New York locals may know and appreciate the Manhattan skyline, but it is equally iconic for outsiders visiting the city. In the 19th century, New York was growing “every year more a metropolis,” attracting more and more people from around the world, and its skyline helped to shape these visitors’ impressions of the city.[i] Even then, a view of the skyline was an attraction for tourists – the 1865 Stranger’s Guide-Book to New York, Brooklyn, and Adjacent Places begins with a sketch of Manhattan from the East River as an introductory image before the book begins. [ii]
The guidebook advocates a “bird’s-eye view of [the city] from the steeple of Trinity church” as the best starting point for visitors to Manhattan (this viewpoint shows the skyline from all sides).[iii] However, for many, the most important skyline view was the initial perspective coming into the city by ship; at the time, many visitors arrived into lower Manhattan ports off of the East River. Most outsiders’ first impression of New York was its skyline from the river, and this preliminary view affects their entire outlook on the city.
Before examining the actual visitors’ recollections of New York, it is important to note the significance of the harbor view of Manhattan during the 1800s. The silhouette of the city against the East River was not only the view of ships arriving in New York but also a popular subject of art . Contemporary depictions of Manhattan captured the city from a vantage point in Brooklyn so frequently that 19th-century New Yorkers’ basic perspective of Manhattan becomes that “as it looked when one approached it by sea.”[iv] In the words of Washington Irving, people were enthralled by "that majestic bay, which at this day expands its ample bosom before the city of New York.”[v] The 1823 drawing, “New York from Heights near Brooklyn,” displays the skyline of New York through the lens of a Brooklyn landscape.[vi]
This view from Brooklyn Heights was one of the most popular perspectives of Manhattan to be immortalized; it shows the ships and buildings forming the New York skyline and, aside from the pastoral Brooklyn foreground, it parallels the perspective of visitors arriving in the harbor at the East River.
Nineteenth century visitors to New York give us a variety of accounts. One such visitor was Frances Trollope, a woman from England who lived in America from 1827-1830 before returning and publishing the bestselling Domestic Manners of the Americans.[vii] After spending seven weeks in New York, she holds it above all other American cities and describes at length the beauty of the waterfront view of Manhattan. Trollope writes:
We seemed to enter the harbour of New York upon waves of liquid gold, and as we darted past the green isles which rise from its bosom, like guardian centinels of the fair city, the setting sun stretched his horizontal beams farther and farther at each moment, as if to point out to us some new glory in the landscape. New York, indeed, appeared to us, even when we saw it by a soberer light, a lovely and a noble city.[viii]
Her initial judgment of the city, based on her ship’s arrival, centers around what would today be considered a skyline view. She focuses on the view as a part of a holistic landscape, just one island in a panorama of sea and sky, but Trollope’s vantage point is the same one that tourists seek today to capture the ideal snapshot of New York.
Trollope also notes
that the southern point of the island has a “public promenade . . . more
beautiful” than any other.[x]
This promenade marks the beginning the city streets, which she praises for
their “beautiful stone” buildings and lively appearance with stores
“brilliantly illuminated with gas.”[xi]
The street-level atmosphere of Manhattan is essentially a close-up of the
larger skyline view; people can more attentively experience the buildings that
compose the broader view of Manhattan. Trollope’s favorable outlook on the
skyline predisposes her toward an appreciation of life in the city as a whole.
She goes on to describe many aspects of New York, finally deciding that “were
all America like this fair city . . . [she] should say that the land was the
fairest in the world.”[xii] Although she writes about all aspects of city
life, Trollope’s foremost attraction to Manhattan is based on its physical
appeal. The overall aesthetic of the city culminates in the overarching view of
the skyline, and her original, delighted response from the river frames the
rest of her positive attitudes about New York.
Trollope was not the only visitor struck by Manhattan’s skyline upon reaching the city. John Lambert, a professional traveler from Britain, came to New York in November of 1807, and he recounts his arrival:
About ten o’clock at night we arrived at New York; it was very dark, and as we sailed by the town, lighted lamps and windows sparkled everywhere, amidst the houses, in the streets, and along the water-side. The wharfs were crowded with shipping, whose tall masts mingled with the buildings, and together with the spires and cupolas of the churches, gave the city an appearance of magnificence, which the gloomy obscurity of the night served to increase.[xiii]
Lambert’s immediate impression of Manhattan is one of vibrancy; the skyline view of ships and buildings as he arrives exudes “magnificence.”[xiv] The city’s perpetual commercial activity impresses him the most, and his first view of this activity comes with his first view of skyline from the river. Lambert’s initial image of the lively wharfs of Manhattan molds the remainder of his respect for the city.
In many instances, Manhattan’s ships make a significant impact on outsiders’ first views of the skyline: “it was a rare traveler who failed to mention, among his first impressions, the ‘forest of masts’” dominating the view.[xvi] In the 19th century, the ships lining the coast of Manhattan were as much a part of the skyline as the buildings, albeit a less constant component since at any time one could sail away and be replaced by another. These ships, “signs of a flourishing coastal trade,” seem responsible for “nearly the whole commerce of the country.”[xvii] The perpetual pursuit of industry and progress signified by the ships enlivens the city and suggests “a certain air of well-being which prevails among all classes” according to Ramon de la Sagra, a Spanish historian who visited in 1835.[xviii] One historian from Berlin even deems New York “next to London.”[xix] The numerous ships composing the Manhattan skyline along the East River, along with the city’s growing trend of “vertical construction” as early as 1826, indicate a city of newfound progress to visitors, and these skyline elements elicit enthusiasm that impacts visitors’ entire impression of New York.[xx] The painting “Street of Ships” both depicts the ships at their Manhattan ports and, showing the bustle of the seaport, acknowledges their role in commercial activity.[xxi]
from professional travelers and historians, certain acclaimed writers have
commented on their initial impressions of New York and its skyline. Charles
Dickens came to the city from England in 1842 and describes his visceral first
Then there lay stretched out before us, to the right, confused heaps of buildings, with here and there a spire or steeple, looking down upon the herd below; and here and there, again, a cloud of lazy smoke; and in the foreground a forest of ships’ masts, cheery with flapping sails and waving flags . . . The city’s hum and buzz, the clinking of capstans, the ringing of bells, the barking of dogs, the clattering of wheels, tingled in the listening ear.[xxii]
Like many others, Dickens remarks on the continuous activity and industry of “never idle” Manhattan.[xxiii] In the skyline he notes the ships for their movements, and he even sees the haphazard arrangement of buildings as a form of the overall commotion of the city. This 1852 painting demonstrates the basic view as Dickens arrives: a variety of ships fill the water, and a smattering of steeples stand out in the background.[xxiv]
This initial picture from the river sets the stage for the rest of Dickens’ comments on New York and its constant hubbub. However, Dickens is an unusual case: his first trip to New York leaves him dissatisfied. Although his initial look at the skyline informs him of the hubbub of the city, he focuses on the “intrusive” and “dirty” consequences of this activity.[xxv] It is not until he visits again in 1868 that Dickens comes to appreciate New York for its capacity for growth.[xxvi] It may take two tries, but ultimately the commotion Dickens sees in the skyline corresponds with a positive perception of the city.
Edgar Allan Poe also writes about visiting New York in 1844. An American, he does not arrive from a foreign ship, but Poe still goes to lengths to capture a view of the city’s skyline. Without the view from the water, he seeks out the birds-eye view, as recommended by the Stranger’s Guide Book – the practice of observing Manhattan from above grows in prominence as higher buildings from which to view the city are erected. Poe visits an elevated reservoir and a “white, light-house-looking shot-tower” to get the high view of the city and then finally rents a boat to see the island silhouetted against the water.[xxvii] He calls “the scenery of the Manhattan shore . . . particularly picturesque” [xxviii] and references the construction of Trinity Church, which becomes one of the largest church spires dominating the skyline in the 19th century and a later vantage point for the birds-eye view.[xxix]
Overall, Poe considers a removed view of the skyline the most beautiful way to see New York, and this perceived beauty gives him a better impression of the city than its ordinary street life.
Perhaps the most poignant first impression of the city is that of immigrants as they sail into Manhattan for the first time: “what they [see is] not just New York, but, at least for the moment, the embodiment of ‘America’ and the setting of a new life.”[xxx] In this case, the initial skyline view becomes representative of a “land of promise.”[xxxi] The 19th century welcomes a large influx of immigrants into New York, many of whom are Irish and Germans fleeing from poverty.[xxxii]
They arrive, often penniless after paying for the voyage and frequently gaunt and ill from the brutal journey: it is at this moment that they need the skyline as a symbol of hope.[xxxiv] Unfortunately, many of these masses fall victim to exploitation and discrimination and end up “left to starve” in slums; in these cases, the city proves “a land of broken promise and blasted hope,” as described by Mayor Philip Hone in 1847.[xxxv] Still, upon immigrants’ arrival, the New York skyline provides an emblem of opportunity for the future of their new lives in America, whether this future works out as planned or not.
Throughout the 19th century, the Manhattan skyline from the East River remains outsiders’ first view of New York. It previews the great activity, progress, and promise of the city along with providing an aesthetically pleasing view. As a first impression, the skyline gives visitors a positive image to frame their entire concept of the city and, more often than not, provokes admiration for all of New York.
[i] Still, Bayrd. "Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present." Internet Archive. January 1, 1956. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[ii] Miller, James. "Miller's New York as It Is; Or, Stranger's Guide-book to the Cities of New York, Brooklyn, and Adjacent Places." Internet Archive. 1865. Accessed November 12, 2014.
[iv] Taylor, William R. New York and the Origin of the Skyline: The Visual City as Text. 225.
[v] Banta, Martha. "The Three New Yorks: Topographical Narratives and Cultural Texts." In American Literary History, 28-54. Vol. 7. Oxford University Press, 1995.
[vi] Stokes, I. N. Phelps. The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 New York : Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.Electronic reproduction. v. 1-4. New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Libraries, 2008. JPEG use copy available via the World Wide Web. Master copy stored locally on  DVDs#: ldpd_5800727_001 01-13 ; ldpd_5800727_002 01-19 ; ldpd_5800727_003 01-16 ; ldpd_5800727_004 01-16.. Columbia University Libraries Electronic Books. 2006.
[vii] Trollope, Frances. "An Englishwoman in New York, 1831." City Journal. 1995. Accessed November 4, 2014.
[ix] "Views of New York." J. Pocker. Accessed November 19, 2014.
[x] Trollope, Frances. “An Englishwoman In New York, 1831.” City Journal. 1995. Accessed November 4, 2014.
[xiii] Still, Bayrd. "Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present." Internet Archive. January 1, 1956. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[xv] LeBreton, Louis. "Arrivee Du Paquetbot Transatlanitque [View of New York from the South East]." Museum of the City of New York J. Clarence Davies Collection. Accessed November 19, 2014.
[xvi] Still, Bayrd. "Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present." Internet Archive. January 1, 1956. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[xxi] "Street of Ships." New York History Walks. Accessed November 12, 2014.
[xxii] Dickens, Charles. "A Dickensian View of New York." Brooklyn College. January 1, 1842. Accessed November 11, 2014.
[xxiv] Stokes, I. N. Phelps. The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 New York : Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.Electronic reproduction. v. 1-4. New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Libraries, 2008. JPEG use copy available via the World Wide Web. Master copy stored locally on  DVDs#: ldpd_5800727_001 01-13 ; ldpd_5800727_002 01-19 ; ldpd_5800727_003 01-16 ; ldpd_5800727_004 01-16.. Columbia University Libraries Electronic Books. 2006.
[xxv] "When Charles Dickens Toured the City in 1842." Ephemeral New York. November 19, 2012. Accessed November 12, 2014.
[xxvii] Carpenter, Teresa, ed. New York Diaries: 1609-2009. New York: Modern Library, 2012. 169-70.
[xxix] Forsyth, John. "Birds-eye View of Trinity Church, New York." Library of Congress. January 1, 1846. Accessed November 19, 2014.
[xxx] Attoe, Wayne. "Skyline Aesthetics." In Skylines: Understanding and Molding Urban Silhouettes, 69. John Wiley & Sons, 1981.
[xxxii] "Irish and German Immigration." US History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium. Accessed November 5, 2014.
[xxxiii] Levy, D. Blethen Adams. "Seaports of the World: New York." The Maritime Heritage Project. Accessed November 23, 2014.
[xxxiv] Bird, Isabella Lucy. "The Englishwoman in America." Google Books. 1856. Accessed November 12, 2014.
[xxxv] Carpenter, Teresa, ed. New York Diaries: 1609-2009. New York: Modern Library, 2012. 40.