Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
We’ve always been pretty bad at being nice in transit.
“Time was when no one would cough in another’s face or sneeze uproariously in a public place,” a newspaper columnist lamented in 1926. But that was “before the subway era, when in public places there were gentlemen and ladies.” That is to say, any sense of rider decorum was destroyed the instant they jostled for room in a subway car. Instead of gracious “pleases” and “thank you’s,” you had snot, germs, and rudeness.
Almost as soon as city dwellers began packing their bodies into subway cars, transit agencies realized that we could—and ought to—be better at it. Riders thought so, too.
The writer of a 1928 note to advice columnist Helen Worth dreamed of punching “an insipid, insulting, impolite subway hog” square in the nose. Accepting the reality that she’d probably get in trouble for going around docking people, she also floated the idea of a “league to mend subway manners” in New York City. She suggested: “Why not start a campaign? ‘Be polite, be decent, etc.’ The policemen are having a courtesy course now,” she continued, “but why them when it’s the people at large?” With a little guidance, she thought, riders could learn how to conduct themselves appropriately.
Such a campaign was already in progress in Chicago. A 1918 edition of a pamphlet called The Elevated News, distributed throughout Chicago’s transit system, criticized early-20th-century manspreaders for hogging precious seat space. If these riders could understand more abstract concepts of patriotism and sacrifice, the writer wondered, why couldn’t they manage to close their knees?
Men will give their sons to the service of their country, they will give to the Red Cross and buy Liberty Bonds until they feel it pinch, but will they disturb themselves and sit a little closer to give a seat to some poor tired girl? They sit there complacently, occupying twice the space they really require, while some other passenger is deprived of a seat through their selfishness.
Obviously, subway etiquette campaigns didn’t wipe out discourteous behavior. In 1951, a man named Irving Block submitted a sternly worded letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle complaining about the subway’s “obscenity and rowdyism, which have become more and more the usual thing.” The culprits, he wrote, were “teen-age girls” who sang “filthy songs as loudly as they possibly could.” Transit systems still roll out courtesy campaigns, of course—though few that seem to target sailor-mouthed teens.
In general, newer subway courtesy campaigns still reiterate some of the same ideas they always have, says Brian Steele, the vice president of communications and marketing at the Chicago Transit Authority. While developing the agency’s latest campaign in 2015, “we found the vast majority of behaviors we were addressing were the same as the ones 25, 50, and 75 years ago,” he says. These include reminders to not block the doors, which was also telegraphed in London back in the 1970s, in the colorful poster below:
But campaigns’ admonitions speak to the behaviors and technologies of the times, too. Subway passengers are less likely, these days, to have snuff tucked into their cheeks; chastising them for spitting the tarry tobacco isn’t so relevant. On the other hand, criticisms of loud phone calls and music are increasingly common.
The content of the posters also speaks to seismic cultural shifts in terms of gender and work. The 1918 campaign in Chicago complained of riders tearing up letters and allowing the scraps to flutter to the ground. Why, it wondered, would female passengers do this, when they were already familiar with the drudgery of sweeping up trash at home?
More recent campaigns, such as the 2015 one released by the CTA (above), lampoon these stereotypes by taking them to their most absurd conclusion. In one, both male and female passengers are buried up to their waists in wrappers. The tag line, "Your maid doesn't work here. Please don’t leave your crap behind," is meant to be sarcastic and hyperbolic.
The language and tone of the campaigns has changed a lot across the board. In the 1920s, campaigns in London were polite requests that called upon a rider’s sense of patriotism and duty to the public good. (“Tidiness aids efficiency” sounds as if it could be the slogan of a wartime propaganda poster, alongside a picture of a neatly hoed victory garden.)
Chicago’s posters in the 1950s weren’t so accusatory, either. Some featured rallying cries from beloved college football coaches, using sportsmanship as a metaphor for good citizenship. “They were more along the lines of ‘Gee whiz!’ You see someone you all admire, and he says, ‘Pitch in,’” says Graham Garfield, the CTA’s general manager of customer information.
These days, Garfield adds, the language has more of a bite to it. The paternalistic tone has taken a backseat to one that’s more playful, more sarcastic, “plainspoken and in a type of language that are the kinds of things riders would say to each other, or even say to us when they comment on social media.” Meaning that the Leave it to Beaver vibe is gone, and today’s courtesy campaigns often come with a bit of a snarl, too.