Today in History: September 20
DC Abolishes the Slave Trade
The United States Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia on September 20, 1850, as part of the legislative package called the Compromise of 1850. Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation's capitol. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws regulating slavery in the District were considerably more lenient than slave codes in the rest of the South, but slavery continued to exist in Washington until April 16, 1862. On that day, President Lincoln signed legislation freeing the 3,000 African Americans bound by the District's slave code.
Antebellum Washington was home to a thriving community of free blacks. The laws of Southern states commonly prohibited manumitted slaves from remaining within state boundaries. Forced to seek a new life far from friends and family, many former slaves migrated to Washington. By 1860, free blacks outnumbered slaves by nearly four to one in the city.
Many Northern states abolished slavery and slave trading during the early national period. However, section 9 of the United States Constitution specified, "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight. Urging New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, revolutionary patriot and Federalist John Jay noted
What is proposed to be done by England is already done in Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode-Island, and it is likely to take place in all the States of America. It will be an honour to this country, and the most glorious event in the present reign, if the example should be followed here.
The United States banned further importation of slaves in 1808, as soon as the Constitution allowed. Essentially a dead letter by the end of the Civil War, the institution of slavery was permanently dismantled by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
- African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P.Murray Collection, 1818-1907 contains several documents chronicling this disturbing chapter in American history. Read "What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?," a firsthand account of an 1859 auction sale of 436 slaves in Savannah, Georgia. "The Foulahs of Central Africa" is a Georgia man's perceptions of the commerce of slaves in Africa and of the Fulani people.
- Search on the term District of Columbia in Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860 to find material related to slavery in the District. Read, for example, part of a speech pronounced by Francis Scott Key, Esq. on the trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D. who was "indicted for publishing libels with intent to excite sedition and insurrection among the slaves and free coloured people of said district."
- Learn more about the Compromise of 1850. Read Today in History features on Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Stephen A. Douglass. To learn about the nineteenth century-movement to end slavery, read Today in History features on abolitionists Elijah Lovejoy, Lucretia Mott, and John Brown.
- The Library of Congress online exhibition African-American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship explores black Americans' quest for equality from the early national period through the twentieth century.
- The African-American Mosaic exhibition includes special sections on the movement to colonize American slaves in Africa and the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.
- To find additional resources related to the history of the Washington, D.C., consult A Guide to Washington, D.C., Materials.
On September 20, 1853, Elisah Graves Otis sold his first "hoist machines," or elevators, featuring an automatic safety brake that he had recently patented. His seemingly simple invention—guaranteed to stop a rising platform from falling if the ropes that held it broke—not only launched Otis' business, but made possible the development of passenger elevators and, with them, the modern high-rise building. While before 1850 most buildings were no more than six stories tall, today's skyscrapers range from fifty to more than one hundred stories in height.
Otis opened his small enterprise on the banks of the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, in a space where he still worked as the foreman of a bedstead factory. At first few people, including Elisha Otis, recognized the full implications of his new invention. Otis only abandoned plans to join the California gold rush after receiving an unsolicited order for two freight elevators with safety brakes. To produce them, he went into business with his sons Charles and Norton.
Lacking further orders, however, Otis arranged with P. T. Barnum to publicly demonstrate his device at the first American world's fair in New York City. During May 1854, as the legend goes, Otis would mount an open elevator platform installed at the center of the Crystal Palace exposition hall, hoist himself to the ceiling, and with a dramatic flash of a saber, cut the rope. As the platform began to plummet toward the ground, Otis' patented safety brake kicked in with a jolt and broke the elevator's fall. "All safe, gentlemen, all safe," became his famous refrain. This showmanship launched the elevator industry, so that by 1856, Otis' sales totaled twenty-seven elevators.
The world's first commercial passenger elevator was installed by Otis in 1857, at the E. V. Haughwout & Company department store in New York City. Powered by steam, it rose at a speed of forty feet per minute. Early passenger elevators featured posh decorations and seating and were controlled by conductors. Hotels such as the Occidental in San Francisco, the St. Charles in New Orleans, and Congress Hall in Saratoga Springs, were among the first structures to adopt passenger elevators. A Saratoga guidebook for 1872 reported of Congress Hall that "broad, commodious stairways, with the finest elevator in the country, render every portion readily accessible… The proprietors have endeavored to incorporate into this hotel everything that can afford comfort and pleasure, at whatever expense." 1
The passenger elevator paired with steel frame construction techniques made the development of the skyscraper possible. Generally considered the world's first skyscraper, William Le Baron Jenney's ten-story Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago was the first to incorporate steel as a structural material. Built in 1885, it was serviced by four passenger elevators. The 1913 Woolworth Building boasted twenty-six elevators; the 1931 Empire State Building required fifty-eight. The first fully automatic self-service elevators were installed in Dallas, Texas, in 1950. Twenty years later, elevators in Chicago's John Hancock Center soared upward at 1,800 feet per minute and, until its catastrophic destruction on September 11, 2001, the 110-story World Trade Center in New York operated 252 elevators and 71 escalators manufactured by Otis.
- Search across the American Memory collections on the term elevator to retrieve images of passenger, freight, and grain elevators. See, for example, a Grain Elevator in Craig, Colorado, or view a 1900 Edison film Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower. A second Edison film, The Good Sport of 1918, is a domestic comedy featuring an inventor who makes elevators that stop even with the floor.
- Learn more about the men who used elevators and steel beam construction to create the first skyscrapers. See Today in History features about Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel H. Burnham, and New Yorker Cyrus Eidlitz. For more on skyscrapers, see Today in History entries on The Empire State Building and Skyscrapers of New York, and search the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog on skyscraper or escalator for many additional images.
- The Otis Elevator Company presented its "Escalator" at the 1900 Paris Exposition (World’s Fair), where it was awarded a grand prize. Since then, the word escalator has entered the English language and is no longer a trade name. Search the collection Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1933-1955 on escalator to locate additional images.
1 R. F. Dearborn, Saratoga and How to See It (Saratoga, NY: C. D. Slocum, 1872): 72. (Return to text)