3 Things About: “In the Watches of the Night”

In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Noctural City, 1820-1930 by Peter C. Baldwin. University of Chicago Press (283 pp.)
  • University of Connecticut historian Baldwin offers a lively, anecdote-filled account of how improved lighting affected nighttime street behavior in American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  First oil, then gas, then electric lighting gradually provided a greater sense of security at night, which by Western tradition was a time of crime, immorality, and sickness.  Before illumination, streets in early American cities were “downright perilous on cloudy, moonless nights,” says the author.  Often, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Muggers lurked. Rapists assaulted women servants on late errands. Ruffians attacked and beat pedestrians for amusement.
  •  Then, as now, many people enjoyed the experience of the night streets—“the odd mix of characters, the occasional serendipitous encounter, the cool air on one’s face, the hint of danger.” Some enjoyed the concealment of the night; others felt a sense of freedom.  “The evening is all our own,” wrote a former mill worker.  Baldwin draws on diaries, letters, and other documents to chronicle the ways of city people at night.  Under the watchful eyes of night watchmen and later policemen, urban streets proved a source of entertainment for young men who looked forward to “quitting time” after long workdays. Things grew rowdy as the hour grew later. “The people who haunted urban spaces after midnight were said to be those who scoffed at the decency of the sunlit world: the decadent rich, the irresponsible poor, the criminal underworld, and—most troubling of all—the corrupted sons and daughters of the middle class.”
  •  By the 1870s, along Broadway between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City had given rise to a busy hub of concert saloons, gambling halls, and a large restaurant that remained open until 2 a.m. Many young men with money began their evenings at the theater, went to an oyster bar, and then wound up at a brothel or gambling hall. The author describes the boisterous scenes in taverns, oyster saloons and other venues as well as the comings and goings of night workers—bakers, scavengers, newspaper employees, railroad workers, and others. By the 1920s, electric streetlamps filled most city blocks with enough light that you could see faces and avoid obstacles.  Over the decades, new technologies and societal mores changed much in American life.  Yet the urban night long remained “an incompletely civilized realm within the modern city,” writes Baldwin.

-Joseph Barbato

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