A fascinating look by Joseph Stromberg for Vox at the history behind the term “jaywalking.”
“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers' job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”
One of the keys to this shift was the creation of the crime of jaywalking. Here’s a history of how that happened.
Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th-century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.
This strategy also explains the name that was given to crossing illegally on foot: jaywalking. During this era, the word “jay” meant something like “rube” or “hick” — a person from the sticks, who didn’t know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety.
At first, the term was seen as offensive, even shocking. Pedestrians fired back, calling dangerous driving “jay driving.”
But jaywalking caught on (and eventually became one word). Safety organizations and police began using it formally, in safety announcements.
Ultimately, both the word jaywalking and the concept that pedestrians shouldn’t walk freely on streets became so deeply entrenched that few people know this history. “The campaign was extremely successful,” Norton says. “It totally changed the message about what streets are for.”