Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Omnibuses

One of the earliest forms of public transportation in Philadelphia (and its early suburbs prior to the 1854 consolidation of the city with the county) was the horse-drawn omnibus introduced in 1831. The omnibus, together with the railroad, created the first urban commuters and it effectively became the model for all future street-based public transportation development in Philadelphia.

print depicting omnibuses outside the merchant's exchange

At Third and Walnut Streets in 1832, omnibuses carry commuters to and from the Merchants’ Exchange. (Library of Congress)

The omnibus was both a concept and a technology. As a concept, it was simply a short-distance version of the stage coach that operated on fixed routes, for fixed fares, and without the need for advance reservations. As a technology, the omnibus was a new form of horse-drawn vehicle that allowed for more rapid ingress and egress of passengers. Although the omnibus was “public transit” (in the sense it was shared), its relatively high fares precluded it from being “mass transit” and the majority of riders in Philadelphia and elsewhere were members of the middle classes and above. Omnibus riders were primarily business owners and senior “clerks” (salaried workers), whose firms were located in the central business district (then centered on Second and Third Streets) and who lived in Southwark, the Northern Liberties, and western Philadelphia. Along with similar people who used the early commuter trains, these were the first Philadelphians who could separate home from work by any appreciable distance.

Concept Imported From Paris

By 1830, the population of the city and its adjoining suburbs in the county was well in excess of 130,000 and it was the second largest metropolitan area in the country after New York. As the population expanded northward, westward and southward from the city’s original center along the Delaware River at Market Street, entrepreneurs imported the concept of the omnibus from Paris (where it originated in 1819 and the name was coined in 1828), New York (1827) and London (1829). James Boxall opened the first route in December 1831 on Chestnut Street between Second Street and Schuylkill Seventh Street (modern Sixteenth Street). The service operated hourly and charged a fare of ten cents. From this modest start, omnibus service quickly expanded throughout the city and its immediately adjoining suburbs. By the late 1850s over three hundred omnibuses operated over dozens of routes on a regular basis. While fares remained high on many routes (commonly ten or twelve cents), some shorter routes charged lower fares (as little as three cents per trip) and most lines offered annual “subscriptions” (or season tickets) to regular commuters.

Based on evidence primarily drawn from New York, most historians have assumed that the unregulated omnibuses functioned in a rather wildcat manner; the little surviving evidence from Philadelphia in the 1850s, however, indicates a more regular and self-regulated operation with fixed routes on parallel streets. In 1855, the city imposed an annual tax on vehicles used as omnibuses and as this tax nicely coincides with the introduction of street railways in 1858, it allows the tracking of the omnibuses’ decline. In 1857, there were 322 omnibuses taxed in the city, by 1859, this had fallen to 59, and reached a mere one by 1864. The day of the horse-drawn streetcar had arrived. The rails of the streetcars allowed for smoother and faster transport with fewer horses and the new technology rapidly replaced the old omnibus as the primary means of transport on most streets.

map of Philadelphia's omnibus routes in 1854

Omnibus routes set precedents for later public transportation systems in Philadelphia. (Map by John Hepp)

John Hepp is associate professor of history at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940.


Copyright 2012, Rutgers University.

Related Reading

Cheape, Charles W. Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880-1912. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Chudacoff, Howard P., Judith E. Smith and Peter C. Baldwin. The Evolution of American Urban Society. 7th ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Cudahy, Brian J. Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.

Ebner, Michael H. “Re-Reading Suburban America: Urban Population Deconcentration, 1810-1980,” American Quarterly (1985), 37:368-381.

Hershberg, Theodore, editor. Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in the 19th Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Hilton, George W. “Transport Technology and the Urban Pattern,” Journal of Contemporary History (1969), 4:123-135.

Speirs, Frederick W. “The Street Railway System of Philadelphia, Its History and Present Condition,” Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Fifteenth Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1897.

Collections

George West Blake, “Record of Omnibus Lines in the City of Philadelphia, 1851-1854,” Hagley Museum and Library, 298 Buck Road, Wilmington, Del.

Samuel Castner Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia.

Harold E. Cox Transportation Collection (Collection 3158), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Merchants’ Exchange Building, Third and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia.  Once a central depot for Philadelphia omnibus service, now the headquarters of Independence National Historical Park.

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