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Pictorial Diagrams of NY Theaters - 1883From the Robert Davis Inc. Archive
The engravings reproduced here were published in a guide to New York theaters in 1883; the equivalent of the more recent "STUBS" guide. The guide includes seating plans and box office telegraph addresses for 18 theaters, a railroad map, and advertising.
This is a commercial piece, published by Lansing and Company, a travel ticket agent, and distributed free by the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railway to stimulate business.
The images show a general pictorial view of the theater interiors from the stage in distorted perspective. They are detailed enough to show every chair with its chair and row number. This information could be used to purchase and confirm seat locations by telegraph and telephone.
The theater addresses given here are derived from other resource material, and may not be correct. If you have accurate addresses for any of these theaters please e-mail the address and source information. The confounding difficulty is that theaters moved and were renamed often. The cover is copyrighted in 1880, the title page is dated 1883, and some of the theaters included didn't open until 1883, so we assume the publisher revised the guide's contents without revising the cover.
Seat count accuracy is severely limited by the difficulty of counting the capacity of the boxes and top balconies. Chair numbers and row letters are shown in the orchestra and first balcony and they can be counted easily. There are no chair or row numbers shown for the top balconies, which presumably were general admission, and so they can't be counted accurately. We also presume the top balcony used benches without armrests, so the capacity could have varied with demand. We have least confidence in the capacity we estimated for the Academy of Music.
Unlike Broadway today, where the chairs are numbered according to a standard scheme that is exactly the same in every theater, each theater in the guide has a different chair numbering scheme. Some of the chair numbering schemes are unusual, to say the least, and all are completely unlike modern practice.
We know from surveying old theaters that the chairs were exceptionally small, and therefore the rooms were probably much smaller than a theater of equal capacity would be today.
Most of the 18 theaters have a central aisle. This practice is now is out of style.
Advertising was for carriage makers, hat makers, cosmetics, cuff buttons, pool tables, trunks, beds, paint, safes, music boxes, refrigerators, folding beds, wash stands, fire insurance, plate glass insurance, porcelain, opera glasses, sewing machines, silk fabrics, gas lighting fixtures, clothing, and one dollar hotels, the very best kind.
Where we can compare the picture shown in the guide to a different picture from other contemporary sources showing the same theater, the two images are similar. Not completely identical, but similar. In particular, the ornament shown in these images is abbreviated compared with some other contemporary images.
We know of some New York theaters in 1883 that are not shown in the book, so it is not a complete index to all New York theaters of the day. The theater names used here are exactly as shown in the guide, but the names used in the guide do not agree completely with other resource material from the time. We don't know why.
The "Academy of Music" is the New York Academy of Music on 14th Street, which pre-dated the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The "New Opera House" is the "Old Met", the original Metropolitan Opera House. It opened in 1883, the same year the guide was published. The "Old Met" was demolished in 1966.
We believe all the theaters in the guide have been demolished, the last one in about 1995.