Thursday, September 4, 2014

Some Social Consequences from the Early 20th Century Diffusion of the Automobile in America

The Automobile for Better or Worse?
            The idea that the horseless carriage would have an enormous impact on American society did not escape the pioneers of that device. In a March 1896 article in the Horseless Age it was stated that the auto
will make the suburbs easier of access, improve the trade of country hotels in many places, and still further depress the business of horse-raising. Much of the land now used for horse-raising and growing horse feed will in process of time find other uses more in harmony with the trend of progress.37
            The immediate social impact of the newly-developed automobile during the first decade of the twentieth century was significant. The thoughts of a person first seeing this belching, stinking, noisy device making its way are difficult for a historian to recapture. To be sure, horses often reacted violently to an encounter with an early car. So did many people, especially rural folks who were fearful of change and urban dwellers who were concerned over their rights while walking the street. Rural residents often thought of the automobile as a “devil-wagon,” and as Lowell Julliard Carr demonstrated in a pioneering sociological study, their attitudes only changed when the car came to have a commercial presence in their community.38
            Of course, notions of the automobile’s rivalry with the horse surfaced quickly and comparisons between the horse and the car were common. The advantages of a machine over a horse prompted one inventor in 1895 to build his own horseless carriage. Ironically, given the carnage that would later be a consequence of the automobile, The Horseless Age reported
Carlos Booth, M.D. of Youngstown, Ohio had a terrible runaway last June, in which his wife came near losing her life and the horse was killed. Reading of the Paris Race about this time he at once made a design for a motor carriage, which he is now having constructed.39
As it turned out, Booth’s vehicle would be completed by the summer of 1896. Made by Fredonia Manufacturing of Youngstown, Ohio, it weighed more than 1,000 pounds and enabled Dr. Booth to have the distinction of being the first physician in America to own an automobile.40
            In addition to eliminating the horse manure problem on city streets, the cost of a car with upkeep contrasted to maintaining a horse was a key question that often was addressed in early automobile advertising. For example, an advertisement in the Ford Times in September 1913 depicted a scale with a horse and a Model T on the two pans, the weight of the horse far exceeding that of the car. The ad further read, “Old Dobbin, the family coach horse, weighs more than a Ford car. But – He has only one-twentieth the strength of a Ford car – cannot go as fast nor as far – costs more to maintain – and almost as much to acquire.”
While an exact date cannot be ascertained, sometime during the second decade of the twentieth century the automobile became a primary article of consumption for middle America, and no longer a plaything for the rich summering at Newport, Rhode Island or the sporting set on Long Island. After initially finding the auto a “devil wagon,” rural Americans in particular, embraced the car as essential to improving their lives. Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Magnificent Ambersons captured the social and economic complexities of that transition as well as any contemporary account of the day.41 The novel is a love story involving the Ambersons, the Morgans, and the Minafers, set in a Midwestern town at a time of profound economic and social change. With the widespread diffusion of the automobile, landed elites, complacent and spoiled, who were living in prosperous mid-sized towns, lost their economic power at the expense of the new auto-centered manufacturing class comprised of investors, entrepreneurs and engineers.
            The automobile gradually knitted urban and rural areas more tightly together, although evidence indicates that initially city and country folk really did not want to partake in this kind of social togetherness. During the first decade of the twentieth century city folk began to go for country rides, at times trespassing on farmers’ property while picnicking, and eating the farm’s fruits and vegetables as well. Some individuals and rural communities took appropriate steps to discourage these upper middle class urbanites from intruding.42 An extreme reaction was the spanning of roadways with barbed wire, sure to cause injury to the unsuspecting automobilist. And there was also the ever-present speed trap to worry about, along with laws calling for a red flag to precede the car or even requiring calling ahead to the next town warning of the car’s appearance on local roads.
            This was a time in American history when farmers perceived themselves to be exploited by city-based institutions like banks and corporations, and thus resentment spilled over to those taking Sunday drives, with excessive repair and towing charges, food bills, and gasoline purchases often the result. On the other hand, those living in rural areas soon recognized that there was an economic benefit to having these urbanities take excursions to the country. Thus, travelers were often welcomed because of the money they brought with them.

            The automobile slowly but surely diffused into rural America and with it came many improvements in the quality of life. By World War I, the automobile enabled physicians to make their rounds more efficiently and rural areas established hospitals to serve surrounding communities. A decade later the one-room schoolhouse gradually gave way to centralized schools, and thus the automobile improved education. While some church leaders railed against the car because of Sunday drives that would decrease church attendance, in reality the auto enabled once-isolated members to attend worship services. On economic terms, the appearance of the automobile broadened the market of farm goods for farmers, and in general made life easier.

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