Though you and I are only familiar with a single MTA map, dozens of other maps have attempted to make the NYC subway, er, reasonably comprehensive over the years. It's hard to imagine that the 1, 2, and 3 lines weren't always red, or that the L was once known as the "16 Line," which is what makes these old maps so fun to peruse.
The subway map we all know today is loosely based on a famous 1972 design by Massimo Vignelli, an Italian-American designer whose gem-colored diagram eschewed geographical honesty for visual clarity. At the time, Vignelli's elegant Modernist diagram pissed a lot of New Yorkers off. "A lot of people love it," he said thirty years later. "And a lot of people hate it, too, by the way." Eventually, the map was replaced with the slightly more realistic version we know today. But Vignelli's Helvetic-swathed iconography still graces everything from shirts and mugs to tattoos and children's books.
So what did the New York subway system look like before our current tan-and-rainbow map emerged? Well, for one thing, it appeared far denser and more difficult to read. But those early maps also held a mirror up to the technological and design currents in the world at large. The ways in which information was conveyed were changing rapidly in the first half of the 20th century: From the way printing presses worked, to the development of san serif typefaces, to a revolution in how graphic designers thought about communicating through images.
All of that is writ large in these subway maps from NYC Subway's archives. They're accompanied by the covers of each map, courtesy of the awesomely comprehensive website Subway.Ru (brought to our attention by Untapped Cities). Check them out below—but first, a GIF.
The MTA also started publishing "night" maps, which have a darker color scheme to denote the change from day to evening service. They're notable for their commissioned artist covers, too: