Elevators first arrived in America during the 1860s, in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where they served as a plush conveyance that saved the well-heeled traveler the annoyance of climbing stairs. It wasn’t until the 1870s, when elevators showed up in office buildings, that the technology really started to leave a mark on urban culture. Business owners stymied by the lack of available space could look up and see room for growth where there was previously nothing but air—a development that was particularly welcome in New York, where a real estate crunch in Manhattan’s business district had, for a time, forced city leaders to consider moving the entire financial sector uptown. Advances in elevator technology combined with new steel frame construction methods to push the height limits of buildings higher and higher. In the 1890s, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago. By 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York, still one of the one-hundred tallest buildings in the United States as well as one of the twenty tallest buildings in New York City. "If we didn't have elevators," says Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Museum in New York, "we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall."
But the elevator did more than make New York the city of skyscrapers, it changed the way we live. “The elevator played a role in the profound reorganization of the building,” writes Andreas Bernard. That means a shift from single-family houses and businesses to apartments and office buildings. “Suddenly . . . it was possible to encounter strangers almost anywhere.” The elevator, in other words, made us more social — even if that social interaction often involved muttered small talk and staring at doors. Elevators also reinforced a social hierarchy; for while we rode the same elevators, those who rode higher lived above the fray. "It put the “Upper” into the East Side. It prevented Fifth Avenue from becoming Wall Street," writes Stephen Lynch. "It made “penthouse” the most important word in real estate.""