mind, he invited readers to submit their own ideas for a second, user-generated list. Nearly 700 comments later, the Times published the people’s 50 Objects, which proved a bit more spirited than the historians’ picks. Black and White cookies, pizzas, something called Black Out Cake, even the much-maligned Big Gulp soda: "No subject engaged you more than food," Roberts remarked.

Some submissions speak to the city’s struggles with crime and poverty, like a crack vial from the 1980s and a Saturday Night Special—a cheap gun used often in domestic disputes—from the '60s. Others, like the Domino Sugar factory sign (affixed to a building that is slated to become a luxury residential development), speak to its rapid gentrification. Identification posters from the families of 9/11 victims recall recent tragedies, while a Big Gulp cup spoke to a current citywide debate over the soda ban. "We called for objects that did not just evoke New York," explained Roberts, "but that also could be used to tell the story of the city."

Roberts has a knack for coaxing cogent stories out of the din of New York, and both of these object histories say as much about today’s New Yorkers as their forebearers. It’s no antidote to the terrible scenes on the news this week, but it’s heartening nonetheless.

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