The big picture: New Year’s Day in 1940s New York

By Peter Conrad

US soldiers and civvies recover from New Year's Eve celebrations at Grand Central Station circa 1940. But is all as it seems to be?

Other times, other manners: how decorous our forefathers were, even when hungover! These revellers have spent their night on the razzle wearing suits, ties and gloves, and those in military greatcoats have lost neither their caps nor their dignity. Significantly, they are all male: back then, men did their partying in public, while their womenfolk waited demurely at home. Unlike the streets around Times Square – where New York now holds its New Year celebrations, with shrieking hordes herded through metal detectors into a cattle pen guarded by cops and invigilated by rooftop snipers – Grand Central Station's marble staircase is not puddled by vomit, or piled high with plastic bottles, burger boxes and pizza cartons that will be ingested all over again tomorrow morning by a platoon of garbage trucks. You could enjoy yourself in the 1940s without going on a gluttonous binge.

If the photograph dates from 1940, it predates the fall, though possibly it was taken in 1941, by which time the fall had occurred: the United States joined the war that December. That would explain the presence of those uniformed soldiers, aligned in a column on the right to separate them from the drunks who remain on civvy street. The newspaper artfully left open at the bottom should resolve these doubts, but the closer you peer, the more the print blurs into specks and indecipherable smudges. Rather than explaining the past, photographs make it look defunct, otherworldly, populated by ghosts who don't realise that they are dead.

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Source: The big picture: New Year’s Day in 1940s New York