We grow up with versions of this story, but it’s an invention. That’s not to say that it’s all wrong—it’s not. It’s about half right. But because the omissions are selective, they distort. The story is called “the American love affair with the automobile.” The metaphor is so common that Google autocompletes “American love affair w” with it, above all alternatives. The expression seems to be a naturally evolved figure of speech that grew unaided from the fertile soil of conventional wisdom.
In fact, the expression was introduced to millions all at once, on the evening of October 22, 1961. Hosting an episode of NBC’s Sunday program DuPont Show of the Week, Groucho Marx explained to television viewers that the history of the automobile in America was the history of a “burning love affair”—a “romance” between American men and “the new girl in town.” The episode was called “Merrily We Roll Along.” DuPont, which owned a 23 percent share in General Motors, promoted this “affectionate report” as “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.” The expression endured.
In Groucho’s story, as in many others like it, the ubiquity of the automobile was the consequence of a consumer preference in a free economy. In 1961, the automobile was enduring intense criticism for ravaging American cities, for killing tens of thousands of Americans a year and for contributing to smog and roadside blight. The story defended the automobile not so much by denying these costs as by justifying them.
But those who look before “Merrily We Roll Along,” in the historical record the 1910s and 1920s have left to us, will find a different story, especially in cities. Archives, newspapers and contemporary photographs tell us that when automobiles began appearing in streets in the first two decades of the century, there was no love lost between them and typical city people. It was not love at first, second or third sight.
Streets at the beginning of the twentieth century were public spaces. They were not the special province of any single class of street user. No lines marked the pavements, no traffic signs or signals regulated vehicles. While pedestrians preferred sidewalks, they strode freely into the street wherever they pleased. Indeed, street design practically invited pedestrians to enter them anywhere. The tracks of street railways followed the centerlines of streets. Passengers boarded and alighted along these tracks in the middle of the street, crossing to and from the sidewalk directly. Cyclists, pushcart vendors, and children used streets freely. When police tried to limit street play, many parents objected. In 1915, New York City police tried arresting “small boys who have recklessly defied the perils of crowded thoroughfares,” but they soon desisted because “it frightened and shamed the child and angered his parents and guardians.”
Motorists were expected to conform to the street as it was. Above all, this meant driving slowly. Speed limits in cities averaged about 10 mph; often drivers were expected to slow down even more at intersections. Speed limits were very difficult to enforce, but there were other ways to slow cars down. In the 1910s, for example, most cities installed posts called “silent policemen” in the centers of intersections. Motorists turning left were expected to keep the post to their left as they turned. The maneuver required a very small turning radius—small enough to compel the car to slow down nearly to a stop. The regulation favored pedestrians; when cars turned on a large radius they approached nervous street-crossers from behind. Silent policemen helped preserve the street for pedestrians at the expense of motorists. They were a visible sign that streets were not really for cars; cars could use them if they behaved like the slower vehicles that preceded them.
Hence physical infrastructure—such as streetcar landings and silent policemen—reinforced the status quo. But mental infrastructure was even more hostile to cars. By prevailing norms, the car, used as intended, was a misuser of streets. Car crashes made these norms plainly visible. Given the complex mix of street uses of a century ago, it is no surprise that cars were often involved in crashes. What’s more surprising is the allocation of blame. By far the most common serious crash was a motor vehicle striking a pedestrian. No matter where the pedestrian was, however, the driver was almost automatically blamed. Pedestrians ridiculed fast drivers as “joy riders.” If such a driver struck a pedestrian and was apprehended, jurors were quick to condemn him. “Juries in accident cases involving a motorist and a pedestrian almost invariably give the pedestrian the benefit of the doubt,” a safety expert explained in 1923. Newspapers joined in the blaming; motorized grim reapers rivaled Uncle Sams in their frequency in editorial cartoons. Letters to the editor pages were crowded with vilifications of motorists for menacing pedestrians; few rose to drivers’ defense.
The most poignant signs of such routine blaming of motorists were found in the traffic safety campaigns that swept American cities in the late teens and into the middle 1920s. As the motor vehicles proliferated, so did traffic casualties. Between 1920 and 1928, the traffic death toll doubled to about 26,000 a year. In cities, most of the fatalities—often three fourths of them—were pedestrians. And among the pedestrians, about half were children and teenagers. The most visible response was “No Accident Weeks” and similar safety campaigns. Though modeled on the industrial safety movement of the 1910s, such campaigns took on a character of their own. City people, furious at automobiles and terrified for children’s safety, demonized cars. In safety parades, floats featured flatbed trailers bearing wrecked automobiles with a devil at the wheel. Many cities dedicated memorials to child crash victims. Though temporary mock-ups, these monuments were made to imitate war memorials and were dedicated in large, elaborate and solemn ceremonies. The memorials exonerated children and their parents; they were the innocent victims and were regarded as public losses. The blame lay with automobiles and their drivers.
People interested in a future for cars in cities—especially local auto clubs, but also auto dealers, taxi companies and others with an interest in motor vehicles—perceived a threat. As long as crashes remained frequent and drivers bore the blame for practically all pedestrian casualties, such organizations could not improve the car’s image. In an effort to prevent crashes, these groups joined in the public safety campaigns of the 1910s and early 1920s—urging motorists to drive with caution, and urging greater caution among pedestrians. But such efforts could not legitimize motorists’ claim to the street. The more visionary among the car’s advocates agreed with Charles M. Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club. To fend off “unbearable restrictions,” Hayes said, people would have to learn that “the streets are made for vehicles to run upon.” This was a radical proposal in 1920.
To shift blame from motorists to pedestrians, such groups sometimes tried embarrassing pedestrians who crossed the street however they pleased. In such efforts, a term of ridicule was needed. Between 1909 and 1911, the term jay walker—an insult comparing free-roaming pedestrians to boorish fools—began to reach print. In the succeeding years, jay walker became a tool in an effort to redefine streets. It implied a new answer to the question “What is a street for?”—an answer that packed a sting. Auto clubs and dealers promoted the term. In 1912, Kansas City, Missouri, approved an ordinance banning “jay walking.” The rule seems not to have been a great success; pedestrians insisted on their rights. An observer noted that “pedestrians, many of them women” demanded “that police stand aside;” in one case “women used their parasols on the policemen.” Elsewhere ridicule alone was tried. In December 1913, in Syracuse, New York, a department store Santa Claus used a megaphone to call out “jay walkers.” But the technique was very controversial. Jaywalker’s successful entry into the English language did not come easily. In a 1915 editorial, the New York Times denounced “jay walker” as “highly opprobrious” and “a truly shocking name.” Any attempt to arrest pedestrians would be “silly and intolerable.”
Streets at the beginning of the twentieth century were public spaces. They were not the special province of any single class of street user.
But auto clubs, dealers, and other local interest groups continued to promote the epithet. In at least a few cities from 1920 to 1922, Boy Scouts were recruited to hand out cards to pedestrians who crossed as they pleased. There was no official penalty, but the cards sternly warned pedestrians against “jay walking,” and they defined the term—indicating that it was still little known. In Michigan, the Grand Rapids Herald reported that through such a campaign, “thousands of people who never knew what jaywalking meant have learned the meaning of the word.” Some pedestrians were offended; a New Yorker objected to the distribution of such “rebuke cards.” In other cities, jaywalking was ridiculed in safety parades. Boorish clowns marked as jaywalkers drew laughter; in a New York City parade, a clown was repeatedly rear-ended by a slow-moving Model T, to the amusement of crowds.
In 1923, the stakes went much higher. In Cincinnati, where voters could put initiatives on the ballot in city elections, 42,000 people signed a petition for a city ordinance that would compel drivers to install a mechanical speed governor that would limit cars to 25 mph. Speed governor rules had been proposed before, and seemed to many a far more effective cure for speeding than ordinary speed limits. Nowhere else, however, did such a proposal get so far as in Cincinnati. Local automotive interest groups were alarmed; speed governors threatened to negate the car’s chief advantage. To fight the initiative they organized as never before, and recruited the help of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (NACC), the industry’s leading trade association. Together, through a massive publicity effort, they fought—and crushed—the vote-yes campaign.
The initiative was a turning point. Automobile advocates had been a diffuse constellation of local organizations. In 1923 and 1924, responding to threats to their image, to restrictive regulations and to the Cincinnati speed governor initiative, they organized nationally, cooperating in a common effort. Sometimes calling themselves “motordom,” they worked together to advance their causes—including the redefinition of streets as places where cars belong, and where pedestrians bear responsibility for their own safety.
According to NACC’s George M. Graham, an auto manufacturer, the lesson of Cincinnati was that “pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights.” To spread the word, motordom launched innovative new projects. Recognizing one of its biggest obstacles as newspapers, which routinely blamed motorists for pedestrian traffic casualties, NACC offered a service to them. NACC gave editors blank forms on which to fill in details about each traffic accident. Newspapers sent the completed forms to NACC, which drew its own conclusions from them. NACC sent its reports back to the newspapers, which presented them as authoritative. By so doing, NACC’s plan was to “make the newspaper a clearing house” for its “safety suggestions,” and newspapers would “be influenced … to give greater publicity to the real causes of traffic accidents.” NACC was confident it could use the “clearing house” to show that “In a majority of automobile accidents the fault is with the pedestrian rather than with the automobile driver.” Within a year, newspapers in about 300 cities and towns participated, gathering data for NACC to assemble and interpret. In the resulting reports for 1924, NACC blamed pedestrians far more often than drivers, and did not refrain from use of the controversial epithet jaywalker.
By the fall of 1924, the character of newspaper coverage of crashes had changed enough to catch the notice of people unaware of NACC’s service. With some exaggeration, the magistrate of New York City’s traffic court, Bruce Cobb, commented that “it is now the fashion to ascribe from 70 to 90 per cent of all accidents to jaywalking.” Newspapers’ use of the term had indeed risen sharply; indeed in 1924, jaywalker entered a standard dictionary for the first time. Under the new logic of traffic safety NACC promoted, pedestrian casualties were to be solved by spreading the word: streets are for cars. Free-range pedestrians are jaywalkers. Nevertheless, jaywalker remained a controversial label. In motordom’s tireless promotion of the word, Cobb smelled a rat. “I am not sure but that much of the blame heaped upon so-called ‘jaywalkers’ is but a smoke screen,” he said, “to hide motordom’s own shortcomings, as well as to abridge the now existing legal rights of the foot travelers on our streets.”
In another national project, motordom capitalized on a local success in Los Angeles. There, the Auto Club of Southern California and its allies drafted and secured passage of a new traffic ordinance in 1924 that regulated pedestrians, in effect outlawing jaywalking. Though a similar regulation had been attempted in 1919, this time local motordom, ably led by E.B. Lefferts, got it right. Instead of insisting on enforcement, Lefferts asked that for a year police not arrest jaywalkers, but only blow a whistle at them, take (or even carry) them back to the curb, and otherwise embarrass them. “The ridicule of the fellow citizens,” Lefferts explained, “is far more effective than any other means.”
Motordom saw the Los Angeles ordinance as a model for the nation, revised it, secured the support of the U.S. Department of Commerce for it and presented it to the nation in 1927 as the “Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance.” Within a year, more than 100 cities had adopted it, and it continued to spread. Meanwhile, the American Automobile Association (AAA) launched a massive school safety education effort, giving schools across the nation free safety materials and sponsoring school safety patrols. In its safety curricula and safety patrol training, AAA’s message was consistent: “the street is for autos.” Children pledged to cross streets carefully.
In American cities in the 1910s and 1920s, the automobile was not welcomed, there was no “love affair” with it, and change was not driven by consumer demand. Local automotive interest groups and national motordom had no confidence that consumer demand was sufficient to secure the car’s urban future.
This history matters. It offers a rebuttal to claims that we have to accept the automobile’s priority even in cities, on the grounds that it is an expression of mass preference or the product of a natural evolution. It is also a signal to those who seek change. It suggests that changes in mental infrastructure must accompany changes in physical infrastructure, and that mental infrastructure can be changed. Almost a century ago, motordom found inventive ways to change prevailing notions about the use and abuse of streets. Today, organized advocates of change can take heart from the example. If motordom could change minds about what streets are for, perhaps advocates of change can do so again.
Peter Norton is the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press, 2008) and a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.
This article is adapted from other work by the author: “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” Technology and Culture 48 (April 2007), 331-359; Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press, 2008); and “Of Love Affairs and Other Stories,” for inclusion in (In)complete Streets, edited by Steve Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman (Routledge, forthcoming). Documentation is excluded here for readability; full documentation is provided in the three works referenced above.