The Modern Moloch

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

If you live in an American city and you walk outside to a major intersection and look into the streets, you know what you’ll see.

Jesse Dukes: You’ll see cars, and trucks, and buses. You might see a few bicycles trying to sneak their way through the traffic.

Roman: What you won’t see are people. Not on the street, anyway. Maybe on the sidewalk waiting for their turn to cross. And then crossing quickly, hurrying to get out of the way so that the cars can get going again.

Jesse: In recent times, some of us have come to think the city streets shouldn’t just be for cars and trucks. That cars take up too much space and release too much carbon just to move a couple of people a short distance. But even those anti-car haters, and I am one, we know the streets belong to our enemy. We look both ways before crossing. We don’t let our children play in the streets. We might sometimes jaywalk, cross the street at the wrong place or time. But we know in our heart of hearts, we’re in the wrong. Scofflaws.

Roman: That’s our reporter, Jesse Dukes.

Jesse: Because I actually love cars, but I just don’t think they make sense in the city.

Roman: And this is a story about jaywalking. Where that word ‘jaywalking’ came from, and how it was a weapon in a turf war between the people who wanted cars in the streets and everybody else.

You can probably guess who won.

Peter Norton: All right. There’s a wonderful cartoon in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch from 1923. It’s called the ‘Modern Moloch’. And Moloch was a deity of the Ammonites.

Roman: And this is Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia who studies city streets.

Peter: Moloch was a deity to whom the Ammonites sacrificed their own children in return for prosperity. What an image for what the car was, because the ideas that you were sacrificing our children in the name of modern technology.

Jesse: According to Peter Norton, there was a time in the 1920s when it looked like public opinion was against having cars in the streets.

Peter: In this particular cartoon, you see a driver kneeling at an altar which is the front grille of a car with a huge bowl full of the corpses of children, offering it up to the mouth of this machine-beast as a sacrifice. It’s a very striking cartoon. And it may seem a little bizarre to us today until you recognize that this thing was killing thousands of children every year.

Roman: So that was 1923, 90 years ago. But to understand why cars were being compared to a child-eating god, we’ve got to go back a few more years.

Peter: And so, if you went back 100, 110 years, I think you’d be amazed to see people just strolling right into the street, any place, any time. Sure, they’ll look, but not very carefully.

Jesse: At the turn of the century, there was nothing moving faster than about five or 10 miles an hour in the street. Responsible parents would say to their children, “Go outside and play in the streets all day”.

Roman: Even after the first cars appeared in the cities right around 1900, they had to conform to the customs of the day, which meant that traffic moved slowly.

Peter: There’s wonderful video, like 1905, people walking down Market Street in San Francisco before the earthquake. And people are just striding right in wherever they want to go. Children, people carrying boards of wood, people going about their business. It’s not to say that the street off of the sidewalk’s for everybody because people prefer the sidewalk. It’s drier, it’s cleaner, it’s got less horse manure.

Jesse: And there weren’t even really many rules about what you could do or not do.

Peter: People are solving problems the way they solved problems when you’re walking in a crowded hallway in a school building between classes and you have a huge crowd of kids, or something, trying to find their way. And they start to figure stuff out. Like, usually keep right while you’re walking. There’s not like a law, you know.

Jesse: But there’s an understanding. You go that way, I’ll go this way. I’ll keep to the right. Okay, that guy’s not going to go to the right, I’ll go to the left. What, are you from England?

Peter: And I think the closest thing we have to that now is a city park.

Jesse: Or maybe a pedestrian mall.

Peter: You go to a city park, and you’re mostly guided by understandings. Understandings like, you can use the park for whatever you want, provided you don’t endanger other people, you don’t break the law, and you don’t make a nuisance out of yourself. And then you’re pretty much okay. And it’s a lot like that in streets.

Roman: But by 1920, two things changed. For one, cities in America were filling up with people. This was right in the midst of the Industrial Revolution when Americans were leaving farms to move to cities to work in factories, or maybe in the middle class if they’re lucky. So the streets were starting to get more crowded.

Jesse: You’ve probably heard of the other big change. The Model T Ford. The first affordable automobile. Introduced in 1908, mass produced in 1913.

Peter: Prices just falling every year. By 1920, a new Model T, without any extras, you could get for $300. And this is really now in the reach of the working class. The people who make the Ford Model T can afford to buy it. That was a principle dear to the heart of Henry Ford.

Jesse: So by the 1920s, cities are crowding with people. And these people are buying cars, and driving cars in the streets. And drivers don’t want to drive five or 10 or 15 miles an hour, the speeds at which street traffic has moved for decades. They want to drive faster.

Roman: And the pedestrians and children still linger in the streets, walking casually, like it’s 1906. And every year, more people are killed in automobile accidents.

Peter: The fatalities are rising, and you can watch the curve. It’s like climbing a mountain. You’re just going uphill the whole way. By 1923, you’ve got about 17-18,000 people a year being killed by motor vehicles. Three-quarters of those people are pedestrians.

Jesse: And half of the pedestrians killed in the cities are children under the age of 16. And as far as the public is concerned, it’s almost like they died in a war. Parades are held in dozens of cities to commemorate the dead children. Monuments are built. Mothers of children killed in the streets are given a special white star to honor their loss.

Roman: And that’s why, in 1923, we see a cartoon comparing the automobile to Moloch, a god who demands the sacrifice of children for prosperity.

Jesse: And we get lots of newspaper articles and editorials saying, “This bloodbath has to end”. And almost all of them blame the deaths on the automobile. Like this, from the New York Times.

Newsreader: The horrors of war appear to be less appalling than the horrors of peace. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death than the artilleryman. The man in the street 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. The New York Times, November 23rd, 1924.

Roman: And cities begin to think seriously about restricting the use of cars in the cities. City managers look at outlawing curb parking or forcing cars to make right-angled turns around obstacles and intersections, so they have to slow to a crawl.

Jesse: Now by 1923, a whole cottage industry has grown up around the automobile. There are the manufacturers, of course, but also the dealers who’ve been making a lot of money in the last few years. And there are motor clubs, which were precursors to AAA, and make a lot of money selling memberships. So, according to Peter Norton, there’s a moment when all of these interests start to worry that city laws are going to make it so that nobody in the city would want to buy a car, and they have a collective, “Oh, crap” moment.

Peter: Oh, that’s really clear. It’s really sharp. The “Oh, crap” moment is November 1923.

Jesse: Love that. So, what happened then?

Peter: All right. So, Cincinnati residents got a referendum on the ballot to be voted on in November for a speed governor.

Roman: A device built into the engine.

Peter: That would require cars to be equipped with one that would limit them to 25 miles an hour. And once the speed governor was there, it had a police seal on it. If you tampered with it, you were in violation of the law. This had lots of popular support. We know 40,000 signatures on petitions. Can’t swear that they were all real people, or so on, but there were 40,000 signatures on the petitions. They had newspaper advertisements saying, “Vote ‘yes’ on this”. This really woke up people who wanted a future for cars in cities.

Jesse: They were worried that if cities had laws that restricted the use of cars, that people would stop buying them, and opt for public transportation instead. Cars would be relegated to the countryside, where fewer and fewer people lived every year. And this group of interest got organized and even gave themselves a name.

Peter: They called themselves “Motordom”.

Voice-over 1: Motordom.

Roman: Actually, that sounds pretty benign to my ears. Anyway.

Peter: And they start to make distinctions between what they want and what the other safety advocates wanted. So, you start to see, like in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was sort of a mouthpiece for the auto industry in Cincinnati, they ran a huge amount of their advertising was from auto dealers. The Cincinnati Enquirer at one point says, “The cause of accidents is men, not machines”.

Roman: In other words, cars don’t kill people, people kill people. Which is reminiscent of an NRA motto that’s been around for quite some time, you know. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s the same basic idea.

Peter: You can exonerate the machine if you blame the driver.

Jesse: And it wasn’t so much about blaming the driver, it was about promoting a subtle but super important, distinction. The cause of accidents and deaths and children dying wasn’t cars or speed, it was recklessness. Cars could be perfectly safe in the streets. They belonged on the streets.

Peter: And the beauty of recklessness is that you could also be a reckless pedestrian.

Jesse: This is really important. What Motordom did, by suggesting that pedestrians could be reckless, could be the cause of accidents, was start a turf war.

Roman: A street fight.

Peter: The “Oh, crap” moment in 1923 creates a clear sense in Motordom. That they have to change the problem from “How do we control cars and drivers?” into “How do we make streets places where cars belong, and where pedestrians don’t belong?”.

Roman: Motordom needed to market the idea that accidents could be the result of reckless pedestrians, and even that there was such a thing as reckless pedestrians, which people weren’t ready to accept yet.

Peter: One judge in particular angrily denounced the idea that you could ever have such a thing as a reckless pedestrian.

Roman: So, to sell the idea of reckless pedestrians, Motordom invented a new word, ‘jaywalking’.

Jesse: Well, actually, they didn’t invent it. Motordom re-purposed a word that had been kicking around for a couple of decades. They transformed it from a slang insult to a legal term. In the ’19 teens, ‘jay’, J-A-Y, was a word for a country bumpkin. Therefore, a jaywalker is somebody who walks around the city like a Jay from the sticks.

Peter: Well, the first actually clear illustration of what the word means that I found, is from Kansas City, 1911. And there, it’s describing, they actually have a cartoon that shows a jaywalker. They’re describing the jaywalker there as exactly that. The person from the countryside who’s in the big city, and is so dazzled by the show windows, the lights, the tall buildings, the salesmen and so on, that, as they’re walking on the sidewalk, they’re constantly stopping to look. And thereby obstructing other pedestrians. So there a jaywalker is really a nuisance to other pedestrians.

Jesse: So Motordom took this word that had meant a kind of annoying pedestrian, and gave it a new meaning, a pedestrian who breaks the traffic rules, who enters the streets in the wrong place or at the wrong time. They did this by publishing editorials about jaywalking.

Peter: Auto clubs and auto dealers got boy scouts in a number of cities to hand out little cards that would say something like, “Did you know you were jaywalking?”. And we know that people don’t know what the word meant, because it was carefully explained on the card with diagrams and information.

Jesse: And at first, the efforts to get people to stop doing something they had done for decades just didn’t work.

Peter: There was even an incident where, according to a newspaper, women struck police officers with their parasols for trying to control how they crossed the street. The lesson for Motordom was, you can’t do this by law.

Jesse: But finally, Motordom hit upon a winning strategy devised by….

Peter: E.B. Lefferts.

Jesse: E.B. Lefferts, an enemy of jaywalkers everywhere.

Peter: He was head of the automobile club of Southern California. And I think he was ahead of his time, a real public relations genius. A guy who realized before most others did, that you can’t just change behavior by punishing people and putting laws up. You have to reach them through psychology.

Jesse: Lefferts created a PR campaign in Los Angeles explaining what jaywalking was. And he helped get an anti-jaywalking ordinance passed in 1924. But here’s the really clever part. He told the police not to arrest jaywalkers.

Peter: Lefferts wanted the police officer not to arrest the jaywalker, which would only make the jaywalker indignant, but to attract ridicule. And he uses the word ridicule.

Male 1: Oh, there’s a gap in the traffic. I’ll just pop over to the druggist for some cannabis. Here we are.

Male 2: Hey, you! Out of the street. Don’t you realize you’re jaywalking?

Male 3: Hey, look at that jaywalker. What a chump.

Male 1: What, me? A jaywalker? What would my mother think?

Peter: Lefferts wanted the pedestrian ridiculed as a form of psychological control. And to Lefferts, it was more important that the onlookers see this person being ridiculed, than that you actually sort of convert this individual to correct crossing behavior. The onlookers are going to witness this ridicule, and think, “I don’t want to get that kind of ridicule, so I’m going to cross carefully”.

Jesse: That’s fiendishly clever.

Peter: Yeah.

Jesse: It’s a little hard to relate to now, because ‘jaywalker’ is sort of a benign word, like loitering. But in 1920’s America, it was a real term of abuse. And actually, several judges and newspaper editors objected to the use of such an insulting term for pedestrians.

Peter: It carried the connotation of ‘idiot’. I think if you were trying to, sort of, have a public safety campaign that involved calling people idiots, you would find a similar kind of reaction today. People would really object to that.

Jesse: Or imagine something even more contemporary.

Male 1: Oh, there’s a gap in the traffic. I’ll just pop over to the druggist for some cannabis. Here we are.

Male 2: Hey, you! Out of the street. Don’t you realize you’re douche-bagging?

Male 3: Hey, look at that douche bag! What a chump!

Male 1: What, me? A douche bag? What would my mother think?

Roman: The thing is, the ridicule worked. Newspaper reports show that just after a few weeks, pedestrians in L.A. got the message. And the streets were cleared for cars. Peter Norton says Motordom could declare victory by 1929. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, this was the year the first cloverleaf interchange was built in the United States, cementing the country’s future with automobiles.

Peter: Incidentally, that’s around the time that you find that people stop objecting to the term ‘jaywalker’, including jaywalkers themselves and judges are no longer resisting that.

Jesse: And new city streets are built with cars in mind. The streets get wider to accommodate more cars. New businesses are required to provide parking lots. Crosswalks become compulsory and cities start building expressways to make it easier to get cars in and out of cities. And it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how this story has been told.

Peter: George Orwell explained that history’s written by the winners because in writing the history, you justify yourself. So, a history of the automobile has been written, not by any single individual, but collectively over time, that predominantly is a winner’s history of the automobile. And that’s the history that says, “This was inevitable”, and it has to do with America’s love affair with the automobile.

Groucho Marx: In those early years, it hardly seemed that America had a consuming passion for the automobile. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, do you know what first began to make the car popular? The same thing that made some girls popular. They got a reputation for being fast.

Jesse: In 1961, there was a TV program called the DuPont Show of the Week, which represented itself as a documentary TV show. And DuPont at that time had a one-third interest in General Motors, so the two companies had a lot in common. And so, they wrote an episode called “Merrily We Roll Along”, which was a history of the automobile in the United States. They got Groucho Marx to host it. And in this show, Groucho Markx introduced Americans to the thesis we’ve all heard, which is that there is an American love affair with the automobile.

Groucho: We sang gladly about automo-bubbling through life together, and started out on the long honeymoon with our new sweetheart. If she had any form, it was a slight crankiness.

Jesse: So, that’s the love affair thesis. And the genius of it is, that by saying we have a love affair with the car, we’re saying that our relationship is irrational and not subject to logical judgment.

Groucho: And if that isn’t marriage, I don’t know what is. We’ve been through two wars together and a depression. She’s carried us through the air age, and into the atomic age. And wherever we’re headed now, it’ll be in something like this. It may be a nuclear powered, radar control, gyrostat, and vitamin enriched. But it’ll have license plates front and back, headlights, and a horn and once in a while, we’ll still have to get out and give it a show. So, merrily we roll along!

Jesse: And even critics of cars, including me, we’ve bought into this idea of an American love affair with the automobile.

Peter: Because the critics of the automobile could say, “This love affair, this cultural attachment we have to the automobile’s the problem”, which completely distracted them from the fact that the actual story of the transformation of the 1920s’s was a lot more complicated, and, in fact, involved a lot of hate of the car. You see real demonization of the car in the 20’s that’s been totally forgotten. Nobody remembers the memorials to the car. Nobody remembers the monuments. Nobody remembers the parades with Satan driving a Model T. Nobody remembers the cartoons, the editorial cartoons that routinely compared cars to the Grim Reaper, and Moloch, and Juggernaut, and all that.

Roman: And it’s true that Americans love cars. But part of the reason we love cars so much is our cities had been rebuilt with cars in mind. We have parking. We have expressways. We don’t have a lot of pedestrians getting in our way and slowing us down. And it may be changing. But for the moment, we still seem to like it that way.



Our reporter this week is Jesse Dukes, who spoke with historian Peter Norton about the invention of jaywalking.

We just learned today (literally!) that Peter Norton previously appeared on BackStory With the American History Guys in 2008, speaking with host Brian Balogh (who also happens to have been Peter Norton’s dissertation adviser). Check out that interview here.

And here’s Peter Norton over at The Atlantic Cities.

We had help recreating historical (and counterfactual) America with the vocal talent of Snap Judgment’s Pat Mesiti-Miller, Stephanie Foo, Anna Sussman, Will Urbina, and Nick van der Kolk. Their recent episode Making It Work is an instant classic!


Support for this episode comes in part from Tiny Letter — email for people with something to say!

Support also comes from Squarespace, offering listeners a free trial and 10% new orders — head to and use the code “invisible4”.

  1. Chris

    Fascinating podcast that gives an interesting perspective on something we consider so normal today.

    I did find it interesting that you compare their campaign to a modern one calling people idiots, since here in Australia the TAC has had a campaign for years of “If you drink then drive, you’re a bloody idiot”. Then again they’ve always gone for very confronting and direct advertising campaigns – check out some of the TV spots on their wikipedia page (

  2. J

    listeners and readers may be interested in Drachten:

    “Recently, Drachten received international attention for a traffic experiment known as shared space, a concept pioneered by Hans Monderman. Almost all traffic lights and signs have been removed in the town’s centre in an effort to improve traffic safety, based on the theory that drivers pay more attention to their surroundings when they cannot rely on strict traffic rules. Previously the town’s centre had an average of 8 accidents per year. In the first two years after the system was introduced, yearly accidents were reduced to 1.”

    from Wikipedia and also

  3. Bike&Chain… velorutionary literary art that analyzes the economic war waged by Automakers and Big Oil against the self propelled.

  4. Labann

    Ther very first recorded traffic accident in the United States occurred between a bicycle and a car in New York City at its first traffic signal. You can’t make such stuff up.

  5. Enjoyed the podcat, but then was saddened to hear you’re unhappy with your WordPress website. I help people make their WordPress sites work better for them. Hit me up if you’d like to make yours better sometime.

  6. Mark Evans

    Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” / “And Then There Were None” includes this as a minor part of a fantastic whodunit.

    1. Isaiah

      It is from the “Drive” soundtrack. I cant remember what song. Look it up and listen. All of the songs are really good. One of my favorites.

  7. andrew saul

    Great show. Just listened to it. I really appreciated how you wove in some of the history of the car but only just enough to give the main subject context without adding unnecessary bulk to the episode. Really engaging stuff once again.

  8. Bdog

    As a pedestrian I have almost been hit by cars and buses while in the crosswalk with a green light. What is the term for the traffic that intrudes into the crosswalk? Jay drivers? Get off your cell phones idiots.

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