April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
The roads were terrible, and posted badly or not at all; you had to equip yourself against a hundred mishaps, ninety-three of which actually happened--but you were often up to your hubcaps in pleasure.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
At about the beginning of World War I, local chambers of commerce and other promotional groups, appraising the growing importance of the travel dollar, joined in the work for better touring conditions. Associations whose total assets often consisted of a map, a letterhead, a few cans of paint, and the spirit of boosterism were formed to direct traffic to one highway rather than another under such catch phrases as “Tightening the Union” or “See America First.” Highways were endowed with names that sounded like advertising slogans, which in fact they were, e.g., the Dixie Trail. Many a northern investor hit the Trail to Florida to view the glamorous building lots he had purchased in the land of flowers, oranges, sunshine, and, all too often, swamps. Distinctive bands of paint on telephone poles kept the tourist on his route, pleasantly reminding countless dreamers that they were tooling along in the tradition of the frontiersmen who followed blazed trails through the primeval forest. Main arteries, designated by variegated combinations of stripes and symbols, included the Midland, the Alfalfa, the Cornhusker, the Arrowhead, the Rocky Mountain, the Sunshine, and the Red Ball routes.
“Follow the painted poles,” a friendly native would say to a perplexed motorist. “They’ll take you right into Chicago!”
“Follow the painted poles?”
“Yes—a white band, with a red streak around the middle. ‘R’ stands for right turn, ‘L’ stands for left turn, and look out for the cars!” The last was a reference to the sobering fact that in those days there were hardly any railroad over- or underpasses.
In many parts of the West there were no poles to paint. In 1914 one traveller reported finding the information he needed crudely daubed on a five-gallon gasoline can beside the road. In Colorado an auto tourist discovered his directions painted on the bleached skull of a buffalo. An inquirer at Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was headed for Los Angeles, received these instructions: “Follow the mountain range eighty miles south to a stick in the fork of the road with a paper tied to the top. Take the ruts that lead off to the right.”
The big confusion over road markings was removed by a simple expedient. Roads began to be designated by numbers instead of colored rings of paint. In 1917 a beginning was made when Wisconsin adopted the numbering system in use today. Minnesota followed in 1920, and the plan was adopted in 1925 by the United States government for routes of interstate and national significance, the even numbers running east and west, the odd numbers north and south. Thus the famous red, white, and blue rectangles of the Lincoln Highway faded away as that celebrated route, along with all the other “trails,” lost its identity to the numbered U.S. metal shields that tied the new system together.
The motorist’s faithful assistant in shaping his itinerary was one or another of the automobile “tour books.” These guides had been issued since the early years of the century by motor clubs, advertisers, or established publishers such as Rand McNally & Co., most of whom were already sophisticated in the techniques of mapping. An Official Automobile Blue Book (“There’s one in nearly every car”) was distributed by the American Automobile Association from the middle of the first decade until the twenties. A compilation of road information between important points like Rochester, New York, and Buffalo, the Blue Book was perhaps the most famous and widely used specimen of this genre of touring literature, which traced its ancestry back to the modest bicycle map.
A trip into unfamiliar territory required homework. The adventurer studied his manual, debated the choice of routes, weighed data on road surfaces, and noted prominent landmarks. He knew that mechanics were scarce: if the machine broke down, the only resource might well be a village blacksmith who could, hopefully, weld a broken spring or solder a leaky radiator, but who would scarcely be up to penetrating the mysteries of a balky carburetor float. The driver expected to patch his own tires and pump them up with his own hand pump. Gasoline could be looked for at a general store, drug store, or dry-cleaning establishment. It was drawn from a wooden barrel out back somewhere and was poured through a funnel from a one-gallon measure. Windshields were not wiped. Air was not free. The only rest room was the bushes.
With tour book in hand and odometer set at zero, the tourist started out on an itinerary usually measured in the manual from a prominent spot like the courthouse, the post office, or a leading hotel. The operator of the car required the services of a companion who could keep one eye on the mileage figures and landmarks noted in the “motorlogue,” the other checking the printed information against the readings on the odometer. A third eye would often have been helpful. If the navigator missed the white church on the right, while the driver was busy with the clutch or the spark, trouble was sure to overtake the party when the Blue Book and the odometer failed to agree.
Suppose, for illustration, one wished in 1915 to travel by motor from Norwich, Connecticut (“The Rose of New England”), to Willimantic. Starting from in front of the Wauregan Hotel, with odometer adjusted to o.o miles, the machine chugged up the long, terraced hill of Broadway. The surface was “good macadam” and one progressed in this manner:
In addition to providing itineraries, the motor logs also offered interesting background information likely to advance the cause of tourism. For instance, one could read in a tour book sponsored by the Mohawk Rubber Company that Elkhart, Indiana, was the home of the celebrated Dr. Miles’s patent-medicine almanac, issued annually in editions of 12,000,000, and that “52 per cent of band instruments of the world [were] made here. …” Of Spotsylvania, Virginia, a tour book said: “Solomon’s Store; gas,” and added this historical footnote: “Around here in May, 1864, Grant opposed Lee in a series of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Many homes still have cannon balls lodged in the walls.”
Sometimes touring was complicated by poor local directions, the ultimate being the advice of the confused countryman who lives on in automobile folklore for having declared, “You can’t get there from here.” A well-known phenomenon was the Auto Hater. Farm houses displayed hostile signs—“No Water.” Between Buffalo and Cleveland, the Blue Book gave this direction in 1909: “At 11.6 mi., yellow house and barn on rt. Turn left.” But there was no yellow house. The owner had uncharitably repainted his premises green because, as a neighbor explained to an inquirer, “He’s agin’ automobiles.” Scattered tacks and broken glass strewn at prominent intersections were also tried by the anti-auto faction as a means of holding back the swelling motor tide.
The difficulty of handling a bulky book in an open car moving at cruising speed led to the invention of ingenious attachments designed to reveal the correct route mechanically. Both these expensive accessories and the ubiquitous logbooks were superseded by the handy, folded road map. It went far beyond charting just the heavily travelled routes between fixed points —Chicago and South Bend, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The numbering system made it possible for the road maps to identify all the roads. And a notable feature of the new maps was—they were free.
The give-away maps were introduced by a new facility, the “filling station,” which delivered measured quantities of gasoline from curbside pumps. There is a dispute as to who built the first real filling station and where. Semantics are involved. What constituted a real filling station? The new kind of gasoline merchant appeared almost simultaneously in various regions where competition was keen. Primitive filling stations are reported as existing in St. Louis, Dallas, and Seattle in 1907. Detroit’s first was a crude shed at First and Fort streets, knocked together in 1910 from some old voting booths. Among its customers was Henry Ford. The shape of the future may be discerned in a station built in Memphis in 1912 by the Standard Oil Company of Louisiana. It had thirteen pumps, a ladies’ room, a maid who served ice water.
Many early filling stations, now more often called service stations, looked rather like cracker boxes. With success, however, their architecture grew fanciful, to harmonize with the neighboring real-estate developments; in southern California, mission-style structures were favored. Elsewhere the motorist drove up to pagodas, sea shells, castles, or lighthouses, with illuminated globes on top of the pumps beaming out the brand name of the gasoline sold there.
The man who thought up the free road map was William B. Akin, head of a Pittsburgh advertising agency. Akin was himself an enthusiastic automobilist who knew how it felt to get lost on nameless roads. The whole concept came to Akin while he was driving his 1912 Chalmers along Baum Boulevard. He took the suggestion to the Gulf Oil Company in the fall of 1913. His proposal was that the company prepare, publish, and distribute a map of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as an advertising scheme, with copies to be mailed to all registered car owners in the area and handed out at the company’s new drive-in filling station, another Gulf innovation. The thing was done. It was an instant hit. State maps followed in 1914.
“Gulf was quite cute about all this,” an old-time employee recalled. “We used this map … to persuade the customer to come back for another map for another trip. Hence, not too much territory or information was included in any one map.”
But the whole industry, by the early twenties, was producing easy reference maps in enormous quantities. Oil companies were to the American road what Baedeker was to Europe. While the automobile population exploded, the maps, along with the gas pumps and the courteous men who hand-cranked them, became indigenous to the travel scene. No longer did Dad have to be a spiritual descendant of Henry the Navigator to dream of driving west from the Oranges in New Jersey to spend the winter at Pasadena. One question did remain to be answered: What about food and lodging on the way?
As the inn had developed in response to animal-drawn transportation and the modern hotel had followed the spread of the railroad network, a new social entity known as the “auto tourist camp” came into being. Almost unknown in 1918, well-established by 1923, the camps were located in a field or woodland where motorists pitched their own tents and prepared their own meals. Some camps were free, operated perhaps by a retail dealer who sold oil, gas, and a few groceries. “Camping at garage,” one tour book noted of Fairview, Pennsylvania, in 1923. But the movement was toward modestly priced “pay” camps. Some were located in city parks and provided water, a cookhouse, common dining hall, sanitary facilities, and police protection—all for about fifty cents a day. On the road between Dodge City, Kansas, and Lamar, Colorado, the U-Smile Auto Camp, a privately run place, offered similar facilities for twenty-five cents a day. But whatever the price range, the mood among the auto gypsies was one of fun and release from life’s tedium. Their social atmosphere was more egalitarian than in most areas of American life. Conversations were easily started; one glanced casually at the license tags on a dusty auto and found it natural to inquire, “What part of Iowa are you folks from?”
Just stay two nights at the Santa Barbara auto park, the saying ran, and you would be asked to a party, especially if you could play the violin, read palms, or turn the crank on the ice cream freezer. These holiday-makers constituted a new leisure class who were seeing America’s natural wonders through goggles and side curtains while enjoying the exhilaration of swift movement and new contacts. Theirs was a quest of the spirit, too, as they shared enchanted evenings at the band concert in the park, the fragrance of the summer night around them, and the stars swinging above.
There was a rapid upgrading of facilities, including the innovation of tourist cabins. At Camp Grande, at El Paso, Texas, the gasoline tourists in 1925 found prices ranging from fifty cents to five dollars a day (for a “de luxe bungalette”). There was a central recreation hall furnished “about like a country club,” and electric irons could be rented from the office. Denver’s chief motor camp, called Overland Park, was a veritable metropolis of the thermos bottle and the khaki lean-to; it frequently checked in between five and six thousand open-air guests in one night. The camps expanded to meet the demand. The total of such stopping places for the whole country was estimated in 1925 at between four and five thousand.
But weary travellers tired of pitching tents, of breaking camp every morning, and of generally playing Indian. The preference shifted to a room of one’s own, a real room in a real house. Private homes hung out a sign that became increasingly familiar, “Tourists Accommodated.” Simultaneously, refinements were added to the “cabin” concept with the appearance of specially designed “cottage courts,” which soon spread from the West to the East.
From there it was but a short step to the motel. As far as can be ascertained now, the term originated with a California architect, Arthur S. Heineman, who opened a motor court at San Luis Obispo in 1925 which he called “The Milestone Motor Hotel.” Designed in the mission style, it consisted of a series of detached cabins arranged around a court behind a main building that housed the office. The first motel lacked, it is true, room TV, skeet shooting, saunas, a thirty-two-lane bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool with fireplace. But the owner did provide a lounge and dining room. According to a possibly apocryphal story, Heineman couldn’t get the full name of his hotel on his roadside sign, and coined the word “motel.”
After World War I, when automobiles had acquired front and rear bumpers and passengers were enclosed in the protective all-steel sedan, the motorist expected as a matter of course to find at every service station free air, free water, free windshield and crankcase service, free comfort conveniences, and an old tire, painted white, advertising FLATS FIXED. On the road he could count upon such amenities as a dog wagon offering red hots, or a pretty tea house with screened porch, ruffled curtains, pottery glazed in apple green, and “Home-Cooked Meals.” More and more tourists gladly exchanged cash for experience, and returned home, like all travellers from time immemorial, with strange tales of marvels seen and heard, and the insignia of high adventure pasted on the windshield—the red deer symbol of Mount Rainier or the green buffalo of Yellowstone Park. As Stephen Vincent Benêt sang in his unfinished epic, Western Star, “I think it must be something in the blood” —and tourism made it a something remembered as land, clouds, history, sounds, smells, people. And, of course, as signs flashing smoothly by: KIWANIS CLUB MEETS EVERY TUESDAY , VISITORS WELCOME … CLEAN REST ROOMS … SEE THE HISTORIC SHRINE … SMOKE BULL DURHAM … HOT FRANKS AND GLADS … DON’T MISS THE CAVERNS … ANTIQUE SHOPPE … WILD SAGE HONEY 100 YARDS AHEAD .
The Open Road was, at last, open.