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Absolute Sale! NYC Land Auction Catalogs in the Map Division

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Eastchester Absolute Bronx Auction Sale
Eastchester Absolute Bronx Auction Sale, July 13, 1920

“Have you $20? Have you $50?” reads the invitation for real estate developers, prospective home owners, investors, and speculators to bid on undeveloped lots in the Eastchester section of the Bronx in July 1920. The pamphlet, distributed to interested parties by the auctioneer Joseph P. Day, contains maps, birds-eye views, and descriptions of the property, a broad swath of land poised on the brink of development.

This worn little gem of urban history is one of nearly one hundred land auctioneering pamphlets housed in The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division which were digitized this past year. With their richly designed covers, these promotional brochures provide modern day researchers with a window onto neighborhood development and changing patterns of land use in the city. The collection, which dates from the 1860s to 1920s and covers the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, gives us an almost tangible sense of the rapid transformation taking place in the outer reaches of the city, from Flatbush to Inwood and up into the Bronx, as farmland gave way to apartment houses and new suburbs.

While many of these catalogs are eye-catching examples of urban boosterism, most of the land auctions didn’t need much touting, particularly those held for properties in the lower half of Manhattan, in established neighborhoods, and those that had access to existing transit lines. These earlier examples, printed in the mid to late 19th century, tended to be fairly straightforward in presentation, with few illustrations and exhortatory text. Yet even the plainest of the auction catalogs contain a great deal that would be of interest to historians, preservationists, and genealogists. In them we can find maps and photographs of property and buildings, explanations on why the sale is being held, along with background information on the property owners, particularly if they were prominent members of the city’s merchant and business class, which the majority of the large landowners were. During the decades this collection covers, many big property holders began to sell off their land for reasons ranging from the court-ordered partition of an estate to families wanting to sell their farmland to avoid increasing property taxes, or to increase income for other investments. The pamphlets are a Who’s Who of 19th century New York families. From Vanderbilt, Astor, and Dyckman to Morris, Van Cortlandt and Lefferts, these brochures can be seen as foundational documents of the creation and development of neighborhoods such as Inwood, Morris Park, and Flatbush.

Broadway City Line Property
Broadway City Line Property auction, June 23, 1914

How this collection came to the library is a bit of a mystery, but a bit of sleuthing by librarian Philip Sutton, has led us to believe that they once belonged to a Manhattan real estate agent named Frederic J. Whiton. We were curious about the origin of the pamphlets because nearly all of them contain manuscript notations. Mr. Whiton probably jotted down his comments at the auctions themselves, noting the initial and final purchase price of each lot, the names of the buyers, and quick notations of existing structures and topography, such as marking off which lots were “below grade and swamp,” or still had no access by road. Mr. Whiton also clipped newspaper reports about the auctions and pasted them into the brochures. These news items often provide background on the sale, the owner’s reasons for selling, the public and press’ reaction to the sale, and the complete list of buyers and prices.

 Jerome Avenue - Shakespeare Avenue
Jerome Avenue & Shakespeare Avenue, 1917

“Now is the psychological time to buy,” coaxed an encouraging auctioneer before the sale of the Bowie Dash estate in the Bronx. This borough, being less familiar territory to New Yorkers, was thought to need more promotion that the already populous and built up boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. This perceived need for the hard sell resulted in auction catalogs that were more richly illustrated and detailed than those for lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Enormous estates that had been broken in to well over 1,000 lots, unprecedented in the early 20th century, were brought to auction throughout these years, as streets were planned and graded, sewer and water pipes laid and the subways stretched northward. In many areas, elevated tracks began to rise high above the surrounding countryside, the landscape dotted with older frame houses, pastures, and brand new elevator apartment buildings.

 5082792
 5082793

The catalog covers for the Bronx often distorted geographic realities, exaggerating the proximity of the area to Manhattan, and highlighted existing and proposed subway or trolley lines reaching to Midtown.“1 block to elevated!” “35 minutes to City Hall via 3rd Ave El!” are commonly found on the maps, as auction houses sought to alleviate the public’s concerns that a move to the northern reaches of the city was akin to moving to Alaska. The collection of Bronx pamphlets, just as those for the other boroughs, paint a picture of a city bursting with development, as the cabbage patches and cattle lanes of outer reaches of the city blossomed into vibrant, interconnected communities.

Ultimately, the public didn’t need much encouragement to buy property. In the early 20th century the population of the city had been increasing by almost one million inhabitants every 10 years, and many people with disposable income already saw real estate as a sound investment. Additionally, the expansion of the rapid transit system facilitated commuting around the newly consolidated city and encouraged Manhattan dwellers to move to the outer boroughs. Many New Yorkers in a position to move their families out of the crowded sections of the city took advantage of the opportunity to purchase homes and rent new, modern apartments in the northern and eastern parts of the city. It was a pattern of settlement that would seemingly not end until all areas of the city were full.  

So, was 20 dollars enough for an investor to buy a plot of land from the Vanderbilt family’s holdings? Just about, yes. A newspaper report a few days after the sale described a turnout of several hundred men and women, eager to snap up the modest sized lots going for 60 to 100 dollars. A prospective home owner who happened to have 50 dollars in hand could readily put down the deposit required on new plot of land, and many in fact did, leading to the development of the neighborhood now known as Pelham Gardens.

Map Division Collections and Resources

The library’s Digital Collections website contains all of the Map Division’s Land Auctioneering Pamphlets described in this post. The items themselves can be located in our catalog under individual records for the Bronx (1897-1922), Brooklyn (1869-1920), and Manhattan (1897-1925).  For those seeking out more resources documenting the growth of the city, you’ll find a wide range of material in the Map Division. There are different paths to accessing our collections. We’ve digitized a great deal of our historical material, which can be found in our Digital Collections page. You can read more about our digital collections and mapping projects in Matt Kuntzen’s post, Open Access Maps at NYPL.
Supreme Court Partition Sale...Of the Van Cortlandt Estate
Van Cortlandt Estate auction, June 6, 1912

All of our print collections can be identified through searching our catalog or through consulting our old-school hard copy catalog that we keep at the reference desk in our reading room. Searching by subject is the best way to find material in our collections. Most subject headings will reflect the geographic area of interest along with a particular topic relating to that place. Below are a few suggested subject headings to use for an initial search of our collections in the NYPL catalog. Keep in mind that there are plenty of permutations of this search, depending on what location or subject you are interested in:

  • Real property -- New York (State) -- New York -- Maps
  • Real property auctions -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Real property auctions -- New York (State) -- New York -- Maps

If you’d like to search for all maps of a particular location, you can search for a place name, i.e. a neighborhood, town, city, county or state, along with the word Maps:

  • Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Maps
  • Harlem (New York, N.Y.) -- Maps
  • (New York, N.Y.) -- Maps

Of course, a researcher runs into two problems here: the sheer number of maps of places like New York City, coupled with the fact that the nondescriptive, utilitarian titles of most maps, e.g. “Map of New York,” doesn’t provide many clues as to what’s actually on the map. Whenever the need arises to narrow down a list of resources, a few quick steps can be taken.  One step would be to try a narrower search, such as:

  • City planning -- New York (State) -- New York -- Maps
  • Streets -- New York (State) -- New York -- Planning -- Maps

Another recommended step would be to use the advanced search feature in the catalog and select a date range of interest in order to limit the resources to sort through.

Since a sizeable portion of our collection, particularly those items from the mid-twentieth century are not included in our online catalog, we highly advise and greatly encourage researchers to get the most out of our collections by to reaching out to our librarians either by visiting the division or sending us an email: maps@nypl.org.  Tell us about your projects and research and we’ll help you navigate through the collections; it’s what we do best!

Other NYPL Research Collections

Of course, there are other divisions in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building that provide strong documentation of the city’s past, their collections too numerous to mention in any meaningful detail here. The two divisions that should already be familiar to lovers of New York City history are the Manuscripts and Archives Division and, as noted above, The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy. For example, the Milstein Division has a wonderful collection of uncataloged 20th century real estate brochures (similar to those in the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library), which includes land auction pamphlets from Mr. Whiton’s collection that were not digitized along with those held by the Map Division.

In addition to providing assistance in the use of their historical collections, the Milstein Division staff regularly teach classes on researching aspects of New York City’s history and publish guides on using the library’s collections in your research. Here are a few of their more recent posts on researching real estate and the changing face of the city:

The librarians in the Milstein Division would also like to hear about your research questions. Feel free to drop them a line anytime at history@nypl.org.

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