In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Athens or Anarchy? Soapbox Oratory and the Early Twentieth-Century American City
  • Mary Anne Trasciatti (bio)

Soapbox oratory was an integral part of early twentieth-century American city life. A type of outdoor impromptu speaking, it was named for the makeshift platforms that orators devised from sturdy wooden crates in which soap was delivered to stores, although curbs, ladders, stairways, the backs of trucks (known as “cart-tails”) and anything else that made a speaker more visible to the audience were also used. Soapbox orators provided political education and entertainment for people of limited means, recruited members for labor, suffrage, antiracist, and other movements, and attempted religious conversions. They constituted a dynamic element of the city’s physical environment.

In this essay I explain soapboxing as a type of performance that temporarily disrupts and redirects the activities and attention of people in the surrounding area. Using Michel de Certeau’s distinction between place and space, I explore the tactics by which soapboxers transformed city streets, parks, and squares from thoroughfares, commercial districts, picnic grounds, and such into aesthetically vibrant spaces for intellectual and political engagement. Nineteenth-century efforts to impose order on the city in the form of permits for parades and public speaking and increased policing constrained the activities of soapboxers. The advent of city planning in the early twentieth century brought additional scrutiny of the practice. Through comparative analysis of soapboxing in three American cities—Chicago, New York, and Spokane—I consider how the dialectic of disruption and order, represented by soapboxing and city planning, respectively, was managed in the years before World War I. I then discuss the decline of soapboxing in the 1920s amid the repression of the post-war Red Scare. Soapboxing remained a popular practice in Harlem, however, and enjoyed resurgence in other neighborhoods in the 1930s and intermittently throughout the remaining decades of the twentieth century. A surge in street speaking in U.S. cities with the current Occupy movements further suggests that the trajectory of soapboxing is characterized by waves and troughs of activism and suppression.

Historical Antecedents of Soapboxing

Soapbox speaking is the offspring of two expressive traditions: outdoor political oratory and public meetings/protests. The former was part of American culture from the nation’s earliest years.1 As far back as 1806, outdoor itinerant speaking was called “stump speaking,” an expression that reflects the rural character of the United States at the time. During elections it was the habit of political canvassers (although not candidates themselves) to travel throughout the country making open-air speeches. Public halls and platforms were rare and the stumps of trees were numerous and furnished convenient places from which to speak. Hence the expressions “stump speaker,” “stump orator,” and “stumping.”2 Speakers stumped for social movements, like abolition, temperance, and suffrage, as well as political candidates, although the term was most often associated with electioneering.

Stump orators addressed public meetings that typically included music, pageantry, and parading. [End Page 43] The public meeting, staged for an electoral campaign, to mark a holiday like the Fourth of July, or for an event like the opening of the Erie Canal, was the sacred civic act of antebellum democracy, according to historian Mary Ryan.3 Indeed, throughout the 1800s, campaign rallies were better attended than religious services or the meetings of itinerant preachers.4 This kind of political spectacle, which dominated American elections until the turn of the twentieth century, fostered record voter turnouts.5

Not all outdoor events celebrated the existing social order. Along with the community-sanctioned public meeting, a tradition of popular protest runs deep in American culture. Urban riots, occasioned by ethnic, racial, economic, and religious issues, were common in the nineteenth century, especially before 1870.6 As strikes became increasingly widespread in the antebellum period, a more organized form of workers’ protest emerged: the strike demonstration. Striking workers formed themselves into processions and marched through city streets, expressing group presence and communicating angry and powerful unity.7 The 1880s saw the emergence of Labor Day and May Day as occasions for workers to march, demonstrate, and celebrate working-class solidarity.8 Demonstrations continued into the 1900s, with particular militancy during the series...