Two Thousand Pieces of Subway Ephemera



A bag of bullseye subway tokens. All photographs by Brian Kelley.


In 2011, the Brooklyn-based photographer Brian Kelley began collecting old MetroCards, a project that soon transformed into a zealous obsession. After scouring all of the city’s 472 stations, he widened his scope to include maps, pins, tokens, buttons, uniforms, promotional papers, and other historical artifacts. With the help of fellow enthusiasts, MTA workers, and eBay sellers, he has amassed, over the years, some two thousand pieces of ephemera. A selection appears below.

In his new book, New York City Transit Authority: Objects, Kelley tells the story of the subway’s evolution. In a moment when the subway’s future has been put into question and dissected by frequent exposés of the system’s degradation, this project offers a uniquely intimate view into its history. The transit passes and MetroCards, in particular, read like familiar texts, each inscribed with traces of their respective time and place. A pink omnibus pass from 1956, for example, contains a name field for the passenger’s husband. A test MetroCard from 1992 heralds the end of tokens. Two years later, in 1994, the MetroCards already resemble those New Yorkers use today. Later specimens from the aughts feature public-safety warnings as well as advertisements, most recently for the fashion brand Supreme. Some things never change: a flyer from 1985, when the 7 line was overhauled for repairs, shows a commuter frustration that wouldn’t be out of place today. Taken together, the objects constitute both a public record and a palimpsest, suggestive of the countless ways the city has grown, faltered, and reinvented itself over the decades, even as the structures undergirding it have remained for the most part unchanged.

A two-year accident-free certificate for the Third Avenue Transit System.

A New York City bus pass from 1956.

A time table from 1968 for Harlem Division trains.

A pin commemorating the transit strike of 1980.

A subway flyer from 1985.

A test MetroCard from 1992.

MetroCards from 1994 and 1996.

A 2012 MetroCard discouraging truancy.

A 2016 MetroCard celebrating the opening of the Second Avenue subway line.

A MetroCard featuring the logo of the fashion brand Supreme.


Published with permission of Standards Manual.