Vintage Photos Of New York Public Transit Like You’ve Never Seen Before (And Won’t Again)

Published December 2, 2017

Believe it or not, the subway was once the height of refinement.

Nyc Grand Central
Beams of sunlight stream through the windows at Grand Central Station. Circa 1930. Hal Morey/Getty Images

Subway Hats
The interior of a subway car including well-dressed female passengers and a uniformed male conductor. Circa 1910.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Soldiers Waiting
World War II-era servicemen and other commuters wait for their trains at Penn Station. Circa 1942.Marjory Collins/Library of Congress

NYC Transit Workers
The Broadway Local subway train stops at an underground station to take on passengers as two NYPD officers and a uniformed train conductor stand with commuters on the platform. Date unspecified.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Penn Station Concourse
The interior of the main concourse at Penn Station. 1911. Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Penn Station Kiss
A couple share their farewell kiss before he ships off to war in Penn Station. Circa World War II. Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Penn Dog
Commuters wait for trains at Penn Station. Circa 1942.Marjory Collins/Library of Congress

Nyc Miss Subway
Four "Miss Subways" and a lone male judge study scads of letters from subway riders who had been asked to nominate their favorite transit employe for the title of "Mr. Courtesy." 1962.Nick Sorrentino/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

City Hall Subway
City Hall subway station. Circa 1900-1904.Library of Congress

Grand Central Waiting
Crowds wait for their trains inside Grand Central Station. Circa 1904.Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

Penn Station Night
An aerial view of Penn Station and the New York skyline at night. Circa 1950s.R. Gates/Getty Images

Dining Car
Commuters eat and drink at the counter of a dining car on a train making its way into New York. 1941.John Collier/Library of Congress

NYC Penn Station Commuters
Crowds go about their business inside Penn Station. Circa 1950.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Subway Cards
Commuters play bridge on a train to New York. 1941.John Collier/Library of Congress

Penn Stairs
Light shines down on the concourses of Penn Station. Circa 1905-1915.Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

Subway Dining
Commuters eat on a train to New York. 1941.John Collier/Library of Congress

NYC Penn Station
Commuters crowd the terminal of Penn Station, preparing to leave town for the holidays. The original station was designed by the architects McKim, Mead & White in the Beaux-Arts style, and was demolished in 1963 to make room for a new Madison Square Garden. Circa 1910.Edwin Levick/Getty Images

Kubrick Nyc Subway Couple
A couple sits together on the subway. Circa 1947.

This photo was taken by revered film director Stanley Kubrick before he ventured into cinema.
Stanley Kubrick/Museum of the City of New York

Subway Newspapers
Well-dressed pedestrians walk down the stairs into the subway. Circa 1940s.Morris Huberland/New York Public Library

Nyc Clean Subway Car
Interior view of a subway car, featuring upholstered seats. Circa 1935.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Light Penn Station
The waiting room at Penn Station. Circa 1900-1920.Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

Today, New York City's subway system is in disarray with several breakdowns a week and no improvements in sight. Commuters are miserable and the officials in charge have recently been pointing fingers at each.

And what's one of the biggest sources of all these problems? The answer lies in the antiquated systems that haven't been updated since the subway's glory days.

Back when the subways and railroad were new, the city's public transportation carried commuters in their finest garb to work, social events, and nights on the town. Sure, there were less people in New York City back in the early 20th century — there were about a million less people living in New York City in 1940 than there are today — but one look at vintage photos makes it look like public transit catered to the highest class of New York's fanciest.

The subways cars looked calm, sometimes even serene. The railroad was a delightful and smooth way to travel. People would actually ride public transit by choice and enjoy themselves!

Gentlemen wore hats, women wore hose, and there was nary a sweatpant in sight. Today, for better or worse, our dress codes have degraded — along with New York's public transit.

So take a few moments to enjoy what New York City public transit used to look like. And hope that maybe the city is in for a less dingy, more functional future.

Next, see more of just how gorgeous Penn Station once was. Then, see some harrowing photos of New York's subway in the 1980s, when it was the most dangerous place on Earth.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.