Today’s Cultural History I Never Knew: The Jaywalker, and the Power of Public Relations

Cartoon by veteran Canadian political cartoonist Steve Nease

Cartoon by veteran Canadian political cartoonist Steve Nease

Up until about a century ago, the thoroughfares of America belonged to pedestrians. Like the spectator benches in “Casey at the Bat,” the streets were black with people – women, men, children at play – along with the occasional horse-drawn wagon.

Then came the motorcar; specifically, the affordable motorcar. Henry Ford’s Model-T, introduced in 1908, made the horseless carriage cheap enough for middle-class families.

Ford’s popular new machines were not only affordable. They were lethal. Capable of speeds up to 45 miles per hour, they could maim or kill any person or animal that happened to get in the way. And kill they did, especially in cities, as drivers moved down pedestrians “in the homicidal orgy of the motorcar,” as a New York Times article put it.

In 1922, 10,000 children marched through the streets of New York during a “safety week;” that demonstration included a separate group of 1,054 kids who represented the youngsters who were killed my cars during the previous year.

By 1925, according to the December 2014 Smithsonian magazine, auto accidents accounted for two-thirds of all deaths in cities with populations of more than 25,000. Children were especially vulnerable; a third of all traffic deaths in 1925 were children, and half of them were killed on the streets of their own home blocks.

The automotive industry had become the new evil empire. Sales of cars, which had been growing steadily for several years, slumped 12% between 1923 and 1924. Anti-car legislation, including some laws mandating speed governors, was discussed and promoted.

The carmakers and drivers fought back. Their mission: to make the streets exclusive territories for motorized vehicles, not for people. Their leader: Charles Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club. Their method: a public relations campaign to change the subject and blame the victim. Their weapon: the jaywalker.

“Jay” was another term for a rube, a clueless hayseed, a country bumpkin. If you were a jay, you were the opposite of cool, hip, and “with it.” If you walked like a jay, out there in the streets where the motorcars belonged, you could get killed. And it would be your fault.

The carmakers succeed brilliantly. It was a blitzkrieg, a “lightning war” that ended in total victory.

They employed Boy Scouts to hand out cards that warned pedestrians to cross streets only at certain corners. At a New York safety event, they had a guy who was dressed like a rural rube get jokingly rear-ended again and again by a Model-T. In a Detroit parade, they entered a float with a huge tombstone that read “Erected to the memory of Mr. J. Walker: He stepped from the curb without looking.”

The compliant press – newspapers and magazines – was totally in the tank for the automakers. How could they not be, with hundreds of millions in advertising revenue at stake? The Providence Journal, for one, reprinted an article titled “The Jaywalker Problem.” The piece had originally appeared in Motor magazine. The accompanying Steve Nease cartoon might be from just a few years ago, but it typifies the media’s newly evolved frame of mind in the 1920s.

In a few years, it was all over. But as early as 1924, the word “jaywalker” appeared in a dictionary. The definition: “One who crosses the street without observing the traffic regulations for pedestrians.” America’s love affair with the automobile resumed, and it has never cooled off again.

So, don’t jaywalk. And don’t take on people who have bottomless bank accounts and willing allies in the media.

One more thing. Think about how the tactics of the Chicago Motor Club and its fellow travelers are still in use. They’re not so much public relations as they are out-and-out propaganda. Can you think of any examples in the public realm today where a particular interest group attempts to brand those who oppose it as the “jays” of this era? As uncouth, uncool, unsophisticated bumpkins? I can.

How do they do it? Oh, promoting their agenda by changing the subject of discussion, by distorting and obscuring the facts, by blaring deceptive one-liners and slogans, and by demeaning the character and motives of those with whom they disagree? Sound familiar? It should. And, unfortunately, it’s effective.

“Plus ca change,” as the French say.

Look both ways. That’s today’s history lesson, and that’s the rest of the story.

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