Goggles & Side Curtains

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One can sense the atmosphere surrounding the automobile, in those yeasty days when touring was first becoming a national pastime, by turning the pages of the popular magazines. They were filled with personal-experience narratives recommending the pleasures of vacationing by automobile: sniff the salt air along the rock-bound toast of Maine; see Mount Rainier’s glaciers by moonlight; explore historic Virginia; follow Fremont’s route in California for only $1.60 a day.

But first one came up against the problem of a navigable highway. Long-distance travel had been possible only by railway train. Wagon roads were local, used chiefly to move agricultural products from farm to market; they were kept up, if that is the expression, largely by farmers working out their road taxes in lieu of paying cash. Unsurfaced, often unbridged, dusty when dry, filled with bottomless chuckholes in wet weather—holes sometimes maintained by farmers, according to popular rumor, as a source of revenue—the road was often for car and driver the equivalent of a gruelling test truck. But the resourceful motorist learned the trick of fording an unbridged stream by following a gravel bed leading to the opposite bank. A man of such versatility could also improvise. He knew that when axle-deep in Carolina red clay or the viscous gumbo of the Middle West, the widely available fence rail made an excellent pry for freeing his rear wheels.

Roads were not only next to impassable, they were without signposts; or, at occasional important junctions, there would be a multitude of counsellors, a confusing array of unco-ordinated, pointing wooden fingers. Edmund G. Love, writing of his boyhood in Michigan in his recent book, The Situation in Flushing, recalls that his father got stuck in mud holes eight times in one ten-mile stretch between Lapeer and Imlay City, and that he also became hopelessly lost on a detour to Owosso, only twenty miles from home. Towns were seldom identified, since the local citizens knew where they lived. Strangers complained that even the words “U.S. Post Office,” where they were displayed at all, were not accompanied by the place name. The embattled farmers—politically strong in state legislatures—contemplating the idea of frightened horses, rising taxes, dead chickens, and stolen fruit, fought a stubborn rear-guard action against better roads or any facilities that would make life more agreeable for automobilists.

By contrast, cyclists were most helpful. The wheeling clubs, which earlier had sprung up everywhere, nourished a new appreciation of mobility. The wheelmen’s first tour book, The American Bicycler (1880), anticipated the point-to-point automobile manuals, popularized the courtesies of the road, and furnished a pattern for the organization of effective automobile clubs. The cyclists, moreover, established legal precedents regarding the right of a vehicle to use a public highway without the assistance of a horse, as determined by the courts in various decisions in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.

In the teens of this century, public pressure for highway improvement became irresistible. “Good Roads” became a slogan—more than that, a “reform.” a “movement,” even a “gospel.” The concept of a continuous, all-weather road across the continent was vigorously promoted by Carl G. Fisher, an Indianapolis manufacturer of carbide-gas lighting equipment for automobiles. The project, known first by the lackluster name of Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway but rechristened in 1913 the Lincoln Memorial Highway, was dramatized by one of the most massive campaigns of publicity the United States had ever seen. For several years the road remained chiefly an abstraction, a line (raced on a map, except tor an occasional “seedling mile.” In 1916, when there were 3,367,889 automobiles rolling, the Federal Road Aid Act was passed to assist all states that desired to build rural post roads.

The amount of equipment which early motor nomads needed for a journey was astonishing. A partial list, cross-checked against various recommendations, included a rubber lap robe, goggles, tow rope, pump and tire-patching outfit, extra rim lugs, choice of either block and tackle or a winch, reserve cans of gasoline and oil, spotlight, compass, two sets of tire chains, a small length of two-inch plank (to support the jack), and a canvas bucket to fetch emergency water for man and car. Hammacher Schlemmer & Company, the hardware merchants in New York, sold an eighteen-pound Tourist Auto Kit, and the C.A.C. Axle Company in Boston advertised their Damascus Hatchet for special circumstances: “When the wheel drops out of sight in the mud, get out the Damascus, cut a pole for a lever, right tilings up, and then on your way again.” (The uses of a piece of string, a can of ether, and a wad of chewing gum are detailed further on.) Pessimists out for a short spin might also take along tent, sleeping bag, and survival kit.