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Locally (western United States), a town where the businesses have closed for the evening, particularly if they closed unusually early, is described as having "rolled up the sidewalks". What is the source of this phrase -- actual removable sidewalks, or merely figurative ones?

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  • Unquestionably fictitious. But first usage will definitely be interesting.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:02
  • It's an old expression -- I recall hearing it said about a small Kentucky town during the summer of 1966. I seriously doubt that you can identify an "origin", as it's a sort of obvious metaphor.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:03
  • Google books finds uses back to 1938.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:14
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    It's figurative (or a witticism). Evocative hyperbolic imagery.
    – Mitch
    Oct 19, 2016 at 12:45
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    In the John Denver song, it is rendered as "roll back the sidewalks" - metrolyrics.com/… . I suspect they were temporary wooden roll-ups placed on stringers at the doorway in muddy weather. And you wouldn't want to leave them out at night for the hobos to use as firewood. Plus they would need cleaning. Compare to puncheon floor and corduroy road.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 21, 2016 at 17:41

5 Answers 5

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+100

How did the expression 'roll up the sidewalks' arise?

I think that the expression is simply a form of humorous exaggeration, indicating that the people doing the "rolling up" have ceased to welcome foot traffic to their door (or through the town) until the next day. I don't think that sidewalk rolling up was ever a phenomenon in the United States.

Traditionally, many small shops in towns in the United States have had canvas awnings over their front doors and/or windows. The shopkeepers would unroll the awnings with a handcrank every morning before they opened for business and then roll up again when they close for the night. During the day these awnings added a decorative touch to the storefront, as well as providing shade from the sun and shelter from the rain or snow, and thus giving passers-by a practical reason to linger at the store's windows.

Awnings have been subject to municipal ordinances in various U.S. towns and cities for more than a century. From Annual Reports of the Various Departments of the City of Columbus, Ohio (1910) [combined snippets]:

To prohibit the erection of awnings, signs and sign posts, boards, poles or other devices, structures or things in the streets and alleys of Columbus except under certain conditions. Be it ordained by the Council of the City of Columbus, State of Ohio:

That no owner or occupant of any house, store or other building, shall erect or construct, or cause or permit to be erected or constructed any awning, sign, signpost, board, pole, or other device, structure or thing, in front of such house, store or other building, on any street in this city, that shall project over the sidewalk of such street more than eight feet from the wall of such house, store or other building; nor that shall be less than eight feet above the pavement of the sidewalk in front of such house, store or other building; ...

Provided, That no wooden awning or other roof shall be constructed over any sidewalk in the city, but all awnings shall be made of canvas or other like material, and so constructed as to be rolled up to the wall when not in use; and, provided further, that this section shall not be construed or understood as applying to railings or other protection around entrances to vaults, basements or cellars.

Although the most common technical name for the design these awnings is "retractable," they are also sometimes called "rollup awnings"—as, for example, by this company. The rolling down and rolling up of shop awnings is familiar to anyone who has spent time in towns and small cities. It's a representative early-morning activity in Joni Mitchell's 1970 song "Morning Morgantown," set in the West Virginia city of Morgantown:

When morning comes to Morgantown/ The merchants roll their awnings down./ The milk trucks make their morning rounds/ In morning Morgantown.

Because not much else is going on in a town or small city at 7:00 a.m.—no hordes of office workers crowd the sidewalks as they head to work—the rolling of the awnings becomes conspicuous activity—and the rolling up of the awnings signals the end of the town's commercial life for the day.

Suggesting that at a certain time of the evening or night the town rolls up not merely the awnings on its storefronts, but even the sidewalks is a humorous way of saying that there is no commercial nightlife at all after a certain time. It's similar to the old Texas joke, "Nightlife in Waco [Texas] ends when the Dairy Queen shuts down at 6:00."

Another possible influence on "roll up the sidewalks" is the expression "roll out the red carpet," meaning to great someone important with appropriate fanfare and respect. What's rolled out may presumably be rolled up afterward, and that notion might be extended humorously from a carpet to a sidewalk. However, "roll up the red carpet" isn't an especially common expression: a Google Books search turns up only 21 unique matches for the phrase.


How old is the expression?

With regard to how old the expression is, the discussion of "roll up the sidewalks at night" at Barry Popik's The Big Apple suggests that the expression goes back to the very early 1900s at least:

I don’t know if there is a “correct” version, but I’m pretty certain that “roll up the sidewalks” is the older one. It used to be a staple in the comedian’s or writer’s repertory for referring to quiet towns. Small, “sleepy” towns have been characterized probably for a century or more as places where they roll up the sidewalks at night. It has become a very common cliché.

And Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) pushes the probable origin date back to the middle 1800s, in its brief coverage of the expression under a longer entry for sidewalk:

roll up the sidewalk v. {mid-19C} (US) of shops and entertainments in towns or cities, to close down at nightfall.

But actual instances in print from the 1800s seem hard to come by. Popik's discussion of the phrase lists instances from 1922 (in an [Portland] Oregonian newspaper article), 1924 (in an item in The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators), and 1926 (in a Charlie Chan novel by Earl Biggers, serialized in the New York Post in 1925). A directed Google Books search for these instances finds matches only for the Biggers novel (in reprint form). Green doesn't cite any examples. The earliest Google Books match I could find is from Kenneth Collings, Just for the Hell of It (1938):

After depositing our combined mountain of luggage in the Hotel des Arcades, two newspaper correspondents decided to hire a car and go out to look at the night life.

There is none," I assured them.

"How do you know? Ever been here before?"

"No, but there is no night life. I can guarantee that they roll up the sidewalks at nine every night."

And the earliest match in an Elephind search is from "Collegian Curiosities," in the [Urbana, Illinois] Daily Illini (23 December 23, 1933):

Dartmouth college, one of the granddaddies of American scholastics, prides itself on its magnificent isolation on the banks of the Connecticut. . . . Hanover [New Hampshire] is a sleepy little burg where they roll up the sidewalks at 9 o'clock. . . . And on moonlight nights the village fathers don't turn on the street lights. . . .

An interesting variant pops up in Spencer Bayne, Agent Extraordinary (1942):

The tiled lobby of the modernistic hotel was sparsely populated. Damascus pulls in its sidewalks by eleven o'clock.

Here the rolled-up awning image yields to a withdrawn welcome mat or portable cart image. The same wording appears in Loften Mitchell, "'Home' Makes It to Jackson," in The Crisis (March 1972):

Waites and I said goodbye to Margaret and her family and went to visit Dr. James Anderson. He and his wife, Selena, had a barbecue going on next to his backyard swimming pool. I have never seen so many barbecued ribs in one place in my life. And the lies were so long that I nearly forgot the Jackson State dormitory pulls in its sidewalks.

And Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third Series, Volume 17, Part 5, Number 1, Music, January–June 1963 (1964) lists a 1963 song performed by Al Hoffman titled "Ev'ry Night at Nine O'Clock (They Pull in the Sidewalks)."


A very different theory

John Hart & Susy Ziegler, Landscapes of Minnesota: A Geography (2008) offers a completely different explanation of the phrase:

At the end of a hard day or week working in the snow, most lumberjacks were much too tired to walk into town, even if one was near, during the working season. Most jacks went to work in the sawmills, or back to their farms, when they were paid off at season's end, but some earned a reputation for carousing in bars and brothels. Small towns were said to roll up their sidewalks when the lumberjacks were coming. Many sidewalks were made of boards held together with wire, and the jacks' cleated boots would have chewed them to splinters. (In 1887 alone the city of Minneapolis laid no fewer than sixty-seven miles of board sidewalks.)

Tearing up boardwalks with their hobnailed boots would certainly ensure endless work for lumberjacks. But this vignette doesn't exactly claim that towns actually removed their boardwalks (by rolling them up or otherwise) when the threat of visits from lumberjacks became acute—it asserts only that they "were said to."


Conclusion

As I said at the outset of this answer, I think that the likeliest source of the expression is as a humorous exaggeration of the idea that at a certain time of night, visitors and (especially) potential customers are no longer welcome in a town, neighborhood, or business district. The image of rolling up a sidewalk also indirectly implies that the town is very small, since any large-size municipality is likely to have a lot of sidewalks laid.

The idea of rolling up sidewalks may be rooted in the practice of rolling up awnings in front of businesses at the end of the business day, and may also be influenced by the idea of rolling up a red carpet after using it to welcome visiting dignitaries. Removable boardwalks are a phenomenon in some beach towns and may have been known in the nineteenth century, but whether anyone would have characterized them as "sidewalks" is unclear to me. Still, they may contribute yet another influence to an imaginary phenomenon invoked for startling effect. I find the hobnail-booted lumberjack explanation that Hart & Ziegler put forward highly implausible.

Like JEL, I can't find any nineteenth-century instances of the expression "roll up the sidewalks." But I couldn't find any as early as the 1917 example that JEL cites either. In fact, the best I could do was to confirm a 1925 instance from a Charlie Chan mystery novel. On the evidence turned up so far, I think early twentieth century is a more likely origin period than middle nineteenth century.

Finally, the existence of the variant "pull in the sidewalks" from no later than 1942 suggests that the usage in either case is metaphorical, not descriptive of actual practice anywhere.

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    Tldr, you didn't have to write an essay. Just saying, this answer would probably be infinitely better if it could be condensed into a few paragraphs. Oct 25, 2016 at 22:57
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I have not been able to find an original source and the phrase doesn't seem to be more than a century old (and not even that). The OED gives a definition, but no origin.

A comment I read somewhere, however, seemed to make a bit of sense. Rolling up the sidewalks are a simile of sorts; just like you'd roll up the carpet when it's no longer needed, the sidewalks are no longer needed when there's nothing going on, so they metaphorically roll them up.

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Other than the unattested assertion in a reputable source — Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, 2005 — that the phrase 'to roll up the sidewalks' dates from the middle of the 1800s, I can find no evidence of figurative or comedic use of "roll up the sidewalks" (et al. variants) than 1905, in A Bundle of Burnt Cork Comedy, by Harry Lee Newton:

We had to take the girls home early, because they roll up the sidewalks there at nine o'clock.

The next appearance was in 1917:

earliest use of phrase found

From The Kane Republican, Kane, Pennsylvania, 13 Dec 1917.

Cassell's gives a very specific definition of the figurative sense:

of shops and entertainment in towns or cities, to close down at nightfall.

Cassell's definition differs from the more general sense given in OED Online:

to cause all entertainment or leisure pursuits to cease (in a location).

While Cassell's places the origin of the expression in the US, OED Online places it more broadly, in North America (that is, including Canada). Yet the earliest (1925) and later attestations provided by OED Online are from US publications.

The broader sense observed by the OED lexicographers, along with the assertion in Cassell's that the phrase originated in the mid-1800s, suggests that a conceptual origin may be found in the confluence of two events in the later 1800s. One of these events was the building of the "original boardwalk" in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened to the public in 1870:

The original boardwalk was actually a temporary structure, which was pulled up and stored during the offseason.

From Boardwalk Stories, "A History of the Boardwalk".

The Atlantic City boardwalk is, however, the "original boardwalk" only when 'boardwalk' is used in a narrow specialized sense, that is, when the term designates one among a set of notable promenades, "especially of planks, along a beach or waterfront" (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition) usually associated with a well-known city business or entertainment district. The more general sense of 'a wooden path', arose much earlier, as is evidenced by this clip from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 29 Jan 1845:

boardwalk, early example

Another possible concrete (that is, not figurative) origin of the phrase was the patenting of the "movable sidewalk" in 1871:

In 1871 inventor Alfred Speer patented a system of moving sidewalks that he thought would revolutionize pedestrian travel in New York City.

From Smithsonian.com, "Moving Sidewalks Before The Jetsons".

Both of these 19th century events received attention in the popular press, and they may have given rise, perhaps by a slow-burgeoning conflation in the popular imagination, to figurative uses of the phrase in the early 1900s.

I have, however, found no textual evidence linking the notions of moving sidewalks and temporary boardwalks in the late 1800s with the early 1900s figurative mentions of the rolling up of sidewalks after the usual hours, or season, of business.

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  • So your assumption is that the idiomatic expression originated from those removable side/broadwalks and that it is not just an hyperbole. Am I correct?
    – user66974
    Oct 25, 2016 at 17:24
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    @JOSH, my speculation is that one possible origin of the later figurative phrase may be in the earlier actuality of moving sidewalks and temporary boardwalks. I have no evidence other than the consonance of the three ideas, especially with regard to the reference to business/entertainment districts of towns, and the historical sequence of the currency of the three ideas'.
    – JEL
    Oct 25, 2016 at 22:42
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A possible meaning and origin might be to remove the display stands from the sidewalks which were common in Europe and it was done in the past in the USA too. Now it is not commonly done in the USA anymore.

An example would be at a farmers market when the market is done the farmers remove or roll up their display stands.

Another is that they used to use temporary boardwalks that can be rolled up. See: http://mitchellismoving.blogspot.com/2013/12/fuengirola-rolls-up-sidewalks.html

In the past, it was done when the streets were not paved and muddy so people would place these temporary sidewalks.

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    "Now it is not done in the USA anymore." It is in my town - It's still very common to see extensive sidewalk displays. downtownhendersonville.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 21, 2016 at 17:49
  • The phrase also exists and is still commonly used in Germany. Oct 21, 2016 at 17:52
  • @Michael how is it being used in Germany? Does it mean to remove the display stands? Oct 21, 2016 at 17:54
  • No, it means that the town/area is somewhat old-fashioned or boring, no possibilities to have fun in the evenings. Not sure about the root either Oct 21, 2016 at 17:57
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I wonder if it's German in origin. They have an expression to describe a town where nothing happens - in the evening, 'da werden die Bürgersteige (or Gehsteige) hochgeklappt'.

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    Can you translate the German for us? Oct 21, 2016 at 18:37
  • Also some context—how old is the phrase? The earliest example of the English phrase I've seen is the attestation in the OED, from 1925 (there is also a 1927 book in Google Books with the phrase), so if the German phrase goes back further that would be a bit of evidence in favor of the theory.
    – 1006a
    Oct 21, 2016 at 22:04
  • This could be a good answer, but it needs a bit more.
    – DyingIsFun
    Oct 25, 2016 at 11:55
  • Google translate says it means "because the sidewalks are folded". Oct 25, 2016 at 16:42
  • @Doug GT is half right: it means “then the sidewalks/pavements are folded up”. Oct 25, 2016 at 17:26

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