When was the first Traffic Jam?

A Cairo traffic jam  (photo by Walid Hassanein CC-BY)

A Cairo traffic jam (photo by Walid Hassanein CC-BY)

Traffic Jams: we’ve all experienced them and all hate them. But when did this expression come into use? The first traffic jams probably occurred in the earliest civilizations when farmers carried their produce on carts to sell at the city markets and found themselves all trying to squeeze through the small city gates under the watchful eyes of the guards on duty. But what about the use of the words in print?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states that both Traffic, meaning the passing of vehicles along the road, and Jam or Jammed, meaning things packed together unable to move, originate from early 19th century. But as to when the two words are put together, the earliest mention in print that I can find is from New York’s, The Sun newspaper, March 17, 1888, in the headline Traffic Jammed Streets. The article then goes on to use the words traffic and jammed, but not together.

Traffic Jammed Streets
There isn’t quite enough room enough to get around in yet
Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

The San Francisco Call of October 20, 1904, is the first reference that I can find to Traffic Jam in the body of the article.

It was in a traffic jam on lower Third street that Moses Isaacstein’s head was smitten with a whip in the hand of John Leonardino. Mr Isaacstein was diving a horse and wagon and when he “turned out” to permit the passage of a southbound car chockful of passengers his vehicle collided with a heavy dray hauled by two horses steered by Mr. Leonardino.
Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

The next references appear in newspaper headlines.
Fog ties up traffic, Jam at Grand Central – January 1905, New York Tribune; and, Traffic Jammed February 1906, The Sun (New York).

There quickly follows use of Traffic Jam in the body of the article in many newspapers across the US, with journalists obviously catching onto its use.

There may be earlier references and as online archives are opened up then I am sure these will be found.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers:

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  • David says:

    Thanks, AF. I love word history articles like this (I even have my own website for it at firstmention.com). The NY Times archives have a ‘traffic jam’ headline that dates back to 1901, and probably belongs in between your mentions of the references in The Sun, and The Call. The same article also uses the phrase ‘rush hours’ (with quotes in the original), which may also be a very early use of this phrase.

    Interestingly, the traffic jam appeared to occur on the Brooklyn Bridge, though the bridge itself isn’t called by that name, but is only referenced as ‘the bridge’, along with mentioned of hundreds of Brooklynites inconvenienced by the traffic jam.



  • answerfinder says:

    Thanks David for the earlier New York Times reference. I missed that one. I’m sure that someone will find an earlier one. We just need to watch this page.

  • Lawrence says:

    O’Henry wrote a short story about a traffic jam in NYC, obviously before he died in 1910.

    A shy young man is taking his girlfriend to the station or ship in a cab, and they get locked in a traffic jam for so long that he finally proposes – successfully.

    The last paragraph is his father’s settling with a man who organized the traffic jam: so much for draymen, etc., more for the couple of cops.

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