No privacy in city life: what modern methods are bringing us to (1902)

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in March 2016

600 words / 3 min.
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“Is it possible,” asked the Chicago Tribune in 1902, “to be a private citizen in Chicago?”

Please note that this post is from 2016. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

“Is it possible,” asked the Chicago Tribune in 1902, “to be a private citizen in Chicago?”

The paper goes on first to make a distinction between “a prominent citizen” and “a private citizen.” The prominent citizen has, according to the paper, “has to in a measure turn over his life to the public” and has become “in a sense public property.” The “ranks of private citizenship,” on the other hand, consists of those “who do not hold office, who do not seek office, who are not so rich that they cannot be ignored, and who are not engaged in occupations that bring them conspicuously into view.”

But the paper suggests that in reality this sense of privacy is a false one: “the veil of privacy is thin” and many have “the right or take the privilege of looking through the veil.”

So what pierced the veil of privacy in 1902?

First, of course, came birth records, and then when the “private citizen” entered school, the Board of Education recorded his public health record: “If he has had smallpox, diphtheria, or measles the Board of Education wants to know it.”

After graduation, he faced employment applications: employers “have many questions to ask … concerning his habits.” And for positions of trust, employers required a bond–and this required an investigation: “Their search is always a thorough one and brings to light about every fact in connection with the private citizen that is of any value.”

Later, when changing jobs, “he has to have references, and they have to be looked into, and there is another investigation of the man, who fondly imagines that his privacy is his own.”

When the private man “makes up his mind to be married,” he has more questions to answer, posed by the marriage licensing office, involving age and parentage.

Landlords too ask questions, including “where he is employed and how much money he gets.” Those who provide the furniture learn a bit more about him too, such as the extent of the furnishings and “the price of the piano.”

In court as a witness, “his life has to be an open book.” On trial, even for a misdemeanor, “the microscope is one of the highest imaginable power.” Even civil litigation subjects the citizen “to questions which challenge his right to privacy.”

Meanwhile, the “city directory and telephone directory men” ask questions, as do “agents who have things to sell.”

And of course, there is the police:

The police not only have the right to stop the private citizen as he is on his way to his private home at night, and make him explain his identity and the contents of the package he may be carrying, but they have the right to ask him questions about his friends and acquaintances.

So, then, what’s the answer to the question? Can one be a private citizen in Chicago in 1902? The implication is clearly, no, but the writer plays coy:

Thus it is that from the cradle to the grave the private citizen is constantly in the glare of the calcium, and whether there is such a person as a real private citizen is a question that assuredly admits of more than one opinion.

All in all, a distinctly modern description of broad issues of privacy — from 1902.

No Privacy in City Life (PDF, Chicago Tribune, 1902)


Photo via Internet Archive Book Images.