the 1910s Promise and Peril
by Jo Allison
The 1910s were promising and perilous years in America and across the world. Many pages on this site deal with St. Louis, Missouri, a city representative of all the 1910s had to offer—and the setting of many of my novels.
Getting around in 1910
There were, of course, wealthy people who were driven where they needed to go, either by horse and carriage or by one of the new autos. There were also those who drove their own autos. There was a dizzying array of autos on the scene, many made in St. Louis. The majority of people, however, probably used the street cars to get close to their destination and then walked. So, let me talk about these methods of getting around town: the street car system, the disappearing horse-and-carriage, the emerging auto scene.
Street cars, sometimes called trolleys, had been around since the later 1800s and were horse-drawn in the 19th century. By the late 1800s, the cars were powered by electricity. That meant they needed a way to get the electricity to the controls and you’ve probably seen pictures that show the power source: a power line trailed down the street, positioned over the tracks.
Two things strike me about this arrangement. One is how many streets had street car lines and therefore had tracks embedded in the pavement and lines strung overhead. The actual street car routes are detailed in the Gould’s City Directories for each year. I can’t emphasize how important these books are to the portrait of the City. I’ll talk more about the Directories elsewhere, but I’m copying here a description of just one line.
Eighteenth Line (part of the Third Division)
Starts at 4th and Pine, Pine to 9th, 9th to Clark, Clark to 18th, 18th to Biddle, Biddle to 19th, 19th to North Market, North Market to 22d, 22d to Hebert, Hebert to Grand, Grand to Natural Bridge road, Natural Bridge road to Prairie, Prairie to Hebert. Returning east on Hebert to 23d, 23d to Madison, Madison to 19th, 19th to Carr, Carr to 18th, 18th to Clark, Clark to 9th, 9th to Market, Market to 4th, 4th to Pine.
There were a total of 39 lines in eight divisions in the 1911 Gould’s City Directory--and those are just the lines within the City of St. Louis. Other railway lines ran into St. Louis County and beyond. For example, the Wellston line was one of several that went to the city limits from its starting point at 4th and Morgan. A traveler could pick up a train at the city limits, on a half-hour schedule and go “direct to St. Charles.” The routes would change subtly from year to year.
The other image that strikes me is the jumble of power lines. Imagine the number of power lines strung over a typical city street. In addition to the trolley lines themselves, there were electricity lines going to virtually every establishment in downtown St. Louis and to many homes in the city. In what seems a silly system to those of us raised under Ma Bell and landlines, there were two phone systems, the Kinloch and the Bell. A business or government office that wanted to be able to be contacted had to have lines from both companies. For example, these are the phone numbers, as listed in an ad, for a piano company. (I use a lot of music in my books and need the names of music stores, many of which seem to have been located along Olive Street.) The Val Reis Piano Company, 1005 Olive, lists “Tels. Main 549. Central 412.” “Main” is the Bell Telephone system; “central” is the Kinloch Telephone system. Aside from being confusing and inconvenient, the arrangement meant that two sets of telephone wires trailed down the streets. One of my novels has a scene where a character who lives and works downtown visits a beer garden in Soulard, south of downtown. Here are her comments:
Along the way, I admired the neighborhood. Neat houses crowded the sidewalks. But there was an openness it took me a minute to identify. It was the sky.
Downtown St. Louis streets were filled with wires. Electricity wires ran alongside the streets, telephone wires from two different companies crisscrossed above the streets, and the ever-present trolley lines trailed down the middle of the streets. When I first arrived in January, I’d stood staring up at a downtown intersection, watching smoke from coal fires swirl in the sky and imagining that an angry child had made vivid pencil marks on dirty paper. Summer had improved the view in that we’d lost some of the coal smoke.
Not only were there fewer lines out here, away from downtown, but ivy had covered a back fence at Weider’s and was making its soft way up one of the electric pole guy wires.
(The reference to “coal smoke” is discussed in the section on environment on this site. Like all cities of size and industry, St. Louis was a dirty place.)
A friend and early reader of my books found a great film clip of a streetcar in use in 1906 in San Francisco. (It was actually taken four days before the earthquake.) San Francisco was smaller than St. Louis. The population in San Francisco was 416,912 in 1910; St. Louis had 687,029 that year, with greater density, so you might expect even more confusion in St. Louis. On the other hand, I suspect people were more active than usual just because of the camera, apparently mounted on the front of a streetcar going up Market Street in San Francisco. Imagining it as the traffic if not the buildings along Market Street in St Louis will give you an idea of the congestion. In fact, the downtown experience was simply crowded, crowded on the streets and on the sidewalks. Many streets had streetcars running down them, as I’ve said. In addition, much other vehicular traffic was horse-drawn. There was an amazing variety of buggies, carriages, wagons, (the equivalents of our trucks,) taxis for a dozen people and their luggage. This was the end of the horse-drawn era, and if a carriage or coach could be imagined, it had been built. There were, of course, horse stables and blacksmiths and farriers and shops that sold wagons, wheels, buggy-whips, and so on. Bicycles were common.
Increasingly, though, there were autos. Even in 1906, there were a lot of them and the number increased by 1910. St. Louis had four companies actually making autos in 1910. (See more numbers below.) The Detroit auto industry was certainly growing and becoming dominant, but large cities like St. Louis had men who had started turning out autos early on. More importantly to everyday life was the presence of these autos on the city streets. Imagine even one Model-T type automobile making its way down Market Street or Washington or Olive, being driven by someone who by necessity didn’t have much experience, bumping over and dodging streetcar tracks. Then imagine the reaction of the horses. Streets weren’t any wider, if as wide, as they are now, so there were times when the autos came close to the carriages. In addition to every other vehicle, there were bicycles—and no bike lanes.
There weren’t many regulations or even habits in place for driving an automobile. I haven’t seen a stop light in any of the pictures I’ve pored over. Occasionally, one sees a traffic cop, trying to make sense of an intersection. On top of all this, there are lots of pedestrians. Jaywalking wasn’t even a word until 1912 (originating in Kansas City according to Online Etymology. See the etymology section on this site for other words that weren’t in the language in 1910.) Most people walked most places. Many others took a streetcar to get close to their destination and then walked. Sidewalks were crowded and people crossed streets by dodging, hopefully, the buggies, the streetcars, and the autos. In looking through lots of newspapers, I often see items about someone hurt, usually badly, in a collision with some form of downtown transportation.
St. Louis Autos.
Some of this information comes from an exhibition offered by the Missouri History Museum. You can do the online tour. The summary data comes from a site that attempts to list all U.S. automobile manufacturers, american-automobile.com. You would be amazed at the variety listed on that site; check it out. St. Louis was an early center of auto manufacturing, probably the largest manufacturing site west of the Mississippi, but, like most cities, lost out to Detroit in 1920s. Between 1989 and 1930, there were 26 manufacturers producing an even larger number of models in St. Louis. Many were short-lived; some opened in the 1920s. In 1910, there were four manufacturers in St. Louis. There were also companies producing auto parts; providing accessories, including clothing, for auto enthusiasts; providing and servicing tires; and, of course, offering fuel. One rather frightening picture from the Missouri History Museum exhibit shows a small gas station with huge fuel tanks in the backgrounds. Most of us prefer to think of them safely underground, although I don’t know that that is really safer.
Because there were so many different models of autos in 1910, it is almost hard to write about them. Early in my research, I read a site that said left-hand drive—meaning the steering wheel is on the left side as it is now in the US—had become standard. See the current History Channel site on automobile history that says left hand drive became standard in 1908. But that is clearly not true. I have a character, the St. Louis Chief of Police, who personally owns a 1910 Buick. There are still a good number of these cars preserved and collected, so lots of photos are out there. They clearly have right-hand drive. photo*** not only the steering wheel on its stick of a column, but also the break and gear shift on the right-hand driver’s side. These are great photos. Note that there are no doors for the front-seat passengers, although there is the small door that opens above the foot rail for back-seat passengers. Most of these Buick touring cars (as opposed to two-seat run-abouts), have a sturdy top, but no sides. These were not comfortable transportation in bad weather. Many of the accessories for sale were coats, gloves, and hats made to withstand the weather and the dust generated on unpaved roads. **from catalog** (The History Channel site noted above also says the first center painted dividing line appeared in 1911, in Michigan, and the first "No Left Turn" sign appeared in Buffalo in 1916. Could be. I certainly don’t see center dividing lines in 1910 photos in St. Louis.)
On the other hand, sometimes my Chief of Police drives a St. Louis-made Darby. The one picture I have of a Darby is from an ad that’s hard to see clearly—and the Darby was only in production in 1909 and 1910—but the technical description does say that it’s left-hand-drive. Think how confusing it would have been to go back and forth between the side of the car you used for driving. (Traffic “kept right” as it does now, to the extent anyone was paying attention to such details.) Of course, most people were lucky if they had even one car to drive, let alone two.
(The first book I found on autos in the era is the one I return to. I hope it’s still sitting in a library somewhere. It’s Treasury of Early American Automobiles, 1877-1925, by Floyd Clymer, published by McGraw-Hill in 1950. The early publication date makes a point. Even if you can’t find a book contemporary to the period, try to find something “old.” In this case, the author actually shows up as a boy in some old pictures.)
An item that could be confusing is whether or not the car had a crank.
Earlier autos had to be started by someone in front of the vehicle “cranking” a handle to get the motor to “turn over” and start its operation. This was not only inconvenient and quite demanding, physically, but also dangerous: sometimes, the crank handle would “kick back” and injure or even kill the person doing the cranking. The story goes (and you can find this one on almost every website I’ve seen on the topic) that a friend of the owner of the Cadillac production company (Henry Leland) died from injuries he sustained when he stopped to help a woman whose car had stalled. The crank handle kicked back and broke the man’s jaw. Leland asked inventor Charles Kettering to come up with a starter to bypass the crank mechanism. Kettering did so and Leland put it on his 1911 Cadillacs. (I’m using the story as told on http://web.bryant.edu/~ehu/h364proj/sprg_97/dirksen/electric.html) So, for my purposes, I need to be careful to check the timing, to see which cars adopted the electric starter when, as my series moves forward in time. But we can be assured that other manufacturers rushed to put in automatic starters. Consumer demand must have been overwhelming.