When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars

New York summers were as stifling, sultry, and sweat-soaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they are today.

In that pre-AC city, the last place you wanted to be on a July afternoon was in a horse-drawn streetcar. (At right, traveling on First Avenue and 67th Street in 1904).

Sure you might be able to open the windows, but you were basically crammed into a group of perspiring passengers inside a metal box under the broiling sun.

“In summer the packing-box system makes comfort impossible,” complained the New York Herald of streetcars in 1876.

So with summertime comfort in mind, streetcar companies—especially the John Stephenson Streetcar Company, a leading manufacturer on East 27th Street near Fourth Avenue—began making “summer cars,” which showed up on city streets in the 1870s and 1880s.

These open-air streetcars had rows of seats but no side panels, so taking a ride in one offered fresh air and something of a breeze, depending how fast the horses were traveling.

While they were most certainly a relief from the heat, these summer cars seemed to be a lot less safe than the regular streetcars.

New York and Brooklyn newspaper archives contain many stories of people falling off them and getting injured or killed. Seat belts, needless to say, were nonexistent.

Of course, taking a streetcar in the winter wasn’t danger-free either, as this firsthand account from a boy in the 1860s demonstrates.)

[First image: unknown; second image: MCNY, 44.295.142; third image, MCNY, 44.295.119; fourth image: MCNY, 44.295.155]

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9 Responses to “When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars”

  1. Notable Women Says:

    Summer in the city!

    xo K

  2. John M (@dark1pr) Says:

    A friend in his 80s told me that in summer, before the widespread use of deodorant, subway cars in the summer were quite an olfactory adventure. He remembers vividly getting on a car to Coney one time and noticing the people didn’t stink to high heaven. Deodorants had arrived big time.

  3. snufflegrinbooks Says:

    The breeze would have been welcome – though that would have been somewhat dependent on the condition of the horses’ digestive system!

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Old New York in the summer: BO and horse manure

  5. Herb Moskovitz Says:

    A NYC horse drawn streetcar features prominently in Harold Lloyd’s hysterical 1928 movie, SPEEDY. Available on U-Tube, it shows many vintage views of the city.

  6. VirginiaLB Says:

    My grandmother, a girl in Brooklyn in the 1890s and early 1900s,also told me about the terrible smell on the trolley cars in summer before deodorant. Her grandfather arrived in Brooklyn from Ireland in 1851 as a coachman for public coaches. Soon after, the horse-drawn trolley cars were introduced and he worked for the Brooklyn City Railroad Company the rest of his career, becoming foreman of stables. I believe the earliest horse cars had open sides like those ‘summer cars’. Enclosed cars were a great improvement for the reasons you mention.

    The drivers and conductors worked long hours in tough conditions. My grandmother’s Brooklyn-born father became a leader in the Knights of Labor, the first national labor union. He helped lead a strike in Manhattan in the 1880s that shut down part of the city to at least slightly improve pay and working hours.

    Thanks for another interesting post with the great photos.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks VirginiaLB, this is so interesting. You mention a transit strike in the 1880s; it reminds me of a chapter in Sister Carrie, where her common-law husband takes a job as a scab during a Brooklyn trolley transit strike and is nearly killed by supporters throwing rocks at him.

  7. Bill Wolfe Says:

    In addition to human sweat and horse manure, the sad fact is that horses would drop dead in the street and oftentimes remain for extended periods of times. The odor, as well as the health risks, must have been awful.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, there are photos of these poor horses in the streets. New York owes a lot to these “mute servants of mankind,” as Henry Bergh called them.

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