Tag Archives: Rail transport

The Civility of the Past – Our Ancestors’ Experiences with Public Transport

Do you commute to work using public transportation?  There’s a certain etiquette, a set of norms, that is easily observable when you are on the bus, the train, the subway, or even a plane.  There’s a prevailing thought out there that civility is a “thing of the past”.  But, was it?  Did our ancestors live in a world where people took just one seat on a horsecar, or politely inquired about the space beside a sitting passenger before sitting on the edge of their coats?  The answer is: “hardly”.

Books and articles written on etiquette can be a dry read, but they can also be a valuable and interesting source of insight into what everyday circumstances were like for our ancestors – and provide a perspective into just how little society, at least from the standpoint of social interaction, has changed in the last 120 years.  If etiquette books cautioned electric car (trolley) riders not to open the window next to them without first asking those seated behind them, then it’s likely that they did.  And, it’s also likely that the woman behind them, as her elaborately ringleted hair was assaulted by the twin furies of wind and road dust, thought of just how she would craft the next sentence of an etiquette book admonishing this.

James Henry Stark, in his Stranger’s illustrated guide to Boston and its suburbs, includes a list of horse railroad rules that had been established by the various Horse Railroad Companies of Boston by 1882:

Horse Railroad Rules:  

  • Getting on or off the front platform, riding on the steps, or talking with the driver is prohibited.
  • Never get on or off a car while it is in motion; notify the conductor, and wait until the car is stopped.
  • No disorderly or intoxicated person will be allowed to ride in the cars.
  • No smoking is allowed on the cars, excepting on the three rear seats of the open cars.
  • Full fare will be charged for children occupying seats which may be required by other passengers.
  • Articles lost in the cars may be inquired for at the offices of the different companies.
  • Peddling in the cars is prohibited.
  • No dogs allowed in the cars.
Truly, the list of rules reads eerily similarly to what might be encountered on an MBTA bus or subway car today.  A Good Housekeeping article on The Etiquette of Travel from several years later in 1889 provides similar insights, and also suggests that the behavior observed in Boston-area horsecars was not unique to just Boston.  Good Housekeeping advises that each traveler should not occupy more than one seat, fill seats around them with packages, or show a “disobliging spirit” when asked by a standing passenger to remove their things from those seats.  As I write the first draft of this post – on a rush hour commuter rail train heading into Boston – it’s obvious that this advice applies equally well to today’s public transportation ridership.
By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Horsecar outside Scollay's Building in Boston's Scollay Square

The article also tackles the issue of a group of two or three people, turning over the seat in front of them (an option still available on some of today’s commuter rail trains) and taking over a space usually available for up to four people.  If you change out today’s baseball caps for Victorian bowler hats and today’s tight-fit jeans for yesterday’s long-hemmed corseted profiles, an image emerges of later comers milling about in the aisles, unsure whether to continue standing, or force themselves into a conversation among friends, in order to sit awkwardly among them, and likely ride backwards, facing the rear of the train.  If you’ve ridden the commuter rail for any time during the cold weather months, you’ve likely endured the discomfort of an oblivious seat companion brushing beside you and abruptly sitting atop your coat.  This appears to have been equally vexing to Victorian-era passengers, maybe even more so, in an age of long dresses.

For longer journeys, perhaps the present-day equivalent of a Boston to New York City journey by train, etiquette advised our ancestors to prepare their luncheons carefully and thoughtfully so that their companions would be spared the indignity of watching them eat chicken wings or legs with their fingers.  They were also advised to throw their debris, be they peanut shells or orange peels or even chicken bones, from their open windows – since the sight of these scattered across on trolley floors or window sills was considered unsightly.

When imagining or exploring the world of the ancestors we are researching, we sometimes consider it to be far more foreign or unfamiliar than it really was.  Our ancestors commuted just as we do now and faced situations that still ring familiar today.  Civility is not truly a “thing of the past”; rather, our perception of 19th century US culture probably incorporates a greater degree of civility than what truly existed.