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In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820-1930


Before skyscrapers and streetlights glowed at all hours, American cities fell into inky blackness with each setting of the sun. But over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, new technologies began to light up streets, sidewalks, buildings, and public spaces. Peter C. Baldwin’s evocative book depicts the changing experience of the urban night over this period, visiting a host of actors—scavengers, newsboys, and mashers alike—in the nocturnal city.

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In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820-1930

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Before skyscrapers and streetlights glowed at all hours, American cities fell into inky blackness with each setting of the sun. But over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, new technologies began to light up streets, sidewalks, buildings, and public spaces. Peter C. Baldwin’s evocative book depicts the changing experience of the urban night over this period, visiting a host of actors—scavengers, newsboys, and mashers alike—in the nocturnal city.

Baldwin examines work, crime, transportation, and leisure as he moves through the gaslight era, exploring the spread of modern police forces and the emergence of late-night entertainment, to the era of electricity, when social campaigns sought to remove women and children from public areas at night. While many people celebrated the transition from darkness to light as the arrival of twenty-four hours of daytime, Baldwin shows that certain social patterns remained, including the danger of street crime and the skewed gender profile of night work. Sweeping us from concert halls and brothels to streetcars and industrial forges, In the Watches of the Night is an illuminating study of a vital era in American urban history.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review

“In an engrossing and richly researched book, Peter C. Baldwin explores how US cities responded to the sun’s inevitable daily setting—economically, socially, and culturally—during a century of industrialization. Synthesizing monographs on nightlife, city lighting, urban vice, and trade and commerce after dark (among other topics) and incorporating his own wide-ranging research, Baldwin has produced a pioneering analysis of how urban America’s relationship with the night evolved from colonial times to the industrial age.”
Reviews in American History

In the Watches of the Night brings a much-needed fourth dimension to the spatial turn of urban studies. Its originality and insight establish Peter Baldwin as a leading authority on the everyday life of the urban flâneur in nineteenth-century America. This well-written, lively book builds upon his award-winning monograph. . . . Baldwin deserves credit for opening up the frontier of the urban night for future exploration.”

“Highly recommended.”
Patricia Cline Cohen

“Like an attentive nineteenth-century night watchman, Baldwin is ever alert to new behaviors fostered by the advent of night illumination in American cities. He explores changes in work routines, city amusements, and crime, and does not neglect the night scavengers collecting privy wastes and the farmers bringing their perishables to markets, activities improved by the preservative effects of cool night air. I found In the Watches of the Night an engrossing book.”
Peter N. Stearns

In the Watches of the Night is a terrific book, engaging and truly informative, on a topic so interesting that one wonders why it had not been adequately explored already. Particularly impressive is the careful delineation of life beforehand, so change can really be assessed, and the range of groups and activities embraced in the analysis.”
Roger Ekirch

“Few works of history can claim to alter the landscape of the past, but In the Watches of the Night deeply enriches our understanding of the American experience during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Extensively researched and crisply written, this splendid volume rescues a vibrant realm of urban life from the shadows of historical neglect.”

“Highly recommended.”
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

 “Baldwin’s book is an example of just how rich and revealing an exploration of night in terms of work, practice, and power can be. Extensively researched, In the Watches of the Night weaves diaries, newspapers, government documents, travel guides, and more into a complex new picture of life and labor during the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American urban night.”
Journal of American History

 “This is a brilliantly conceived and superbly written examination of the physical, economic, social, and cultural changes in nighttime urban life in the cities of the Northeast during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226036021
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/9/2012
  • Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,066,838
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter C. Baldwin is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850–1930.

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Read an Excerpt

In the Watches of the Night

By Peter C. Baldwin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03602-1

Chapter One

Making Night Hideous

To step into an unlit city street in early America was to enter a world shockingly different from our own. "Scarcely a sound is heard; hardly a voice or a wheel breaks the stillness," wrote the Englishwoman Fanny Trollope of her visit to Philadelphia in the late 1820s. "The streets are entirely dark, except where a stray lamp marks a hotel or the like; no shops are open, but those of the apothecary, and here and there a cook's shop; scarcely a step is heard, and for the note of music, or the sound of mirth, I listened in vain.... This darkness, this stillness, is so great, that I almost felt it awful."

Trollope's walk came in the final years of preindustrial night in America, just before miraculous new gas lamps promised to turn night into day. Looking back on the early years of the city, we are struck by how different the experience must have been—imagine darkness so thick that you could hardly see a hand in front of your face! We might assume that everyone stayed inside after dusk. But though it may be hard to recognize it at first glance, the nighttime city was even then a place of human activity—playful, laborious, furtive, even criminal activity, but always something. These pursuits did not scuttle off like cockroaches when the lights came on in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; they persisted in altered forms, complicating what might seem a simple progress from the premodern to the modern. To survey the rich experience of night in the city is the purpose of this book. In the chapters that follow we will scrutinize nighttime work, crime, transportation, and leisure in the century when the city became fully visible—the period from the introduction of gas streetlamps about 1820 to full electrification in the 1920s.

American cities about 1820 were still small and primitive by European standards, as foreign visitors liked to point out. But they expanded at an astonishing pace through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thanks in large part to new technologies. Steam-powered machinery and new manufacturing techniques enabled the explosive growth of urban industry in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, which this book will focus on. Railroads and their accompanying telegraph lines made cities the hubs for rapid transportation and communication. Inexpensive steamship travel encouraged mass immigration. Machine-cut lumber and nails allowed carpenters to hammer houses together with unbelievable speed. Networks of water, sewer, and drainage lines suppressed epidemic diseases that had once kept populations in check. Street railways whisked people throughout the urban landscape and permitted the city to sprawl miles beyond the industrial and shopping districts. By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities had grown fully as large as those in Europe and had surpassed them in their embrace of modern technology. The traditional skyline of church steeples was becoming obscured by a new sierra of skyscrapers, made possible by steel-framed construction, elevators, telephones, and systems of heating and ventilation. Americans had grown used to viewing cities as sites for limitless growth—upward and outward.

Advances in lighting technology allowed urban growth to shrug off another restraint. By facilitating nighttime work and transportation, improved lighting let the city expand in time as well as in space. Manufacturers added late shifts at factories that had once closed at dusk. Traffic fl owed more smoothly during the night on streets, streetcars, and rail lines that were hopelessly congested during daylight hours.

Anyone could see that railroads, skyscrapers, and electric lights were expanding and transforming urban space. It was trickier to discern how technological change would affect daily life. One of the bolder attempts at prediction appeared in Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century, an 1890 novel by Ignatius Donnelly, which tried to imagine what New York would be like in 1988. Donnelly portrayed urban life as an odd mishmash of the familiar and the new. His gigantic New York of the future was still reliant on horse-drawn carriages and racked by industrial-era class conflict, yet it enjoyed air conditioning, touch-sensitive computer screens, and transatlantic air travel. Donnelly predicted that the city would be brilliantly illuminated around the clock. "Night and day are all one," he wrote, "for the magnetic light increases automatically as the day-light wanes; and the business parts of the city swarm as much at midnight as at high noon." Artificial lighting held an important place in this popular novel; a cataclysmic uprising began with its interruption. Nonetheless, Donnelly had trouble imagining human behavior in a future city where the sun no longer mattered. He contradicted his description of incessant activity in a later passage, in which he mentioned that the people in 1988 New York journeyed to work in the early morning and returned home to sleep at night, leaving the streets "still and deserted."

Donnelly's confusion was understandable. If artificial lighting allowed people to be active without regard to sunrise and sunset, a change in the pattern of working by day and resting by night could reasonably be expected. Yet, as Donnelly perhaps sensed, it is impossible to predict the effects of technological change simply by noting the physical properties of the technology—say, the superior candlepower of a new streetlamp. Despite popular beliefs that inventions such as the printing press, the automobile, and the personal computer "cause" events to happen, historians of technology caution that such change is rarely so simple. Technologies have to be applied within human societies far more complex than even the systems of retorts, tanks, pipes, valves, jets, shades, and reflectors that combined to produce gaslight. Uses intended by inventors are superseded by those determined by users. Some people have greater access to the technology than others, and some prove more powerful in conflicts over how the technology should be used. Thus inequalities of knowledge, wealth, and power shape the application of any new invention. Technology cannot altogether free us from human society and its historic habits. People don't stay up all night just because there's enough light.

Whether dazzled by the prospect of infinite progress or envisioning the end of civilization, nineteenth-century Americans had difficulty seeing life in the future. Yet it is no easier for twenty-first-century Americans, our vision still clouded by assumptions about technological power, to peer into the past. Before we begin to examine the changing experience of night in the nineteenth century, we'd better let our eyes adjust to preindustrial America. Let's follow one ordinary man on one forgotten night in one unimportant town, through streets as dark as in any city since antiquity. Let's follow a young ship's doctor on a drinking spree in a revolutionary-era New England seaport.


Locked in by the frozen Narragansett Bay, the little Rhode Island port of Providence waited quietly for the weather to break. Frigid air stung the cheeks and gnawed the noses of those who ventured outside during the short hours of daylight; after dark, sensible men and women huddled by their fireplaces. The officers of the Argo, though, were determined to go out and celebrate.

The Argo had just concluded a glorious career in the Continental navy. The previous May, in 1779, had begun with Rhode Island's ports still bottled up by the British and with the enemy preying on American shipping along New England's southern coast. But then the men of the Argo sailed forth in May to chase off the commerce raiders and attack British merchantmen. They returned to Rhode Island that autumn after capturing a dozen vessels, made all the more joyful by news that the British had evacuated Newport, the state capital. Now, on this frigid January day in 1780, they learned that the Continental Congress had agreed to return the Argo to the merchant who owned it, freeing the sloop and its men for the lucrative business of patriotic piracy—politely called privateering. As Dr. Zuriel Waterman wrote in his journal, "Officers concluded to have a Bandge to Night."

Waterman had his own reasons for joining the binge. First, the thirty-four-year-old doctor from Pawtuxet was never one to pass up a lively night of drinking. He chronicled his sprees in raucous detail in the pages of his diary, and later he inscribed this motto in his memorandum book: "Since all is Vanity let us partake of the Dissipation and make it as pleasing as we can." Waterman must also have been delighted to be part of such an illustrious and high-spirited group of officers. While the Argo was covering itself in glory the previous fall, he had endured a miserable voyage to the Newfoundland banks as surgeon of the privateer Providence. The Providence blundered about the stormy North Atlantic for two months without taking a single prize, while Waterman lay seasick in his hammock. He and his shipmates rejoiced when the sloop finally returned home for repairs. Back in port, he signed on as the surgeon's mate for the Argo's upcoming cruise to Antigua, and he was restocking that ship's medicines when he heard the news that it would be returned to private ownership. Waterman and the rest of the Argo's officers now stood to make a lot more money privateering, whether on the Argo or on some other vessel (except perhaps the unlucky Providence). Why not go out and raise hell?

The officers spent the afternoon drinking grog and cider in Bradford's Tavern, then returned to the Argo after dark. They were just getting started. Aboard the Argo, wrote Waterman, they "began our frolic with Several stout Bowls of grog & Toddy—raw Drams Slings &c. singing roaring &c. Till wee got too big for the Cabbin to hold us and then sallied out in the street but did not forget to carry a Bottle of Rum with us it being exceeding cold & about 8 o Clock—all in good Spirits and good Spirits in us." The winter was unusually cold, one of the worst of the century. Thick ice covered the harbor and spread down Narragansett Bay to Newport, locking in ships more securely than the British navy ever did. Lately, while traveling between Pawtuxet and Providence, Waterman had been walking on the ice for miles; he would soon freeze his left ear while taking this shortcut on a windy day. The Argo's officers fortunately had a supply of their own personal antifreeze, some of it probably taken from a prize carrying 330 hogsheads of West Indian rum.

"Thus accouttred," Waterman wrote, "we went along [the] street shouting & singing & now & then to cheer our hearts stop & take a drink—the word was Argo!" The street was probably Towne Street, now called Main, a waterfront row of wood-shingled houses and businesses serving what in times of peace would have been a vibrant seafaring economy. The shops of coopers, blacksmiths, and distillers were there, along with warehouses for New En gland's dried fish, beef, salt pork, and lumber or for West Indian molasses, sugar, and cotton. There too were some of the town's roughly three dozen taverns.

The shouts of "Argo!" drew several shipmates out of houses along the way. The growing party "got a Negro fiddler & proceeding up town went in to a house to have a dance." In keeping with time-honored traditions of maritime debauchery, they were an all-male group. No decent lady would be seen carousing in the streets at night, least of all with a mob of drunken sailors. But there were other kinds of women in Providence, and the sailors knew where to find them. A woman was sick in the first house they visited, so they staggered on to another "to make our frolic there but they had got the start of us and had a frolic of their own." The men felt too drunk to join in, Waterman admitted modestly: "One of the women was tumbling to pieces—this business being above our capacity in our present condition we thought fit to pack off ." They paused at a house where William Russell, a prominent local merchant, was known to keep his mistress. Prostitutes and concubines were sometimes the targets of harassment by men on drinking sprees, particularly if the women were outside the drinkers' price range. The men of the Argo, however, did not break windows or make discordant music. Russell was, after all, a staunch patriot. The party "made no tarry there except for one kiss."

The dozen men moved on to Nathaniel Jenckes's tavern, where those still able danced to fiddle music, apparently without any women. Two of the most profoundly inebriated were carried to bed; a third nodded by the fire in a drunken stupor for a few hours until he made his way home. The others grew hungry for a supper, "but the Landlord affronting us we calld for the Bill." They were not quite drunk enough to be fooled by Jenckes's claim of $120—a huge amount even in the inflated paper currency of wartime Rhode Island. While the party argued with the tavern keeper about the bill, Waterman and a shipmate ducked out and stumbled back to the Argo over snowy cobblestones. It was 4:00 a.m. as they came aboard. Unable to remove his boots, Waterman dozed fitfully for an hour until three more of his companions returned. They had been amusing themselves by lighting fires in the street. The three men refueled, grabbed a coffeepot of strong sling for the road, and set out again for more uproarious fun. Before sunrise they succeeded in taking a gun from a sentry, a variation on the hilarious custom of playing pranks on watchmen. It had been a classic spree.


Much of what took place on that cold Providence night could just as easily have happened a century or two later. The raucous pack of drunks would be a familiar nocturnal feature along New York's Bowery in the 1840s, near Pittsburgh's steel mills any payday in the early twentieth century, or on college campuses after a big basketball game today. The night of debauchery became somewhat tamer over time, as police became more effective at suppressing violent disturbances and arresting men for being "drunk and disorderly." Nonetheless, it persisted as a ritual of rebellion against conventional self-restraint. Men demonstrated their devilishness in carefully scripted ways, in established settings and with a standard cast of characters. They whooped and hooted but usually did not cause serious damage.

Though the young men's drinking spree remained just one of many activities that took place in the streets at night, it exerted a disproportionate influence on what can be called the nocturnal culture of the city—the codes of behavior that prevailed there, the underlying values that shaped that behavior, and the demographic profile of the people who were thought to belong. Even as people ventured out after dark in growing numbers and increasing diversity through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the streets were still dominated by young men. Women, when present, remained far more likely than in the daylight to be treated as sexual targets. The rule of law remained shaky, gleefully mocked by otherwise ordinary citizens. Urban night should not be romanticized as offering a haven from oppression. While some relatively powerless young men did seize the opportunity to cut loose from the constraints of their daytime lives, many of those who had the least skills and the lowest standing in society worked by necessity at menial jobs during hours when the more fortunate enjoyed themselves. Young working-class men were disproportionately represented in the new night jobs enabled by improved lighting and other technologies. Young white men who did have free time at night often spent it victimizing people more vulnerable than themselves: women, children, and racial minorities.

As the officers of the Argo roared through the streets that frigid night in 1780, most of the people of Providence slept under thick coverlids. Those who heard the noise would have been unsettled. The drunken officers—all either local men or under their authority—were less menacing than the British sailors from the recent occupation of Newport, but still unpredictable. The fires they lit in the streets would have alarmed any townspeople who saw the glow through frosted windows. Fire was a terrible threat to wooden cities, especially on winter nights when water sources froze hard, and Providence's stockpiles of gunpowder added to the danger.


Excerpted from In the Watches of the Night by Peter C. Baldwin Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

l Making Night Hideous 1

2 Lighting the Heart of Darkness 14

3 Quitting Time 34

4 Recreations and Dissipations 54

5 After Midnight 75

6 Nightmen 104

7 Incessance 119

8 Mashers, Owl Cars, and Night Hawks 138

9 Night Life in die Electric City 155

10 Regulated Night 179

Acknowledgments 205

List of Abbreviations 209

Notes 211

Index 275

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