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Honk that Horn — Go to Jail: Evolution of Noise Regulation in Washington, DC


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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.

Newspaper comment on Mrs. Rice's anti-noise campaign. (Evening Star, Oct. 31, 1907.)

Newspaper comment on Mrs. Rice’s anti-noise campaign. (Evening Star, Oct. 31, 1907.)

Mrs. Rice and the Society got the tugboats quieted.

Mrs. Isaac (Julia) Rice. (Cyclopedia of American Biography.)

Mrs. Isaac (Julia) Rice. (Cyclopedia of American Biography.)

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.)[1]

The reception of “anti-noise” campaigners eventually warmed in Washington. Technological advances helped. New developments in scientific measurement of noise in the 1920s allowed for the quantification of noise pollution, giving anti-noise campaigners new weapons in their struggle. The Washington Post in 1929 ran a noise ballot, offering readers the opportunity to vote on which noise sources disturbed them most.

The Post editorialized: “A few years ago thriving communities were proud of the noise they could make. Clangor and din seemed to give them urban importance and dignity. But obnoxious noises have multiplied so rapidly since the inception of the so-called machine age that city people are anxious for quiet surroundings.”

Commissioner Proctor Dougherty, President of the District’s Board of Commissioners, requested the Post give him the results of the ballot.

Noise ballot, Washington Post, November 26, 1929.

Noise ballot, Washington Post, November 26, 1929.

The results of the ballot published in the Post ranked loudspeakers, automobile horns, barking dogs, motor trucks, and ambulance sirens, highest among annoying noises; some wag wrote in deaf mutes for one vote.

Noise ballot results published in the Washington Post, Nov. 30, 1929.

Noise ballot results published in the Washington Post, Nov. 30, 1929.

Further efforts in DC fell silent (so to speak) for the next few years until 1931 when the Post poll’s idea was revived. In June of that year, the Evening Star inveighed against traffic noise and unnecessary emergency sirens,  urging, “Let there be peace in Washington!” New York was again leading the way against urban noise with the League for Less Noise (LLN). The League had a wry sense of humor, holding an “applauseless dinner” sans music, singing, and amplified speeches, in honor of Lord Horder, chairman of the British Anti-Noise League. Pressure on the District was coming from outside; In 1932 the District Commissioners wrote to the Senate District Committee indicating no new legislation was needed to restrict fire and police sirens.

Headline accompanying newspaper report on Senate District Committee's DC noise resolution. (Washington Herald, Jun. 18, 1932.)

Headline accompanying newspaper report on Senate District Committee’s DC noise resolution. (Washington Herald, Jun. 18, 1932.)

Unlike sirens, construction noise was welcomed by the newspapers as a sign of economic activity. In August and September of 1935 Traffic Director Van Duzer declared (quixotically) that Washington had no traffic noise problem. In response, the Patterson newspapers — Washington Times and Washington Herald — conducted a survey later that year showing that Washington was one of the noisiest cities in the world. Washington’s average of 80 decibels surpassed Manhattan’s average of 72; the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW registered at 102 decibels — above London’s 100 and New York’s 98. Eleanor (Cissy) Patterson, editor and publisher of the Washington Herald, went on WJSV radio (now WTOP) to broadcast actual city street noises and announce their recorded measurements.

DC police ordered a crackdown —

Anti-noise ordinances to be enforced by the police. (Washington Daily News,  Oct. 3, 1935.)

Anti-noise ordinances to be enforced by the police. (Washington Daily News, Oct. 3, 1935.)

Traffic director William Van Duzer proposed annual automobile, truck, and motorcycle inspections and testing every horn in the District so as to eliminate those too loud. The Public Utilities Commission was enlisted in the drive, ordering Capital Transit to rehabilitate noisy streetcar tracks. Engineer Commissioner Daniel I. Sultan ordered the sewer department to check on loose manhole covers. The Medical Society of the District of Columbia joined the chorus, voting to support the anti-noise campaign. The Southeast Citizens Association passed a resolution in support of the campaign, making note of such nuisances as the noise of sight-seeing blimps.

Washington Herald Oct. 5, 1935 report on noise enforcement.

Washington Herald Oct. 5, 1935 report on noise enforcement.

The Washington Daily News took a contrary view andcompared the anti-noise campaign to King Canute ordering back the waves of the sea. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had begun an anti-noise campaign in his city and several New York City officials appeared at the District Building to testify about the success of the campaign there, noting that “[i]mprovement . . . has been brought about by appealing to the courtesy and good sportsmanship of persons rather than by resort to police regulations. . . .” In addition, 31 New York drivers had been fined.

Fiorello LaGuardia (c), Mayor of New York City. --courtesy Library of Congress.

Fiorello LaGuardia (c), Mayor of New York City. —courtesy Library of Congress.

A note of levity was had when attendees made commented on Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen’s “loud” tie (Post, December 11 and Star December 15, 1935). Hazen, a strong advocate of noise regulation, had appointed traffic director Van Duzer to serve as chairman of the noise abatement committee and Harry P. Somerville as secretary.

Commissioner Melvin Hazen and Traffic Director William Van Duzer shown trying out new parking meter. --courtesy Library of Congress.

Commissioner Melvin Hazen and Traffic Director William Van Duzer shown trying out new parking meter. —courtesy Library of Congress.

Senator Carter Glass. --courtesy Library of Congress.

Senator Carter Glass. —courtesy Library of Congress.

Senator Carter Glass (D, Va.) renewed his push for enforcement of noise regulations in the following year; in response, Health Officer George Ruhland sent him cotton to stuff in his ears (Post,April 19, 1936). Glass had been behind the Senate District Committee resolution in 1932 to restrict police and fire sirens. He lived in the Raleigh Hotel on bustling Pennsylvania Avenue, NW at 12th Street, in the same block as the Evening Star Building. The Raleigh (the history of which has been well-chronicled in the “Streets of Washington” blog, <> by that time having become a center for Washington nightlife, surely displeasing to the senator.

Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. at 12th St, NW where Senator Carter Glass resided; to the far right can be seen a portion of the Evening Star building at 11th St. --courtesy Library of Congress.

Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. at 12th St, NW where Senator Carter Glass resided; to the far right can be seen a portion of the Evening Star building at 11th St. —courtesy Library of Congress.

Perhaps Ruhland’s response was sarcasm, for days later in April the Post and the Star were reporting on an anti-noise campaign which included distribution of 25,000 stickers for drivers with the message, “use your brakes instead of your horn.” Ruhland (formerly health commissioner of Syracuse, New York) seems not to have been part of that effort. Forbidding the blowing of automobile horns between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. was the only new regulation proposed, with a maximum penalty of $300 or a year imprisonment. Van Duzer proposed the regulation, but the commissioners “indefinitely laid [it] aside” (Star May 12, 1936). Engineer Commissioner Sultan (1934-’38), a skeptic on the subject of additional regulations, voted against, joined by Commissioner George Allen.

Commissioner George Allen. --courtesy Library of Congress.

Commissioner George Allen. —courtesy Library of Congress.

The question of new regulations rebounded and the other commissioners questioned whether there were already too many regulations and a study should be done to reduce the number of and better enforce those existing ones. Undaunted by this setback, Commissioner Hazen bided his time. By July the commissioners were tweaking their regulations on the sounding of automobile horns.

View of traffic on 15th St., NW, July 1936. --courtesy Library of Congress.

View of traffic along 15th St., NW, July 1936. —courtesy Library of Congress.

View of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, July 1936. --courtesy Library of Congress.

View of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, July 1936. —courtesy Library of Congress.

In August of 1938 the Washington Times was back on the anti-noise campaign, seeing if efforts they spurred since 1935 had accomplished anything. In December, Ruhland changed tack (or joined the anti-noise forces) and asked for the help of H.P. Somerville in reviving the campaign against traffic noise. Somerville was the general manager of the Willard and an officer of the American Hotel Association.

In 1939 the District began to arrest drivers for blowing their horns unnecessarily. Commissioner Hazen began the campaign and ordered Superintendent of Police Maj. Ernest Brown to enforce the noise regulations. On August 23, 1939, the Post noted wryly that one of the arresting officers was Oscar Fuss; 93 arrests were made that month.

In 1940 new Commissioner John Russell Young ordered a “get tough” policy for enforcement of regulations against unnecessary automobile horn blowing. A citizen group — the “Anti-Auto Horn Club” — was organized to support police efforts. New restrictions on horns and muffler cut-outs were written that in fall. Again, in May of 1941, further anti-noise enforcement efforts were ordered by Major Brown to reduce “needless din.” The coming of World War II seems to have put to rest further anti-noise efforts.

Major Ernest W. Brown. --courtesy Int'l. Ass'n. of Chiefs of Police.

Major Ernest W. Brown. —courtesy Int’l. Ass’n. of Chiefs of Police.

In 1947 Washington was ranked sixth noisiest (New York was 63rd). Post-war Washington saw a revival of enforcement of unnecessary automobile horn-blowing. A new effort was announced in October of 1948. and at least one offender was fined $10. But in 1956, the Medical Annals of the District of Columbia dismissed health concerns about traffic noise.

Clifford Berryman cartoon depicting Police Superintendent Robert Barrett with caption, “Were you calling me, Bud?” (Evening Star, Oct. 15, 1948.)

As far back as 1935 when the Washington Symphony began an annual concert series on a barge in the Potomac at the foot of the Watergate steps, airplanes became a new noise pollution issue. Although airplane noise was a concern even in the 1950s, the well-loved tradition continued until 1973. By then air traffic noise had become a major disturbance for residential northwest Washington — Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Palisades, and Foxhall.

Washington Symphony Orchestra performing on the Watergate concert barge under the direction of Dr. Hans Kindler, Jul. 12, 1939. —courtesy Library of Congress.

Yet other sources of noise could be problematic too. In 1964 the bagpipes included in the plan for a Sunday morning Democratic rally at Dumbarton Oaks were very concerning to nearby residents, though ultimately the “Lovelies for Lyndon” and “Beagles for LBJ” were allowed their bagpipe accompaniment. It wasn’t until 1966 that noise regulations were first enacted for business establishments — in that instance included in liquor licensing regulations. The year before, Georgetowners had protested the renewal of licenses for the Peppermint Lounge and the Corral Café, both in the 3200 block of M Street and both backing up into residential blocks. That allowed for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to deny the renewals in accordance with its regulation restricting noise coming establishments that could be heard in those adjacent residential blocks.

In 1971 the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unwittingly re-enacted traffic sound metering of 36 years previous, and DC was proclaimed a noisy place (again) with sound pollution ranging from 75 to 95 decibels. A year later a new push began for noise regulations; organizations such as the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers created a Model Ordinance Prohibiting Unnecessary Noises. In 1972, the EPA issued its “Report to the President and Congress on Noise” — nearly 500 pages on every aspect of noise pollution. In 1977 the District enacted new 40 plus pages of noise regulations, codified as D.C. Law 2-53, “District of Columbia Noise Control Act of 1977,” It had taken some time; Director of Environmental Services James P. Alexander had drafted the regulations in 1972, modeled on Chicago’s noise ordinance, but the Corporation Counsel held them up for nearly a year until a study was completed at the end of 1973.

The preamble of these new regulations stated: “The purpose of this act is to provide comprehensive regulations to control noise levels in the District of Columbia so as to preserve, protect[,] and promote the public health, safety[,] and welfare and the peace and comfort of the inhabitants of the city, and prevent injury to human, animals[,] and property.” Maximum noise levels (daytime and nighttime) were set by zone (residential, commercial, and industrial). Yet in 1978 Ralph Nader was complaining about sirens — calling Washington “Siren City, USA.”

In 2004 the City Paper’s Bidisha Banerjee did a sound walk to document the sounds of urban Washington. In 2008 new noise limits were passed by the City Council restricting volume in residential areas at night

Today Washington (and nearby Virginia) residential neighborhoods struggle with airplane noise, transforming areas like U Street NW struggle with the noise of nightlife and the rights of nearby residents, and downtown office workers contend with street musicians. (The right to perform was upheld in the 2014 federal court ruling in Young v. Sarles — the musician had sued Metro; Sarles then the system’s general manger).

Washington’s traffic noise roars unabated.

Acknowledgement: The newspaper files in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library’s Washingtoniana Division were an invaluable resource for preparing this report.

Recommended for further reading:

“The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise,” Peter Andrey Smith (The New Yorker, Jan. 11, 2013);

Sonic Boom: How digital technology is transforming our relationship with sound (The Atlantic, May 1, 2014);

Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies, Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012);

Soundscape of modernity: architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933, Emily Thompson (MIT Press, 2002).



[1] This language is still in the D.C. Code at 1-303.01, modified from “Commissioners” to “Council of the District of Columbia” and “Mayor of the District of Columbia.”

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.