Sunday, June 7, 2020

June 9, 1860: The First Automobile in San Francisco



And on that same date: the first automobile accident in San Francisco


Sectional elevation of Barran's road locomotive, from The Practical Mechanic's Journal, September 1, 1860. This vehicle weighed eleven tons and required two operators, one steering in front, and one in back controlling the engine. (archive.org).


At 11:30 Saturday morning, June 9th, 1860, an automobile—a steam traction engine, or “steam wagon”—embarked on a test journey through San Francisco’s streets. Imported from Leeds, England, and weighing eleven tons, including its necessary water and fuel, it looked “much like a locomotive,” with four rear wheels seven feet in diameter, each with seven-inch wide tires. With an engineer in back controlling the engine, and a “pilot or helmsman” steering in the front, along with a number of (literal) hangers-on, the machine exited the Vulcan Foundry on First street in San Francisco’s industrial district, headed over to the Howard street plank-road, and chugged off to Mission Dolores, arriving in a mere three-quarters of an hour. A Daily Alta California reporter, one of the riders, breathlessly recounted that
the fuel consumed on the outward, as well as the homeward trip, was inconsiderable—a single bag of coal and a few armsfull of firewood sufficing. About two hundred and fifty gallons of water was all that was requisite for the boiler. (Daily Alta California 6/10/1860)

On the return trip, a few stops had to be made, “inasmuch as bolts, nuts and screws had to be tightened, the machinery being new, and heretofore untried.” Back in the city, the steam wagon took a victory lap through downtown, where “throngs of persons, of all ages and both sexes, crowded the streets, and expressed astonishment at the huge machine.” It then returned to south of Market, where history was made yet again—this time, with San Francisco’s first automobile accident.

This 1865 photo by Lawrence & Houseworth shows the incline on First street between Folsom and Harrison, where San Francisco's first automobile accident took place. (Online Archive of California)


Despite the general enthusiasm of the crowds, the steam wagon had encountered some hostility on its trip through the city from several drivers of horse-drawn vehicles, for instance from a bus driver who “kept the middle of the street, refusing to let the engine pass.” While the wagon was descending the steep incline of First street, from Harrison towards Folsom, the driver of a brick cart, coming up the hill and thus having the right-of-way, refused to turn aside for the ponderous locomotive. The Alta reporter described the ensuing crash:
the steersman motioned to the driver to turn out, but he shook his head and positively refused, keeping the middle of the street, and it was with great difficulty that a serious collision was avoided; as it was, there was a slight concussion which sent the bricks flying ten feet in the air.

This “slight concussion”—which sent bricks flying ten feet—appears to have been the first recorded automobile accident in San Francisco (and, possibly, in the United States). The driver of the brick cart did have the right of way, though it seems a bit reckless to have insisted on this technicality when facing down an eleven-ton, barely steerable monstrosity. In any event, the promoters of the steam wagon—much like those of autonomous vehicles today—blamed the accident on the stubbornness of old-fashioned drivers and old-fashioned technology, the Alta even threatening that
if any more gentlemen, driving brick carts, undertake to block the way, they must take the consequences, and if iron and steam gain the day, it will be a fair fight—the hardest stands the best chance of winning.

After giving up on "road locomotives," the Vulcan foundry had more success with regular rail locomotives, such as the Calistoga, produced for the Napa Valley Rail Road in May 1867. (progress-is-fine.blogspot.com)

Another demonstration of the steam wagon was made four days later, when a more skeptical reporter for the Bulletin noted that the start was delayed for over an hour while the engine “got up steam.” It finally departed the Vulcan yard after noon:
To get into the street, from the yard where it stood, the machine had to start directly up a sharp ascent. As soon as the steam was turned on, up it came, without hesitation or demur—making a scream or two, and a contemptuous puff at the difficulty. It then ran rapidly up First street towards Rincon Hill; ascended that street as far as Folsom, though the grade is pretty severe; turned round with ease, and came slowly back to its point of starting and there turned round and backed up its load, consisting of a train of freighted trucks. (Daily Evening Bulletin, 6/13/1860)

These trucks were loaded with pig iron, in order to test the engine’s strength. As soon as they were attached,
there was a scramble among the people to get standing room on the trucks. Not one inch was left unoccupied—and some men and boys were even hanging on to the axles and sides of the conveyance. The Engineer moved his lever, and the wagon started off boldly, and though it evidently felt the immense load—which must have been near 50 tons—it moved along briskly enough for a short way. Then the wheels of the iron laden truck sunk down through the cobble pavement, and soon a heap of sand and stones were piled up in front of those wheels.

The trucks had to be taken off, and the train reassembled some blocks away on the plank road, which was able to support the weight. After pulling the trucks successfully, the locomotive was hitched to a fully-loaded omnibus, which it dragged along at eight miles an hour. The Alta reporter pronounced it a success, while the Bulletin dissented, “for the present, we do not believe that the steam will run horses and mules off of our common roads.”

No collisions were reported during this second trip; however, some houses caught fire on Third street soon after the wagon passed, and some witnesses “averred with great positiveness that it was kindled by a spark from the chimney of the Steam Wagon, but by others this is denied.”

The story of this vehicle, marking San Francisco’s entry into the automotive era, has some resonance with our own time, as autonomous vehicles promise to bring us into a new, third age of the carriage. Although the design of horseless carriages had still to improve dramatically before they would be able to operate effectively in the city, we can already glimpse, with the Vulcan steam wagon, how the city would, in turn, be transformed to accommodate the automobile. Cobble-stone pavement—and even the sturdier planking—would be replaced with asphalt; and rules of street behavior and movement would be rewritten, to prioritize the needs of the heavier, faster vehicles of the auto age.

Ogden & Wilson hoped to sell many more road locomotives, but this was not to be. (Sacramento Daily Union, 1/30/1860).

The fate of the Vulcan steam wagon

Ogden & Wilson, the owners of the Vulcan Iron Works, had caught the auto bug a year earlier, when Wilson, travelling in Europe, had seen an exhbition of Joseph Barran’s new traction engine prototype. He excitedly ordered an engine of this design manufactured, by the Leeds firm of Joseph Witham and Son, and shipped to San Francisco, where it was assembled in the Vulcan foundry. Ogden & Wilson clearly imagined a great future for their import, advertising themselves as “sole agents for the sale of Barran’s Patent Traction Road Locomotive.”

These “road locomotives” were not, in fact, intended for urban use, but for hauling resources extracted from the hinterland, over terrain that animals found difficult. The engine imported from Leeds had been promised to a silver mine in Patagonia, Arizona; another engine, to be built by Vulcan on the same model, was to be sent to the Russian River to haul timber for Alexander Duncan (after whom Duncans Mills is named). This second engine, however, never seems to have been built, and at some point the Patagonia silver mine backed out of the deal for the Leeds engine, which was instead sold to Phineas Banning, impresario of the growing port at San Pedro.

If Banning's name sounds familiar, it is probably because of these dinosaurs near Banning, CA. (Wikimedia)

Banning was a showman, and seems to have bought the steam-wagon as much as a publicity stunt, as for the practical purposes of hauling freight from the port to Los Angeles. Harris Newmark, writing fifty years later, recalled the excitement with which AngeleƱos greeted the news that “The steam-wagon has arrived at San Pedro!” and how they waited, “anxiously, hourly, expecting to see Major Banning heave in sight at the foot of Main Street” in his road locomotive. The enthusiasm was finally punctured with a sad report from San Pedro:
The steam-wagon, we regret to learn, has at last proved a total failure. It was freighted at San Pedro, and on Wednesday morning of this week, set in motion for Los Angeles. The failure took place on the first piece of sandy road encountered. (Los Angeles News, 8/3/1860)

Bannings' base of operations at Wilmington harbor, San Pedro, in 1860. The steam wagon became stuck in the sand only a short distance along the eighteen-mile road to Los Angeles. (California State Library)

In the media, the steam wagon became an object of state-wide ridicule, stranded in the sand near San Pedro. One more attempt appears to have been made to put the engine to use, in the service of agriculture in San Joaquin county; this, however, turned out also to be a failure. In October, 1861, the engine was shipped back to San Francisco and to the Vulcan foundry for a last time, its most likely fate to be scrapped, and its parts used for other machinery.



The Oregon Pony, the oldest West-Coast-built locomotive engine, was manufactured by the Vulcan Iron Works in 1862 for service in Oregon. It can still be seen at the Cascade Locks Historical Museum.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A Bus Ride from North Beach to South Park in 1857

The route of the North Beach to South Park omnibus is superimposed on a 1858 US Coast Survey map of San Francisco (courtesy of Wikipedia). In 1858, 16 horse-drawn omnibuses, working for two competing companies, carried 2,400 passengers a day along this route.

This description of the sights and sounds of an omnibus ride from North Beach to South Park in 1857 was written by H.L.N., a contributor to Hutching's Illustrated California Magazine. It makes an interesting pair with the more philosophical description of a similar ride from 1859 which I posted last month.

An omnibus waiting for passengers at the Plaza. Detail of a photograph from G.R. Fardon's San Francisco Album (Bancroft)

AN OMNIBUS RIDE.

Jump in — only a shilling from North Beach to Rincon Point — the whole length of the city: twelve tickets for a dollar. Gentlemen, jump in — make way for the ladies — and, bless me! do crowd closer for the babies. One, two, three, four! actually seven of these dear little humanities. Here we go, right through Stockton Street. Four years ago this was one long level of mud in the rainy season — not such a luxury as an omnibus thought of. Tramp went the pedestrian the length and breadth thereof, thankful for side-walks. But now note the handsome private residences, the neat flower gardens, the fruit stands, the elegant stores in Virginia Block, the display in the windows both sides the way — dry goods, toys, stationery, tin ware, &c, &c.

The Cobweb Palace at the foot of Meiggs' Wharf, near where the omnibus started. (Bancroft)
But let us get in at the starting point. Leaving the promenade which makes Meiggs' wharf so pleasant of a summer morning, we step into one of the coaches, which are ready every eight minutes, according to the advertisement; run along Powell street a few squares, catching glimpses here and there of the greatest variety of architecture in the residences, and remarking upon the neatness of those recently erected; thence down a square into Stockton street, where the attention is distracted between the outside prospect and the protection of one's own limbs from the fearful thumping into divers holes which the ponderous vehicle encounters every few minutes.

Steady now — we have passed the worst part, and there is the State Marine Hospital, — quite a respectable amount of brick and mortar, patched at the rear with appurtenances of lumber, and which in its time has used up more "appropriations" than would comfortably have supported three times the number of sick within its walls. It is at present in the hands of the Sisters of Mercy.

Passengers in a London omnibus, by William May Egley, 1859. (Tate Gallery)
There! make room for the lady in hoops! only a shilling for all that whalebone! so now — let out the thin spare man, he fears suffocation — and the nervous gentleman too wants to alight; that baby has whooping cough, and annoys him. Poor bachelor! he cannot begin to comprehend infantile graces, and he votes the whole race a bore; while glancing satirically at the lady, he observes to his friend, the spare man, “Poor little sufferer, how it hoops.”

Stockton street, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft)
Rows of pretty cottages on one side the street — handsome brick buildings on the other — and at the corner of Stockton and Washington, a private garden laid out with exquisite taste and neatness. A refreshing fountain sends its spray over the blossoms of the sweet roses and verbena, while the graceful malva trees stand sentinel at the gateway. Only a passing glance, however, for the turn is accomplished, and down Washington street to Montgomery is generally a pretty rapid descent.

The Plaza (Portsmouth Square) in 1856, looking towards Washington street, along which the omnibus would have passed. (San Francisco Public Library)
That is a family market near the corner of Washington — quite convenient these — the nicest of vegetables, the best of meats, procurable at market prices. We up-towners could scarcely dispense with them. Past the Plaza — how well I remember that formerly as a receptacle for old clothes, cast off boots and shoes, cans, bottles, crockery ware, skeleton specimens of the feline race — dogs who had had their day — rats whose race was run, and various other abominations; but a treasure heap to the rag pickers, or bottle venders, who in those days were not. But now the Plaza has been smoothed into shape, and if the green things within its borders are perfected by sun and rain, it may yet flourish into grace and beauty.

Montgomery street, featuring the Montgomery Block, from Fardon's (1856) San Francisco Album (Wikipedia).
Montgomery street — look down the long avenue. Where can be found more substantial edifices? more elegant stores? a gayer promenade? Handsomely dressed ladies — gentlemen of business — gentlemen of leisure — mechanics — laborers — children— thronging the side-walks; glitter, and show, and wealth in the windows; equipages, omnibusses, horsemen, in the streets. Hundreds of human beings passing and repassing in an hour, and from almost every nation under heaven.

Montgomery Street, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft)
The Frenchman with his “bon soir” greets you; the Spaniard and Italian, the Chinese, German, Mexican. The rose, the thistle, and shamrock [i.e. England, Scotland, and Ireland] have each their representatives, and beside these many others born in remote regions are congregated in this great thoroughfare of cities.

The view up Second street from Rincon Hill towards Market; from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (Bancroft).
Past the fancifully arranged drugstores; past the tempting exhibitions of jewelry; past the attractive displays of dry goods, book and stationery establishments, banking houses, express buildings, lawyers’ offices, and here we are, turning into Second street. Whirling by the Metropolitan market, we drive down as far as Folsom street, and observe that the neat cottages in this part of the city have a more rural aspect than those in locations nearer to business. A tree is seen here and there, and vines clamber over the porches, and droop over the windows. At the corner of Second and Folsom a garden in luxurious bloom refreshes the sight, and the questioning stranger in the 'bus is informed that the house and grounds were formerly owned, and were the residence of the late Captain Folsom, whose remains now lie in Lone Mountain Cemetery.

The waterfront, viewed from Second and Folsom; from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (SFMOMA).
Adjoining this, on Folsom street, is another stately private residence — another lovely garden, where luxuriant flower growths may be seen at almost any season of the year. Nearly opposite is Hawthorne street. Ah! what associations of “Seven Gabled Houses” are connected with that name. But the eye rests upon none such — only a line of pretty cottages are peeped at ere we are driven past into Third street.

A Daily Alta California ad for one of the two omnibus companies in San Francisco (California Digital Newspaper Collection).
Another long avenue — grocery, dry goods, fruit, market — ever-recurring reminders that humanity has numberless wants, and that, for a golden boon, the supply is always equal to the demand. There are few handsome residences on Third, but many comfortable looking ones.

South Park looking west, from Fardon's 1856 San Francisco Album (SFMOMA).
South Park — a passenger stops. There is a homelike appearance in this solitary row of uniform houses, charming to one who recalls images of long streets, whose “white marble steps” have no parallel in San Francisco. But beyond us is Rincon Point — and in view of the blue waters, the omnibus stops. Nurses and babies alight, and the inquiring passenger strolls, where? Perhaps I may tell you in my next.


By the early 1860s, the omnibus line had been replaced by horse-drawn streetcars such as this one (San Francisco Public Library).


For more on the history of San Francisco transit, see San Francisco's Transportation Octopus.

See Also:

A Bus Ride through San Francisco in 1859
A New York City Cab Ride in 1840
Streetcar Wars of San Francisco History, Vol. III
The Jitney Stand at 18th and Castro in 1915
A History of San Francisco's Cab Industry, in Advertisements



Saturday, August 10, 2019

Digital Platforms, Porosity, and Panorama


I published an article in the Platform Surveillance issue of Surveillance & Society back in March, but was so busy at the time that I neglected to post it here. Here is the abstract and link to the full text online:


The concept of porosity, developed by Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, is proposed as a useful concept for examining the political, social, and economic impacts of digital platform surveillance on social space. As a means of characterizing and comparing how interconnected spaces are shaped through a diversity of interfaces, porosity bypasses a simplistic distinction between analog and digital technologies without losing sight of the actual material affordances, social and surveillance practices, and politics that these differing and interacting technologies enable. As part of Benjamin’s project of uncovering the tension between the present and the utopian visions that capitalism repeatedly invokes through new technologies, an attention to the politics of porosity can situate the effects of digital platforms within the ongoing history of struggle over the production and experience of urban space.




Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Bus Ride through San Francisco in 1859

A "Yellow Line" omnibus in front of Gilbert's Melodeon at Clay and Kearny, about 1860. Detail of a photo held by the Bancroft (Online Archive of California)


The horse-drawn omnibus was the first form of mass transit through the streets of San Francisco. This description was written by "The Dictator at the Dessert," a somewhat pompous columnist for the Hesperian, a women's journal in San Francisco.


An omnibus is a type of life. Like the stage it has its entrances and its exits. Passengers come in and go out all along the track, as humanity commences and ends its existence. At each street corner some one pulls the strap. The fee is paid, the cost of the ride is settled with the driver, and the passenger moves by you to the door, as people move to the grave. A little rustling of silk, a compression of crinoline, a staggering along between rows of people who give place to the departing, and each thinking over an obituary; the passenger goes down the steps into that great grave, the city; the door is shut, and on the omnibus moves again like life, until the next one’s time and place are reached, when the same process is re-enacted.

Meanwhile, like life, the vacant seat is soon occupied by another taken up by the wayside; and so the omnibus, like the great congregation of existence, is varying ever, never so full that there is not room for more. If you keep your seat until near, or quite to the station, like him who reaches the “three score years and ten,” the chances are that few or none of those that started with you are still your companions, and you must go down the steps alone, and no one misses you. All along the way you see new faces, and forms, and fashions; no two alike; each on a different errand, each for a different destination; some, the workers, with a little bundle, some with hard hands, some with unsoiled gloves.

Look out of the window as you ride, and life is passing you this way and that; the pedestrian who keeps abreast, or falls behind; the equestrian who dashes by your slow motion like High Flyer or Lecompte; and there, too, is the toiling drudge harnessed to his cart and heavy load, or the donkey beneath his disproportioned burden. You pass the splendid mansion and its luxurious inhabitants; you pass, too, the hovel and its squalid inmates. Your city is humanity, the street you travel is life’s avenue, along which the wheels of destiny still roll you onward. Now the late shower of prosperity may have lain in the dust, or a hot sun may have dried it, and a fresh breeze, or a squall may roll the stifling particles through the open windows—just like life. Close the windows and you stifle with pent up air, and respiration becomes a burden. Open the sashes and the chill winds comes whiffing in, full of colds, cramps, and rheumatism.

Opposite, sits beauty in satin and ribbons, and by your side, ugliness with a disagreeable breath. Here is a subject of sympathetic instinct that makes the ride pleasant, and you regret to see the fair, small hand raised to pull the string; and there is your antipathy, whose touch makes you shrink with aversion, and you bless the fortune that puts him down at the corner—just like life. I often ride in an omnibus for the lessons it teaches me, for the views I get of humanity in that democratic coach—the royal carriage of the people. There I am the equal of the millionaire, and I see him move from the noisy conveyance to the marble steps of his palace with as much indifference as I do the poor Irish servant with her bundle to find entrance to the kitchen by the side door. I listen to the vapid panegyrics of a prim gentleman, in elegant attire, as he talks morality and essays possession of exquisite taste. And I am not surprised if, when looking back after him when he has jauntingly stepped down from the ignoble car, to see him pull the bell at the door where virtue never enters—just like life.


... Yes, the omnibus is a moving panorama; a life on wheels; an age spent in a half hour’s ride; an education at a bit charge; an experience for which you hand the driver a half dollar and get as change, a ride, eight tickets, and – in the evening – a short quarter from the knavish driver. … 



For more on the Hesperian and its editor, Hermione Day, see Marion Tingling, (1980/1981) "Hermione Day and the Hesperian," California History 
59 (4):282-289. 




Thursday, April 4, 2019

Soft Cities, Old and New

Here is the abstract for the paper I'm presenting tomorrow at the AAG meeting in DC, as part of an interesting panel on Digital Urban Revolutions:

How best to theorize the “smart” or data-driven city, without fetishizing the digital-analog divide? In this paper I turn to the image of the “soft city,” invoked by Jonathan Raban (1974) as a foil to the “hard,” planned and governed city of 20th Century modernity. For Raban the soft city is the complex and mercurial lived reality which eludes governance, and even representation. David Harvey (1990) argued that the “soft city” marked a loss of faith in grand modernist narratives, and in the “hard” technologies of governance and progress (indeed, almost all of Raban’s examples of the “hard city” are Latourian immutable mobiles). Harvey denounced Raban’s subjectivism for losing sight of the power structures shaping both hard and soft cities, and thus foreclosing the potential for revolutionary critique. In recent years the image of Raban’s “soft city” has gained renewed attention by advocates of digital platforms for managing and organizing urban space, favoring “soft” regulation by software-enabled platforms (Hill 2010, Skelton 2016). Ironically, advocates for the “new soft city” express a hopeful confidence in the new soft technologies of governance that are rolling out to replace the old hard technologies which Raban originally criticized. I argue that these multiple views of the soft city—Raban’s, Harveys, and the “new soft city”—can be taken together as one ambivalent locus of discourse, what Foucault called a problematization, which situates both the liberatory potential and the dystopian perils of the digital city within a longer history of technologies and politics in urban space. 


Click here to see the abstracts for the full panel.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What A Hackman Sees


A hack rolls along 5th Avenue in 1881 (detail of a photo held by the New York Public Library).

From Glimpses of Gotham, by Samuel MacKeever, 1880:

I know a very nice fellow who drives a hack for a living. It is his own vehicle, and he naturally takes a pride in it, as he does in his horses, which are always neatly groomed.

It is his own choice that he works at night instead of daytime. He is something of a student of human character like myself, and he avers that the pursuit of the occupation is much more entertaining at night than in the garish, vulgar day.

And then again he makes more. There is always some eccentricity about people who take carriages after midnight, which is just as apt to find expression in a liberal system of payment as in any other manner.

I must be very careful to explain that my hackman, with whom I have just had a long talk, must not be confounded with those disreputable fellows who stand in with burglars. He is an honest whip, and during all the time that I have known and hired him I have detected nothing wrong in his character. I first made his acquaintance when there was an all-night eating and drinking saloon in the basement at Clinton place and Broadway. His hack stood outside.

He knows all about the disreputable members of his fraternity, however, and has told me many a story of their collusion with thieves. The burglar has frequently escaped owing to a hack being in a dark alley ready for him to jump into and bid defiance to the pursuing police.

There was a case about two years ago where a robber got away successfully with his swag owing to fleet horses, and amused himself furthermore by firing a revolver through the back window at the policemen.

The Jehu of my acquaintance haunts the railroad ferries, and generally gets a fare. One of the most mysterious that he ever had he picked up at Desbrosses street at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was a young girl from Philadelphia who took his carriage and told him to drive anywhere until daybreak. She had no baggage.

" ' But it is cold and damp, Miss. Had you not better stop at a hotel, or with some friends?' I asked her.

" She looked at me sadly—my eye, but she was pretty—and said: “ I have no friends. Drive till the sun rises. I will pay you.'

" So I did. I remember that it was down near the Battery I had gotten to by sunup. It was a Spring morning and the birds were singing, while the waves in the bay had just begun to glisten. I got down and looked in. She was dead! stone dead, with the revolver still in her hand and a purplish hole in her temple. She had so arranged a shawl and her handkerchief that the blood had not soiled my carriage a bit If it had I would not have been ruined, for she had pinned a $50 note to the lace of the coach, with a penciled line on a piece of paper, saying it was for me."

" And what did you do ?"

" I drove her to the Morgue, wondering all the while how I never heard the report of the revolver. She must have done it during the clatter made by some market wagons from Long Island that I got mixed up with. After leaving the body I informed the police. Nothing was found upon her, and the chief of police in Philadelphia could get no trace. They buried her up the river."


New York City hacks wait in front of a 5th Avenue hotel in the 1880s (detail of a photo held by the New York Public Library).

Cabby tells curious tales about the balls at the Academy. He says that he is frequently told by the gentleman, after the lady is assisted into the vehicle, to drive up to Central Park at a walk. He has then been requested to drive to High Bridge, or anywhere else. Sometimes on these occasions the most violent scenes take place, and one night the woman screamed to him for assistance. It was at a lonely place on the Kingsbridge road, and about 3 AM. He halted his horses, jumped down and opened the door; the young woman, who was costumed as a page beneath a pink domino and mask, springing out almost into his arms, begging him to protect her.

" That I certainly would. I then asked what was the matter, but got no satisfaction. She cried and he laughed. It was easy to surmise, however. I ordered him from the carriage, and then put her back, she telling me where to go. I left him standing in the road in his full dress suit, calmly smoking a cigarette ! The lady lived in a swell house near the Windsor. She made me come around the next day and gave me $10, although I had been paid for the night's work by the Lothario in the dress suit."

" Have you never gotten in trouble about these mysterious night fares?"

" Once only. A young man picked me up on Broadway and took me way over to Hoboken. We stopped at a house from which a young woman, all muffled up, and so weak that she had to bo carried, was brought out. I suspected something wrong then, but I was younger than I am now and the night was wasted, and I resolved to stick it out. They had me drive to a place in Grand street—a disreputable-looking house, with a light burning in the second-story window. I got a glimpse of the young woman's face as the young man and an old lady helped her out. It was pale as death. She turned her head, and seemed to look right at me as if asking for aid. An old wretch in a skull-cap came to the door with a lamp.

" It was an abortion case, of course. The girl died, and when they advertised for the hackman I drove down and gave myself up. I believe that the old man got ten years. The young one jumped the town, and I never heard of his being caught."

He told me a great many more curious things; how an old gray-bearded man took him at Courtlandt street ferry once, and it was a young, smooth-faced fellow who got out at the Grand Central Depot, where he had been told to go.

On another occasion a veiled lady, carrying a baby, hired him to catch the midnight Washington express. He caught it, but when he opened the door the woman was missing, and the baby, tucked up in a corner, was all that remained. He turned it over to the police. The woman must have jumped out while he was going at full speed. In the case of the old man, my cabby thinks he was a criminal, fleeing from justice, who used the cab as a dressing-room in which to remove his disguise.



See also:




Friday, November 9, 2018

“The Bonds of Telegraphy:” class and gender politics of the urban telegraph

Advertisement for American District Telegraph, by Schmidt Label Co., San Francisco; early 1880s. (Image courtesy of the Bancroft)

I'll be presenting a paper on the urban telegraph this weekend at the Social Science History Association meeting in Phoenix. Here is the abstract:

Despite the well-worn analogy of the early telegraph as a “Victorian internet,” the story of the intra-urban telegraph—which might be called a “city-wide web”— has been almost completely neglected. In the 1870s, the American District Telegraph Company developed a dial-based interface that simplified the use of the telegraph, making possible a network connecting the businesses and homes of wealthy subscribers to a city of services. The interconnectivity provided by the urban telegraph promised both to transform urban space in the bourgeoisie’s image, and to professionalize the occupations—messengers, firemen, police, and hackdrivers—whose services were ordered through the telegraph callbox. More than simply a communication device, the urban telegraph promised to alter the class and gender constellations of advantage and disadvantage relating to public space and mobility.

This paper will focus on how the urban telegraph realigned advantage and disadvantage for both customers and workers, in particular though the provision of dispatched hack service. Telegraph dispatch increased the disadvantage of working-class hackdrivers vis-a-vis their wealthy customers, by constraining drivers’ movements, behavior, and control over the negotiation of fares and acquisition of passengers. At the same time, the urban telegraph brought new advantages to women customers, whose access to public space and mobility were increased, though not without controversy. Although the urban telegraph was quickly supplanted by the spread of the telephone, its story provides insight into the ongoing search for technological fixes for the complicated class and gender politics of urban space.