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Episode No. 15 – Streetcars Seize the Streets (Companion Blog)

One of the things I was really curious about when I started this series was how we came to prioritize vehicles over people in the street. For a brief time during the pandemic, many people were wondering why we had turned over so much of our city to cars. Why did people on small alley streets have to make way for anyone in a car? When did we lose the right to use the street?

Many people point to the coming of the automobile. And there is definitely truth to this. But the automobile just completed a long-term effort to get people out of the street.

Others have blamed the bicycle. Again, the bicycle did play a part. In the late nineteenth century, cycling was extremely popular with the upper classes. They formed influential wheelmen clubs that petitioned government to have streets paved with smooth asphalt, instead of granite block pavers. They literally paved the way for the automobile, which arrived a few decades later.

But Michael Kahan argues that it was the coming of rails on urban streets in the mid-nineteenth century that really got things started. Freight rails were laid down on city streets first, but only on a few streets. It was the lighter, horse-drawn streetcar rails that really claimed the street for traffic. Because streetcars went everywhere.

The 1862 Smedley atlas of Philadelphia shows the delicate rail lines of the horse-drawn streetcar running to the Frankford Arsenal in Bridesburg in the northeast, down past the nurseries and lumber yards of Moyamensing to the south, connecting with the town of Darby to the southwest, fanning out across the growing suburbs of West Philly, and reaching into the industrialized areas of Manayunk and Germantown in the northwest. (Explore the 1862 Smedley maps at

As the streetcar rails were being built in the streets, people protested and sued in the courts. The legal battles over the right to the street were won by city and state governments, who were given control over what happened within this public space. Governments were given the power to grant charters to private companies for public improvements, like streetcars. Older street traditions of working and socializing in the streets were made criminal, subject to fines.

It was really the railroad, and especially the ubiquitous streetcar, that made traffic a top priority over the use of streets for everyday life.

Bachman’s birds-eye view of Philadelphia, looking west from the Delaware River, in 1850. Admire the variety of vessels gliding and churning through the waterway. Note the market sheds running down the center of Market Street on the right. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Railroad lines (dashed white lines) and depots (red asterisks) highlighted on the 1855 Barnes Map of Philadelphia, and adjacent parts of New Jersey. The gray box indicates Center City. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Merchant’s Exchange building at 3rd and Dock Streets was a major hub of transportation in Philadelphia. This print shows the Exchange surrounded by bright yellow omnibuses with signs indicating their route: West Philadelphia, Navy Yard, Arch Street, etc. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Augustus Kollner’s ominibus of 1855. Kollner was famed for his depiction of horses. But his mini-man child at bottom right shows that he was less skilled with humans. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Such a fine establishment! Look at the fine marble in the yard, the massive stone being delivered, the marble statuary above your head. Feel thoroughly up to date browsing the very latest in steam-powered marble work! You will be stepping into the most fashionable show rooms in the Gothic Revival style. And look at the finely dressed customers, stopping by to browse as part of a delightful outing.

In 1859, this advertisement targets the upper middle-class consumer who would be riding the streetcar. The Green and Coates streetcar ran east-west along Coates (now Fairmount Avenue) and Green Streets. This streetcar connected passengers to a steamboat launch just north of the Fairmount Waterworks dam. The steamboat would then take passengers on to Manayunk.

Streetcars soon popped up on advertisements directed towards the wealthy middle classes. The streetcar was a symbol of progress, of being in the middle of big things. It showed that advertisers were targeting a better class of buyers. Those who rode the streetcars every day could see themselves in the hoop-skirted and top hat wearing riders in the ads. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

This advertisement from Kimball & Gorton c. 1860 shows the similarities between passenger railcars and horse-drawn streetcars. The Green and Coates (now Fairmount) Streetcar was clearly a showpiece of a car with its bright paint and fancy, gothic-arched glass windows. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Market and Seventh Streets in the 1860s shown in this advertisement. Note the omnibus, work wagon, private carriage, and horse-drawn streetcars. (Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Looking east down Market Street from 6th Street in 1859. At this point, the market sheds were slowly being taken down, block by block. The West Philadelphia streetcar line has been installed on this side of the sheds. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Stereoscopic view of a horse-drawn streetcar c. 1894. As electric trolleys replaced the horse-drawn streetcar, there was a certain nostalgia for the old cars. This photo was taken at a time when the horse-drawn streetcar was all but obsolete. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Stereoscopic view of 10th and Market Streets c. 1869. Note the railroad freight car sitting on Market Street at the bottom right of the picture. This photo helps explain why there are no photographs of streetcars in motion in the years before the Civil War. Photography just wasn’t equipped to capture fast-moving objects. If you look closely, there is a “ghost” streetcar just above the railroad car. The streetcar left a faint imprint while it moved through the scene during the camera’s long exposure. The utility pole and wires in this 1869 photo would be for telegraph lines, not electricity yet. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)


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