The History of New York in Twenty Objects

Sam Roberts

NYU Professor and New York Times Reporter Sam Roberts has chosen 20 objects that embody the narrative of New York. To capture it in so few objects seems near impossible, as New York compresses a practically innumerable number of objects in its small space. Yet that is precisely what the class offers, a luminous peak at the essence of what makes a great city. Selected with a lens for the “quirky,” the objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, as well as many others.

Highlights include:

  1. The Flushing Remonstrance: a 1657 petition for religious freedom that was a precursor to the First Amendment to the Constitution.
  2. Beads from the African Burial Ground, 1700s: slavery was legal in New York until 1827.
  3. An early 1900 bagel: the quintessential and undisputed New York food (except perhaps the pizza).
  4. The Automat vending machine (1912): the early twentieth century version of fast food.
  5. The “I Love NY” logo designed by Milton Glaser in 1977 for a campaign to increase tourism: along with Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker’s view of the world, it was perhaps the most famous and most frequently reproduced graphic symbol of the time.