Back to Top

c. 1953

Manhattan heat relief

For a record 12 consecutive days in 1953, temperatures reached the 90s. Residents turned to the fire hydrants for sweet relief.

During warm weather, a group of children leap and play in the spray from an opened fire hydrant, New York, New York, September 1953. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

If you find yourself in New York City this summer and, in the words of Billy Idol, it’s hot in the city tonight, you could consider cracking open one of New York’s 109,000 fire hydrants. One drawback — it’s against the law, and could land you in jail for 30 days, or a $1000 fine. 

Why? Because it wastes a lot of water, even reducing the neighborhood pressure, gushing out 1,000 gallons per minute. And the force of the jet is so great that it is not uncommon for children to be knocked into the path of traffic.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: If you ask, the city fire department will happily fit a sprinkler cap to a hydrant and crack it open for you, giving 12 hours of trouble-free chilling — and allowing you to cool off without being sent to the cooler.

Not that this has entirely ended the era of illegal opening. Around 20,000 complaints to the NYPD are made every year about open hydrants.

The ancestor of the NYC fire hydrant was a little more humble — a locked bucket of water on a street corner. The very first above-ground hydrant was put in place in 1808 on William and Liberty streets, and the type that today inspires photojournalists to hurriedly grab their cameras for an iconic shot first made its appearance in 1869. It has changed very little in 150 years.

Mind you, however high the temperature may or may not reach in Manhattan, it will have its work cut out if it is to compete with 1953, when these pictures were taken by photographer Peter Stackpole. For a record 12 consecutive days, between August 24th and September 4th, the mercury registered in the 90s. 

Here Stackpole shows New Yorkers seeking relief from the 1953 heat — including dowsing all in sight via a hydrant — until the cops show up.

1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole
1953
Peter Stackpole

Watch this

The best places to go leaf peeping

see more from
More
>