Goggles & Side Curtains

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Father, the family chaulleur, wore a linen duster and, perhaps, Saks & Company’s “dignified tourist cap which has attached in the back fold a pair of wide vision goggles cleverly concealed.” Feminine passengers in open-car days met the exposure to wind, rain, heat, cold, dust, and mud in charming fashions--ground-sweeping skirts, sleeves shirred at the wrist with elastic bands, cravenette or pongee motor coats, natty turbans, or wide picture hats tied under the chin with demure crepe dc Chine bows. “Motor chapeaux,” said Outing , the outdoor magazine for gentlemen, “frame a pretty face enchantingly.”

If the motor girl boggled at the goggles she simply shut her eyes when dust and winged insects swirled around her, and breathed daintily through her handkerchief. Or perhaps her protector was the personal wind shield made by the Auto-Lorgnette Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a sort of fan with two panels of transparent celluloid, one clear, the other smoked to shield the eyes from glare. The closed car of the mid-twenties put an end, of course, to these adversities and elegancies.

A need for identifying the car and the owner became apparent as auto thievery replaced horse stealing as a profitable pursuit. During the teens, all states adopted license and registration laws. In New York State in the early days it was up to the operator of the car to provide his own plates, which might be simply a set of old house numbers mounted on a shingle; or he could paint the numbers on the body. Ritzy cars sported white patent-leather tags to which metal numbers were attached, with the pad fixed to the rear axle by straps. Many states found the idea of “foreign” visitors wearing out their roads so distasteful that they erected signs at their boundaries saying “STATE LINE. CHANGE TAGS HERE.” Missouri was celebrated for harassment, inhospitality, and red tape. Some counties in the Show-Me state tacked on their own two-dollar fee, while St. Louis charged ten dollars for the use of her streets by Illinoisans. As late as 1914, Maryland still required her neighbors to buy a ticket of admission, and Ohio in 1920 permitted nonresidents to tour the state only if they stayed no longer than a week. Michigan got high marks from the touring public for recognizing out-of-state licenses and allowing speeds of up to twenty-five miles an hour.

Early twentieth-century rural lawmakers tormented the motorist with obscure ordinances. It is reported, but without scholarly confirmation, that one New England town warned drivers: “THE SPEED LIMIT THIS YEAR IS SECRET. VIOLATORS WILL BE FINED $10.” Rustic speed cops, certainly, lurked in the bushes; and it is a fact that a Vermont statute once required an automobile to be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a lighted red lantern. Many towns and villages ordered the automobilist to come to a halt when a horse-drawn vehicle approached, or to get out and lead the skittish animal past the offending machine.

Gradually the motor-club movement, brought together in a federalized system of organization under the name of the American Automobile Association, was able to ameliorate the difficulties that harassed the owner of an automobile. The national association was in flourishing condition by the first decade of the century, and projected a vigorous sense of its mission. The A.A.A. concerned itself with such practical matters as better roads, traffic laws, speed traps, reliability runs, and adequate road markers; in addition, it offered its members social activities. Gradually the service concept displaced the socializing. In 1905, to cite a pioneering venture, the Automobile Club of Southern California had a Club Signposting Committee, which was active in marking the roads from Los Angeles to the beach cities. The next year the club began the posting of El Camino Real (“the king’s highway”), the old route of the mission padres between San Diego and San Francisco, with signs depicting large bronze mission bells. Similarly, in 1909, the Chicago Motor Club announced that it had completed installing signs on the roads to Beloit, Lake Geneva, and Milwaukee—except, in the last instance, for fifteen miles that were impassable anyway.

Some manufacturers, too, erected directional signboards at important intersections, each embellished by a discreet advertising notice. Sometimes the advertiser concentrated on his sales message and forgot to supply the information the automobilist needed. A favorite story of the period tells of a motorist lost one rainy night in the wilds of Indiana. Arriving at a fork in the road, he found a sign, but it was placed too high for him to read. He splashed through the sludge, inched up the pole, and tried to light one soggy match after another. The fifth one flared briefly, and by the sputtering light he read, “Chew Red Man Plug.”