The story of a Gilded Age anti-noise crusade

It was the incessant blasting of tugboat horns that ultimately got to Julia Rice.

Rice (right), a doctor, mother of six, and wife of wealthy lawyer and investor Isaac Rice, inhabited a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street in the early 1900s.

This was the kind of palace that promised peace and quiet. Her husband even named the magnificent freestanding house with its lovely gardens “Villa Julia” (below left) after his spouse.

But the constant noise from ships just beyond her landscaped property was too much for Rice. So she did what any fed-up and influential New Yorker would do: formed an organization funded by her own money and rallied lawmakers.

That’s the genesis of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.

Rice established the group in 1905 to fight the disturbing sounds of river traffic, especially “against tugboat pilots who would use whistles and sirens for personal messages at all hours,” reported the New York Times in 1997.

Admittedly, Rice sounds like a bit of a crank. But maybe not.

New York is loud today, but it was arguably louder at the end of the Gilded Age—with elevated trains screeching, horse hoofs incessantly clip-clopping, and factory whistles, fire engine sirens, and disorderly humans making earsplitting racket.

“Armed with research documenting the health problems caused by the sleep-shattering blasts, Rice launched a relentless lobbying campaign that took her to police stations, health departments, the offices of shipping regulators, and ultimately the halls of Congress,” stated a New Republic article from 2010.

“Initially ignored, her pleas finally reached sympathetic ears in Washington—and she won her battle. New York and other East Coast cities placed tough new restrictions on the blowing of horns and whistles by tugs.”

Emboldened, Rice extended her campaign “to every form of noise that jars the nerves and is not essential to the commerce of the city,” explained the New-York Tribune in 1907.

Rice lobbied for quieter street vendors, less traffic, and rubber tires on milk wagons. She opposed “factory whistles, firecrackers, and boys clacking sticks along iron fences,” according to the 1997 Times article.

It’s unclear how far she got waging those fights. But with the help of none other than Mark Twain, she did get schoolchildren to agree to be quieter when they walked or played near hospitals.

Rice and her anti-noise crusade quieted down after 1910. New Yorkers were still noisy, but cars replaced horse-drawn modes of transportation—and the din of the city died down.

[First image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Riverside Drive looking down from 93rd Street, MCNY, F2011.33.94; fourth image: Reade Street, 1898, MCNY,]

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14 Responses to “The story of a Gilded Age anti-noise crusade”

  1. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    The structure on RSD has been used as an orthodox Jewish yeshiva for decades, one of the few surviving free-standing mansions on RSD.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, remember Riverside Drive was supposed to be the new Millionaires Mile back in the day…but then everyone realized luxury apartment living was a lot better than taking care of a giant mansion.

  2. ellen gruber garvey Says:

    What a shame she’s not here now to work against heliports and jetskis on the river.

  3. petey Says:

    my hero!
    “Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise”
    where do i sign up! do they also target noisy neighbors?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You should launch a new chapter! Starting with quiet hours after, say, 10 pm. I know of a coop building that has a rule that after 11 pm no tenant can have the sound on while watching TV because it may disturb other tenants.

      • petey Says:

        what an excellent idea!
        now if they could extend that to domestic screaming contests …

  4. Dymoon Says:

    Reblogged this on dymoonblog and commented:
    could revisit this today

  5. Cuomo vs NRA, Central Park's Zombie Raccoon Problem Persists, and More Says:

    […] The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise is proof that noise pollution has always been a problem in the city. […]

  6. James T. Tang Says:

    Dear Ephemeral New York,

    Long time subscriber and fan. Could you possibly do a piece on Pomander Walk on the Upper West Side. I’ve lived in Manhattan 34 of my 34 years and only recently learned about it last month. A google search revealed this:

    Thanks so much in advance.

    Best, James Tang, Upper East Side, Manhattan 9178556662

    On Mon, Aug 6, 2018 at 2:10 AM, Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: “It was the incessant blasting of tugboat horns > that ultimately got to Julia Rice. Rice (right), a doctor, mother of six, > and wife of wealthy lawyer and investor Isaac Rice, inhabited a spectacular > mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street in the early 1” >

  7. judith goldman Says:

    It’s probably worth noting that the Mansion is still at the corner of 89th and Riverside – functioning as a school

  8. David H Lippman Says:

    Nothing ever changes…I bet people complained about kids being loud and having no respect…

  9. A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Rice, a non-practicing medical doctor, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and campaigned in the early 1900s to put a stop to tugboat horns, factory whistles, and other […]

  10. The story of a Gilded Age mansion’s unhappily married owners on Riverside Drive | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] however, another millionaire mile in Manhattan was giving Fifth Avenue a run for its money. Riverside Drive was booming with spectacular mansions mostly of the then-popular Beaux-Arts style—some elegant row houses; others stand-alone palaces […]

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