Regular subway riders have, by now, seen the faceless green-and-red stick figures who encourage subway and bus riders to be courteous and stop manspreading, nail-clipping, and defying gravity in subway-dance routines. The MTA’s “Courtesy Counts” campaign, rolled out on trains in January and buses in March, has gotten a lot of attention for calling out the behaviors commuters hate the most. But the ads are simply the most recent iteration of transit etiquette campaigns. Pretty much as long as there’s been a subway to ride in this city, there’s been an attempt to teach all riders good manners.
The New York City Transit Museum is exploring this long and quirky history of subway etiquette Tuesday night as part of its AfterHours program series. The event will touch on how the current ads were created, and will look back at some of the old campaigns that used to plaster train walls. And not surprisingly, cellphones aside, what ticks us off hasn’t changed all that much. Manspreaders of today, meet the “space hogs” of yore — along with the door-blockers, feet-resters, and litterbugs.
Those "space hogs" appear in the "Subway Sun" ads, one of New York’s longer-running campaigns. Carey Stumm, an archivist at the New York City Transit Museum said the ads, which are supposed to look like newspaper front pages, first appeared on cars in 1918 on the then privately owned IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit, or today’s number lines). An artist named Fred Cooper created the original ads, which ran until World War II. The city, which by then controlled the IRT, decided to re-up the etiquette campaign in 1946. According to Stumm, Cooper’s protégée, Amelia Opdyke-Jones, known as "Oppy," took over the "Subway Sun" drawings. Her animated cartoon characters featured prominently through the late 1940s and 1950s and chugged along into the 1960s, until they were eclipsed by the Etti-Cat, which first appeared in 1962.
So there are two ways to look at today’s freakish, colorful subway-people admonishing you to take off your backup or give up your seat: They either represent a New York tradition of passing subway etiquette down from generation to generation — or an elusive, impossible dream that gets crushed at the Times Square transfer, every time.
Below, a few more of Oppy’s ads from the late ‘40s and ’50s.
Find out more at the New York City Transit Museum’s event “From Spitting to Spreading: Subway Etiquette Then and Now” on Tuesday, March 10 at 6:30 p.m.