You might think modern-day New York’s streets and sidewalks are a little grimy, but they’re practically pristine compared to the
city streets of a century ago. To start, in the early days of New York, most streets were not paved at all, and did not feature cleanly and convenient paved sidewalks. (This was especially true of the more rural districts outside the city center, including Greenwich Village.) Additionally, the city didn’t have effective sanitation services until the very end of the 19th century – and even then, the methods were rather primitive. In those days, what got thrown on to the street often stayed right there. So New York’s roads were not only made of dirt but often composed of food waste, excrement, residents’ trash, and even dead animals. (Earlier this year, GVSHP hosted a program on this topic with New York’s resident sanitation expert, Robin Nagle.) Even tony neighborhoods featured expensive townhouses lining streets that were foul and messy. And when it rained? You can only imagine. So, what’s a lady or gentleman to do when they arrive on their stately doorstep, ready to enter their home after a long walk down a dirt road? They’re going to need to scrape off their shoes before crossing that threshold.
And so railings were designed specifically to include this simple tool. Depending on the grandeur of the home and entrance, the scraper may be simple and utilitarian, or more elaborate. But any family who was privileged enough to have an iron railing outside would have had made sure it featured a bootscraper.
Today, bootscrapers serve as quick and easy evidence of an original railing. Or at least, an original railing design. There are occasions where building owners have had their railings restored and included the historic bootscraper design in that restoration, even though it’s no longer of any use. In those cases, bootscrapers become a vestigial element, recreated in design but lacking its utility.
What I love about these bootscrapers is their “hiding in plain sight” quality. Before I studied historic architecture, I had no idea they existed. Now, I see them everywhere. They’re designed perfectly – they integrate with the complete railing design while remaining utterly utilitarian. And they give us a real sense that our city’s history is not just a concept or a topic to study – real people (with real annoyances like dirty shoes!) were using our streets, parks, and homes just like we use them today. And those people were influencing the way our cities and homes were designed.
Preservation is about more than just retaining a streetscape of fancy homes; our historic buildings, old streets and alleys tell us something about past culture and custom. Preserving these historic elements remind us of the past, and can serve as teaching tools, too. Educators in GVSHP’s public school program take students on a walking tour to visit several historic railings on Leroy Street. Students are asked to consider what bootscrapers might have been used for, and after the answer is revealed, they consider why they are worth keeping around if their original purpose has long since expired. Even though they’re not scraping many boots these days, these small iron fixtures are still putting in a good day’s work.
So keep an eye out this week for bootscrapers! And if you spot one, snap a picture for Instagram and tag us at #gvshp so we can see it too. If you do, we’ll enter you in a raffle to win a free copy of our newest book, Greenwich Village Stories! And while you’re at it, check out the #bootscrapers hastag, too – there are some great images there from all over the country. Happy hunting!