Through the Lens of a Tourist: New York City in 1939

By Paul Riegler on 2 June 2013
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NYC Lens 1939It looks like footage from a feature film but it’s a home movie taken by a French tourist in the summer of 1939. Color film and home movies were first taking off when Jean Vivier, a Frenchman, sailed from Marseille to New York on the SS Normandie on vacation and started recording what he saw.

In the course of his trip, he visited tourist sites that are still popular today, including Chinatown, the High Line, and Washington Square Park. While the RCA Observation Roof is virtually unchanged except for the name, the High Line has since been converted from an elevated railway into a park.

The film shows a New York City that is congested yet carefree, months before the start of the Second World War. Yellow cabs look somewhat less yellow, more people are smoking, and you can buy a piña colada for five cents. New Yorkers dressed more formally, the windows on subway cars could be opened (that was the extent of air conditioning those days), and the livery of city buses included a rather institutional green color.

The footage was made available on the web by the Romano Archives. It was originally captured on 16 mm Kodachrome film, the same year color film was being used to shoot Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz.


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