On the streets of early 20th-century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside and play in the streets,” all day.
And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.
Much of the public viewed the car as a death machine. One newspaper cartoon even compared the car to Moloch, the god to whom the Ammonites supposedly sacrificed their children.
Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.
The main cause for these deaths was that the rules of the street were vastly different than how they are today. A street functioned like a city park, or a pedestrian mall, where you could move in any direction without really thinking about it. The only moving hazards were animals and other people.
Turn-of-the-century footage from San Francisco’s Market Street shows just how casually people strode into the street.
If a car hit someone, the car was to blame. From the New York Times, November 23, 1924:
The horrors of peace appear to be appalling than the horrors of war. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive piece of mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death than artilleryman. The man in streets seems less safe than the man in the trench. The greatest single lethal factor is the automobile. It left shambles in its wake as it coursed through 1923.
Automotive interests banded together under the name Motordom. One of Motordom’s public relations gurus was a man named E. B. Lefferts, who put forth a radical idea: don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness. Lefferts and Motordom sought to exonerate the machine by placing the blame with individuals.
And it wasn’t just drivers who could be reckless—pedestrians could be reckless, too. Children could be reckless.
This subtle shift allowed for streets to be re-imagined as a place where cars belonged, and where people didn’t. Part of this re-imagining had to do with changing the way people thought of their relationship to the street. Motordom didn’t want people just strolling in.
So they coined a new term: “Jay Walking.”
In the early 20th century, “jay” was a derogatory term for someone from the countryside. Therefore, a “jaywalker” is someone who walks around the city like a jay, gawking at all the big buildings, and who is oblivious to traffic around him. The term was originally used to disparage those who got in the way of other pedestrians, but Motordom rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.
Over time, Americans began to view their relationship to the automobile as a sort of love affair—which means that logic need not always apply. Groucho Marx even said so himself!