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Vintage Subway Etiquette Posters Reveal Manspreading Has Always Been Annoying

Japan, 1976
Poster by Hideya Kawakita, Japan (1976) (image courtesy Tokyo Metro Cultural Foundation/New York Transit Museum)

When the New York Transit authority rolled out a courtesy campaign targeting manspreading last year, Men’s Rights Activists and angry netizens accused “anti-spread” crusaders of being whiny “pseudo-feminists.” More debate followed when the word “manspreading” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. But though the word itself is new, the practice of manspreading — whereby a man spreads his legs while sitting on public transit, taking up too much space — has apparently been pissing people off since around the time public transit became a thing.

Manspreading, NYC, 1947
Amelia Opdyke Jones, anti-manspreading poster for New York City subway (1947), New York Transit Museum Collection

In the New York Transit Museum’s current exhibit, Transit Etiquette or: How I Learned to Stop Spitting and Step Aside in 25 Languages, courtesy campaigns spanning decades and continents reveal a nearly universal anti-manspreading sentiment. A poster on the New York City subway in 1947, featuring cartoons of flagrant manspreaders in fedoras, implored commuters not to be “space hogs” or “leg pests.” Another ad simply labels manspreaders “BAD!”. Both these designs were by cartoonist Amelia Opdyke Jones, who signed her work “Oppy.” From 1946 to 1966, Jones illustrated etiquette posters with Monopoly-like characters for the “Subway Sun,” a faux-newspaper plastered in train cars. The term “litterbug” is said to have originated from one of Oppy’s subway posters. The New York MTA’s current “Dude… Stop the Spread” campaign, which caused so much internet kerfuffle when installed, is only a watered-down rehash of these earlier designs, with boring pictograms instead of Oppy’s retro comic book flair.

Subway Sun, NYC, 1953
Amelia Opdyke Jones, Subway Sun, New York City (1953) (image courtesy the New York Transit Museum Collection)

And manspreading is an international plague, according to the designs on view: A disturbing poster on the Japan Metro in 1976 depicted Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as “The Seat Monopolizer,” squishing smaller Charlie Chaplins seated next to him. An ad from Tokyo trains in 2012 featured a cartoon manspreader encroaching on the space of a child inexplicably wearing a bear suit. “I’d like to sit too. There should be enough room,” she says.

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Tokyo (2012) (image courtesy Tokyo Metro Cultural Foundation)

If you’re a Men’s Rights Activist and these ads hurt your feelings, please get some help and don’t freak out at the New York Transit Museum: The exhibition also features retro ads scolding “Birdy Big Bags,” discouraging what’s now called “she-bagging,” whereby people (according to some, mostly women) hog seats with their bags. There’s also a poster from the London Underground in 1986, depicting a rare example of womanspreading: A female punk with a rainbow mohawk splays her legs on a bus seat while an elderly gentleman stands and waits for a chance to sit.

London Underground, 1986
London Underground (1986) (image © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

The rest of the exhibit, with posters from Barcelona, Brussels, Chicago, London, Madrid, New York, Philadelphia, Rio de Janiero, Taipei, and Tokyo, colorfully illustrates the laws of how not to be an asshole on public transit, laws that apparently transcend time and place.

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Subway etiquette posters by Amelia Opdyke Jones at the New York Transit Museum, installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
SEPTA, 2014
Trinh Loi, poster for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (2014) (image courtesy the New York Transit Museum)
Transit Etiquette Exhibit Logo
Transit Etiquette at the New York Transit Museum (image courtesy the New York Transit Museum)

Transit Etiquette Or: How I Learned To Stop Spitting And Step Aside In 25 Languages continues at the New York Transit Museum in the Gallery Annex at Grand Central Terminal (89 E 42nd St, Midtown East, Manhattan) through October 20. 

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