Safe in the City: Risk in Early Twentieth Century New York

By Ross J. Wilson

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A journey across New York today is a demonstration of how risk is managed and negotiated in the modern era. From food products to health, crime and terrorism, we are warned to "keep back," "beware," "stay safe" "avoid" or "report." The contemporary city is filled with signs and advertisements for citizens and tourists on how to keep safe. The individual is instructed on how to be responsible for their safety and well-being. This focus on individual responsibility is a product of the safety movement which redefined relationships between individuals, businesses and the city authorities from the nineteenth century onwards. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, the concern for public safety brought parades, monuments and a museum to the city.

In the latter nineteenth century, New Yorkers were increasingly put in danger as the pressures of development led to overcrowding in poorer wards. The inadequacy of sanitation caused illness and disease and unregulated industrial development ensured environmental pollution and workplace accidents. Commentators were increasingly drawn to the image of New York as a city of peril, not solely for its reputation for vice and salacious behavior.

The courts were filled with claims of workplace injury:

  • 1870 – 0 court cases

  • 1890 – 24 court cases

  • 1910 – 160 court cases


These cases raised issues of responsibility and culpability. As the New York Times asked its readers on September 29, 1890, "When an accident occurs on a railroad, in a factory, or elsewhere, one of the first questions is, who is to blame?"

The public was also part of this development, as the city’s transport companies began facing lawsuits regarding the injury or death of individuals on the railroads and tramlines. Accidents were increasing. The city’s police recorded nearly 900 people run over in 1895. Corporate negligence was a factor in these injuries and fatalities, but citizens were also just adjusting to the speed of modern life. By 1900, transport lines crisscrossed the city, presenting new and potentially fatal hazards to everyone.

Their lives were protected by a range of legislation governing building practices, and by civic bodies invested with the authority to preserve life. For example, in the 1860s and 1870s the Board of Health for New York and Brooklyn and the Health Department for New York were formed in response to outbreaks of disease. Successive waves of tenement building legislation in the nineteenth century were also enacted to improve housing conditions for citizens.

However, there were moments when the inability to ensure safety in the city was brutally exposed, as in the deaths of over 1,000 individuals in the General Slocum Disaster of 1904. The steamboat, chartered to take a German Lutheran Church group on a summer outing, caught fire in the East River. Public outrage was evidence showed the reasons for the outbreak to be the absence of safety precautions. In this case, both private companies and city officials were charged with the neglect of a public duty and failure to adequately provide life-saving equipment.

Digital Collection, New York Public Library

Digital Collection, New York Public Library

The duty to protect life and limb was therefore promoted as a social mission. This was confirmed with the development of the American Museum of Safety, opened in 1907. Under the directorship of William H. Tolman (1861-1958), the museum set up premises at 29 West 39th Street in 1910, before moving to 14-18 West 24th Street by 1915. Using displays of safety equipment and exhibitions of the latest accident prevention techniques, the museum sought to build a bridge between employer, employee and city authorities, to develop healthy labor environments, responsible individuals and workplace harmony.

The work conducted by the museum was not necessarily based on reform of relationships between employers, employees and the state, but on establishing responsibility at an individual level. One of the messages of the museum regarding workplace accidents was that individuals were required to ensure their own and their colleagues’ safety. In effect, this served as a means by which corporations and the city authorities were able to absolve their own degree of culpability. The museum provided awards for corporations which had implemented safety plans and devices which in turn placed emphasis on the care and attention of the individual to use these procedures.

In an era of widespread labor disputes alongside increasing workplace fatalities, the Museum of Safety was forwarded as a tool of industrial harmony and, to some extent, social engineering. The institution instructed individuals on how to behave and how to take action against lapses in safety provisions. As such, the Museum of Safety was concerned with the improvement and cultivation of the individual as the other great institutions in the city. Indeed, Tolman used shocking failures in industrial welfare, such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, to suggest that his institution was as important to the city as the Natural History Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In its exhibition space, businesses were able to demonstrate their techniques and equipment used to prevent injury and death, while workers were able to learn of these practices and implement them. The Museum also promoted outreach work through their journal Safety and through public initiatives such as "Safety Week," held in April 1913, which encouraged schoolchildren to be vigilant on the street. The city's newspapers welcomed such a program, the Brooklyn Eagle writing on April 4, 1913, that it was "[c]reating a lasting impression on the young is the most scientific method of dealing with the subject of avoidable accidents."

The Museum succeeded in raising safety's profile to such an extent that by 1914 the Police Department began recording the occurrence of accidents within the metropolis and even highlighted specific areas of the city that saw the highest frequency. These records were detailed in 1914:

  • 19 classes of accidents

  • 22,540 total accidents

  • 659 fatalities

  • 23,321 injuries


The move encouraged the Museum to expand its work to almost all sections of public and private life. In 1915, it published its report, Sidewalk and Street Accidents Other Than Vehicular. This work was regarded as a public service of the utmost importance, the hazards presented to pedestrians by the office of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel (1879-1918).

The First World War (1914-1918) brought a new focus for the Museum, as it exhibited displays supporting preparedness, the provision of military equipment, and concern for "Americanization." To be "safe" now demonstrated not only responsibility but citizenship. Films highlighting the dangers of alcohol consumption and the necessity of English language skills were inevitably targeted at a supposedly "foreign" population.

While the war saw a reduction in the Museum’s profile, the concern for public and workplace safety remained high. After the conflict a new focus on preserving life developed: the automobile, another symbol of progress and modernity. Concern grew that the streets were becoming too dangerous for pedestrians, especially children, as automobile ownership increased rapidly. In New York, it quickly became dominant:

  • 71,000 licensed vehicles in 1915

  • 213,000 licensed vehicles in 1920

The increased presence of the automobile was accompanied by a rise in fatal accidents: nearly a thousand in 1920. To raise awareness, the Museum worked alongside public bodies and corporations to develop a new "Safety Week" in 1922, a series of speeches and parades celebrating safety as a virtue of the responsible citizen. As part of the event, a temporary memorial to the children killed in accidents was erected at the entrance to Central Park, on 72nd Street and Broadway. At the dedication ceremony, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland (1868-1938) stated: "We dedicate monuments to our hero dead, to our great men in art and science, but we are met today to perform a unique service. We are here to dedicate a monument to the martyrs of civilization to the helpless little ones who have met death through the agencies of modern life." Advertisements featured a child star of silent films, Jackie Coogan, dressed as a police officer with the slogan "Don’t Get Hurt."

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The campaign was extensive, and its success led to the creation of an official Bureau of Public Safety in 1922. Police Commissioner Richard E. Enright (1871-1953) selected officers to serve in this new unit, tasked with reducing accidents in the city through investigation, analysis and public awareness programs.

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It was this Bureau which created the iconic Aunty J. Walker. By the early 1920s, this well-known image adorned public notices all around New York, providing guidance to pedestrians as to how to cross streets safely and to motorists on how to be aware of pedestrians. This campaign was also accompanied by parades, particularly prominent in 1924 and 1925. In these spectacles, corporations and the Bureau reinforced the message of public safety.

By the 1920s, the issue of safety had become prominent across the city and this marked a new relationship between citizens, corporations and the city authorities. To be "safe' marked the individual as responsible, but it also demonstrated how New Yorkers had adapted to the speed of modern life.

The warning signs and hazard notices that advise and guide individuals in New York today have their basis in this history of risk management. To be “safe in the city” was an effective means of control and conformity to ensure personal responsibility. Through this process the modern New York city has emerged.

Ross J. Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Modern History and Public Heritage at the University of Chichester (UK). He is currently completing a manuscript of the history of safety in New York from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Further reading
David Rosner and Gerald E. Markowitz eds., Dying for Work: Workers' Safety and Health in Twentieth-century America (1989).

Roger Cooter and Bill Luckin, eds., Accidents in History: Injuries, Fatalities and Social Relations (1997).

Arwen Mohun, Risk: Negotiating Safety in American Society (2012).