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Seattle’s first jaywalking law in 1917 was part of the city’s class war

This is one part of a series about jaywalking laws in Seattle and Washington. See also: From the beginning, Seattle ‘jaywalker’ stings were used to arrest poor people and Support an end to ‘jaywalking’ laws in Washington.

Old headline: Stringent traffic code effective in Seattle - Responsibility for safety largely placed upon pedestrian-"Jaywalking" barred by heavy penalty
From the July 6, 1917, edition of the Seattle Daily Times.

The day before a new downtown Seattle jaywalking law went into effect July 7, 1917, a Seattle Daily Times reporter wrote (PDF):

Just suppose a man were hit by an automobile in the downtown business district while crossing the street diagonally—which method of crossing is prohibited in the new code. While he is lying in the hospital watching the various portions of his anatomy reunite some judge may decide that he was to blame for the accident. Then, along with the hospital, nurse, medicine and doctor bills the would have to contribute a small sum—even up to $100—for the privilege of being hurt.


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The same traffic code revision making jaywalking illegal also made it illegal to feed your horse on 2nd Avenue without a feed bag to catch the crumbs.

But while the Seattle Daily Times reporter noted the absurdity of the new law in 1917, the paper’s Editorial Board saw a happy victory for the wealthy in the city’s ongoing class war, writing (PDF):

There are some persons in the world who think that the man who holds more than a dollar and fifty cents in cash in his own name is a crook and a robber and entitled to all the abuse that can be heaped upon him. There are others who think the man who owns an automobile is a “highway baron” who lays claim to ownership of all the roads and whose special delight in life is tooting his horn to make the crawling pedestrian jump. Perhaps there are not many who take so radical a view, but they represent a class whose ideas on the subject of the ownership of money and automobiles are almost as ridiculous.

And what a feeling of resentment will stir within them tomorrow when the new ordinance becomes effective governing the rights of pedestrians on the public streets. This class has claimed for itself all those rights it has condemned the auto owner for claiming—and more. Now, however, the pedestrian is going to have to obey some traffic rules.

The honest man will take a common-sense view of these regulations, realizing that they are as important and as justifiable as those intended to govern the automobile driver. The man with an automobile doesn’t get his greatest enjoyment out of running over somebody any more than does the pedestrian in being run over. Seattle is becoming a very large city and its traffic problem is becoming a serious one. There is no reason why the pedestrian should be granted rights that do not extend to the autoist. Hereafter he will be busy watching his own step and will not have so much time to stand in the middle of the street and grin at the auto owner who is being reprimanded for attempting to run by a signal.

The regulations governing foot traffic are in the interests of safety and will be recognized by fair-minded citizens.

The editorial shows that even from the start jaywalking laws were about shifting power in public space in favor of the auto-owing class with safety concerns sort of tacked on as an afterthought and justification. It’s worth noting that this editorial was written just one and a half years before the Seattle General Strike, and automobiles were still quite expensive and out of reach for most people a the time. As the editorial gleefully acknowledges, jaywalking laws were one more way for the privileged to assert their power over the working class.

It is a sick irony that at the same moment that American soldiers were taking their first steps in France to put their bodies in the path of Germany’s deadly war machines, people walking on the streets of Seattle were also losing their rights against machines of violence at home. It reminds me of Pino Pascali’s 1966 sculpture Machine Gun, which is made from automobile parts.

The idea that deadly machines and humans of flesh and blood share equal responsibility for roadway safety has always been a farce.


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3 responses to “Seattle’s first jaywalking law in 1917 was part of the city’s class war”

  1. bill

    Tom, sadly your writing matches the 1917 editorial’s for fatuousness without the amusement of its self-assured pomposity. You could have laid out the history of jaywalking laws without rubbing your readers’ faces in your judgement of the values people held a century ago.

    As for war machines, Imperial Germany fielded about 50 tanks in the Great War vs several thousand for the Entente powers. I don’t know why you think the war was relevant to jaywalking laws in Seattle, but if you were attempting to conjure the specter of Second World War armored assaults you are way off the mark.

    1. No True Scotsman

      Bill, sadly your writing matches someone who seems suspiciously knowledgeable about Nazi regalia.

      As for war machines, the number of tanks seems a bit tangential to the plot.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      I didn’t say anything about tanks. I mentioned WWI because it was a rather notable piece of historical context for July 1917.

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