Museum of the City of New York: Byron Collection
The Byron Collection at the Museum of the City of New York is an archive of 22,000 photographs taken by The Byron Company—a prominent New York photography studio—between 1890 and 1942. The Byron photographers took as its subjects all manner of social life in and around New York; the collection includes private subjects (family portraits and home photographs), but the bulk of the collection documents public life and public institutions, many of which directly involved children. The photographs here portray the lives of children from all social classes – at play, at work, in hospitals, churches, schools, and many other contexts.
While the collection extends to 1942, the majority of images are from the turn of the last century, between the 1890s and the 1910s. The finely detailed visual quality of silver gelatin prints lends a hauntingly "real" quality to the images, which does justice to the frames crowded with numerous people and objects; in their enlarged state, especially if screened in a classroom, these photos not only attract attention, they almost demand it.
By searching for "children," "boys," and "girls," one will find thousands of photographs pertinent to the study of youth history. Children's recreational activities are well represented here; one can see boys and girls playing in the water at Coney Island, Atlantic City, Rockaway Beach, and other seaside spots; ice skating in Central Park; and racing or playing ball in various New York public playgrounds. Indeed, a teacher could use these photographs to good effect in a lesson about the rise of the public playground as a social institution that has evolved over the decades. In this photograph a child dangles from the sort of equipment that was later banished from playgrounds (like monkey bars) for being "too dangerous."
Children's homes are depicted in a wide variety of photographs from both the wealthy and poor positions in the social spectrum. A lesson on the daily lives of children from different economic classes could juxtapose "Social functions; children's party," in which a number of well-dressed children sit at the splendidly appointed dining table of a wealthy home, with "Slum interior, 1896." The collection boasts numerous images of wealthy children posed in and around their homes; a smaller number show children from the lower classes playing on street corners throughout New York City, from the Lower East Side up to Harlem.
One of this collection's strengths is its documentation of institutions created during the Progressive Era to serve children. An abundance of photographs portray scenes at the Children's Aid Society, the Emanuel Lehman Foundation for crippled children, the New York Foundling Hospital, the New York Association for the Blind, and various other schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Viewers can see interior images demonstrating the daily activities of the children in these institutions. Even the titles of these organizations are sometimes worthy tools in the study of history: "The School For Feeble-Minded Children" is a noteworthy relic of a time before Americans became concerned with sensitive language.
Another strength of the Byron Collection is its images of children at a variety of schools – exercising, studying, performing in theatrical events, and going on field trips. These photos include religious as well as secular schools. Besides the many neatly-posed photos of Sunday School classes from both Catholic and Protestant churches, there are some more candid photos that attest to the role of churches in teaching life skills; one photo, for example, shows children practicing sewing at St. Thomas' Chapel. Students of youth history will find much in these photographs to prompt considerations about the history of American education.
Unfortunately, the site's navigation system leaves a lot to be desired. Viewers have the option of searching the collection for "keywords," or of browsing a pre-selected sampling of subjects categorized by the museum (each subject, in that browsing function, includes a scant 20-30 pictures). More results will surface in the search function, but there is no index or site-map to show, at a glance, all the categories of available images. This lack of an index is one factor that makes the Byron Collection far less user-friendly than the Library of Congress's photograph collections.
Nor does the Byron Collection's search function reliably include words from the titles of the photographs. One can search only by keywords, not titles. This will pose problems for a teacher who locates an image he likes and then tries to access it later, in a classroom. Such images must be bookmarked when you find them – or else you will need to conduct the general search all over again, and wade through hundreds of hits. For example, photos from the aforementioned "The School For Feeble-Minded Children" can only be found in a general search for "school." Typing "feeble-minded" into the search box – or even just "feeble" – will yield nothing, because "school" is a subject keyword, but "feeble" isn't. A feeble-minded site design, indeed.
Despite these navigational headaches, the Byron Collection – with its wealth of photos of children of all social classes in a wide variety of circumstances and activities – is a valuable resource for studying the history of childhood in one of the most dynamic times and places of modern U.S. history. With enough preparation (and bookmarking), teachers can adapt this extensive resource to any lesson on American childhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How to Cite This Source
Ilana Nash, "Museum of the City of New York: Byron Collection," in Children and Youth in History, Item #188, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/188 (accessed February 13, 2016).