In 1832, New York City implemented the first urban streetcar system, which consisted of horses pulling public carriages along designated tracks. Other cities quickly followed suit. The combination of horses and rail technology was adopted because steel or iron tracks limited friction, allowing horse-drawn streetcars to carry a greater number of passengers in all types of weather than streetcars whose wheels had to roll through the mud during much of the year. As with locomotive transit that followed, this early form of urban-trolley service produced a variety of now-collectible ephemera, from timetables and maps to tickets and tokens.
The first machine-powered light-rail systems relied on underground cables to pull vehicles along city streets. Perhaps the world’s most iconic trolleys are the cable cars of San Francisco, which were installed in 1873 to carry travelers up the city’s steep hills. Before electricity was widespread, cable cars were powered from a central facility that used a large steam engine to keep the system’s cables continuously moving. A cable car gripman would latch the trolley onto the cable to set it in motion, and then detach the car to brake it.
By the late 1880s, electric generators had improved enough to power streetcar lines without the use of cables or horses; in 1888, the first electric railway debuted in Richmond, Virginia. Soon cities across the country replaced their horse-drawn systems with electric trolleys, so nicknamed for the “trawlers” used to connect cars to their electrical power sources.
These new railways spurred major suburban growth, altering the landscape of American cities. Interurban lines were designated to run between these closely spaced communities, further separating the residential and commercial spheres by allowing commuters to live farther from work. Streetcars quickly became an integral part of modern life, often appearing in photographs and postcards of cityscapes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1929, the Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) was created to investigate issues of urban transportation, eventually developing the improved PCC car. Many PCC streetcars are still in use by rail companies today, as its upgraded design allowed vehicles to brake and accelerate more quickly, while also offering passengers a smoother ride.
With the spread of automobiles during the '20s and '30s, streetcar lines were viewed by many municipalities as a hindrance to drivers. National City Lines, a covert venture initiated by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil, explicitly lobbied cities to halt rail service and simultaneously purchased smaller rail systems to dismantle their tramways. The company was ultimately taken to court and found guilty of a conspiracy to eliminate the U.S. streetcar system, but by the time of the verdict in 1949, most of America’s light-rail infrastructure had already been destroyed.
In addition to objects directly connected with light-rail service, from operator hats and badges to streetcar parts and signs, collectors also gravitate to the many miniature trams created by toy companies such as Bing, Corgi, Märklin, and Marx. And major brands like Campbell’s Soup and Pepsi also produced a variety of streetcar-shaped toys to advertise their products.
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