Cities at night have long intrigued urban historian Peter Baldwin, who settled on the topic when he went for walks at night in Chicago near DePaul University, where he taught history in the late 1990s.
His new book, In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820-1930 (Chicago University Press), tells a tale of nighttime darkness, violence, vandalism, and a reversal of the moral order that governs the day. Covering the period between gas lamps and electrification, the book prefaces with the stillness and near complete darkness of Philadelphia in pre-industrial America. “Imagine darkness so thick that you could hardly see a hand in front of your face!” he writes
Whale-oil streetlamps in New York City, spaced 114 feet apart in the late 1700s, were little more than yellow specks engulfed by blackness, he says. People died by falling off bridges in the dark or running into obstructions on cobblestoned streets.
When gas, and then electric, lights came to cities, people expected that the new technologies would transform the night, making it just like day.
But even the brilliant Brush arc lights that first lit up Public Square in Cleveland in the 1880s and the marquees of New York’s Times Square in the Jazz Age did not turn night into day. Night was still different — a time and space in which codes of behavior changed.
Even with city lights banishing the dark, women couldn’t walk freely at night without fear of attack. The drunk and disorderly did not disappear. Vice thrived. Bums found refuge for the night in new movie theaters, and dance halls known more for drinking than dancing lured the young.
“Modern urban night was not an extension of day; it was a liminal new world in which moral values mingled uneasily,” writes Baldwin.
Baldwin, an associate professor who spent seven years as a Hartford Courant reporter before earning a PhD in history from Brown, wrote an earlier book about public spaces in cities, so it was natural to start his research with parks at night.
The notion was, public parks would be sanctuaries of public morality. By day, they were intended to uplift the spirit, provide exposure to nature, and ease class divisions as people mingled. Even though parks were supposed to close at night, “It was almost delusional that you could close a space,” Baldwin says.
At night, their character changed. They became places where young women went to give birth and leave the baby behind; where tramps lived; where excrement was smeared on benches and vandals urinated in the drinking cups; and where little boys stoned animals to death.
Parks may have provided a dark haven, but even where people congregated, the nighttime city offered access to vice.
Racy newspapers were travel guides to the seedy side of urban life, directing visitors to a city’s best brothel and covering the saloon culture that replaced the city’s daytime “persona” of orderly, straight-and-narrow ways.
A famous incident in 1871 caused outrage – the murder of a man trying to protect his mistress and her daughter on a streetcar. It was publicized in a Harper’s Weekly engraving, sardonically captioned, “Beauties of Street-Car Travel in New York.” In the sketch, the streetcar’s signage advertises “Murderer’s Snug Harbor” and “Pickpocket’s Paradise.”
Men dominated the night – any unaccompanied woman was assumed to be a bar maid or a hooker and was fair game to grab. Baldwin finds irony in the “Take Back the Night” title for the anti-rape marches of women today. “It’s never been good for women at night,” he says.
One reason the streetcar murder caused a stir was, “It was a matter of national pride that American women had more freedom in public than European women,” he writes.
But that was part of the myth that technology had conquered the night. People didn’t behave better in the 19th century, but they were better at keeping bad behavior quiet, Baldwin found. Ambiguity surrounded how behavior was described. Women who were harassed were described as being “insulted.” Sexual advances in public were known as “mashing,” behavior that covered anything from flirtation to rape.
Not all nighttime activity was illicit. In Pittsburgh, the steel, glass, and petroleum refining industries ran all night with shift workers. Other cities without entertainment venues were nearly deserted.
Eventually, more people had reasons to go out at night. In the late 19th century, workers’ hours decreased, giving them more leisure time. Women began to enter the work force, and more young people sought the mass entertainment of vaudeville, and then movie theaters. Incandescent lighting became widespread and signified a city’s progressive ways. In Hartford, Baldwin writes, 20,000 people turned out on a night in December 1911 to see the first block of Asylum Street lit up.
Still, night was more morally menacing than the day. The expectations that the technology of lighting would change that were unfulfilled. That’s worth taking note of today, too, Baldwin concludes.
“Today, for better or worse, the brilliant products of human innovation remain shadowed by the natural rhythms that shape all life,” he writes.