Ethics of the Street: A Protest

WHENE’ER I take my walks abroad, I am fain to remark, not how many poor I see, for in that respect the cities of the United States do not appear unduly freighted, but rather how many and how potent are the street influences that tend to pauperize the soul.

The school, the home; on these two foundations, we constantly are told, the welfare of this great republic rests; and that the assertion is far from being so much barren rhetoric is amply proved by the enormous sums spent on public education to a luxurious degree, and by the pure ideal of domesticity to which the private lives of candidates for high office at the people’s hands are required to testify. Many and admirable, also, are the schemes of public and private enterprise that seek to carry humanizing influences into the crowded tenement, bridging so far as they may the gap between the standards of the classroom and the illiterate or alien homes in which such vast numbers of the commonwealth’s schoolchildren dwell. But there remains still a third factor to be reckoned with; a middle ground in the child’s life; one which has yet to be fully recognized for its true value in the formation of character, the moulding of citizens. The larger education of mankind comes from contact with the world, — and the world, for city children, is the street.

Let us take a walk abroad with eyes not introspectively turned upon our own personal concerns, nor dulled to our objective surroundings by accustomedness, but open and sensitively alert to note in what fashion we are serving the ends of enlightenment in respect to the gods we set up in the marketplace, the influences we invoke or suffer to preside over the thoroughfares our children traverse passing to and from their school, the pictures and legends with which we are wallpapering and adorning this their larger nursery, their unrestricted playground, their outdoor home, the street.

The hoardings are gay with advertisements, many of them no mean examples of decorative art, and all expressly contrived to arrest attention, catch the fancy, and fix the memory with phrase and symbol that shall create a want, or arouse desire for some commodity. Take any random mile of such devices, and then with closed eyes try to recall the general impression produced by their illustrated messages. You will find the average result to be a series of statements persuasive, authoritative: that it is a grinding necessity and a good thing to spend one’s substance on whiskey, cigars, cigarettes, tobacco, chewing-tobacco, chewing-gum, corsets, liqueurs, soap, Whiskey, cigars, washing - powder, tooth powder, face powder, tobacco, whiskey, gas stoves, corsets, transportation, whiskey, clothes, cigars, whiskey, patent medicines, champagne, comic opera, pills, breakfast food, whiskey, tobacco, condensed - milk-orrural-dramaimpossible - to - distinguishwhich, hats, whiskey, cigars, foldingbeds, artificial limbs, corsets, other things, whiskey, cigars, cigarettes, tobacco, tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, and whiskey!

Whiskey and cigars, excellent things both, are they in moderation. It is the undue excess of space allotted them in the commercial exposition of the highways that renders them a baneful influence; the hideous disproportion to the needs of life in which we allow their virtues to be blazoned on the city walls.

And the blazonry! . . . See these rows on rows of besotted-looking creatures depicted in the act of mixing, proffering, drinking, with an air of specious bonhomie designed to foster the corrupting notion that in reciprocity of tipples lies good-fellowship; these rows on rows of indecently clad women recommending some bottled or capsuled remedy for the effects of a debauch!

Breakfast foods; these at least are innocuous, you say, in their bid for notoriety. Not invariably so. Whenever a foodstuff makes a merit of its theft of nature’s honest industries by announcing itself as predigested, it stands a self-convicted sinner against the natural moralities.

To the thinking adult these representations are only so much advertisement, to be deprecated from an æsthetic standpoint, but no eyesore to the blunted ethical vision. But how is the child of the street to discriminate between legitimate municipal decoration and the labels of private enterprise ? To him these illustrated statements stand for mental furnishings, impressions of life, ranking in authority with the inscription on the monument, the statue of the patriot, the map and motto on his classroom walls, the text and banner of his Sunday-school, and chaining his remembrance with a hundredfold the distinctness and allure of these because of the appeal they make to his playful fancy, the intimate colloquial note they strike.

It is the positive thing that counts with a child. Innumerable repetitions of stern Don’ts cannot equal in compelling power one delusively attractive Do. Of what avail, then, for the city in school hours to lay down the principles of physiology with their ominous burden of inhibition, when at every turn the city’s walls gainsay such teachings in rainbow colors, in optimistic phrase ? How vital an impression does it produce upon a girl to tell her that tight lacing is injurious, while misshapen forms are presented as objects of fashionable elegance for her emulation during recreation hours ? Of what use is it to warn the boy that nicotine and alcohol are bad for him, so long as the city covers the walls of his great playground with dazzling invitations to smoke and drink, at the same time jocosely assuring him that all possible unpleasant consequences will be pleasantly averted by the action of a candy bolus while he sleeps ?

Put up in the marketplace some exquisite example of the sculptor’s craft in classic nudity, and with what sweeping denunciations of the immorality of art does the welkin ring! What a storm of outraged protest is aroused by any humanitarian movement that, by taking into consideration the social need which the saloon supplies, endeavors to give a poor man’s thirst due dignity and measure! But blind are these censors, single and incorporate, to the shameful fact staring us forever in the face, that lessons are being inculcated into the city’s children daily, after the most approved pedagogic methods, pictorially, and by endlessly varied iterations of one theme — lessons in intemperance and immodesty—by the unlicensed proclamations on the city walls!

A small boy acting in the same theatrical company with his mother, not long since, was haled to court, examined, remanded, committed, because he was found to be under certificated years. The mother, poor soul! had lied about his age because her earnings alone would not suffice to support the two; besides, to have her child traveling with her is all the home a wandering actress may call her own; and to the child this filial-maternal comradeship and working partnership is infinitely more a home than any of the host of institutions passing by the name. However, to keep the law the lad must now be committed to some such organization, or become a charge on unwilling relatives for the period of his scholastic liability, till at sixteen he will be turned loose, practically orphaned, to drift, if he so elect, back to the stage. At eleven, under his mother’s wing, tutored in the crude but definite morality of the melodrama, there was nothing harmful in the child’s breadwinning connection with the theatre. He is far more likely to be endangered by it at sixteen, but of that human aspect of the case the law takes no cognizance. Neither does it concern itself with the fact that the most degrading feature of the playhouse, the poster of socalled comic opera and farce, with its ever recurrent variation on the motif of marital duplicity, the elderly fool in evening dress wantoning with high kickers of the ballet, is offered year in and out for the contemplation of the city children in the street! I doubt if one child in thousands ever came to moral shipwreck by being on and of the real stage. Can it be doubted that thousands are being coarsened, if not corrupted, all the time by the pictures on the walls ?

Clean streets in the maintenance of whose cleanliness the children are enlisted as allies may be counted as one of the saving graces of the day. But here also cities are not free from blame in their ethical responsibility. The exposure of dead animals to the public gaze is a shameful thing. To the children it is a coarsening influence that the household pet is suffered to become a thing of opprobrium in the gutter. Civilization demands that even for the dumb animal there shall be dignity and decency in death.

The press always should be, and more often is than not, friend of the children, the poor, the weak. Yet has the press a few sins to answer for in its relation to the morals of these wards of the commonwealth. We find ourselves in a populous district, though a far from poor one. We come upon a knot of small girls, seated at an improvised table on which are displayed pin-wheels and paper dolls for sale. The proceeds, they proudly inform us, are destined to swell such-and-such a paper’s Fresh-Air Fund. How sweet and touching that sounds: children working that less fortunate children may enjoy! But as we further chat with them we discover that Fresh-Air Fund is as empty a term to them as Borrioboola-Gha. All they know about it is that a reporter-gentleman has promised that the one who hands him the largest contribution shall have her picture in the paper! Next day we buy that paper, and there, sure enough, is the portrait of the most forth-putting little saleswoman, accompanied with a letter that does great credit to the inventiveness of the reporter-gentleman, positively lisping the joy the little heroine feels in aiding the sick babes of this noble charity! A love of cheap notoriety is one of the most pernicious teachings of the street.

Still further downtown we encounter a party of young men and women preparing to board an Atlantic liner. The aggressively vulgar quality of their good humor astounds us when we are told that they are school-teachers. Astonishment, however, is modified on learning these to be winners of a newspaper contest that bestows a vacation in Europe on the ten most popular educators of a certain district; this spurious popularity being purchased by the suffrages of their pupils on newspaper coupons. Clearly not the most popular, but the least particular, members of their calling are they; but what can be said of the authorities who allow the dignity of the whole corps to suffer by the misrepresentation of a thoughtless few! The day has gone by when education was supposed to be vested in a prig claiming omniscience with a ferule, and teachers are permitted to be human, even during school hours; but, so long as in their capacity of educators they lend themselves to advertisement, they aim a mortal blow at the ethics of the street.

In a public park we fall in with a bright-faced company of shopgirls eagerly devouring an extra which contains news of one of their associates. The heading reads, “Love Laughs at Locksmiths. Cupid defies Cruelty. Pretty Miss outwits Stern Parents and goes off with the Man of her Heart!”

The facts of the incident happen to be known to one of us. The girl was not pretty,—though, for that matter, she might have been. She was an anæmic weakling, lacking even the fresh-skinned comeliness of youth. The cruelty of her parents, worthy souls, consisted in their loving efforts to cure her of her infatuation for a middle-aged man who had been turned out of a reputable profession and divorced by a good wife. But the press with jaunty unmorality gave the crooked situation the twist that made it read like spirited romance, with the effect — so great the power of the printed word! — that at the moment any one of those decent girls would have levanted with even a bad bargain of a man for the pleasure of seeing herself described as Dashing Brunette or Dainty Blonde in print!

“Pretty Stenographer corrals Another Woman’s Husband!” Naturally the woman that steals another woman’s man may be expected to possess some weapon of added beauty, or superior attraction, of one sort or another. This, however, is not going to save her from miserable consequences in the long run. But of that ephemeral literature takes no heed; and so long as with flattering emphasis it urges such possession as condonation for error, it simply makes the first step of the easy descent still easier for the children of the street.

These children are not ignorant. A bald statement of the facts of life cannot harm them, for in one form or another they know all there is to tell. It is the meretricious coloring imparted to these facts that counts for ill; the suppressions that ignore violated faith, make light of legitimate ties; the perversions employed at all costs to get a hurrah headline for a domestic tragedy.

We fear the judgment of the man in the street, not because we cannot rely on his solid understanding, but because we have learned to rate that understanding individually low. We tremble lest collectively his inflammable passions should be roused, knowing well that the brute in him will demand a victim before law and order may resume their sway. We grieve over the fallacies with which we see him clog his own progress, delaying by centuries the day when the mighty truth shall prevail in his life. But do we sufficiently assume our.share of responsibility for him when we thus grossly overlook the fact that the child in the street is the father of the man in the street with all our sins of omission and commission on his head ?

A day will come when the commonwealth will realize that the character of its citizens is its valuable commercial asset, and that the mural areas of the highways are too precious to the nation’s higher life to be given over to the exploitation of merchandise. Advertising will then be relegated to an urban supplement, as in magazines, and a high restricting license fee will be charged, not only to those who sell liquor, but also to those who advertise that and all other articles in which mankind is tempted to injurious excess, while the city walls will be preserved to suggest great thoughts, commemorate good deeds, and announce the latest inventions destined to benefit mankind.

That of course will be Utopia,— but, after all, why not Utopia? Meanwhile public sentiment can be up and doing. Nowadays it is a common occurrence to see a frail woman standing in the road, compelling a burly truck-driver to relieve his overladen cattle, or causing some poor chafed and goaded beast to be unharnessed and mercifully cared for. Schools, libraries, and settlements, freshair funds, and private charities, all are doing vital work along the lines of neighborliness. Let us hope, then, for a speedy betterment of the influences of the street.