By 1900 streetcars were plentiful in large cities and were an accepted method of transportation about town. But riding the cars presented certain difficulties for ladies. There were, for instance, specific streetcar rules of etiquette for women. One of the primary rules was that ladies must refrain from riding the cars during peak commuting hours of the day, so they wouldn’t hinder men on their way to and from work.
Ladies’ conduct on streetcars had to be modest and lady-like at all times. Perspectives on Etiquette, an early book by Emily Post, admonished:
On the street, in streetcars, and in all public places, if your voice or conduct attracts attention you will be considered “loud,” “common,” vulgar.
That sentiment is in keeping with a scene Isabella Alden described in her book, Workers Together, where Miss Mason, the Sunday school teacher, observed one of her students, shop-girl Hester, behaving brazenly on the streetcar.
Behold, directly opposite to her, sat the girl with the queer bonnet! Queer it certainly was. Not merely the queerness of bad taste in selection, but that worst form of queerness—an attempt at being stylish, which, in this case, resulted only in a profusion of bright, cheap flowers, mingled with yards of bright ribbon of contrasting hue, so arranged that the whole effect was exasperating to refined taste. There were more serious defects about the girl than an ill chosen bonnet. She was a loud-voiced girl, who talked much and laughed much, and was altogether so very familiar with the young man in the gay neck-tie who stood before her, holding on by the strap, that Miss Mason shuddered as she listened.
Later, Miss Mason criticized Hester to the Sunday school superintendent:
“I don’t like the girl’s appearance. She is one of the loud-voiced, gay sort; converses on the street-car in a tone loud enough to be heard by all the passengers.”
If, on stopping an omnibus, you find that a dozen people are already seated in it, draw back, and refuse to add to the number; giving no heed to the assertion of the driver, that “there is plenty of room.” The passengers will not say so, and you have no right to crowd them all, even if you are willing to be crowded yourself—a thing that is extremely uncomfortable, and very injurious to your dress, which may, in consequence, be so squeezed and rumpled as never to look well again.
It is most imprudent to ride in an omnibus with much money in your purse. Pickpockets of genteel appearance are too frequently among the passengers.
If you are obliged to have money of any consequence about you, keep your hand all the time in that pocket.
No lady should venture to ride in an omnibus after dark, unless she is escorted by a gentleman whom she knows. She had better walk home, even under the protection of a servant. If alone in an omnibus at night, she is liable to meet with improper company, and perhaps be insulted.
Marion Harland’s 1914 book, Complete Etiquette advised:
One of the things that most women need to learn is the correct way of getting off a street-car, which is to step off with the right foot, facing front, which saves awkwardness in every case and sometimes, if the car starts too soon, an accident.
Why was this bit of helpful instruction so important? By 1910, women’s fashion had changed dramatically. Gone were voluminous skirts measuring three to four yards of fabric at the hemline. Instead, ladies’ skirts were close fitting with sometimes only a single yard of fabric at the hem. Called “hobble skirts”, these skirts were cinched at the ankles and often cinched at the knees.
Cartoonists lampooned the fashion, ministers decried them from the pulpit, and newspaper editors vilified women who wore them. The editor of the Monroe City Democrat in Missouri pronounced:
“Wearing a hobble skirt will make the sweetest girl resemble the stopper to a vinegar cruet.”
Women’s skirts had always posed a danger on streetcars; they got caught in doorways and their volume often blocked a woman’s view of steps and other hazards. Women often complained of the difficulty and immodesty they suffered in riding public transportation.
This newspaper photo of a lady in a wide-hemmed skirt (pre-dating the hobble skirt fashion) shows the difficulty women had climbing aboard streetcars and navigating steps that often measured 15″ to 20″ high.
But it wasn’t long before the introduction of hobble skirts had a disastrous impact on the street-car system. Cars stopped running on efficient schedules because ladies wearing the slim skirts blocked car doors while trying to hike their skirts up sufficiently to allow them to climb into the cars.
In subways, women were injured when they tried to step across the gap between the train and the subway platform and their feet slipped into the open space.
During rush hours, women who could not walk rapidly because of their skirts found themselves carried along by the force of the crowd behind them, or—even worse—pushed to the ground and trampled. In New York, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company was inundated by lawsuits from women who had been injured while entering, exiting or riding on cars.
The problem reached such a pitch that the New York transit company designed and implemented a new model of streetcar to accommodate women. Called Hobble Skirt Cars, they were constructed lower to the ground and featured one wide, sliding door set in the middle of the car. Passengers boarded by climbing a single step that was only six inches from the ground.
The car design was a vast improvement and was so successful, more cars were ordered. By 1912 New York City ran Hobble Skirt Cars up and down Broadway and the engineering trend spread across the nation.
The reinvented cars were a great relief for women, but their troubles weren’t over. Click on the link below to read an article from 1922—a time when women wore much shorter skirts with much wider hemlines. Even in 1922 ladies still struggled to use public transportation. The Evening World 1922-06-21 New York step height
All fashion plates in this post are from 1914 issues of The Woman’s Magazine.
Click here to read more about “riding the cars” and public transportation in Isabella Alden’s day.