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Almost anyone who has grown up in North America since the 1970s has heard that hitchhiking is an unbelievably reckless thing to do. But, as historian Linda Mahood writes, focusing on the Canadian experience, attitudes were very different in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Mahood writes that hitchhiking began not long after cars became common on North American roads. By the 1930s, there were clear unwritten rules of etiquette regarding the practice. Picking up a hitchhiker was an act of compassion, and drivers could expect gratitude, but not payment, for their generosity.

Children and young adults were particularly apt to thumb a ride. In 1932, the children’s columnist for the Globe newspaper described hitchhiking as a chance for kids to demonstrate good manners with strangers.

Long-distance “adventure hitchhiking” became a widespread pastime for teenagers and young adults. Newspaper accounts celebrated young hitchhikers for their thrift and ingenuity. For example, in 1934, the Globe and Mail chronicled the story of two Alberta nineteen-year-olds who traveled 2,300 miles to the Chicago World’s Fair to meet Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, collecting the signatures of the mayor of each city they passed through.

Among the young hitchhikers were many women, such as twenty-three-year-old Nora Harris, who traveled alone from Victoria to Halifax in 1938, thumbing rides, sleeping outdoors, and cooking over a fire. She explained that she undertook the journey to help conquer her self-consciousness. Emily Post even expressed approval for hitchhiking by World War II-era factory girls, providing they “remember that the rides are not social gatherings and conversation is not necessary.”

Clubs ranging from the YMCA to the Young Communist League encouraged hitchhiking as a way for young people to learn about their country, and many colleges had hitchhiking teams—sometimes coed—that competed to travel the farthest.

But, even in the 1930s, not everyone was on board with the pastime, and by the 1950s, concerns were much more intense. A 1950 Reader’s Digest article warned of many cases in the US in which hitchhikers robbed or killed their benefactors.

Authorities came to focus their worries specifically on female hitchhikers. In 1970, the Canadian Welfare Council concluded that

the problems of girl transients are quite different from the problems of the boys and young men on the roads… Boys, when they wish to do so, can return to a settled and ordinary life, but in many cases a girl’s whole chance of happiness is destroyed.

Journalists intensively covered sexual assaults and other attacks women faced in strangers’ cars. The new conventional wisdom became that girls should know better. In 1972, one judge dismissed a rape case, arguing that female hitchhikers such as the seventeen-year-old victim “were inviting motorists to believe their purpose is not entirely innocent.” Meanwhile, male hitchhikers who experienced sexual assault received almost no media coverage.

Before long, though, Mahood writes, the conventional wisdom for both men and women became that “sooner or later, a young hitchhiker will come to harm.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct a verb error in the penultimate paragraph.

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Journal of Social History, Vol. 49, No. 3, Changes in Medical Care (Spring 2016), pp. 647–670
Oxford University Press