Weird History
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What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies

Updated September 18, 2019 44.3k views11 items

The modern police force is a relatively new institution. It was only in the 1800s that uniformed, paid police began enforcing laws in the US and England. Police in ancient societies were usually volunteer magistrates or private security hired by wealthy landowners. Beyond that, citizens enforced laws and settled disputes with violence.

While Ancient Rome and Egypt had what could be deemed police, they looked and acted differently than what we're used to in countires like the US and England. Even since the advent of the modern police force, myriad attempts have been made to change the mission of police, usually through innovations in uniform or behavior. Read on to discover how police looked and behaved prior to the industrial revolution. 

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  • 19th Century Paris Had the First Uniformed Police in History

    After the urban upheaval of the French Revolution, Paris's small civilian police force was reorganized by Napoléon I. On February 17, 1800, the Prefecture of Police was created, along with police forces in almost all French cities.

    Thirty years later, the first uniformed policemen appeared in Paris, when sergents de ville, or "city sergeants" were used following political upheaval. 

  • London, 1829 – the First Modern, Paid Police Force

    A few months after France introduced uniformed police, England, dealing with a rash of crime and a volunteer watchman force unable to stop it, took things a step farther. The Metropolitan Police Act, signed in September 1829, introduced the concept of paid, organized, civilian police who served not just to punish crime, but to prevent it.

    London's revolutionary Metropolitan Police was the brainchild of British politician Sir Robert Peel. Responding to public fear of soldiers conducting law enforcement, Peel made the force answerable to civilian authorities. Their uniforms were blue, rather than military red. To allay fears of brutality, officers were armed with a wooden truncheon and a whistle. They also got a nickname: "Bobbies."

  • Early US Police Forces Had to Wear Civil War Hand-Me-Downs

    Photo: Innotata / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The success of the London Police led to police forces in US cities. Boston was first, in 1838, then New York, in 1844, and Philadelphia, in 1854. However, these forces refused to wear uniforms, due to public ridicule. It wasn't until an NYPD mandate in 1854 that police in America began wearing uniforms. Many early forces used leftover Civil War uniforms, which ushered in the iconic blue, military-esque look that dominated police forces in the 19th century.

  • US Sheriffs Didn't Wear Uniforms For Decades

    Photo: Jsayre64 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sheriffs in rural areas of the US resisted uniforms, preferring to simply wear a badge over their clothes, in an effort to foster relationships with community members. Well into the 20th century, some sheriff's deputies still didn't wear uniforms — Manatee County, Florida, deputies went without them until 1955.