Matthew B. Gilmore
Originally PUBLISHED: APRIL 15TH, 2016
By Matthew B. Gilmore
Toot that horn unnecessarily and you’ll be arrested and fined. Ninety-three drivers were arrested in August of 1939. Pretty dramatic action, but Washington had been struggling with noise pollution, specifically traffic noise pollution for years. This spate of arrests would be the high water mark of aggressive anti-noise enforcement.
It all began with a tugboat whistle blast. Or perhaps with Julius Caesar forbidding daytime goods deliveries within Rome in 44 BCE. City life has always been accompanied by layers and layers of urban ambient noise — crowds, automobile traffic, street performers, and the like. Adoption of city living has almost immediately been followed by efforts to reduce the hubbub of urban life.
In 1907 Mrs. Isaac (Julia) Rice founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise (SSUN) in New York City. She and her husband, founder of the highly respected journal The Forum, lived on the upper west side of Manhattan and were plagued at all hours by the noise of whistles from tugboats sailing up and down on the Hudson River. She founded SSUN for the reduction of noise pollution (as we would now call it) for the good of city denizens overall, nor merely for her own peace of mind. Rice (1860-1929) then waged her anti-noise campaign across the county, visiting Washington in October of 1907. Her specific goal that year was for a safer Fourth of July in 1908 through the reduction of use of explosive fireworks.
Mrs. Rice and the Society got the tugboats quieted.
SSUN seems to have faded away after 1913. The struggle against urban environmental noise did not. Campaigns focused on traffic noise, as had Caesar centuries earlier. Washington’s newspapers generally had taken a rather bemused view when reporting on SSUN’s anti-noise campaign. Not just New York and other American cities, but European cities too were struggling with noise regulation — and sporadically a brief mention would appear in the papers noting that Paris or Rome was in the midst of an anti-noise campaign.
Rice’s campaign did not catch fire in the District. Washington’s noise regulations, which dated back to 1887, had been authorized by Congress under the rubric of police regulations. The District was allowed “to regulate or prohibit loud noises with horns, gongs, or other instruments, or loud cries, upon the streets or public, and to prohibit the use of any fireworks or explosives within such portions of the District as they may think necessary to public safety.” (An Act to authorize the Commissioners of the District of Columbia to make police regulations for the government of said District – January 26, 1887.)