If you’ve ever been to the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan, you may have noticed something rather curious: a working clock embedded in the sidewalk. Barthman Jewelers planted it in the pavement in front of their store in 1899. It was a clever publicity stunt for the shop, which specializes in fine watches, undoubtedly luring in many customers over the years.
At first, the timepiece looked like a radio flip clock, with a rectangular face and numbers that changed on the minute and the hour. Sometime later, perhaps in the 1920s, the clock was given a new face. This one was round with bold Arabic numerals and long hands. Thousands of busy New Yorkers, rushing to and from work in the financial district, stepped on the clock each day. The glass cover was continually scratched and in constant need of replacement. Changing covers trapped moisture and gave the modern device a foggy, ancient look.
Photo Leaguer Ida Wyman took great advantage of this unique object for her 1947 photograph Sidewalk Clock, an image that captures the spirit of women’s progress in postwar America. In it, a professional woman in stockings and high heels marches confidently across the frame. The woman is in sharp focus, while the enigmatic clock appears hazy, as if it can barely keep pace with her. Wyman herself was enjoying a successful career as a freelance photographer when she took the picture. Following in the footsteps of acclaimed photojournalists Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Berenice Abbott, she published her pictures in popular magazines such as Life, Fortune, and The Saturday Evening Post, an early joiner to the ranks of professional women photographers.
When I visited the clock on my Photo Hunt, I noticed it had changed yet again. It turns out just a few years after Wyman photographed it, a brass bezel embellished with the cardinal points was added as a decorative frame. It also now has Roman numerals. Although the sidewalk clock has been a fixture of the city’s streets for over a century, it remains a hidden gem of New York’s former jewelry district.
Next up: Harlem’s Wishing Tree.
Curatorial Assistant, The Jewish Museum, New York
Read the previous Photo Hunt post on Mulberry Street here >
The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 is organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.
Image credits (top to bottom): Illustration of Barthman’s sidewalk clock featured in Technical World Magazine (September 1905)./Ida Wyman, Sidewalk Clock, 1947. Gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 x 7 ½ in. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Photo League Collection, Purchase, Derby Fund. © Ida Wyman./Rebecca Shaykin, Sidewalk Clock, 2011. © Rebecca Shaykin.