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Visions of Tomorrow – New York 2001, according to 1901

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This striking image of a steam or cloud-shrouded New York, in the year 2001, is from Collier's Weekly, 1901. I'm fascinated by historic visions of the future; in this case, also known as our present or recent past. What they got wrong can be just as revealing, into their own times, as what they got right.

The image above rightly predicts a New York of towering skyscrapers, in which people travel by a mixture of personal vehicles and crowded, public transport. 1901 was before the mass production of automobiles, rapid-transit or aircraft. As such, this vision of a future New York is one in which individuals traverse the city in personal hot air balloons and what appears to be a form of suspended monorail.

Interestingly, the illustrator didn't only project contemporary technology into the future, but 1900s fashion and social values too! All of the people pictured in the upper reaches of future New York appear to be upper class. In the early 20th century, clothing was still an instant signifier of one's social class, with the clothing of elite men remaining particularly committed to traditional forms. In a time when American society was rapidly changing, formal clothing was symbolic of old money.

Taking a look at the signs, I can make out the following:

  • Babel Building
  • Youth Restored by Electricity While you Wait
  • Manhattan Air Line
  • Wall St.
  • Submarine Line
  • Wireless Telephone Local and European
  • Quick Lunch

Going by the signs shown in the image, perhaps the illustrator is showing Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side, traditionally home to many of America's upper class families. Collier's itself had a reputation for investigative journalism and for advocating social reform, so the image of New York's future was probably intended to make a point.

Like the cyberpunk cities of Blade Runner  or Cloud Atlas, visions of the future often appear to act as exaggerations of the present. While they may make inaccurate predictions, perhaps their intention is to show us what we are, not what we will be.

As a commenter on the paleofuture blog noted:

Add some robots, a bit of rain, searchlights and huge advertisements, and you have Blade Runner 1901.

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