New York Doubled the World's Office Space in the 50s. Really?

The book The Real Mad Men: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising by Andrew Cracknell starts out with a stunner of a claim.

That would be absolutely incredible if true. (And redundant, but it’s early in the book. Like page one of the first chapter early.) Personally, I don’t believe it for a second. (There are no footnotes and a short general bibliography.) New York had tens of millions of square feet of office space from the building spree that lasted throughout the 20s and into the Hoover 30s. Rockefeller Center, the one really big project that came later, added 8 million square feet all on its own. If the 50s doubled the office space just in New York I’d be amazed. The rest of the world combined? Sell me the Brooklyn Bridge while you’re at it.

But I can’t find any hard numbers for earlier time periods. Wiki gives 353 million sq. ft. of office space in 2001 for Manhattan, so that’s a maximum of some sort.

Does anybody want to put their mad search skillz to a test?

I can’t find anything definitive, but the Pan Am (now Metlife) Building was built in the late 50’s and opened in the early 60’s. That added 3.1 million sqaure feet right there. For comparison, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago has 4 million square feet, but about half of that is display and showroom space, not office space.

I can’t find square footage figures for the United Nations Secretariat building (opened 1952) but I did find something that said more than 3,000 people work there now. It’s only 39 stories tall, so it might not stick out on the skyline.

Were there any large complexes that opened during that period in the Bronx? Queens? There had to be development around the airports, right? What about the other boroughs.

I could easily see NYC as a whole doubling its office space in the 1950s (let’s say 1945-1965 just to be safe) although I agree doubling the world’s office space seems quite a stretch.

The claim is obviously and preposterously false, to an extent that shouldn’t really need backup. There must be, somewhere, surveys of office space in the U.S. in 1950 and 1960 that would readily disprove the claim.

Since I don’t have those at my fingertips, consider this. As noted above, Manhattan had 353 million sq. ft. of office space in 2001. That must have been more than New York City as a whole had in 1960. According to the Census Bureau (Table No. 1215,, the U.S. in 1995 had 599 million sq. ft. of commercial office building space constructed in 1919 or before and an additional 1,155 million sq. ft. of commercial office building space constructed in 1920 - 1945. So that shows that, just in the United States, there were in 1950 1,754 million sq. ft. of commercial office space that was constructed in 1945 or earlier and would still be in use in 1995. This excludes all space that was constructed in the 1946 - 1950 period, all space that would fall out of use between 1950 and 1995, all noncommercial office space such as government buildings, and, you know, all worldwide space that happened not to be located in the United States. And it’s still a lot more more than Manhattan had in 2001.

How could Cracknell say something so stupid? He probably had a source that had some special meaning of office space, such as skyscrapers meeting some limiting definition. That’s my best guess, anyway.

He not only said it, but it went through all the layers of editing and copyediting and proofing and apparently nobody thought to even question it. Yet it stopped me absolutely cold because anybody who could believe it must be on Crack(nell). (Sorry, Andrew, but it had to be said.)

The big things in books usually get checked by someone. The little things, the nuggets of fact or color larded in to make the prose more interesting, tend to be wrong an amazing percentage of the time. Writers who’ll check everything else will throw it a sentence based on an old urban legend or found underneath a Snapple cap and never think twice about it. It happens so often that I’ve learned not to let it affect my opinion of the big things. It just makes me fanatic about checking everything when I write.

I don’t think it is obviously and preposterously false. The nature of exponential growth means that “X grew more in period Y than in the entire history of the earth before then” is surprisingly common.

I don’t see how that follows. The use of computers, reduction in the use of secretaries and support staff, coupled with the drastic rise in the cost of real estate could easily lead to NY having less office space now than in the 50s.

It’s obviously and preposterously false because we have some knowledge of the facts ab initio. We start out knowing that in 1950 there were large amounts of office space already extant throughout the United States (including New York City itself) and in all other cities in the world. We also know that, while New York City grew in the 1950s, it did not grow to such an extent that almost all office space there dates from that period, which necessarily would be the case if the new 1950s-era New York City office space were greater than all office space worldwide in 1950. To the contrary: Other than the World Trade Center, which is from the 1970s, the largest and most famous New York developments were already in place in 1950.

We also know that development continued after 1960, so the 2001 figure for Manhattan office space seems like a plausible limit. In any case, there has not been so much contraction in the New York commercial real estate market that the 1960 figure could have been a multiple of it.

Well otherwise it looks like an interesting book.

I can think of several ways this was an unintentional conversion of some more reasonable equation. Maybe one of the editors, copyeditors, or proofers is actually responsible for changing a factual statement to something like that.

Possible but extremely unlikely. The manuscript is sent back to the author after each iteration of editing. For this to happen, two major sentences on the first page of chapter one would have to be changed by someone after the last time the author saw the manuscript. I can’t say this has never happened but the odds against are enormous.

Ok, if this was on page one, then everybody fell down on the job.

As I said, it’s at least possible. I put the information that it was on page one in my OP, but you managed to miss that.

It wasn’t hard. Maybe I’m qualified to be a copyeditor.

Didn’t it lower the bar that much of the world’s office space had recently been bombed to flinders?

A number of cities in Europe (including western Russia) and Japan certainly were bombed to bits. But many countries in Europe weren’t, Australia and New Zealand weren’t, all of South America wasn’t, Canada and Mexico weren’t. And of course, no cities in the U.S. were. I wouldn’t believe for a second that New York had more office than either set of cities, let alone all of them combined. And that doesn’t take into account all the rebuilding that was done between 1945 and 1960 in the bombed cities.

Here’s another fun bit. Later in that chapter he’s talking about the repetitive Anacin commercials "with a voice-over slamming home a product virtue - over and over again: “Four out of five doctors…”

Oops. On the facing page is the actual advertisement for Anacin, which clearly states in large print “3 out of 4 doctors recommend…”

A Google image search gives no hits at all for either “4 out of 5 doctors” or “four out of five doctors” for any real products of that era. For some reason, though, there are a million hits for parodies or people slamming ads that supposedly said " 4 out of 5 doctors." Somehow the number changed over the years in the collective memory. But all Cracknell had to do was look.*

The big problem I have with the Anacin ad - actually there are two different ones with the same omission - is the endless hype about its pain relief ingredients not found in regular aspirin. But the word caffeine is carefully never, ever mentioned.
*There’s a slight possibility that a television commercial said 4 out of 5. But I haven’t found any reference to it. And he would have needed to make the point, especially with that picture staring out at the reader.

I was thinking that too but I would think that D.C. alone would have enough office space to rival NYC. The Pentagon of course is massive.

Maybe, given the context of the book, the author means that office space for ad companies was doubled by NYC?

My bet would be “New York doubled office space used for XXXXX”.

Something that even the very best scenario would be nigh on impossible to even begin checking and verifying.

I’m getting the picture that this guy reminisced about his years in the biz and repeated the anecdotes gathered over half a century, along with the embellishments they developed over time. So yeah, maybe ad company offices, or office space doubled faster than anywhere else in the world, or it was originally “We doubled the office space in New York in the 50s”. And now years later it’s the more impressive claim that ended up in the book. I’ve known guys who talked that way, and it sounds like something one of those guys from New York would say.

On your Anacin tangent - Trident gum advertised “4 out of 5 dentists surveyed would recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chew gum.” So that may be what embedded “4 out of 5” in the public’s mind

It’s such a bold claim, I’m shocked that the author didn’t feel compelled to expand on the info. Like Exapno, I’m shocked that none of the editors asked the author for a citation to support this, and given how hard it seems to be for dopers to find any data, I’m very suspicious that there even are numbers to support the claim.

As someone who has lived and worked in NY for a long time, I know one thing: the city isn’t shrinking. Wikipedia says 25 of the city’s 100 tallest buildings have been built since 2001. Not a single one on the list was built in the 1950s.

That’s what I initially thought as well and the claim would have been more believable if they had said NY doubled the worlds office space from 1945 to 1950. By the fifties there was a massive amount of rebuilding going on throughout the war torn regions, making the claim even more suspect.

This sort of data tossed into slick articles remind me of an essay by Otto Friedrich, about how he’d write “there are x number of trees in Siberia,” just to add color to a story, not hard information; and some poor copy-editor at Time would then have to fill in for x as best as possible.

What kind of trees predominate in Siberia? How densely do these trees grow? How many square miles is Siberia? Bob’s your uncle, and now everyone one who reads Time is an expert on Siberian arboriculture.