Cities in the early days of the United States were mostly quiet at night. People who left the comfort of their own homes at night could often be found walking into puddles, tripping over uneven terrain, or colliding into posts because virtually no street lighting existed. Urban areas had established curfew times that “were signaled by the ringing of bells, the beating of drums, or the firing of cannons” at an early hour in the evening. With the advent of gas lighting, culture transformed in fascinating ways. Here are 12 interesting facts about urban nightlife from Peter C. Baldwin’s article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, which shows how times have greatly changed and, remarkably, how some things have remained the same.
1. The Christmas season was an especially popular time for drunken rowdiness at night. Somewhat like 20th-century trick-or-treaters, young men in early 19th-century Philadelphia and New York knocked on doors demanding drinks or small gifts.
2. Plays were banned in New England cities, forcing traveling troupes to bill their performances as “moral dialogues.”
3. Theater audiences used to talk amongst themselves much of the time during performances. With the house lights kept up, audiences paid as much attention to socializing and people-watching as to the performance.
4. With the rise of industrialization, workers could no longer take unscheduled breaks, but had to work steadily. As a result, leisure activities like going for a round of drinks began to be pushed out of the day and into the night.
5. With gas lights in commercial districts and professional police forces replacing poorly-trained and unmotivated night watchmen, growing safety was a key factor in encouraging evening street activity. Restaurants, ice cream parlors, and oyster saloons clustered in the well-lit commercial streets.
6. Hours of work and leisure grew less distinct in the late 19th century. The number of night workers greatly expanded, partly because of the adoption of new processes of continuous production in the iron, glass, paper, and petrochemical industries. These processes were facilitated by the availability of electric power after about 1880, and by the superiority of electric lighting. Better lighting also encouraged additional night work on the docks, and in the manufacturing of textiles and books.
7. A gradual decline in labor hours, slow increases in income, and dwindling moral opposition to commercial entertainment also contributed to the expansion of nightlife. Electric lighting further encouraged the growth of commercial nightlife. In the “bright-light districts” of Chicago, Minneapolis, and many smaller cities, brilliant illumination made downtown streets seem safer and more
exciting. Advertising signs, theater marquees, and glowing store windows added to the flood of light from arc and incandescent street lamps.
8. Nightlife at the very end of the 19th century began to shift decisively away from a male-dominated scene. Alternative nightlife options to the all-male “homosocial”
saloons developed. Mixed-gender restaurants and increasingly lavish hotel dining rooms
opened for business, and vaudeville houses succeeded in attracting a mixed-gendered mass audience.
9. Changes in patterns of courtship encouraged mixed-gender nightlife as well. Instead of courting young women in private, men in the 20th century began taking them out on “dates” to public entertainment places such as restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. Dating freed young couples from parental supervision, a development assisted greatly by the advent of the automobile.
10. The invention of television decreased the number of people who went out in urban areas. Watching TV with one’s family became a popular alternative to going out at night. Total movie admissions plummeted from 4.1 billion in 1946 to 1.1 billion in 1962.
11. In the late 1940s and 1950s, bebop jazz performances flourished in smaller nightclubs filled with hipsters. Young hipsters at the time listened to bebop jazz, which offered innovative but less danceable music. They sneered at the conventionality of mainstream society, welcomed the sexuality that they associated with black culture, and, in many cases, supplemented their listening experience by using marijuana and heroin. As the dance culture of young whites came to focus on rock, bop fans preferred just to listen to this increasingly intellectualized art form.
12. Rock concerts in Boston were banned at one point. After a minor riot took place outside the Boston Arena on 3 May 1958, Boston police arrested concert promoter and disc jockey Alan Freed, and then Boston Mayor John B. Hynes briefly called off similar musical performances.
Featured image credit: “52nd Street, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1948” by William Gottlieb. Public Domain via The Library of Congress.