The Trolley–A View From 1902

Jonathan’s urban planning post, and comments by Tatyana and others, reminded me of an interesting passage in Visions of Technology, by Richard Rhodes. Writing in 1902, at the dawn of the electric trolley era, Charles M Skinner recorded his impressions of that technology in an essay titled The American Will Not Live Near His Work. Some excerpts:

What are the conditions (the electric trolley car) has made?

Quicker transit, with cleaner, larger cars, heated and lighted by electricity…

The dismissal of the horse from car service, to the cheapening of that animal, the saving and cleanness of our streets, and the sparing of no end of feelings


A much up-building of suburbs and the emergence on the map of a thousand Daisy Knolls, Sparrow Parks, and Maplehursts.

An increase in the size and number of melancholy institutions called pleasure resorts, within reach of the cities; therefore, the vexation of hiterto tranquil regions by rowdies and picnic parties.

The hurt to faraway hotels, through this diversion of holiday makers to beaches and beer gardens near home


An immense increase in the capital invested in local transportation; hence, an increase in corporate and public wealth through dividends and taxes.


The lowering of our standard of public manners, due to the overcrowding of cars.

Of these conditions…that is happiest which tends to deplete the city and persuade the people into roomier, healthier districts, where factors and slums are not; where flowers and trees are many…On one point the American is determined: He will not live near his work. You shall see him in the morning, one of sixty people in a car built for twenty-four, reading his paper, clinging to a strap, trodden, jostled, smirched, thrown into harrowing relations with men who drink whiskey, chew tobacco, eat raw onions, and incontinently breathe…The problems of his homeward journey in the evening will be still more difficult, because, in addition to the workers, the cars must carry the multitude of demoiselles who shop and go to matinees. To many men and women of business a seat is an undreamed luxury. Yet, they would be insulted if one were to ask why they did not live over their shops, as Frenchmen do, or in back of them, like Englishmen It is this uneasy instinct of Americans, this desire of their families to separate industrial and social life, that makes the use of the trolley car imperative, and the street railway in this manner widens the life and dominion of the people; it enables them to distribute themselves over wider spaces and unwittingly to symbolize the expansiveness of the nation.

2 thoughts on “The Trolley–A View From 1902”

  1. Rhodes is a present-day writer who edited this book (I probably should have said “edited by”)…it is a collection of essays by various people written from about 1900 to the late 1990s, responding to then-new technologies. Lots of interesting stuff.

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