Old Penn Station’s women-only waiting room

The original Penn Station, opened in November 1910, had many things: a beautiful, spacious building, arcades for high-end stores, 21 tracks for arriving and departing trains…and separate waiting rooms for men and women.

Huh? I’d never come across this until I found this postcard of the women’s waiting room, via the NYPL Digital Collection. It sounds very strange to contemporary sensibilities, but apparently single-sex options for travelers existed.

“In addition to the main waiting room, there were separate waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and a smoking room off the men’s,” stated Jay Maeder in his 1999 book, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic 1898-1998.

This diagram of the original station shows the upper part of each single-sex waiting room. No word on when these were phased out, if ever, before the old station was torn down in 1963.

Interestingly, the city considered something similar around the same time as Penn Station opened: single-sex subway cars, so women didn’t have to be subjected to “brutes,” as this 1909 New York Times article about the possibility of female-only subway cars called them. That idea was ultimately abandoned.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia]

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27 Responses to “Old Penn Station’s women-only waiting room”

  1. Berlin Companion Says:

    It made a lot of sense to have gender-specific waiting rooms (also in Berlin): women were permanently bothered by unwanted advances and waiting rooms, where people sometimes dozed off waiting for their train, were dangerously convenient “hunting grounds” for sex predators. As they still are.

    Also, the idea of a women-only underground train would appeal to every girl and woman who has ever been “approached” in an unwanted and disgusting manner or who had to witness men playing with themselves in an almost empty carriage…

  2. Tom B Says:

    I can’t imagine all the rude abuses women have to go through everyday. It must be frightful. Just saying.

    • Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

      Aw c’mon, I knew many women who intentionally picked up men just to dump them. They got a kick out of doing just that. Called themselves cockteasers, some women pridefully boasted about that. No big deal. Of course this was back in the 1960s 70s, I don’t know if it’s around much anymore but I’m sure it is.

  3. Steve Boccone Says:

    Hello

    May I ask a question….

    Thank you and Regards Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Stephen Burr Says:

    Even then men were concidered dangerous predator’s

  5. John Goodman Says:

    Grand Central had a women’s waiting room too.

  6. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I think separate waiting rooms would be popular today!

  7. chungwong Says:

    The comments seemed to be focused on unaccompanied women. Quite single-minded 🙂 But what about families? Were they separated before boarding?

    • Tracy Says:

      The era is what was single-minded. Unaccompanied women were generally seen as either vulnerable to attack or, to use the phrasing of the era, having loose morals. You were careful to avoid being in most public places without other women, a husband or a chaperone. Children would not have been separated from their mothers. The mixed waiting area was surely fine if you were traveling with kids. The men-only spaces you mention in another comment are a different kettle of fish. They may have enjoyed having that space, but their virtue was never questioned, nor their safety.

      • Sofya Says:

        The male I suggest was mainly to allow the male to enjoy “the smoking” (and $#%^ talk) space.

    • mitzanna Says:

      The Staten Island Ferry had a women’s only section downstairs until the late 1960’s and the “Ladies Room” was there too. No women were forced to use that section. The problem was that the other side, where mostly men were, unfortunately smelled of stale cigar smoke or worse.

      • chungwong Says:

        I can see travel stench being a factor. Hygiene did get better over time. Penn Station also had a general waiting area in addition to the men only or women only areas. I am just not so sure this is for safety given how many people are usually in Penn Station in public view and the gender-only waiting areas ended (but did safety change?) and did not apply to rail cars where the same people boarded. NYC restaurant dining 1st opened to unaccompanied women by 1868. 1920s speakeasies had many women patrons and MCs in NYC. Women by the 1920s were also the topic of cigarette advertising (‘torch of freedom” and “slims”). It is true that until Prohibition men and women did not mingle as much in public.

  8. Carolyn Says:

    Very sadly, when I think of Penn Station, I think of a horrible smell. People live in Penn Station and in the winter months the smell is overpowering. Since the majority of homeless people are male, a women’s waiting area would be a respite and would be night and day from the general public areas. Tragedy of the Commons.

  9. Mike K Says:

    Grand Central actually still has a women’s/family waiting room in the former station master’s office. I believe it has an attendant to discourage inappropriate behavior while passengers wait.

  10. ironrailsironweights Says:

    There have long been women-only cars on the Tokyo subway, on account of groping incidents. Cairo’s subway also has women-only cars, for cultural reasons.

    Peter

  11. chungwong Says:

    A lot of comments seem to focus on a need for women-only areas. But the thing is, there was also a men-only area and a general waiting area too for men and women. Though not talked about much, there were also Jim Crow Cars at Penn Station in the 1940s for southbound Blacks. This was controversial (many lawsuits). I think there were also 1st and 2nd class passenger areas as well for some lines.

  12. countrypaul Says:

    I understand the need and/or desire for same-sex waiting rooms, etc., but then I think back to the late Rodney King whose first public statement after being the unintentional and undesired spark that lit the Watts riots was, “Can’t we all get along?” Well, can’t we?

  13. Tracy Says:

    I just found a NY Times article about the opening of the station called “The Passenger in the Terminal: How He Is to Find His Way Around the Big Structure and What Its Arrangements Are” from Sunday, September 4, 1910. It only mentions the men’s and women’s waiting rooms in passing, but it’s a fun article for anyone who’s interested.

    “Next to the waiting room, which, by the way, has large rooms for me who wish to smoke and others for the use of women leading out of it, comes the concourse . . . “

  14. Bob Says:

    At the link is a digitized book “Pennsylvania station in New York city” published in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad on the occasion of the station’s opening. It includes another view of the Women’s Waiting Room.

    https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1ng50j0v

  15. Bob Says:

    The mention of the waiting room reminded me of the remnant glass-and-cast-iron partition outside the Long Island Railroad waiting room in the bowels of Penn Station today.

    https://untappedcities.com/2016/02/10/remnants-original-penn-station-nyc/

  16. Bob Says:

    The New York Times: 40 Years After Wreckage, Bits of Old Penn Station; Ghosts of a New York Marvel Survive
    By Glenn Collins
    Oct. 28, 2003

    “[…] Back at the center of the rotunda, the futuristic waiting room for Acela and Metroliner trains occupies the former men’s and women’s waiting rooms. […] Also from the original [LIRR] station, a 30-foot-wide, Tuscan red, cast-iron partition, with beveled-glass windows, stands guard at the portal for the ticketed waiting area, adjacent to the gray police booth under the American flag. […]”

  17. The "Thresholds? We Don't Need No Stinkin Thresholds!" Tuesday Edition Says:

    […] you know that old Penn Station had a women-only waiting room? (Ephemeral New […]

  18. Stephen Karlson Says:

    The original women’s waiting room existed as a refuge from cigar smoke as well as a way to keep the cads and bounders away. That was common in railway stations large or small, the floor plan of Conway Scenic’s North Conway, New Hampshire depot is so configured.

    At the original Pennsylvania Station, those waiting rooms were turned into passageways between Great Room and concourse when the clamshell ticket booth went in the middle of the Great Room, blocking the central passageway from arcade to concourse.

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