Kansas City streets and ladies’ skirtsFashionPlate-JournalDesDemoiselles-1892


There was a minor fashion revolution in Kansas City early in 1893 when the Equal Suffrage Club advocated raising the hems of women’s skirts above floor length, a move that had less to do with fashion than with the realities of living in Kansas City. “It will take a bit of courage to carry out the resolution,” in the opinion of a writer to the Daily Journal, but “any woman who has to “brush the accumulated filth of the street from snagged and torn dress facings, will hail the incoming fashion with joyful song.”[1]  Kansas City’s downtown streets were a mess: “The condition of some of the principal thoroughfares is a constant disgrace,” complained one citizen,[2] while the Daily Journal observed that Kansas City streets were “reeking with nastiness…. Never since the principal thoroughfares of the city were first paved have they been in such a disreputable condition. Filth abounds….”[3]

Several factors contributed to the grubbiness, among them a mentality that sanctioned the casual dumping of trash on the street. All over the city, complained a Journal  editorial, “the streets and pavements, as well as the sidewalks, are being used as dumping grounds for ashes and refuse that help to destroy the material with which the streets are paved.”[4] “Walk down Main street any afternoon,” an unnamed citizen is quoted in the Times as saying, “and you will find it littered with orange peels, cigar stumps, dirty paper and refuse from the stores for its entire length.”  On every business street in the morning, he continued, one sees janitors sweeping dirt and waste paper into the street. 

He imagined what visitors passing through Kansas City en route to the upcoming World’s Fair in Chicago will think of the place: “we want to have a clean, tidy city to show them.”  Americans, he concluded, “do not understand how clean European streets are kept. Why, when I was there I had to give up chewing tobacco because I could not spit on the street. They would no more think of throwing an apple core on the street than of tossing it on the carpet in a drawing room.”[5]

The streets were supposed to be sprinkled and swept three times a day, under private contracts with three different companies, but there were regular complaints that the companies weren’t living up to their agreements[6]: “They have, it is said, swept the streets at hours forbidden and have conscientiously refused to sprinkle the thoroughfares, though the ordinance requires that the streets shall be wept when swept,” according to a Star report.[7] The Mail, the most radical of city papers, called for the city to take over the street sprinkling job from contractors: “Why should a few contractors fatten and grow rich at the expense of the taxpayer? Let the city do the things which it has been in the habit of doing if it can do it cheaper than by granting the rights to private parties to do it.”[8]

Baltimore Omnibus 1885Another contributing factor to the mess of city streets  was the crush of heavy horse-drawn freight wagons, omnibuses, sprinkling wagons and drays with narrow iron tires that made deep, trash-gathering ruts: “Even in those made of heavy stone,” complained the Journal,” are found deep, unsightly and annoying ruts caused by the constant and unceasing wear of narrow tires upon heavy trucks and freight wagons.”[9]

The main reason for the streets’ poor condition, however, was the quality of the wood block paving that comprised about two-thirds of the seventy-five miles of street surfaces laid down since the city had begun paving a decade or so earlier.[10] Wood block paving had advantages: it was relatively quiet and easy on horses’ hooves; wood was available and cheap. But it wore poorly under the beating it took from rainstorms and heavily-loaded horse drawn wagons: a “wood swindle,” a Journal editorial writer called the blocks.[11]  By 1893 most was in a poor repair. A prominent citizen, Colonel Case, complained that “In many places the blocks have been worn into a pulp by heavy hauling and absorb the filth of the street like a sponge.” The smell of the rotting blocks is sufficient, he says, to knock a man over.[12]Wooden pavement remnant, Chicago

The move to replace the city’s “pioneer pavement”[13] with more durable  asphalt or vitrified brick surfaces was hailed by the Times editors as a “great awakening”[14] announcing Kansas City’s rise from hard scrabble frontier town to booming, permanent city. Not all shared the Times’  boosterism. The cost of new pavement was born by property owners on the roads where it was being laid, with special tax bills levied not only for laying pavement but for sprinkling, sweeping, and maintenance. [15]

PublicImprovement Property owners could petition for cheaper paving options, such as macadam, but doing so, editorialized the Daily Journal, “is not an indication of wisdom on the part of the petitioners,” since the cost of macadam would in the end be much higher: “Macadam is not a fit paving for any city streets, as has been most conclusively demonstrated on all the streets in this city where it has been laid.” The editorial points to downtown streets – Grand Avenue between Eighth and Ninth, for example – that had been macadamized less than a year earlier and were already “full of great holes,” muddy in winter and dusty in summer, “a burden to all who are compelled to pass that way.”

Street improvements, wrote the editors, should “show progress instead of retrogression, and if Kansas City puts the material that is only useful for country roads on her best streets simply to please a few interested parties she will be advertising herself as clinging on to old ways instead of being on the alert for new and improved ways.”[16]  Progress was also the theme of Robert Gilham’s inaugural address as president of the Engineers’ Club: “This is an age of progress, an age marked for its extended mastery over natural forces.” It was the “indifference of taxpayers” that was mainly behind the problems with Kansas City streets, said Gilham.Robert Gilham

While the debate over street improvement was going on in Kansas City, a national “Good Roads”[17] movement was developing in the country as a whole, its influence evident in papers delivered before the Municipal Improvement Association at its meeting in May. Speakers addressed beautifying streets as well as improving their surfaces: “In recent years,” said one speaker, “enlarged commercial interests, aesthetic considerations and approved theories of sanitation have combined to advance the standard of what a street should be, and have enforced the use of new materials and new methods of construction.”  Public sentiment in the city was now, he argued, in favor of “greater permanence and excellence,” as well as the provision of streets suitable not only for commerce but for “pleasure driving and promenading.”[18]

A major force behind the Good Roads movement in Kansas City, as elsewhere in the country, was the League of American Wheelmen, an organization of bicycle riders. As the “safety” bicycle took the place of the so-called “ordinary” or high-wheeler,  bicycling was becoming a popular recreation for women as well as men: “Wherever roads are good,” commented the Star in an article titled “Friends of Good Streets,” “there will always be a large class whose desire for exercise and a speedy and comfortable means of locomotion will draw them to the bicycle.” In Kansas City, the Star estimated, there are “probably 500 in all, counting ladies, children, and sedate men of business and the professions who take their daily exercise on a wheel. All these are vitally interested in good roads.” One enthusiast told the Star reporter, “There are plenty of men who would like to buy a wheel and go to and from their offices every day for exercise, but this city is paved in such a manner that there are one or two blocks of pavement to ride on and then one or two of mud…” [19] In St. Louis, wheelmen had been influential in pushing for better paving and sprinkling of the streets, and Kansas City, the article implied, needed to catch up.KCStar-11-17-1893-p5

Some businessmen also wanted better streets, even though at their own expense: “The repaving of Grand avenue with some substantial material is simply a matter of ordinary business policy,” said a Grand Avenue property owner to the Star; “They say times are hard and people can’t afford to go to extra expense. Well, times are hard enough with me to convince me that the best thing I can do is to pay out something like $1500 as my share in the expense of making Grand avenue one of the best thoroughfares in Kansas City.” Walnut Avenue, he observed, had recently been paved with asphalt and was “perfectly smooth,” while Grand’s wooden pavement was full of holes: “A wagon on Grand avenue goes along pitching and jerking and no one will drive on it if he can help it.”[20] It was bad for business; customers will take their business to Walnut.

The same business-centered argument was made to farmers in an editorial in the Times entitled “A Question of Business.” Good roads are “an investment which cold, hard facts prove would be worth more in dollars and cents than any single improvement….”  If a farmer has to wait until roads are passable to get his crops to market, he might miss the best price: “Every day of the year…. the farmers are losing money and prosperity by clinging to the country dirt road.” [21]

However, it was not only adherence to old ways or penny-pinching that caused resistance to the latest paving techniques: politics were also involved. Experts, engineers like Robert Gilham and ex-city engineer Major Gunn, agreed that asphalt was the best and, ultimately, cheapest material, though vitrified bricks also had desirable qualities: they are “durable, not noisy, easily cleaned…, not hard on horses, are closely jointed and nearly non-absorbent,” and cost less than asphalt. In addition, Kansas City had a brick plant, while asphalt had to be imported. Still, argued Major Gunn, his preference was for asphalt, especially for residence streets.[22]Barber Asphalt Columbian Exposition award

The problem was that there was a monopoly in asphalt: it came from one source, the Barber Asphalt Paving Company of New York, which got its asphalt from Trinidad. If there was one thing that citizens of 1893 Kansas City were on the alert for it was monopoly, a word which too often occurred in conjunction with “boodle,” as politicians sought favors from companies in return for contracts and people were overcharged by monopolistic trusts for everything from binding twine to railroad rates.

The Daily Journal attributed much of the high cost of paving to kickbacks: “Too many people have to be ‘seen’ before the most suitable pavement can be decided upon,” and then, once the pavement had been laid, street authorities neglected maintenance --  from which no boodle could be realized – and moved on to the paving of new streets. The solution of the Mail editors was to start using brick exclusively: “Paving rings must go. The paving robbery must be stopped,” they declared. “Let us have cheaper pavement. Asphalt can be put down at a profit for $1.50 a yard. It costs $2.80. This is too much. Brick pavement is cheaper and better….”

The solution of the Journal editors was to buy asphalt from some other source: “it is unnecessary to go to the Island of Trinidad for asphaltum with which to pave the streets.” Instead, good quality material could be obtained from California sources which are “under the control of no single individual or corporation.”  The only obstacle to escaping from the Barber monopoly is that the city invariably calls for “Trinidad asphalt” when soliciting bids, although it’s well known that only one company provides that material. “This is a matter that means much to the taxpayers of the city, but,” the editors conclude ominously, ”nothing will be done to shake off the grip of the monopoly until somebody, not controlled by the agents of the powerful corporation, shall take it in hand.” [23]

Interestingly, the day after the Journal’s comment on Trinidad asphalt appeared, a retraction of sorts was published: a “prominent engineer of the city” had criticized the idea that California asphalt was equal to the Trinidad product: experiments had shown it was not. The engineer also argued that Trinidad asphalt was specified because it was believed to be the best, not for the sinister reasons implied by the editors. The Journal had not given up on its anti-monopoly campaign, however, later suggesting Venezuelan Bermudez asphalt, then in use in Washington, D.C., could be substituted for the Barber product. [24]

It wasn’t only city politics that were problematic in relation to roads. In 1893 Missouri, road building and maintenance were the concern of cities and counties rather than state or federal governments. There were no state or federal highway systems; each county built and maintained its own roads, creating a hodge-podge of road types and conditions. [25] Jackson County roads were supposed to be funded by saloon license fees, with most of the proceeds -- 90%, according to a Journal article – going to Jackson County, even though most of the saloons were in Kansas City. It was, claimed the Journal, not a fair divide, especially since there seemed to be no accounting for where the county funds were going: “One thing is sure and that is that the roads of the county do not receive the amount the law says they should receive, or they would be in a much better condition.”[26] The Journal called for an investigation of Jackson County’s books to see what was happening with dramshop revenues, with the clear implication that county officials were pocketing dramshop funds and allowing inferior road work to be done.

The federal government was even more remote from road building in 1893 than the state. The U.S. Bureau of Agriculture had set up a Bureau of Road improvement to collect and circulate information on road-building methods, but as the Times editors pointed out, there was debate about the functions of government in road-building, “some maintaining that the Federal power should direct and levy for inter-State highways, and others championing the cause of State, county and private supervision.” A mere thirty years after the end of the Civil War, there was plenty of suspicion of the federal government in Missouri. For the Times editors, county commissioners offered the best way of levying taxes and improving roads while state and federal authorities could help by “crystallizing public sentiment and inciting public endeavor toward better roads.”[27]

For all the problems of monopoly, corruption, taxation, and financial stringency brought on by the economic depression of 1893, the year saw improvement in Kansas City streets: “largely smooth pavements have supplanted the wretched cedar blocks of the very recent past” said the Times in an end-of-year retrospective:  “the whole city is seen in a state of upheaval, with armies of men engaged in the work of rehabilitation…..” The city was passing through a “revolution” in public improvements: “A well-paved street attracts the real estate investor first and then the home seeker.” Some “conservative public men” have opposed the effort to improve streets and sewers, recalled the paper, “but the city has pushed ahead notwithstanding the croakers until it has a system of paved streets second to none in the country.” [28]

There is no indication, however, that the women of the Equal Suffrage Association were prepared as yet to return the hems of their skirts to ground level.



[1]  “The Short Street Dress.” Kansas City Daily Journal. January 8, 1893, p. 10.

[2] “Streets Must Be Clean.” Kansas City Star, February 28, 1893, p. 1.

[3] “Time to Clean Up.”  Kansas City Daily Journal, January 3, 1893, p. 4.

[4] “Preserving the Streets.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 13, 1893, p. 4.

[5] Streets Must be Clean.” Kansas City Star, February 28, 1893, p. 1

[6] “Under Three Contracts.” Kansas City Daily Journal, June 17, 1893, p. 3.

[7] “To Enforce the Law.” Kansas City Star, September 3, 1893, p. 1.

[8] “Glaring Inconsistencies.” Kansas City Mail, January 16, 1893, p. 4.

[9] “Preserving the Streets.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 13, 1893, p. 4.

[10] “Better Streets Needed.” Kansas City Times, May 23, 1893, p. 8.

[11] “About Asphalt.” Kansas City Daily Journal. November 26, 1893, p. 4.

[12] “Bad Pavements.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 27, 1893, p. 3.

[13] “Street Paving Material.” Kansas City Daily Journal, July 11, 1893, p. 3.

[14] “Public Improvement.” Kansas City Times, January 1, 1893, p. 30.

[15] “A New Kind of Tax Bill.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 25, 1893. The article lists by streets the asphalt pavement laid from 1888, when the first asphalt pavement was laid in Kansas City, through to 1897. Under the city’s arrangement with the asphalt company, the company maintained the roads for five years, after which maintenance costs would be born by property owners, provisional on the city’s accepting the streets after expiry of the company guarantee.

[16]The Best is the Cheapest.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 27, 1893, p. 4

[17] “Good Roads Movement,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Roads_Movement

[18] “Better Streets Needed.” Kansas City Times, May 23, 1893, p. 8.

[19] “Friends of Good Streets.” Kansas City Star, November 17, 1893, p. 5.

[20] “Hard Times No Excuse.” Kansas City Star, October 7, 1893, p. 6.

[21] “A Question of Business.” Kansas City Times, December 26, 1893, p. 4.

[22]Street Paving Material.” Kansas City Daily Journal, July 11, 1893, p. 3.

[23]About Street Paving.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 27, 1893, p. 4.

[24] “About Asphalt.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 30, 1893, p. 4. Perhaps it was fortunate the city did not take up the proposal: in 1899 the New York and Bermudez company became involved in Venezuelan politics, supporting the opposing side in a civil war after the government under Cipriano Castro raised taxes on the company. The resulting conflict became known as the "Asphalt war" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Bermudez). 

[25]Missouri Roads before the Interstate System. [www.modot.org/interstate/MissourisInterstateHistory.htm]

[26] “Have a Fair Divide.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 27, 1893, p. 4.

[27] “The Bureau of Road Improvement.” Kansas City Times, December 20, 1893, p. 4.

[28] “Well-paved Streets.” Kansas City Times, December 31, 1893, p. 20.