The Byron Collection at the Museum of the City of New York is an archive of 22,000 photographs taken by The Byron Company—a prominent New York photography studio—between 1890 and 1942. The Byron photographers took as its subjects all manner of social life in and around New York; the collection includes private subjects (family portraits and home photographs), but the bulk of the collection documents public life and public institutions.
While the collection extends to 1942, the majority of images are from the turn of the last century, between the 1890s and the 1910s. The finely detailed visual quality of silver gelatin prints lends a hauntingly "real" quality to the images, which does justice to the frames crowded with numerous people and objects; in their enlarged state, especially if screened in a classroom, these photos not only attract attention, they almost demand it.
One of this collection's strengths is its documentation of institutions created during the Progressive Era to serve children. An abundance of photographs portray scenes at the Children's Aid Society, the Emanuel Lehman Foundation for crippled children, the New York Foundling Hospital, the New York Association for the Blind, and various other schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Viewers can see interior images demonstrating the daily activities of the children in these institutions. Even the titles of these organizations are sometimes worthy tools in the study of history: "The School For Feeble-Minded Children" is a noteworthy relic of a time before Americans became concerned with sensitive language.
Another strength of the Byron Collection is its images of children at a variety of schools – exercising, studying, performing in theatrical events, and going on field trips. These photos include religious as well as secular schools. Besides the many neatly-posed photos of Sunday School classes from both Catholic and Protestant churches, there are some more candid photos that attest to the role of churches in teaching life skills; one photo, for example, shows children practicing sewing at St. Thomas' Chapel.
Unfortunately, the site's navigation system leaves a lot to be desired. Viewers have the option of searching the collection for "keywords," or of browsing a pre-selected sampling of subjects categorized by the museum (each subject, in that browsing function, includes a scant 20-30 pictures). More results will surface in the search function, but there is no index or site-map to show, at a glance, all the categories of available images. This lack of an index is one factor that makes the Byron Collection far less user-friendly than the Library of Congress's photograph collections.
The Byron Collection – with its wealth of photos of all social classes in a wide variety of circumstances and activities – is a valuable resource for studying the history of one of the most dynamic times and places of modern U.S. history. With enough preparation (and bookmarking), teachers can adapt this extensive resource to lessons on urban America the late 19th and early 20th centuries.