Philadelphia’s Scarlet Streak

Police Department – 750 Race Street (PhillyHistory.org)

1966 Plymouth Fury Patrol Cars at Police Headquarters, 750 Race Street (PhillyHistory.org)

Even though he despised the color, as long as Frank Rizzo carried a badge the patrol cars of the Philadelphia Police were lipstick red. Rizzo snapped at officers who spoke of them as “red cars” and one can only imagine what he said when he heard them referred to as “rotten tomatoes” or “red devils.”

As soon as Rizzo rose to the position of police commissioner in 1967, he announced a plan to replace the red with a less strident blue and white. But Mayor James H. J. Tate made it clear: such decisions were above Rizzo’s pay grade. Traditional red would reign five more years.

The order came down Tuesday January 4, 1972—Rizzo’s first full day as mayor. He barely minded the ribbing that his brother Joe, the fire commissioner, would be able to tell them apart from vehicles in his department. For the newly inaugurated mayor, “Blue Tuesday,” as the newspapers called it, was a Red Letter Day.

Why, exactly, was red so objectionable?

Philadelphia’s scarlet streak dated back to 1929, a time when color, let alone bright colors, were rare on your basic, Henry-Ford-black automobile. And 1929 was anything but an ordinary year for the Philadelphia police. The department was in a tailspin, having been documented as systemically corrupt.

Historians tell us that “spreading gangland warfare” and simmering scandal “exploded” into “a spectacular grand jury investigation” in August 1928. The city’s annual, underground, Prohibition-era economy of alcohol and other “amusements” had soared to $40 million. Nearly 1,200 bars remained open. Across the city were 13,000 speakeasies and 300 “bawdy houses.” And half of the total proceeds were skimmed off for “protection.” Investigators learned that much of that $20 million passed through the hands of police officers and district captains handpicked by ward leaders. The Philadelphia Police Department wasn’t part of the solution; it was the city’s crime problem.

Mayor Harry Mackey ordered a complete, city-wide “clean up” of the department, including redistricting. In the shakeup, 4,500 officers were transferred; at least 85 were dismissed. Precautions assuring visibility and accountability of the reconfigured force were put in place.

Red had long been associated with Philadelphia, usually in a positive way. S. Weir Mitchell titled his Philadelphia-based historical romance The Red CityElizabeth Robbins Pennell waxed in Our Philadelphiaa book-length love letter, how “peace breathed, exuded from the red brick houses with white marble steps…” But there was also a distinct downside to Philadelphia red. Gothic novelist George Lippard considered the infatuation excessive. “The eye is wearied by one unvarying sameness of dull red brick” he noted in The Quaker City, observing that “the man who paints a house blue or yellow or pink or white, or any other hue…than this monotonous red, is…set down by his neighbors, as slightly weak minded or positively crazy.”

And then there was the notable role for the color in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s popular American classic, The Scarlet Letter, where red stood out as Hester Prynne’s badge of public shame after being found guilty of adultery.

When reform-minded leaders instituted the “Red Car System” in 1929, it almost certainly was not an allusion to Hawthorne’s tale. But less than a year after revelations of deep, widespread, systemic corruption, the choice of scarlet for patrol cars would have been at the forefront of any attempt to increase visibility and accountability. Years later, some might well have considered the color as a vestige, a residual echo of a precaution aimed at introducing transparency for a disgraced police force. They could still feel the punitive stridency of red.

As commissioner in 1969, Rizzo took delivery of 255 new, red Ford V-8s with air-conditioning, power brakes, power steering and bucket seats. From the city’s point of view, Pacifico Ford’s $911,802 price tag was the lowest of three required bids. This would be among the city’s last orders for red cruisers.

Public reaction was largely positive a few years later, when the city shifted to blue and white. “I like it,” said a woman on Market Street. “It doesn’t scream at you.” But a cabbie worried: “It just didn’t stand out like the red.”

Absolutely right.

After 43 years, Philadelphia’s scarlet streak had come to an end.

[Sources: “Huge Rum Bribes to Police Bared in Philadelphia,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1928; William G. Shepherd, “The Price of Liquor,” Colliers, December 1, 1928; “Graft Findings Hit 85 Philadelphia Police,” The Washington Post, March 14, 1929; Albert C. Wagner, “Crime and Economic Change in Philadelphia, 1925-1934,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 27, Issue 4, Winter 1936; “Police Cars to Stay Red, The Bulletin, May 22, 1968; City Gets Low Bid of $2530 Apiece for 255 Red Cars,” The Bulletin, November 11, 1969; “Rizzo Gets His Way on Police Cars,” The Bulletin, January 4, 1972; John Clancy and Don McDonough, “It’s a Blue Tuesday for Police Red Cars,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1972; William A. Lovejoy, “Phila.’s Blue “Red Cars ” Draw Favorable Comment,” The Bulletin, February 17, 1972.]

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