Fire-Engine on Broad Street, Elizabeth, New Jersey
Fire-Engine on Broad Street, Elizabeth, New Jersey, ca. 1889
Oil on canvas
92.1 x 121.9 cm (36 1/4 x 48 inches)
Museum Works of Art Fund 43.005
Selection VIIAmerican Painting from the Museum's Collection, c.1800-1930
Contributions byMandel, Patrica C.F.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1977
TypeMonographs and Collections
About the work
In this painting, German immigrant Ernest Opper depicts the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which by the late 19th century was becoming, like many other American cities, increasingly industrialized. Between 1880 and 1900, the populations of American cities rose 15%. Much of this growth was related to international immigration. In New Jersey, as elsewhere in America, new immigrants worked in growing urban industries. Elizabeth was home to industries including the Singer Sewing Company and one of the first car companies, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company. Two of the century’s most popular inventions came into being just a few miles away in Menlo Park, where Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, followed in 1879 by his modified incandescent light bulb.
Look carefully at this painting. What kind of place is Elizabeth, New Jersey? What are your clues? Consider the businesses along the street and the activities depicted. How do the figures inhabit the space, and how do they relate to each other? What kinds of people do you see, and what differences or similarities do you notice? Where are people placed, and what does their placement tell us about how they might feel?
A relatively recent innovation in Opper’s day, the popular phenomenon of photography may have influenced how Opper chose to depict this scene. This painting contains a very specific sense of motion—the running posture of the man in gray, the horses in mid-gallop, the smoke’s horizontal trail—as time appears to be frozen or slowed. What do you think is implied or insinuated by this depiction of motion? How might it suggest a sense of progress?
In his composition, Opper foregrounds the paved road and the whizzing fire engine, both symptomatic of the industrialized city, while the people are dwarfed atop the receding sidewalk. Have students compose a city or streetscape in which they foreground one or two elements that define or represent current innovations in American society—whether technological, political, or otherwise.
Ask students to choose one figure from Opper’s painting and imagine that figure’s perspective in more detail by writing a first-person or third-person narrative. For example, how might an immigrant or a newcomer to a city feel walking down this street? What might she or he notice? What might be the viewpoint of the solitary woman in the scene?
The following ethnographic study by the social reformer Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant, relates the experiences of the city dwellers in New York City in 1890. Students can read the accounts as a starting point for research and to consider how observation and viewpoint can substantiate their writing. The excerpt is about a husband and wife living in a German-speaking immigrant neighborhood in New York City:
A man with venerable beard and keen eyes answers our questions through the interpreter, in the next house. Very few brighter faces would be met in a day’s walk among American mechanics, yet he has in nine years learned no syllable of English… . In all that time he has been at work grubbing to earn bread. Wife and he by constant labor make three thousand cigars a week, earning $11.25, when there is no lack of material; when in winter they receive from the manufacturer tobacco for only two thousand, the rent of $10 for two rooms, practically one with a dark alcove, has nevertheless to be paid in full. And six mouths to be fed. He was a blacksmith in the old country, but cannot work at his trade here because he does not understand “Engliska.” If he could, he says, with a bright look, he could do better work than he sees done here. It would seem happiness to him to knock off at 6 o’clock instead of working, as he now often has to do, till midnight. But how? He knows no Bohemian blacksmith who can understand him. He should starve. Here with his wife he can make a living at least. “Aye,” says she, turning, from listening, to her household duties, “it would be nice for sure to have father work at his trade.” Then what a home she could make for them and how happy they would be. Here is an unattainable ideal, indeed, of a workman in the most prosperous city! There is a genuine, if unspoken pathos in the soft tap she gives her husband’s hand as she goes about her work with a half-suppressed sigh.
–Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, New York: Dover Publications, 1971, 111–112
The second quote is by a man recollecting the experience of street life in New York City in the late 19th century:
Back in 1880, it was wise to watch where you walked. Horse-drawn trolleys provided the main form of transportation and pollution it seemed. Horses can produce 20 to 30 pounds of manure a day. Multiply that times a couple thousand, and you’ve got quite a mess. By the 1890s, electric streetcars had replaced horse-drawn vehicles, running above or below ground to avoid the crowded streets. After Henry Ford introduced his Model T car in 1908, a pedestrian soon had to dodge not only the streetcars, but also a new urban menace—the automobile. Strangely enough, paved streets came about late in the century at the urging of bicyclists, not the automobile drivers.
–“City Life at the Turn of the 20th Century,” Eye Witness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000)
Jacob A. Riis. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Dover Publications, 1971, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1890.