The Interborough Rapid Transit was the first subway system constructed in NYC, opening October 27, 1904 and running for 28 stations between City Hall and 145th Street. Of those original stations, City Hall, Worth Street, 18th Street and 91st Street have been taken out of service either because modern trainsets can’t negotiate them or adjacent station expansions made them redundant. (A full list of NYC ‘abandoned’ subway stations was compiled by Joseph Brennan a couple of decades ago.) The original route is now part of the Lexington Avenue, Times Square Shuttle, and uptown Broadway IRT lines.
Here’s a photo of an original IRT station sign I snapped at the Transit Museum in 1999. It’s still there, along with many other antique subway signs, if you would like to see it. One thing impresses me right off the bat: if you look at newspaper copy, advertising copy and even subway station signage from previous eras, you know that people had more patience and tolerance for reading a lot of copy or wordage. Compared to today, in which NY Daily News online articles comprise about 8 paragraphs of one or two word sentences, everything was a lot more verbose or prolix in previous years.
This sign was likely located on the Lexington Avenue Line (today’s 4, 5, 6 trains) and showed where the line went and the transfers the passengers could make to other lines. The transfers to the what is now the 2 train are still there at 149th Street. The reference to the 6th and 9th Avenue Els dates the sign to 1942 or prior.
In the Swingin’ Sixties, the Transit Authority turned to graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who standardized and streamlined subway signage, employing the Unimark firm he co-founded. At that time today’s subway lines received their now-familiar number and letter designations (until then the IRT and BMT each had their own sets of numbers!)
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