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1904 Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) map (all images via nycsubway.org)

Municipal signage and schematics, as design firm Pentagram’s recent work on New York’s beach and parking signage attests, can play a significant role in (re)defining the character of urban space. Subway maps similarly develop an aesthetic character that transcends their function, as in the London Underground pamphlet released last week designed by the artist Rachel Whiteread.

Though ultimately utilitarian, these textual and visual signs, symbols, and graphics form a vernacular urban directory, a tangible expression of the city’s identity. Over time, such artifacts can serve to document a collision of disparate forces at the intersection of geography, politics, and sensibility.

Fortunately, an independent online repository called nycsubway.org collects New York’s historical transit maps and schedules, offering a collection ranging from the late 19th century to the present. Here are a few highlights.

1906 IRT map – Manhattan South

1924 BMT system map

1937 system map

1939 system map

1959 system map

1966 system map

1964 World’s Fair system map

The world famous 1972 system map designed by Massimo Vignelli.

More maps can be viewed on the Historical Maps page at nycsubway.org.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.