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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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.