Ladies Riding Cars

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.”

There were other rules for ladies. Miss Leslie’s 1864 book, The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners gave the following instructions:

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.

Image from the February 1914 issue of The Woman's Magazine

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.

Image from the June 1914 issue of The Woman's Magazine.

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.

New York City Hobble Skirt Cars running up Broadway
New York City Hobble Skirt Cars running up Broadway from a postcard circa 1914


Close-up of a New York Hobble Skirt car
Close-up of a New York Hobble Skirt car

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.

Photo from Chicago's The Day Book dated April 10, 1912
Photo from Chicago’s The Day Book dated April 10, 1912

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.


Riding the Cars

Street-cars traversing Thomas Circle in Washington, DC in 1907
New York City looking north on Broadway in 1910.


When Isabella Alden wrote about her characters “riding the cars,” she wasn’t referring to automobiles. The “cars” she wrote about were steam cars and streetcars.

Steam cars were steam-engine locomotives, which ran between cities on rails. By the late 1800s, the period when most of Isabella’s stories take place, railroad stations were springing up in small towns and running across rural areas as fast as workers could lay the rails.


Offices of The Herald newspaper in New York City.

Like locomotives, streetcars also ran on rails, but the passenger compartments were smaller and narrower.  They were typically powered by either cable-pulley systems or electricity, but early streetcars were pulled by horses. Streetcars were common forms of in-town transportation in the early 1900s. Small, mid-size, and major cities across the country had robust street-car systems to transport riders throughout a city’s major business areas and often from one end of town to another.

Streetcars running on First Avenue, downtown Seattle.

In Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant saw her first streetcar when she arrived in Philadelphia. Her only previous experience with riding a car was a seven-hour train trip she’d taken with her mother years before. In Philadelphia, her companion led the way to the street and lifted his hand in a peculiar manner.

A man who was driving what was to Caroline the strangest-looking wagon she had ever seen, drew up his horses and the wagon came to a stand-still. It had a number of little wheels, smaller than Caroline supposed wagon wheels were ever made.

“We’ll get into this car,” he said, “and that will save us a long walk and leave us a long enough one at the other end. I often wish I lived nearer the depot, but then it wouldn’t be so nice for my children as where I am now.”

Caroline was busy with one word: “car.” But there was no engine, only two horses.

“It must be a street car.”

She had heard Miss Webster speak of them, and also Judge Dunmore, and here she was getting into one!

When Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893, horse-drawn streetcars were the norm, but by the early 1900s, streetcars became more mechanical and horse-power was replaced by cables or electricity.

04 Butte Montana 1907
Main Street in Butte, Montana about 1907.

Smaller cities and towns had streetcars, as well. This hand-colored photo from a 1907 postcard shows a streetcar running the length of Main Street in Butte, Montana.

In Judge Burnham’s Daughters, the Judge’s young son, Erskine, was very fond of riding the cars. One Sunday the Judge offered to take the family into the city to attend church at St. Paul’s, a fashionable church where the worship music was supposed to be very fine.

10 Worcester Mass Train Station
An example of a train and streetcar station. This one is in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It would have been an easy trip. From their small town the Burnhams would have ridden a steam car into the city. Upon arrival, they wouldn’t have had to leave the station to find a  streetcar to take them to the area of town by St. Paul’s church.

Busy Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1910.
Streetcar workers in New York City.

But the Judge’s wife Ruth refused to let little Erskine go because she believed it was wrong to ride the cars on the Sabbath.

“My darling, don’t you remember mamma told you how the poor men who have to make the cars go, cannot have any Sunday—any time to go to church, and read the Bible, and learn about God and heaven?”

Streetcar workers in Albany, NY.

“I know, mamma; but the cars go all the same, and the men have to work, and so why can’t we ride on them? They wouldn’t have to work any harder because we went along.”

In Ruth Erskine’s Son, the street-cars stopped at the corner of the Burnham’s residential street, where widowed Ruth Burnham lived with her son and his wife. Now an adult, Erskine Burnham took the 8:00 a.m. car to his office downtown each morning just “as surely as the sun was to rise”; and every evening he returned home by streetcar to his wife and his mother.

“I don’t suppose you two can fully appreciate what it is to me to get home to you after a stuffy, snarly day in town. I sit in the car sometimes with closed eyes after a day of turmoil to picture how it will all look. But the reality always exceeds my imagination.”

A streetcar running down a residential street in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In the evenings, his doting mother, Ruth, was able to watch for Erskine’s return from her bedroom window.

She leaned forward, presently, and watched Erskine’s car stop at the corner, and watched his springing step as he came with glad haste to his home.

In the majority of her books, Isabella Alden’s characters rode on the cars to get to work, to escape the city for a country idyll, or simply to run errands around town. But riding the cars was a little different for women than it was for men. Watch for a future post, Ladies Riding Cars, that will explore one of the unique challenges women faced while traveling on public transportation.