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After 136 Years of Overcrowding, Straphangers Still Look for Relief

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you live or work in a city, chances are you’ve ridden public transportation during rush hours. And, if you ride public transportation during rush hours, chances are you’ve found yourself without a seat the entire trip. While overcrowding on subways and buses may seem like a modern day burden, the problem was troublesome enough to inspire an article in the November 27, 1875 Scientific American to write,

“The fact is pretty generally recognized that so long as there is an available inch on which a foothold can be got, either inside a street car or on a platform, people will endeavor to occupy that space, and there they will remain, clinging to strap or bar, in positions uncomfortable to themselves and to those whom they crowd. Nothing short of a sentry with a sharp bayonet, stationed at each end of every car, will serve as an effective preventative; but as the use of that weapon might lead to disagreeable complications, that plan, together with the scheme of an India rubber car, capable of indefinite extension, must be reckoned as infeasible.”

If only a sentry had been on the subway this morning and could have pointed a bayonet at the guy who squeezed in front of me and repeatedly swung his backpack into my face.


A search for a less violent solution to the congestion problem led thirty-one-time patentee Mr. Cevedra B. Sheldon to invent extra seating in horse-drawn streetcars. Trips in these cars were often long and bumpy, making it extremely uncomfortable for those left standing. Despite what a glance at the accompanying engraving may suggest, extra seating was not found in the lap of fellow passengers.

extra seat on train

Sheldon's folding seat for overcrowded trains


Rather, the additional seats attached to standards that were bolted to a riser below the primary seat. According to the description, the standards were shaped in a way that allowed for enough space between seats to prevent passengers from touching. The standard had a locking joint to keep it in place and a lug to help maintain its height. The invention was to increase the capacity of the car by at least half, but with the rapidly increasing population in cities, it most likely would not have been enough to prevent crowding. So, while literally rubbing elbows with strangers on your morning commute can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, just remember you’re taking part in a time-honored tradition of authentic city living.


About the Author: Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are working to digitize all past issues of the magazine. Mary Karmelek is in charge of checking over each issue, and in the process she uncovers fascinating, captivating and humorous material buried in the yellowed pages of our past.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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