by Kevin Walsh

December 2011: It happens every Christmas. A giant conifer is sacrificed for the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting featuring the pop teen of the moment; trampling crowds worshiping the God of Commerce; Bing and Fred on TV and Bing and Bowie on Youtube. Also accompanying the fanfare is the annual running of the classic subway cars on one weekend day throughout December. The Metropolitan Transit Authority keeps a stable of subway or elevated cars going back to as early as 1912 in its rolling stock archives, which for the most part are stockpiled at various layup yards such as the large facility in Coney Island, or at the Transit Museum, a national treasure located at Schermerhorn Street and Boerum Place in a previously abandoned shuttle station.

The Christmas (I refuse to say “Holiday” with nonetheless all due respect for Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, atheist etc. readers) running of the cars features a trainset of cars built specifically to run on the Independent Subway, a new set of routes constructed by the City to compete with the already existing Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) and Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT). Though in many areas, such as Elmhurst and Forest Hills, the IND plumbed new neighborhoods, in other cases it was built to compete with existing lines. That’s why the western Bronx features two lines, the Jerome Avenue El and the Grand Concourse IND line, that parallel each other and in some spots are just a block away from each other. The IND also served to ring the death knell for elevated lines in Manhattan south of Central Park. Indeed, by the time the 6th Avenue line opened in 1940, the old 6th Avenue Elevated train had already been shut down and demolished.

The Holiday run features a trainset consisting of R1 cars, first used on the original IND line, the 8th Avenue, in 1932, and R9 cars from 1940. The “R” nomenclature, now used for all NYC subway cars, was first developed for the IND, with the “R” standing for Revenue. (The next new cars delivered for NYC subway use will be in the R-170s; the oldest “R” cars in the sysytem today are the R32 cars, which feature corrugated, or rippled, metalwork on their exteriors.

The R1s and R9s are generally in the same ‘batch’ of production, and all have the same proportions and seat arrangements. Though all began with rattan wicker seating, some were later fitted with red vinyl (in later years, all gained plastic seating due to vandalism; the cars were lit with bare incandescent bulbs, that later had plastic covers; “straps” were white porcelain (as were vertical handholding bars); and overhead fans (with some futility) attempted to keep the cars cool in summer.

The cars featured a mix of cross and longitudinal seating. The newest subway cars dispense with cross seating altogether, but for me, the coveted seat was always facing a window, even on underground trips, so I could see the stations, the signage, and who was about to get on.

It’s questionable how effective no-spitting signs in the subways have ever been, and anti-littering signs are completely inefective, but smoking has always been prohibited and the ban enforced.

Younger transit enthusiasts are always fascinated with earlier iterations of subway cars.

It must be said that even the current rolling stock is an active museum. There are still R32 cars from 1964 running on some lines, and many lines consist entirely of R44 and R46 cars (the ones with orange and yellow seats, the first to chime when the doors opened and shut) that first ran in 1972.

R9 car with bare bulbs covered and a lighter paint scheme.

R1 car, red seats, at the 2nd Avenue station. The 2nd Avenue station was built in 1936 in a series of stations that connected West 4th Street, a double deck junction of the 6th and 8th Avenue Lines, and the Jay street/Borough Hall IND station, built 1933.

Beginning in 1940 and the Unified System, all three subway lines carried notices called The Subway Sun, alerting riders to events, local highlights, and gentle admonitions for bad behavior. Most Subway Suns were drawn and lettered in a playful style by Amelia Opdycke “Oppy” Jones.

The Paris Métro opened in 1900 — predating NYC’s IRT by four years. The claim here still holds, as the first train begins running at 5:30 AM.

I recently obtained a copy of Mark Ovenden’s comprehensive Paris Underground: the Maps, Stations and Design of the Metro, about as comprehensive a study of the iconography of a subway system I’ve ever seen. I hope Ovenden someday turns his attention to the NYC subways.

On the upper left is a sly reference to a pop song:

The Poor People of Paris” is a popular song, with “Paris” being pronounced as “pa-REE”.

It was adapted by Jack Lawrence in 1954 from the French language song “La goualante du pauvre Jean” (“The Ballad of Poor John”) (words by René Rouzaud, music by Marguerite Monnot). The title arises in part from a misinterpretation of the French title, as “pauvre Jean” was taken for the same-sounding “pauvre gens,” which translates as “poor people.”

A recording of the song by Les Baxter‘s orchestra (Capitol Records catalog number 3336, with the flip side “Theme from ‘Helen of Troy'”) was a number-one hit on the Billboard Singles Charts in the US in 1956. wikipedia

The Zone Improvement Plan, or ZIP Codes, consisting, of course, of a five-digit numeral specifying a locale, has been in use by the US Post Office since 1963, replacing earlier postal zones (see below). The 9-digit Zip+4 was introduced in 1983.

The new system was introduced by a cartoon character called Mr. Zip:

Zip code insignia is an inscription urging the use of ZIP Code, or depicting the “Mr. Zip” character.  In the early 1960s, the Post Office Department was seeking more efficient ways to process and deliver growing volumes of mail.  The Department developed a 5-digit number code for each address.  Enter Mr. ZIP®, a unique brand icon who used a letter and satchel to convince Americans to use ZIP Codes on their mail.  The use of the ZIP Code system began on July 1, 1963 and within a year of this character’s introduction, between a third and a half of America was using a ZIP Code.  Zip Blocks appeared on the margins of many stamps between 1964 and 1994. 

Mr. Zip was based on an original design by Harold Wilcox, son of a letter carrier, for use by a New York bank in a bank-by-mail campaign.  Post Office Department artists retained the face but sharpened the limbs and torso and added a mail bag.  The new figure, dubbed Mr. Zip, was unveiled at a convention of postmasters in October, 1962.  Marginal Markings

In 1967, the Texas band The Five Americans (was there ever a better band name?) having had a big hit with “Western Union,” went to the well again with “Zip Code”:

In a few years, no one will remember what “zip codes” or “western union” were.

The ‘nickel fare’ debate was the Medicare or Obamacare debate writ small — from the very beginning in 1904, subway fares had been stuck at a nickel, through depressions and wars. In the early 1920s, a major push to raise it was defeated. In 1946, with the Great Unification of 1940 and World War II in the past, the subways had more riders than ever before, but in just a few years, service and equipment was deteriorating and ridership was down. After protracted argument and debate, the new fare, 10 cents, was introduced in 1948. After the fare was raised again to 15¢ in a few years, the token system was introduced, as it was considered too expensive to produce turnstiles with both dime and nickel slots.

Signs in newer cars are video displays controlled by computerization, but for the system’s first century or so, printed roll signs were the rule. This one outlines the route formerly taken by the BMT J train from a Queens terminal at 168th Street to Chambers Street at City Hall in Manhattan.

The 168th Street station on the Jamaica Avenue el opened December 2, 1918, when the Broadway/Fulton Street/Jamaica Avenue El opened out to Jamaica, and closed October 10, 1977. After the eastern part of the el closed and was demolished, stations on the el east of the 121st Street station were diverted into a tunnel and two new stations, Sutphin Boulevard (for a LIRR connection) and Parsons-Archer, a double-decked station where the E (8th Avenue IND line) also terminated. In true MTA fashion, it took approximatly ten years before the el was shuttered and new subway stations opened to replace it.

2nd Avenue has been waiting for a subway to replace a demolished el for approximately 70 years.

An intermediately-appointed R1 car. Exposed light bulbs are still in place. To discourage theft, the bulbs’ grooves were reversed so that they would be no good on home lighting.

This sort of pitch may have worked in mid-century — substitute slower travel for a seat — but when the MTA introduced the V train in the 1990s, which hit all the local stops on the Queens Boulevard and 6th Avenue lines as far south as 2nd Avenue — it flopped and the MTA killed it in the 2010 budget cuts and fare hikes.

WNYC radio studios were located in the Municipal Building near City Hall till 2009 (see comments). When I appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on October 23, 2006, the ForgottenBook had its greatest daily sales, briefly vaulting into the Amazon Top 500, which is kind of like making the Billboard Hot 100.

The object in the upper right is  a subway token, some iterations of which had a “Y” cut out of the middle.

The Goldman Band was formed by American musician and composer Edwin Franko Goldman in 1918 from the earlier New York Military Band. Goldman had organized the New York Military Band in 1911. Both bands were based in New York City.

It was Goldman’s contention that the New York symphony and orchestra musicians in the summer bands of the time rarely rehearsed and didn’t take these performances very seriously. He saw the potential for starting a really good wind ensemble.

The Goldman Band’s first concert under that name was in 1920 at Columbia University. The program was representative of Goldman’s choices in transcriptions and original works including compositions of Johann Sebastian BachVictor HerbertEdward MacDowellJohan SvendsenAmbroise ThomasRichard Wagner, and Karl Michael Ziehrer.

For ninety-three years the Goldman Band performed free public concerts at a variety of venues in New York city, including on the Green at Columbia, Central Park and Prospect Park. Famous instrumental and vocal performers appeared with the band along with guest conductors such as Percy Grainger and Vivian Dunn. Traditional and classical works were performed as well as new works for band. Goldman requested new works for band from European composers including Ottorino RespighiAlbert Roussel, and Jaromir Weinberger. With professional musicians and endowment funds from the Guggenheim’s, the band was able to perform in New York and also tour the U.S. and Canada and perform on radio and television. wikipedia

The band continued to perform until the summer of 2005.

The R-1 pretty much as it originally ran in 1932. I’m unsure if the floors were red then, though. Canoodling permitted.

Another Oppy admonition, with sound advice above the wood.

Subway car manufacturers, no matter whether the USA, France, Japan, wherever, have always underestimated the size of the NYC rear end. The problem is ever more acute in the summer, when Midwest tourists invade the city.

Well, you could never smoke on the trains, and now you can’t do it at the ballpark, either. The Brooklyn Dodger in the picture is pitcher Whitlow “Whit” Wyatt, who won 106 games for five major league clubs. His best year was 1941 with the Dodgers, when he won 22.

A timely message from Oppy in the holiday season. The postal zone number system, instituted in 1943, was the precursor of the zip code. This was a regional system consisting of one or two digits (for example, in Bay Ridge, you wrote to Brooklyn 9, New York), and in 1963 it was made into a country-wide system by adding three digits at the front, and zero if the postal zone  number was one digit, creating the zip code. So, who’s the guy with the tricorn hat in the subway cab? See below.

Exterior of an original R1 car.

As we’ve seen on this One Shot, Oppy often included the figure of Father Knickerbocker, the personal representative of NY (like Uncle Sam).

Just once I’d like to do a tour with the NYC Transit Museum, so I can wear one of those orange reflective vests. It looks like the green one this guy has, but orange.

The Miss Subways contest, sponsored by the New York Subways Advertising agency, was designed to draw more attention to ads in subway cars. Pictures of the reigning Miss Subways along with a short description of her interests and aspirations were posted among the ads…

The pageant was open to women who lived in New York and rode the subway. Nominees were chosen by a modeling agent, and the public could vote by phone or mail. Many Miss Subways were working class, and there were African-American, Asian, and Latina winners. Infrastructurist

The contest was run from 1941-1976. In 1996, some former Misses Subway reunited. I used to work with a former Miss Subway, a woman called Robin Zicholtz, at Photo-Lettering in the 1980s. Let me know if you read this.

I left the R1/R9 trainset to zoom off the subway heaven, or the Transit Museum, at Queens Plaza. The cars were sparsely attended on the first weekend, but on December 17th, it was a different story…

…because it was time for the annual Levy’s Unique New York Vintage Tea & Swing Dance Party. The idea is to have people come in dressed in outfits current when the R1/R9 subways first ran, 1932 or so, and bring in live swing music bands, dancing on the platforms and on the trains, room permitted. Then, serve coffee from carafes and crumpets on china. The event seems to get more popular every year. Photo: Nathan Tweti

The cars were jammed. Photo: Nathan Tweti

This was in one of the ‘modernized’ R9 units, with fluorescent lights and steel straps. Photo: Nathan Tweti

We found Amelia Earhart. Photo: Nathan Tweti

Lots of music underground.

You still have one more chance to catch the vintage trains, on Saturday, December 24th, and next year’s Christmas season. Photo: Nathan Tweti

Jane Kratochvil Vintage Subway Tea Party photos

For you Facebook folks, Jim Poulos’ Women of the NYC Holiday Train

Thanks Emily Sharp for assistance with this page



Helen Chirivas December 19, 2011 - 12:36 am

Fantastic blog post!

Elwood December 19, 2011 - 9:46 am

WNYC is no longer located at the Municipal Building. It moved to Varick Street in 2009.

Matthew December 19, 2011 - 10:55 am

Two corrections, the R179 for the IND and BMT will be the next order following the R188 order just beginning to arrive for the IRT.

Second, the V still runs everyday as the M.

NJMurphy December 19, 2011 - 1:46 pm

Yo, Kev! WNYC’s studios have been located at 160 Varick Street for several years now, not in the Municipal Building.

frank herrling December 19, 2011 - 5:17 pm

in ref to the oppy ad about taking the local…….as a born and bred new yorker (lower east side, not alphabet city, not loisaida, altho i resonate to them also) i must tell ya…..always take the local, always……more comfort, more options, more interesting fellow riders, think “more flags, more fun”. if you’re in a hurry, you’re not a true nyker, we just make it look like we’re always rushing somewhere ta keep the midwest yokels on their toes. you should sit back and ride the cars as a boulevardier would sit back and revel in the passing throng, that’s one of the beauties of new york. imho.

Larry Mac December 19, 2011 - 8:17 pm

I rode those cars more than half a century ago. The cars would sway side to side and you’d used to wonder how they never hit the tunnel wall. The electric motors screamed out a sound like “RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!” and when the throttle was taken off a sound went off with a snap. It sounded like “CLOKKK!!!”

William Mangahas December 20, 2011 - 8:20 pm

The electric motors screamed out a sound like “RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!” and when the throttle was taken off a sound went off with a snap. It sounded like “CLOKKK!!!

That “CLOKKK” sound you heard was the line switch. The newer subway cars don’t make that loud sound because the older cars drew more current.

ew-3 December 21, 2011 - 4:42 pm

Used to really enjoy riding between cars with one foot on each car.

Was like surfing !

Jean December 20, 2011 - 5:39 am

Where do these cars call home after the holidays?

William Mangahas December 24, 2011 - 6:20 am

“Where do these cars call home after the holidays?”

Cars #100, #484 & #1575 go back to the Transit Museum where they will be placed on their usual static display. The other cars are stored at 207th St yard.

ew-3 December 20, 2011 - 7:30 am

Great post. Very nostalgic to someone who grew up on those trains.

Wonder if they can get CFL light bulbs to replace those evil incandescents.

Emilio Castro December 21, 2011 - 4:46 pm

The one thing I miss about those old trains were the sound they made whenever they started rolling. It was like a cow mooing a chromatic scale in baritone! Once they were at full speed in the tunnels, the clickity clack sound made by the train wheels against the tracks (there was no continously welded track in those days) were always accompanied by a soprano whine.

JoannF December 22, 2011 - 6:34 pm

Boy, do I remember riding those older cars with the wicker seats. Plenty of pairs of nylons got ruined in summertime regardless how careful you were. (winter time the long coat protected them). Rode the E and F trains (1960s) along with the GG & RR trains coming out of Forest Hills back in those days.

ew-3 December 23, 2011 - 1:15 pm

It used to be fun to ride between the cars, one foot on each car.

Subway surfing !

ew-3 December 23, 2011 - 4:14 pm

Used to love riding between these cars. One foot on each car.

Surfing the subways !

ew-3 December 24, 2011 - 2:57 pm

Great post Kevin,

Merry Christmas

David December 25, 2011 - 9:33 pm

I’ve been on these trains on the special trips organized by the Transit Museum, which usually run about $25 even for members. It sure is great (and a great surprise to many) that if you are very lucky, you can ride them for only the cost of a regular swipe of your Metrocard.

AlC December 26, 2011 - 10:08 am

Thanks for fixing my posts


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Douglas McMillan August 24, 2020 - 9:05 am

We would ride the D train from Houston St. to 167th St. in the Bronx and transfer to the IRT Wood lawn and ride back to 138th and Grand Concourse and walk home.


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