Snow. Blizzards. We complain, dread the commute and the shoveling and—especially for New York City dwellers—the slush. But, in truth, we love the excitement, especially when the inches pile up and produce record numbers, and photographers—amateur and professional—can roam the streets.
This becomes clearer when we look through the collections of the New-York Historical Society. We are well known for our material documenting the historic, 21-inch Blizzard of 1888, but the tradition hardly stopped there. When some 26 inches of snow fell on the city on the day after Christmas seventy years ago, much of the news coverage and chatter was about how it topped 1888.
Robert M. Lester, a leader in education philanthropy, was an amateur photographer, who, like all of us was tempted to bring out his camera when it snowed. Meanwhile Andreas Feininger took his images for Life magazine in what would become his signature style of New York cityscapes.
The staff at the New-York Historical Society was engaged enough to compose a scrapbook of clippings (current conservation techniques would never encourage the cutting up of newspaper articles and gluing the pieces onto paper!).
The clippings tell how commuters suffered in their usual way, as hotels filled and movie houses and armories stepped up to take in the stranded. Holiday travelers found it especially inconvenient; many, of course, did not travel by air—even as flights were suspended—but struggled with cancelled trains. Life recounts that it took a local crosstown bus from 1:55 PM to 4:25 PM to reach its terminus on the West Side. Bad enough, but truly worse for the Long Island commuters whose twenty minute ride turned into ten hours. At a time when dwellings were fueled by coal or oil, stymied deliveries left those in the suburbs shivering.
No, the monster snow was not a blizzard: the winds never reached those speeds, and the temperature was just below 30 degrees for the daylight hours, altogether milder than the conditions of March 12, 1888. But the 1947 snow dump was characterized by huge flakes that obstructed visibility. It also seemed to be drawn to New York City, concentrating its effects there. So, while the official snow total may have been 25.8 inches, Central Park measured 26.4 inches. And, yes, it was unpredicted, as seen by this newspaper weather report:
Interest was great enough that when the U.S. Weather Bureau issued its report on The Snowstorm of December 26-27, 1947, it filled it with “miscellaneous snow data” for the general public. The report gave the snow a nearly precise 24-hour visitation time, from 3:20 A.M. December 26 to 3:05 on the morning of the 27th although most of the snow was over in the city by 8:00 PM. The weather bureau acknowledged that the public forecast given on Christmas Day was for “occasional snow” the following day, but the pattern suggested a one-in-four chance that the snow could be as heavy as 15 inches and so city services and utilities were notified.
Snow overall, the report concluded rather officiously, is “an economic asset” in most of the United States. “Even to city dwellers, however, it remains an open question whether the indirect benefits of snow may not balance the inconveniences and business losses which are its immediate and obvious results.”
Gordon Welshons Gray, longtime librarian at City College and dedicated diarist, records the usual snow images of dogs and young people enjoying themselves. He acutely observes that the real dangers lie with snow on roofs and awnings that may collapse. Happy to spend the day holed up reading novels and the poems of Emily Bronte at the Columbia University library, Gray would admit to slipping and falling as he made his way around the neighborhood. The next day he took in the New York Times account of the snow with a bit of snark as he read that they had beat out the “over-talked” blizzard of 1888. “So perhaps even the Gods grew tired of hearing the talk about it.”
Others were less cynical: Those Life magazine reporters could hear “a faint, muffled shout of triumph” from a few hardy wanderers present in Times Square when the news ticker proclaimed that the snowfall total had indeed surpassed the Blizzard of 1888. And the record held up a long time, until 26.9 inches fell on February 11-12, 2006, the same period—59 years—as it happens, that separated 1947 from the Blizzard of ’88. Happily, in both cases, it was short enough to have “survivors” around to make comparisons.
All of that would be surpassed by the genuine blizzard of January 23, 2016 that left us with an amazing 27.5 inches of swirling, drifting white stuff.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections