Goggles & Side Curtains

In 1900 there were some twenty-one million horses in the United States and fewer than four thousand automobiles. It seemed improbable at the time that the generation then living would witness a reversal of roles. Yet within a quarter of a century Americans would see the end of their long dependence upon animal power as a means of movement.

A Sunday-school teacher in 1920 wound up her account of the Creation by asking the class whether there was any animal that man could have done without. “The horse,” said one boy; and the group agreed. Horse history was finished, and Nahum’s prophecy in the Old Testament was fulfilled: “The chariots shall rage in the streets,” the prophet predicted, “they shall justle [yes, justle] one against another in the broad ways: they shall seem like torches, they shall run like the lightnings.”

There is no way of saying precisely when the Horse Age ended and the Motor Age arrived. But one can approximate the date. The new era arrived about the turn of the century, when the gasoline vehicle ceased to be experimental and began to look like an automobile rather than a buggy directed by a driver sitting on an explosion. The genuine automobile displayed such characteristics of design as a hood, tonneau, and side door: it steered with a wheel instead of a tiller, and was capable of travelling up to forty miles in an hour. If the motor car fell short of Ransom K. Olds’s triumphant claim for his REO, “Nothing to watch but the road,” it had at least attained the degree of dependability which made it possible for a young man to do his courting over a radius of fifty miles instead of five, while a proper Bostonian could plan to spend Sunday in the Milton hills with a reasonable expectation of seeing the Common again on the same day.

Lost in the new mobility was the emotional relationship between a man and his horse. But there was a compensating transfer of affection to the sturdy, black, brass-fronted Model T Ford (the “motor car of the people”), to the popular Overland, or to the stylish Packard (“It gets you there and gets you back”). Men of mature years boasted of the mechanical perfection of their cars, while the young, blithe, and unattached expressed their loyalties in nicknames lettered on the body shell, as in “Galloping Gertrude.” Or they decorated the rear with the slogans of the dapper age-- “Chicken, Here’s Your Roost.”

By the second decade of the century the gas auto had won out over the ladylike electric coupe and the slow-starting steamer. The internal combustion engine had been tamed sufficiently to become a practical power plant for a wheeled vehicle steered by a non-professional chauffeur. The family chariot was generally and significantly described in the phrase “pleasure car,” and the pleasure it gave was called by the young in heart a “joy ride.”

In 1906 Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, termed the motorcar “a picture of the arrogance of wealth,” and declared that “nothing has spread socialistic feeling more than the use of the automobile. …” Yet by 1910 it cost less to drive a Maxwell automobile than a horse and buggy—1.8 cents per passenger mile as against 3.5 cents—and by 1924 a new Ford cost no more than a good buggy horse. Instead of resenting the sponsorship of the new machine by the American elite, ordinary citizens learned with satisfaction that “Automobile Red” was very chic, and that Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont considered the “sport” of automobiling “good form.” Happily, the rising middle class vowed to emulate such celebrities and social figures as John Jacob Astor, Mark Twain, Chauncey M. Depew. the Vanderbilts, Maude Adams (in her curved-dash Oldsmobile), or Theodore Roosevelt, the first President of the United States to take the wheel of his own car.

Reigning actresses who saw a chance to steal a scene by driving their own roadsters included Lillian Russell, Mrs. Leslie Carter, and Maxine Elliott. Anna Held, fascinatingly French, who helped popularize gum-chewing, challenged any American woman to race her from New York to Philadelphia. There is no evidence that anyone ever accepted the challenge.

The view was widely held, however, during the years when the automobile was being democratized, that women would be passengers but not drivers. They were inclined to hysteria, the argument ran, were not trained to react quickly in the emergencies that would arise in travelling at twenty miles per hour, and in any event would never acquire the knack or the bull strength required to push out the clutch and move the shift stick from low to “intermediate.” (What actually happened after skirts were shortened and the electric starter was introduced scarcely requires documentation.)

The theory that women generally would never drive was shattered at an early date in motoring history by the way Miss Alice Roosevelt of the White House went streaking around Washington streets despite the speed limit (twelve miles an hour where there were no trolley tracks, six where there were). Wide attention was focused upon the achievement of Alice Huyler (Mrs. John R.) Ramsey, who in 1909 drove across the continent without a male companion in her thirty-horsepower green Maxwell. And when “two noted suffragists” travelled ten thousand miles in 1914 in their Saxon roadster for the cause of woman’s rights, they were, the Saxon people pointed out, “never late once.”