The jitney problem…

A jitney bus about 1924. Image from Wisconsin Historical Society.

One memory that stands out for me from when we lived in Manila, was the jeepney busses (similar to jitneys) that drove around the city, with all the bright colors and decorations, which included fringe and beads hanging from the windows. They were pretty cool to watch, especially when you are a kid.

Who would have thought that my grandfather would have been part of the jitney craze that hit America in the nineteen teens and continued until about 1923.

The jitney business, (according to a 1915 article I found1), is said to have originated in the southwest, due to the recession which broke out just after WWI, and is believed to have started because of a street car service strike. An intrepid businessman seeing folks in need, took the opportunity to make a few extra nickels in a poor economy by charging them for a ride in his automobile. They were called ‘jitneys’ because they cost a nickel to ride, and slang for a nickel at the time was ‘jitney’.

This idea took hold like wildfire, spreading across the country with great enthusiasm. It apparently also caused massive headaches for local city councils who were wholly unprepared for the problems this craze would cause. Problems like congestion and increased street accidents. Local trolley lines and chartered transportation companies began losing money as a very fast clip as fewer folks were using their systems. City officials and public utility commissioners were now tasked with the necessity of regulating the ‘rampant individualism’ that was causing such havoc on their streets.

Fleets of automobiles were appearing unexpectedly on local streets and not conforming to any regulations. Anyone who was unemployed, wanted to change jobs, had an automobile, regardless of skill or experience, was getting into the business. Street accidents became frequent due to congestion, defective automobiles, reckless driving, and competition amongst drivers.

The railroads, trolley lines and taxi companies with franchises to protect, were all solidly against the jitney. In some cities councils, sensitive to the ‘established order’ of their towns attempted to legislate the jitney out of business. One way this would work was to make jitney owners responsible for any accidents they are involved in.

Wisconsin newspaper article talking about one of the reasons jitneys were starting to die out at this time,
they were becoming too expensive to run.
Some of the advantages of the jitney as opposed to the other modes of transportation available to folks were: quicker service, a more comfortable and cleaner ride, cheaper, and not as noisy. Jitneys could provide service to suburban and interurban areas. Transportation strikes would never affect the drivers, they weren’t in a union. They also helped make a city prettier by eliminating the need for trolley poles and lines. The nickels spent for the ride generally stayed local. And, hey, chauffeur!
The jitney definitely made big business sit up and take notice, their strap-hanging public had an alternate mode of transportation and were using it.
I have no idea how long Clarence ran his business or where in Wisconsin this happened. But I am sure hoping that I can find out.

The craze had many a song written about it.
1 The Jitney Bus Problem, by E. S. Koelker, page 87; The Wisconsin Municipality, volume XV, January to December, 1915; Madison, Wisconsin.



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