To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.
That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.
One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.
The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.
I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.
Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.
Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.
This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.
I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.
This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.