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American Residential History: How Worn Paths Became Blacktop Driveways

By November 5, 2021No Comments

Why aren’t there any driveways in pictures of middle class homes from the 1890s? Because they didn’t have cars! The rest is history.

Before anyone considers their next blacktop driveway repair project, it might help to consider the history of driveways themselves. As well as the old jokey question, “Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?”

The answer to that question is simple: language evolves. The invention of “parkways” was to distinguish scenic driving, often through parks, from the uglier views of Interstates. But the fact we park on driveways is a little more complicated – and related to the history of driveways.

In the 1840s, during the brief but influential career of landscape and building architect Andrew Jackson Downing, the areas of worn dirt from street to homes (nice, upper class homes) were described as “picturesque, private paths.” He was the first to acknowledge that place even existed. It wasn’t until 1871 when the word “driveway” appeared – incidentally but unrelatedly the year of the Great Chicago Fire, which ultimately led to the city rebuilding with the modern urban amenity known as alleys, which are the driveways to the back of city homes that sit cheek-by-jowl with no room for cars to pass in between.

That early version of a driveway might still have been a dirt path for horses and carriages in the 1840s, as the horseless version of a carriage did not appear until a few decades later. But not much later. The first asphalt road in the US was laid in 1870 by Belgian chemist Edmund J. DeSmedt (it was in Newark, New Jersey). The few paved residential driveways in existence at the time were laid with either gravel, cobblestones, or pavers.

There are no written records of just when a paved blacktop driveway led from a street, past the house to a carriage house (garage) in the back. Nor is there documentation of when the first potholes in an asphalt driveway appeared. But suffice it to say that would have been within about 20 years after the first blacktop driveway was laid in. Which suggests, by conjecture, that the first blacktop driveway repair was made sometime around 1900.

In the book, “Research Notes: Toward a History of the Suburban Driveway,” writer David Solomon talks about how driveways evolved by the middle of the 20th century into “a space that allows for vehicular access between a public road and a piece of private property.” Solomon describes how this ended up with driveways in two zones: the place where the driveway meets the street and, often, crosses a sidewalk (giving us the term, “curb cut”); and the “roadway and/or parking area on the individual lot. The first of these is subject to regulation. That’s where it can be placed relative to the nearest intersections, how it drains into a stormwater system, and who maintains it. The rest of the driveway is wholly to the discretion of the homeowner.

Blacktop repair might seem like an expense that our great, great grandfathers didn’t have to bother with. But if they could see the cars of today in our driveways, they’d probably be happy to do some seasonal seal coating and pothole repair (and be relieved of the horse manure problems).



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