Most everyone knows Times Square as the place where more than a million people come every December 31 to watch the ball drop and welcome the new year.

But the attraction of this Manhattan crossroads is more than one night only. The role that Times Square plays in America’s largest city has been well captured by the pictures taken by LIFE photographers over the decades.

Times Square was given its name on April 8, 1904, soon after the New York Times set up offices nearby. It developed into the glitziest spot in the city, thanks to its abundance of entertainment spots and neon billboards.

The photos here capture the excitement and the hubbub, the celebrations and the showplaces. One of the most jarring pictures in the collection is in fact a rare photo of Times Square looking quiet and serene, thanks to a taxi strike that left its boulevards nearly free of traffic. (The idea of Times Square without people later became the centerpiece of a nightmare sequence in the 2001 Tom Cruise movie Vanilla Sky.)

The collection includes two celebrity portraits. One is a natural for the location: playwright Moss Hart and his wife, actress Kitty Carlisle. The other is of Robert Redford at the time when his career was taking off thanks to his performance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the photo is memorable for the way the actor’s Western aesthetic contrasts with the gritty backdrop of Times Square in 1969.

One of the most famous photos in the history of LIFE magazine was shot in Times Square, on a day when the space erupted in spontaneous celebration. It was 1945, and Japan was about to surrender, bringing an end to World War II. One exuberant man was going from woman to woman, planting his lips on them (and he was far from the only one doing so) when LIFE’s Albert Eisenstadt took the picture known as “The Kiss.” The photo has had a problematic afterlife, as a woman claiming to be the nurse in the photo came forward to describe the kiss as terrifying from her perspective, but the image nonetheless captures the national mood at the long-awaited end of World War II.

The crowds that day indicate the particular hold of Times Square on the civic imagination. It’s the place where people magnetically streamed because something important had happened, and they wanted to share the experience with others.

White Collar Girl Photo Essay, 1940

This photo is from a staged essay from 1940 on the “White Collar Girl,” the subject of the best-selling novel Kitty Foyle that was later adapted into a movie; here Carol Lorell, who resembled the movie’s star, Ginger Rogers, portrayed a scene in which the White Collar Girl, alone amid the glitz of Times Square, had finished her workday and was unsure to do with the rest of her evening.

Alfred Eisenstaedt The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Times Square on Dec. 31, 1941.

Gordon Coster/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Partiers in New York City on New Year's Eve, as 1941 turns to 1942.

Times Square in New York City on New Year’s Eve, as 1941 turned to 1942.

Gordon Coster The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Partiers in New York City on New Year's Eve, as 1941 turns to 1942.

Military police in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, as 1941 turned to 1942.

Gordon Coster The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The motorcade of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved through Times Square, 1944.

William Vandivert/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A Times Square billboard for the Broadway show Mexican Hayride, 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Times Square billboard, 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Pigeons and loiterers (visitors) gathered in cement island in the middle of Broadway in Times Square, 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Customers peered at the wares inside a small, brightly-lit Times Square watch shop, 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Times Square, 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A strolling blind musician plays guitar and harmonica along Broadway at night in the Times Square Area in 1944. "Mr. Skeffington" is playing at the Selwyn Theater across the street.

A strolling blind musician played guitar and harmonica along Broadway at night in Times Square in 1944.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Times Square, 1944.

Andreas Feininger/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Times Square, 1944.

Andreas Feininger/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Servicemen made calls to faraway family and friends from booths at the GI phone center in Times Square, 1944.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Sailors looking for fun in a curfew-closed Times Square. (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Sailors looked for fun in a curfew-closed Times Square.

(Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

William C. Shrout The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

William C. Shrout The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

V-J Day celebrations in Times Square, August 14, 1945.

William C. Shrout The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

V-J Day

V-J Day kiss, Times Square, Aug. 14, 1945.

Alfred Eisenstaedt The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Times Square was uncharacteristically quiet during a 1949 taxi strike.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Traffic congestion on Broadway looking north from 45th Street in Times Square, 1954.

Andreas Feininger/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Times Square, February 1954.

Andreas Feininger/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The cast of ballet Fancy Free danced in the middle of Times Square, 1958.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Playwright Moss Hart with his wife, actress Kitty Carlisle, in Times Square, 1959.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Robert Redford in Times Square, between meetings, 1969.

Robert Redford in Times Square, between meetings, 1969.

John Dominis The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Robert Redford hails a cab in Times Square

Robert Redford hailed a cab in Times Square. Just a few blocks away, at the Biltmore Theater on 47th Street, was where the actor got his first major notices as the star of Neil Simon’s 1963 Broadway play, Barefoot in the Park.

John Dominis The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The stroke of midnight began a new year, new century and new millennium as people celebrated in Times Square on Jan. 1, 2000.

Ted Thai/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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