The Future of Cities According to Century-Old Cartoons

The Future of Cities According to Century-Old Cartoons

One of my favorite places to buy books is It acquires discarded library books and other collections that otherwise would end up in the bin, sells them and donates part of the proceedings to funding literacy. It’s a win-win-win project, not in the least for book collectors who enjoy free shipping and often bump into forgotten books that deserve some re-appreciation.

One of those items is a book called ‘Predictions – Pictorial predictions from the past’ which was published in 1956. This copy was discarded by the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library and according to the paper slip in the back, was checked out twice. Now it’s mine. The book contains a selection of cartoons as they appeared in magazines around the year 1900 such as Harper’s Weekly, Life Magazine and Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. As this is the time when skyscrapers were growing up and cities growing fast, it contains many ideas of the urban future which were mostly based on the novelties of ‘looking up’ for space. Being cartoons, they may look silly but some actually show quite the foresight. Today we’re having a look at some of these.


Captioned ‘New York in a few years from now’ this cartoon was drawn by Thomas Nast and appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1881. It predicts the future of the Trinity Church, one of the tallest structures in New York City at the time, engulfed in between very tall and very slender buildings which is off course exactly what happened. Mind you that this is two years before the term ‘skyscraper’ was used in print and nine years before the World Building trumped the spire as the world’s tallest building.It’s likely that Nast got the idea of this image from a sketch which appeared in a 1875 edition of Harper’s Magazine, as seen below.


People were certainly looking up around this time. Not only buildings were to grow taller, but also giant ‘sky machines’ would pick up people from skyscraper rooftops, as pictured in the following image which appeared in Life in 1910.


In fact, the sky would be full of them, according to this drawing from Life in 1906. Some might recognize the proliferation of drones in today’s sky.


Some creative artist thought of a system to deal with future aerial disasters, which shows skyscrapers doubling as safety net poles. This appeared in Life in 1902, which is six years before the Singer Building, as pictured, was completed.


Not only travel was taken up, but the infrastructure itself as well. Elevated roads are a well-known image of futurology, as pictured in this 1913 cartoon from Life, containing a superhighway high above the city.


This 1908 drawing from Life shows a sectional view of the city of the future. Dissecting the urban infrastructure based on the height (and depth) within the city isn’t far off from today’s world.


Even busses came in stacked form, according to this Life cartoon picturing ‘The Automobile of the Future’ in 1904.


In the future, sports would be played against the backdrop of the sky. Below is an image of the annual Harvard–Yale Regatta, which was first organized in 1852, where boats have been replaced by air-ships. (Life, 1907)


Even the World Series would be a rooftop event! (Life, 1912)


Floating cities are an idea which have been around for as long as there are cities, but never really have materialized. Below is an 1883 image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, picturing a floating city which was inspired by the great floods of 1883 which inundated the cities of Toledo, Louisville and Cincinnati.


One prediction everyone got right was the proliferation of skyscrapers. This also came with an understanding of the relativity of sizes, as shown in this pair of cartoons from 1901 in Judge Magazine, showing a recently erected statue of a great American, now and in the future.


In fact, buildings would become so tall that according to one cartoon, this was going to be the way to move around. The caption reads: “Now John, don’t you lose that parachute. It’s the only decent one I have.” This appeared in Life Magazine in 1903, which is around the time the Flatiron Building was completed, which gave rise a good number of skyscraper related cartoons.


Some predicted that buildings would become so tall and large, that light and air would become a rarity. This 1898 Life Magazine drawing was captioned “A Sunny Day in 1910”. This proved to be quite a prediction as New York passed a zoning resolution in 1916, which was to deal with these skyscraper-related issues.


Naturally, the future would have solutions for problems of the future. Below is an image from Life Magazine in 1909 of stacked country homes. The image made a cameo in the study High-Rise of Homes‘ by SITE in 1981.


Our last image is a 1911 drawing from Judge Magazine captioned ‘Aviation of the 21st Century’. Now that we are living in that century, it’s up to you to decide how far off we are.


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