Standing in line...
November 3, 2005 11:05 PM   Subscribe

When did humans first have the idea to stand in a queue? And what were they waiting in line for?
posted by rajbot to Society & Culture (16 answers total)
I suspect there were "lines" well before formal "queues", probably all the way back to Mesopotamia when slaves would get in line for food. Still, from the OED, 1837 gives its first usage:

queue, n.
(kju) Also 9 queu. [a. F. queue, OF. coue, cue, coe:L. cauda tail: see CUE n.3]


3. A number of persons ranged in a line, awaiting their turn to proceed, as at a ticket-office; also, a line of carriages, etc. Also transf. and fig. to jump the queue: see JUMP v. 10c.

1837 CARLYLE Fr. Rev. I. VII. iv, That talent..of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes..the French People. 1862 THACKERAY Philip II. viii. 177 A half-mile queue of carriages was formed along the street. 1876 C. M. DAVIES Unorth. Lond. (ed. 2) 120 A long queue, like that outside a Parisian theatre. 1903 E. CHILDERS Riddle of Sands xxvi. 298, I joined a queue of three or four persons who were waiting their turn, flattened myself between them and the partition till I heard him walk out. 1943 E. M. ALMEDINGEN Frossia ii. 64 Paulina had a mind above bread queues and unlit streets. 1951 Jrnl. R. Statistical Soc. B. XIII. 152 My own interest in the subject arose from a correspondence..about queues of taxis in station yards and of customers in retail shops. 1953 Times 5 Nov. 4/2 It would be for the Commons to discuss whether the claim of the judges on salaries in the queue of claims should be met before others. 1956 Newsweek 9 Jan. 43/1 In Leningrad, Gershwin's music and Heyward's ‘Porgy’ were anticipated by a two-day queue for tickets priced up to $15 apiece in rubles. 1958 Listener 20 Nov. 839/3 After the war the railways had to take their place in the queue after housing and housing repairs. 1966 Rep. Comm. Inquiry Univ. Oxf. II. 279 In arts and social studies, most of those with a college post before a university post were tutorial fellows in the ‘queue’ for a CUF lectureship. 1968 Sci. Amer. Aug. 96/1 Airplanes stacked over an airport, shoppers,..freight cars lined up for unloading at a railroad terminal and messages seeking a free path through a telegraph network all have one thing in common: they are members of a queue, or a line waiting for a service. 1969 Listener 28 Aug. 267/3 Are we going to wait until Marxism and socialism have conquered the world, and then stand there last in the queue, waiting for its return to us? 1977 Spare Rib May 19/4 Women in poor areas are always at the end of the queue for anything.
posted by Rothko at 11:15 PM on November 3, 2005

Possibly one of the earliest people were getting in line to receive some mark or sacrament. Getting consecrated by the priestess before the battle, smeared with some secretion by the shaman before the hunt, that kind of thing.

With rituals and customs like this priority was a big factor. The alpha male as first in line to taste the new harvest. The chief having the first choice of the spoils of war.

Those essential features of waiting in lines -- that we have to, but Certain Important People don't; and that we're ahead of our "lesser brethren" but behind our "betters" -- surely go back to your basic mammal pecking order. Pack leader gets first taste at the gazelle, top seal gets top shelf of rock, etc. The rest of us poor bozos just have to wait our turn and hope we get a shot.

In its modern, civilized form -- where strangers more or less politely queue up -- they may have been waiting to get paid, or to beseech the oracle, or to praise the new king -- back in ancient Constantinople, Rome, Athens, Jerusalem...
posted by cps at 11:38 PM on November 3, 2005

It seems natural, if there are multiple people who need to use the same thing, to operate on a first-come basis. I'm trying to recall if I've ever heard of animals that do this in the wild, but I can't think of any.
posted by deafweatherman at 11:48 PM on November 3, 2005

I live in Japan, and the queues here can be outrageous. Best example: I went to Tokyo Disneyland this summer with my girlfriend, and something you notice all over the park is the smell of popcorn. Butter popcorn, caramel popcorn, honey popcorn. And there's these carts that sell the popcorn, with a queue of dozens and dozens of people. Some lines are so long they actually have a staffer directing the flow.

We asked one of these staffers how long the wait would be for some honey popcorn. "About 40 minutes" she said. And that wasn't even the longest line!

I'm absolutely baffled, so I ask my girlfriend the obvious--"Why in hell don't they put out more carts, thereby cutting down the wait time and likely even make more profit?" My girlfriend's reply: "Japanese people see a long queue as a mark of quality. If people are lined up, then it must be for something good. The longer the line, the better the quality." It's patience that Westerners wouldn't normally be bothered with.
posted by zardoz at 11:50 PM on November 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

I'm trying to recall if I've ever heard of animals that do this in the wild, but I can't think of any.

posted by samh23 at 12:31 AM on November 4, 2005

Sharing a common resource is likely the earliest form of waiting:
-Water spring/well/hole
-Tool or fixed resource
-To eat from an animal/tree
posted by rudyfink at 12:53 AM on November 4, 2005

Great story zardoz. I can remember lining up to go see Return of the Jedi on a sunday afternoon a couple of weeks after it was released. My sister noticed some people she knew and helped us cut in about half way up the line, even then it was several hours.

It is something I really miss about going to movies now. Not that I would ever choose to line up when it isn't necessary. Obviously.
posted by Chuckles at 12:58 AM on November 4, 2005

Queueing is such a good form of social order that I would have been surprised if it hasn't arisen countless times in nature. Lots of animals travel in single file (eg. wildebeests), but that's a little different from lining up for some sort of resource. Samh23's suggestion of ants is good. A quick Google search on "watering hole" and "queue" led me to this:

The elephants display some intriguing behaviour. At one watering hole, they formed orderly queues to drink, each queue kept in line by an adult 'prefect'.

So there's one example. Sometimes we need 'prefects' (Disneyland staffers) to stay orderly, but the rest of the time social contract does the job.

On preview, I see rudyfink beat me to the watering hole idea. I thought of the scavengers idea too (eg. vultures waiting for lions to finish eating a carcass), but that tends to be much more chaotic. You need to find communal animals that aren't as self-serving as vultures. I wonder if chimps ever queue (in nature)?
posted by painquale at 1:06 AM on November 4, 2005

I'm trying to recall if I've ever heard of animals that do this in the wild, but I can't think of any.


And ducks and geese.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:05 AM on November 4, 2005

Conventionally we would say that the ants, ducks, geese, etc are exhibiting flocking behaviour rather than being in queues. But a human queue also has a small number of fixed and unwritten rules that everybody must follow for it to work. So the comparison is interesting.

I remember reading that a lot of the British idea of how to behave in queues arose along with the construction of the railways. Suddenly the operators needed to find a way of selling tickets to a large crowd of people in a fair way.
posted by rongorongo at 3:38 AM on November 4, 2005

I'm trying to recall if I've ever heard of animals that do this in the wild, but I can't think of any.

Echidna love trains!
posted by mendel at 4:29 AM on November 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

My first thought was rudyfink's hypothesis above: water. I picture a group of prehistoric humans naturally lining up to drink from the good access spot on the river.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:47 AM on November 4, 2005

Are we talking pre- or post- civilization? If pre-, well, then, I've only heard about but never actually seen Clan of the Cave Bear, but I'd guess the first thing men lined up for was sex. Either that, or food, once hunter-gatherer groups started to form.
posted by kimota at 6:38 AM on November 4, 2005

Expanding on rongorongo's comment, I see no reason why flocking behaviour couldn't be applied to humans just as well as it could to ants, ducks, and geese.

Here's something I'm sure everyone's familiar with:
You're at a large store like Costco, and you see a good deal on towels sitting in a bin. There are literally hundreds of towels. Nobody else is around, and you start getting many towels and filling your cart. Suddenly, you have about a dozen people directly behind you wanting the same towels simply because they notice someone else wanting them.

Ants do the same thing with chemical trails - one ant leaves a trail that gets reenforced if another ant picks it up. (google for a more detailed discussion - it's fascinating)

Humans can be just as simple (and just as complex) as ants.
posted by odinsdream at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2005

Since we're telling our life stories: specific line-behavior has a social component: I'm chilean, we're not very well behaved in lines, and lines for large, crowded events tend to break up near the door with everybody pushing to get in. I lived in California for 2 years, and was at the San Francisco Film Festival waiting for a chilean movie to start. We were inside the theater and still had like 30' to go. There were like another 50 people waiting, sitting or lying on the floor. All of a sudden, with no prompting from anybody in or out of authority, the gringos stand up and form a neat line against a wall. The chileans looked at them like they must have radio transmitters in their skull relaying orders.
It's little things like this that remind you you're in a foregin country.
posted by signal at 8:01 AM on November 4, 2005

I once remember talking to some researchers who were modelling the movement of virtual humans in virtual spaces and using the results to help with tasks such as designing fire exits. The original work has evolved into this. If nothing else it will tell you the quickest way to get through a door in panicking crowd (get to the wall and follow it until you reach the door)
posted by rongorongo at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2005

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