"New York Street Railroad Cars - What We Are Coming To"

March 23, 1867

artist unknown

"New York Street Railroad Cars - What We Are Coming To"

New York City, Transportation; Transportation, Streetcars;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicts the persistent problem of overcrowding on New York City’s public streetcars. The artist envisions passengers hanging from straps on the side of the car, as more people jump aboard the already packed railroad car.

In 1831, a horse-drawn vehicle called an omnibus was introduced into use in New York City as a means of public transportation. The next year, the New York and Harlem Railroad Company inaugurated the street railway, a horse-drawn railroad car (as seen in this cartoon). The first trip, from Prince Street to 14th Street, transported 30 passengers at a rate of seven to 12 miles-per-hour. The use of railroad tracks made the ride smoother, more stable, closer to the ground, and less of a burden on the horses. Initially, the omnibus was more economically feasible, but the construction and use of street railroads began expanding rapidly in the 1850s, so that by 1858 the five major street railways in New York City carried almost 35 million passengers per year.

When this cartoon appeared, Henry Bergh, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was urging the New York legislature to enact a bill he had drafted to limit the number of passengers traveling at one time on streetcars and omnibuses. A Harper’s Weekly editorial, entitled "Cruelty to Bipeds," endorses Bergh’s bill: "Whether it is his chief intention to relieve the cruelty to the animals inside or outside of those carriages is not stated, but the passage of his humane bill will be of the greatest service to both. Passengers are now packed into cars like fish in barrels." It was not uncommon for railroad cars, which were built to accommodate 32 riders, to carry 60 or more during rush hour, making a trip from Third Avenue to Wall Street last 90 minutes. The editor rejects the companies’ excuses, and calls for the legislature to "stand between the people and these vast monopolies or we shall be oppressed without remedy."

Another of the newspaper’s columnists describes the brutal contest for space on the street railroad cars. He explains that at the close of the business day, people rush for all the cars, filling the seats before the uptown trip begins; yet, each car continues to squeeze in passengers at every stop. "Where your lot is cast there must you remain fixed and immovable! … The human freight … are matted together … the monotony of misery is only varied by the sudden lurch of humanity forward and backward, and the agonizing extrication of some unfortunate from the interwoven mass." As a warning of the dangers, he reports the recent collapse of a car floor which held about 50 or 60 riders.

The journal also published a poem on the problem:


Never full! pack ‘em in!

Move up, fat man, squeeze in, thin.

Trunks, Valises, Boxes, Bundles,

Fill up gaps as on she tumbles.

Market baskets without number,

Owners easy—nod in slumber.

Thirty seated, forty standing,

A dozen more on either landing.

Old man lifts the signal finger,

Car slacks up—but not a linger—

He’s jerked aboard by sleeve or shoulder,

Shoved inside to sweat and moulder.

Toes are trod on, hats are smashed,

Dresses soiled—hoop-skirts crashed.

Thieves are busy, bent on plunder,

Still we rattle on like thunder.

Packed together, unwashed bodies,

Bathed in fumes of whisky toddies;

Tobacco, garlic, cheese, and beer

Perfume the heated atmosphere.

Old boots, pipes, leather and tan,

And if in luck, a "Soap-Fat man."

Aren’t this jolly? What a blessing!

A Street-Car Salad, with such a dressing.

But the separate efforts of Harper’s Weekly and Henry Bergh were unsuccessful. Four years later, in 1871, the newspaper published an illustrated story of Bergh’s attempt to convince a streetcar driver not to overload his car. When the driver refused to heed the plea, Bergh blocked his path, causing a massive traffic jam. The company agreed to replace the two horses with four-horse teams.

For more information on New York’s streetcars, see the archive for the Harper’s Weekly cartoon of January 22, 1887, " Shake Sharp Next!"

Robert C. Kennedy

"New York Street Railroad Cars - What We Are Coming To"
December 6, 2023

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