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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Center Market The New Market System Farm to Market City Streetscapes Fares, Please! Growth of the Capital's Suburbs
4: A  Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900

City Streetscapes

Pedestrians, carriages, farmers’ wagons, express wagons, delivery wagons, bicyclists, streetcars, and even the occasional automobile shared Washington’s streets in 1900. Washington had always been known for its wide streets, and beginning in the 1870s the District government invested in better street surfaces. In the downtown area, gravel was eventually replaced with stone blocks or asphalt.

Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets, N.W., near Center Market, Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets, N.W., near Center Market, Washington, D.C.

Washington’s broad streets allowed the addition of electric streetcars more easily than did the narrower streets
of many cities.

Street vendor on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,near Center Market, Washington, D.C.
Street vendor on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,
near Center Market, Washington, D.C.

Street vendors sold foods and services to residents. This practice sometimes put vendors at odds with neighborhood shopkeepers.

Getting Around

In Washington, as in most cities in 1900, people usually walked or took public transportation. Some used bicycles. Wealthier residents owned their own carriages and usually stored carriages and stabled horses at commercial liveries. Improved streets allowed more traffic, but vehicles were still slow enough that pedestrians could walk in and cross the street at any point. Over the next 20 years this would change, as growing numbers of autos took over city streets.

Overman Wheel Co. bicycle advertisement, 1896

The 1890s saw a great boom in bicycling. As the first personal mechanical mode of transportation, the bicycle often gave both men and women a thrilling sense of freedom.

Overman Wheel Co. bicycle advertisement, 1896
Woman’s Overman Victoria safety bicycle, 1889
Woman’s Overman Victoria safety bicycle, 1889
Man’s Cleveland safety bicycle, 1899
Man’s Cleveland safety bicycle, 1899

Cycling quickly became a popular way to get around the city, and on weekends many bike enthusiasts went for rides in the country. In the 1890s, bicyclists played a major role in lobbying for road improvements.

Alice Maury Parmelee and her driver in her hansom cab, about 1920
Alice Maury Parmelee and her driver in her hansom cab, about 1920

Horse-drawn carriages were common on Washington streets in 1900. By the time this photo was taken in the 1920s, automobiles had changed the city streetscape, and the carriage was becoming a rarity.

Most hansom cabs were public vehicles, available for hire, but this one was owned by a Washington, D.C., family. They used it into the 1920s.

Hansom cab, about 1900
Hansom cab, about 1900
West Virginia Senator and Mrs. Nathan B. Scott with their automobile in front of the U.S. Capitol, about 1905
West Virginia Senator and Mrs. Nathan B. Scott with their automobile in front of the U.S. Capitol, about 1905

Around 1900, trucks and automobiles began to appear on city streets. Only the wealthy owned cars, which were used mostly for recreation and short trips.

Knife grinder’s cart, early 20th century

Washington’s streets were alive with vendors and tradesmen pushing carts like this one from door to door, plying wares and offering services.

Knife grinder’s cart, early 20th century
Launch Video
This clip shows street life and traffic patterns in turn-of-the-century Washington, DC.
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