A Matter of Decorum

Albany Railway Must Explain

Ah, the glorious days of yesteryear, when all the men were gentlemen, all the ladies ladies, and society knew how to behave. The lowliest laborer wore a suit, f’cryin’ out loud. Not like today!

That must be why, in 1898, the Albany city board of health was most perplexed at the failure of the Albany Railway, the local streetcar service, to tell people to stop spitting in its cars.

“About a year ago the board passed a resolution and made it a rule of the board that the Albany Railway must have signs placed in its cars directing people not to expectorate in the car. In the course of the proceedings yesterday Mr. Dyer [an alderman] inquired of Health Officer Balch if the rule had been obeyed and was informed that it had not.
‘That is very strange,’ said Mr. Dyer. “Did you send them a copy of the rule, Dr. Balch?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Well, then, Mr. Chairman,’ continued Mr. Dyer, ‘I move that the health officer be instructed again to notify the Albany Railway that it must comply with the rules of the board and in case of its failure to do so, cite before us someone in authority and learn why the rule is not complied with.’”

(It wasn’t all bad news, though — the health officer reported that the city was comparatively free from contagious disease, and that in the previous four months scavengers had removed 434 dead animals.)

The board of health directed that the health officer request the Albany Railway notify the board if it is their intention to comply with the request of the board “to place cards in the cars prohibiting expectoration on the floor of their cars.”

Mayor Van Alstyne said that he did not think that the card would have the desired effect, “for while the board could conrol the result of any habit, such as the spitting of tobacco juice, it could not control the laws of nature.”

Nevertheless, the request was made, and the signs were placed. In February of the following year, the Albany Railway sought permission to change the signs.

“The cards now read: ‘It is forbidden to spit on the floor of this car by order of the board of health.’ The change suggested would make them read ‘Spitting on any part of this car forbidden, by order of the board of health.’”

That seems straightforward. Obviously, someone had found the loophole, and was perfectly satisfied to spit tobacco juice onto some other surface of the trolley than the floor. But bureacracy being what it is, the board of health “discussed the matter considerably and finally decided that the wording should be: ‘It is forbidden to spit on the floor or any other part of this car, by order of the board of health.’”

While we’re on the topic of spitting, we’ll note that in 1887 Jacob Lehman of 614 Livingston Avenue was arrested for spitting tobacco juice into the eyes of Ida Zimmer, “a young girl living at No. 606 Clinton avenue. Jacob claimed it was unintentional, but as he had been impudent to the girl’s mother he was fined three dollars.”


    1. Post
      Carl Johnson

      Yes, no question. I hadn’t thought to mention the actual need for this kind of reminder back in the day, and we could probably use it again.

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