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.

The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia… Washington: L. Towers, 1862. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Law Library

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.

Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling, Petersburg, Virginia, 1851. The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Manuscript Division

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.

Extract from an Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Constitution.” 1788. Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

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.

Alexandria, Va. Price, Birch & Co., Dealers in Slaves, 283 Duke St.. William Redish Pywell, photographer, August 1863. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

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Otis and his Elevator

On September 20, 1853, Elisha 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’s business, but made possible the development of passenger elevators. Elevators enabled the modern high-rise building. Before 1850 most buildings were no more than six stories tall, but today’s skyscrapers range from fifty to more than one hundred stories in height.

New York Crystal Palace for the exhibition of the industry of all nations/ designed by Carstensen & Gildemeister, N.Y. Carl Emil Doepler, artist; Nagel & Weingärtner, lithographer; New York: Goupil & Co., 1852. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

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 Otis himself, recognized the full implications of his new invention. He 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.

In the elevator [of the Washington Monument]. 1887. Illus. in: Hutchins and Moore, A Souvenir of the Federal Capital. 1887, p. 86. Prints & Photographs Division

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 the 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’s sales totaled twenty-seven elevators.

Broadway: The Store of Messrs. E. V. Haughwout and Co. Illus. in The Illustrated London News, April 2, 1859. Prints & Photographs Division

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 Chicago Building of The Home Insurance Co. of New York. William LeBaron Jenney, architect; Boston: L. Prang & Co., [1885]. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Idlewild Airport Arrivals Building. Escalator. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, July 23, 1958. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
  1. R. F. Dearborn. Saratoga and How to See It. (Saratoga, NY: C. D. Slocum, 1872). p 72. (Return to text)

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