Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/58

This page has been validated.
54
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

that our modern city alleys are in comparison wide.[1] At first, indeed, there were no sidewalks, and there was room at the sides, when a cart or carriage occupied the center, for only one person to walk between the wagon and the houses. Hence plazas, open spaces and squares, were the meeting places of the citizens. Quarrels and fighting were always taking place in the "streets," garbage and refuse (gare à l'eau!) were thrown from the windows into the center of the streets-which thus became open sewers, and the mud, etc., of passing vehicles had to be avoided with great dexterity by the foot-passers. And literally with great "dexterity." The left or shielded side, although shields might not be used, would naturally be that presented to the center of the street. The right side was thus chosen to keep the right hand or armed side of the body free for action, to avoid the mud, to escape the refuse flung from above, etc. And if one protected a lady, she was, as to-day, given the side next the house-walls. When wider streets and sidewalks came into existence the right-passing custom was already established; and the still-remaining narrow ones in old cities insured its maintenance.

But why did the English early adopt the habit of passing their vehicles to the left? The contradictory rules have tormented visitors, evolutionists, the correspondents of Notes and Queries, and many periodicals of the last one hundred years, and have been epitomized in many forms, the most common being this:

The rule of the road is a paradox quite
In riding or driving along;
If you keep to the left you are sure to be right;
If you keep to your right you'll be wrong.
But in walking, a different custom applies,
And just the reverse is the rule;
If you keep to the right, you'll be right, safe, and wise;
If you keep to the left, you're a fool.

  1. St. Evremond makes his visitor say that in the Paris of his time the streets were muddy whether it rained or not, because everybody threw rubbish of all kinds into the middle of the streets. Ladies had to be carried across the central gutter on the backs of their servants. Men wore top-boots, like those of postilions. Blocks of vehicles constantly occurred, and then there was no respect of persons; ladies whose carriages happened to be entangled in them had to listen to the most frightful oaths and language. There were often duels with whips. Victory did not remain always with the most foul-mouthed. The most dilapidated fiacre would have remained where it was until nightfall sooner than have made way for a court-carriage. Blind people and blind mendicants, criminals and pickpockets thronged everywhere. To the clashing of bells were added the shouts and cries of the perambulating dealers in vegetables, milk, fruit, rags, sand, brooms, fish, and water. The water-carriers numbered some 20,000, each of whom distributed from 30 to 40 pails a day. The tumult of cries kept up night as well as day.