Beginning in the Midwest in the early 19th-century, “jay” was common slang for an empty-headed chatterbox, like a bluejay.
By the later 19th century, using the word “jay” was akin to cursing and not to be taken lightly. A “jay” was a hick, a rube, or a downright dupe. A “jay town” was a fourth-rate or worthless place. In a display of contempt by an audience, “jay” could be hurled against a bad actor much like we say “hack” or “jackass” today.
As we moved into the 20th century, “jay” took on new meanings.
“A jay driver is a species of the human race who, when driving either a horse or an automobile, or riding a bicycle on the streets, does not observe the rules of the road. It is the custom of the jay driver to drive on the wrong side of the street.” Emporia Gazette, Kansas, 13 July 1911
In the first decades of the new century, motor carriages began crowding already busy city streets and resulted in a sharp increase in pedestrian deaths. Unsuccessful attempts were made to limit automobile speed to 25 mph and in some cases, ban cars altogether. Civic outrage and a concern for public safety gave rise to new laws prohibiting people from freely walking and playing in the street – as they had done for millennia. A pedestrian indifferent to the new rules became known as a “jay walker.”
The above image is from a 1924 New York parade with a jaywalking clown dressed in 19th-century clothing who is repeatedly bumped by a Model T Ford. The comedy was meant to impress on the audience that those who walked in the streets were country rubes.
Lest the laws become too restrictive for the growing automobile industry, pro-auto groups lobbied lawmakers to put the burden of responsibility on pedestrians. In concerted campaigns that included politicians, boy scouts, and even Santa Claus, municipalities worked to change people’s attitudes about who had the lawful right to be in the street. Safety organizations and police began formally using “jay walker” in signage and imposed fines for pedestrian infractions. Anti-jaywalking laws were adopted in many cities in the late 1920s and became the norm by the 1930s.