Oil-burning street heating systems and newspaper kiosks: The history of government services in Moscow

Oil-burning street heating systems and newspaper kiosks: The history of government services in Moscow
The image of Moscow as we know it today started developing at the turn of the 20th century. The city had a nascent public transport system, outdoor lighting of central streets and wooden houses that were gradually being replaced with stone buildings. At the same time, Muscovites were offered access to many services without the introduction of which life in the city would seem impossible today.

Public telephone booths

In October 1893, an aspiring engineer Ivan Popov appealed to the Moscow mayor for permission to install public telephone booths around Moscow.

“No other aspect of Moscow life has been neglected so much and has been such a burden on the public, sometimes placing them in unbearable conditions, as the inability of people to interconnect.”

Home telephones were rare and it was not unusual for Muscovites to make surprise social visits to friends only to discover their friends weren’t home. Even the simplest handwritten messages had to be sent across the city with errand boys.

The industrious Popov suggested that the city install 25 to 50 telephone booths around Moscow with a “staff of commissioners who would quickly deliver notes to the requested addressees.” The distance between these booths should be between 500 and 1,000 meters, so that notes could be delivered as soon as possible.

“These booths should work year round, including holidays, and be open to the public beginning at 8 am in winter and 7 am in summer until 11 pm. At least one-sixth of these booths must work round-the-clock.”

Three years later, to Popov’s surprise the Moscow City Duma rejected his idea labelling it “untimely and not meeting the city’s interests.”

But Ivan Popov did not abandon his idea. In May 1897 he signed a contract with the St Petersburg City Government and, with this success in his pocket, again tried his luck at convincing Moscow to accept his proposal. In June 1899, the Moscow authorities finally approved his idea, granting him a 20-year lease of 40 sites scattered among Moscow’s streets, squares and city parks.

Public toilets

The first time the Moscow City Duma discussed the issue of public lavatories was in the summer of 1867.

“The Moscow chief of police, recognising the importance of having restrooms available for the public and for the prevention of improprieties on the streets and in city squares, has appealed to me to draw the attention of the Duma to this issue and to urge it to facilitate the implementation of this proposal,” Governor General of Moscow Prince Vladimir Dolgorukov wrote to the Moscow City Duma.

The authorities then reintroduced a plan that was proposed two years earlier by a titled counsellor, Mr. Yakovlev, Colonel Pyatkin and a court councillor, Meinhardt, who all expressed their willingness to finance the construction and maintenance of public restrooms out of their own pockets. Heated stone restrooms were to be built in Red, Vasilyevskaya and Novaya squares and in the Old and New Gostiny Dvor arcades. In addition, 15 booths with cast iron urinals were to be placed around Moscow.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Moscow government decided to increase the number of public toilets. In 1910 the city budget provided for maintaining 16 public restrooms and 59 urinals in city squares and on tree-lined boulevards, a number which was obviously not enough for such a big and populous city as Moscow. A survey showed that the city in fact needed at least 49 restrooms and 106 urinals to meet the needs of the public.

That same year, a commission of sanitation engineers prepared several proposals to improve existing public restrooms by increasing their area, improving their ventilation and introducing automated cleaning systems.

A city architect, Nikolai Kvashnin, took advantage of the opportunity to introduce his designs for three new types of “urinals or small toilets,” two types of “surface toilets” and two types of “underground toilets.”

At this time there were public toilets available free of charge and that required a fee to be used. Paid toilets charged users five kopecks for water, soap, cologne and a hand towel.

Soft Drinks

In the second half of the 1860s, the Moscow City Duma received two proposals from entrepreneurs interested in installing retail kiosks on Moscow streets. Second-level guild merchants Ernst and David requested a city permit to install soft drink kiosks in the middle of Tverskoi Boulevard where they would “sell artificial soft drinks and mineral water over the period from 1 May to 15 September.” A second-level guild merchant, Mr Katzelbogen, proved to be much more ambitious in his proposal, requesting “an exclusive right to trade in mineral and fruit infused water from 1 April to 1 October during public festivals on Tverskoi, Prechistensky, Chirstye Prudy, Tsvetnoi and Yekaterininsky boulevards.”

While considering these requests, the Duma’s Commission for Public Benefits and Needs struggled over deciding whether the city should allow the installation of “permanent wooden kiosks” at all.

“As proposed by Misters Ernst and David, the exterior look of these kiosks is not at all indecent but is actually quite acceptable. We do not consider it necessary to hinder the sale of mineral water and newspapers along the city boulevards alongside the current trade in fruits and sweetmeats, as this trade would provide a needed service to the public.”

By that time, mineral water was already being sold in Sokolniki Park, where competition was very tough among several traders.

The commission also concluded that the public did not sufficiently frequent the sites mentioned in the merchants’ applications and approved the installation of water kiosks on Tverskoi and Chistoprudny boulevards only, adding that merchants could pursue their cause later, if they wished to. The commission said it did not see any reason to prohibit the installation of kiosks selling mineral water during public festivals. 

Newspapers and paperboys

Alongside the merchants’ proposals for the installation of water kiosks, the Moscow City Duma considered an application submitted by a Mr Klein from Riga to set up newspaper tables on city streets. His application sought approval for tables to be placed on five sites: across from the exchange on Ilyinka Street; at the monument to Minin and Pozharsky in Red Square; on the corner of Arbat and Arbatskiye Vorota squares; near Tverskoi Boulevard; and at the post office near Myasnitskiye Vorota. Klein argued that such tables would not have any negative impact on the public’s ability to move about uninhibited.

But the Commission for Public Benefits and Needs turned Klein’s proposal down, determining that a table 1.5 metre long and 0.7 metre wide would indeed complicate public movement.

At the same time, everyone on the commission agreed on the importance of this public service. Moreover, they approved the installation of newspaper kiosks on Tverskoi Boulevard and Chistye Prudy and urged Klein to consider other, more suitable places where newspaper tables would not hinder the public’s movement.

In addition to newspaper kiosks, there was a broad network of paperboys who stood on the streets selling newspapers, but in strictly designated places. The chief of police took pains to make sure that paperboys did not interfere with the public’s ability to move freely and with each other, and so he ruled that not more than three paperboys could be present on the same site.

A design proposal of newspaper reading stands for street advertising along Moscow boulevards. 1865. From the Moscow City Archive

Oil-fired street heating

The extreme cold in December 1908 led to the appearance of an innovative technology in Moscow. Before that, people set bonfires on the street allowing the city poor, coachmen, cabbies and delivery boys to stay warm during extreme cold. The city government was responsible for providing wood for these bonfires, however problems with deliveries and accounting often arose.   Advances in technology offered a solution to this problem in 1908.

“Lighting bonfires in the streets on cold days is a primitive and expensive method,” Moscow Mayor Nikolai Guchkov wrote to Moscow Governor General Sergei Gershelman. “It would be more effective to install oil-burning heating systems, which would be even cheaper at that. The city government announces that it has launched a programme to install such street heaters.”

Sporting events

Muscovites started playing outdoor sports in 1895 after city authorities began providing venues and funds for this. The public society Physical Education began organising outdoor sport activities for children in Sokolniki, Devichye Polye and in Miusskaya and Preobrazhenskaya squares.

In 1909, Remezov, a musical instructor from Tula, lobbied the Moscow city government to finance the organisation of outdoor sporting events in city parks and boulevards. His efforts resulted in the government’s allocation of 320 roubles for this programme. This money was used to organise seven sites for outdoor activities. Once implemented, the endeavour was so successful -- the number of participants quickly reached 500 people per site, with up to 1,200 people taking part in excursions organised outside city limits – that the Moscow City Duma increased both the funding and the scale of all such events.

In the summer of 1913, there were 36 sites where outdoor sporting activities were organised for children, supported by both volunteers and four salaried employees on the city’s payroll.

The documents have been provided by the Main Archive Directorate of Moscow.