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Engine of Liberation

June 2024
13min read

What you owe your car (ending the tyranny of the horse is only the beginning of it)

THE AUTOMOBILE IS NOT AN AMERICAN invention. But an industry capable of manufacturing automobiles in vast numbers at prices the common man can afford most certainly is. And it is this invention that changed the world.

To get some idea of just how much, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine it is six o’clock in the afternoon of a late August day in the year 1900. We are standing at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City. On the southwest corner rises the great ivy-clad receiving reservoir of the city’s water supply. Now empty, it will soon be torn down to make way for the New York Public Library.

On the northeast corner stands the house of Levi P. Morton, international banker, former Vice President of the United States, and former governor of New York. Northward the mansions of the nation’s other superrich line both sides of the avenue as far as Central Park and, on the east side of the thorough-fare, far beyond. The temperature is ninety; the humidity is not much lower. Cloud banks building in the west promise rain, and perhaps relief, in an hour or two.


Listen for a second. What do you hear?

You hear the horses. In the greatest metropolis of the Western Hemisphere there are nearly as many horses as there are people, perhaps two million animals throughout the five boroughs. The thousands of vehicles plunging up and down the avenue and the nearby cross streets in the gathering rush hour are almost all pulled by one or more of them. Their iron shoes clang on the Belgian paving blocks at every step; their harnesses and bells jingle with every movement; their snorts and whinnies and occasional screams punctuate the background noise.

THE AUTOMOBILE put its stamp on this country socially, economically, even artistically, as no other invention ever has.

You take a deep breath. What do you smell?

You smell the horses. It is an odor as overwhelming and pervasive as the smell of cheese in a cheese factory. To be sure, the inhabitants of that world do not notice it. They have smelled it all their lives, and their brains, in self-defense, have long since ceased to bring it to conscious attention. But we, brief visitors from the future, are almost gagged by it.

You look about you. What do you see?

You see the horses. Far worse, you see what the horses do to the streets. Many are sweating profusely, their tongues lolling out of their foam-beslobbered mouths as they labor in the heat. All are urinating and defecating frequently. Each horse produces about two gallons of urine a day and twenty pounds of excrement. That’s twenty thousand tons a day in New York City, greater than the weight of a battleship of the time. House sparrows, imported in the 1850s, ate the seeds in the droppings and help break them up to be more easily washed away. Nourished by this inexhaustible food supply, the birds breed in enormous numbers and excrete in their turn.

And horses die. The more unfortunate, which pull not the carriages of the rich but the drays of ordinary commerce, often die in harness, and their bodies are left by the sides of the streets, to be dragged off by private contractors paid by the city. Perhaps an average of twenty-five a day drop dead on the streets of Manhattan, more in the heat and stress of high summer. The bodies are cleared quickly from so busy and fashionable a corner as Forty-second and Fifth, but in the side streets and less elegant parts of town their remains can lie for days, swelling and stinking in the August sun, a mecca for flies, before they are carted off and disposed of.

IN 1996, HOWEVER, THEY ALL ARE gone, except for a few dozen carriage horses that haul tourists at extravagant prices in nice weather. Today the swish of tires over asphalt and the hum of engines provide the background music for the city’s streets, rather than the clip-clop of horses. The horn blast of an angry driver has replaced the shriek of a suddenly terrified animal.

The next time you read an article on the horrors of automobile pollution, you might remember your brief visit to another time and another place, a place and time where the pollution of horses lay underfoot as thick as fallen snow and filled the air as thick as fog. Then, perhaps, you’ll give a silent thank-you to Henry Ford and his brethren for freeing us from the tyranny of the horse, which, after all, was exactly what they set out to do in the first place.

Of course, those men did much more than that. It was the cheap automobile, far beyond any other invention, that transformed the daily life of the nineteenth century into that of the twentieth, especially in America, a country that loves its cars almost as much as it loves its liberty.

Let’s be clear though. For all its importance the automobile was not a fundamental invention. Such an invention must be something completely new under the sun, and the automobile, when all is said and done, is still just a horseless carriage. Fundamental inventions overturn the cultures that created them and bring forth whole new ones in their place. Twelve thousand years ago agriculture doomed the hunter-gatherer way of life and, in a few millenniums, created civilization. The printing press brought the Middle Ages to a crashing halt in only a few decades. Three centuries later the steam engine ended the primacy of land as the basis of wealth and made possible the triumph of capitalism and democracy. In our own day the computer in the form of the microprocessor is, right before our eyes, remaking the world once again in ways that as yet we only dimly perceive.

But if the automobile did not overturn nineteenth-century civilization, it greatly enlarged its possibilities and strengthened numerous trends already under way—and, as we have seen, made the world a much nicer place. In doing so, it put its stamp on this country, visually, economically, and socially, even artistically, as no other invention—including that great transformer of the nineteenth century, the railroad—ever has.

First, let’s look at the visual. One need only compare a nineteenth-century city, such as Chicago, with an essentially twentieth-century one, such as Houston or Los Angeles, to see how profound has been the impact of the automobile on the urban landscape. It has had an equally profound effect on the rural one.


IN 1900 THERE WERE ONLY SOME two hundred miles of paved roads in the entire country outside of cities. There was little need for them because only 4,000 cars were manufactured in the United States that year. A decade later, however, 187,000 cars were produced in a single year, and the demand for good roads was growing as quickly as the nation’s auto fleet. The Bronx River Parkway, begun in 1907 in New York, was the first limited-access highway, intended as much for “outings” as for actually getting somewhere. By the 1920s a system of interstate highways was beginning to take shape, one that would be completely replaced by another, far grander, starting in the 1950s.

The commerce along these new thoroughfares was from the outset affected by the automobile. The new cars needed gasoline. At first this could be purchased at general stores, bicycle shops, or smithies trying to reverse an irreversible decline. Then in 1905 the first purpose-built gas station opened, in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1913 the big oil companies, sensing opportunity, began opening their own stations. Soon there were hundreds of thousands.

But the new gas stations faced a problem. At the speed of a horse, about six miles an hour, people had time to look ahead and see what they were approaching. At thirty and soon forty miles per hour, however, that was much more difficult. So signs grew larger, and corporate logos became important for the first time because they could be grasped in an instant. The wordy style of nineteenth-century advertising started to disappear, not just from billboards but from newspapers and magazines, as the old sort of ad began to seem antiquated. The new punchy, visual style, of course, was perfectly pre-adapted to what would become the dominant advertising medium by the 1950s, television.

The new advertising style soon affected American literature as well, as did the automobile directly. For instance, the Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler—set in the already auto-besotted Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s—are unlike anything written in the nineteenth century.

The need to grab the attention of the passerby in an instant also led to numerous minor American art forms, such as buildings in the shape of ducks, tepees, Paul Bunyan, and heaven only knows what else. There was even a new kind of poetry. In 1925 a retired insurance salesman named Clinton Odell began manufacturing a brushless shaving cream. He sought to find a new way to bring it to the public’s attention, and it was his son, Allan, who found it. He suggested using a series of small billboards, each with one line of a jingle on it and the last with the name of the product: WITHIN THIS VALE/OF TOIL/AND SIN/ YOUR HEAD CROWS BALD/BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE / BURMA-SHAVE .

SIGNS grew larger, and corporate logos first became important, because they could be grasped in an instant.

It virtually demanded the attention of the passing motorist (and, perhaps especially, any child passengers), and the result was immediate commercial success for Burma-Shave and a national craze for jingle writing. By the 1940s there were as many as seven thousand different Burma-Shave jingles lining the nation’s highways, and the company paid a hundred dollars for every one sent in and accepted. Today the Burma-Shave campaign lives only in the advertising hall of fame (if there is such a thing), but perhaps an echo can be seen in a latter-day minor art form, the vanity license plate, which also commands close attention from passersby. (My favorite was on a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible spotted on Sutton Place in Manhattan. Its license plate: “ 2ND CAR .”)

Soon hotels were forced to evolve to satisfy the needs of motorists. Motels (the word dates to 1925) sprang up, surrounded by ample parking and with each guest’s room only a few feet from his vehicle. Restaurants soon began catering to motorists, many of them in a hurry. Unfortunately the spread of franchising in the 1960s and 1970s much diminished the regional diversity of American highway cuisine. Today a hamburger in Seattle is likely to be indistinguishable from one in Georgia, right down to the shape, size, and color of the bag the french fries come in.

THE CAR made its biggest impact on the American landscape by making possible the modern suburb.

But it was only after World War II that the automobile made its biggest impact on the American landscape by making possible the modern suburb. Suburbs were created in the first instance by the railroads. The editor Horace Greeley used to commute to New York in the summer from his farm in Chappaqua, forty miles north of the city. These suburbs were very limited, however, because once the passengers disembarked from the train, they were again reduced to the speed of a horse. (Even worse, they had to wait to be picked up at the station. A horse can’t sit in a parking lot all day long.) So a demographic map of an American city in 1900 would have looked a bit like a daddy longlegs, with a dense core of population in the city center and only thin streaks of population running outward along the railroad and trolley tracks. All the rest was deep country.

TRIVIAL PART of the American economy in 1900, by the 1920s the automobile industry was the country’s largest.

The automobile allowed a completely different pattern. Today there is often a semi-void of residential population at the heart of a large city, surrounded by rings of less and less densely settled suburbs. These suburbs, primarily dependent on the automobile to function, are where the majority of the country’s population lives, a fact that has transformed our politics. Every city that had a major-league baseball team in 1950, with the exception only of New York—ever the exception—has had a drastic loss in population within its city limits over the last four and a half decades, sometimes by as much as 50 percent as people have moved outward, thanks to the automobile.

In more recent years the automobile has had a similar effect on the retail commercial sectors of smaller cities and towns, as shopping malls and superstores such as the Home Depot and Wal-Mart have sucked commerce off Main Street and into the surrounding countryside.

BUT THE AUTOMOBILE HAS had as great an effect on the country’s “economy as on its landscape. Nineteenth-century industry was largely dedicated to making industrial products, such as steel, products not bought by individuals. But the twentieth century’s economy has been increasingly consumer-oriented. The automobile was the first great industrial consumer product and did much to generate that sector of the economy. A trivial part of the American economy in 1900, the automobile industry was by the 1920s the country’s largest, as it remains to this day. For the automobile industry is not just the manufacture of automobiles. It encompasses as well the maintenance, servicing, and fueling of cars. Their garaging and parking are major industries in large cities. More, cars must be insured. Traffic must be policed. There are now magazines devoted solely to the sound systems in cars. Auto racing is no small affair. Highway building is a major component of the construction industry. Automobiles account for a very large percent of the gross domestic product.

Indirectly, the economic effect of the automobile has been equally profound. The vast growth of the petroleum, glass, and rubber industries, among others, in this century was largely fueled by the automobile. The drastic decline in the horse population resulted in vast amounts of agricultural land being switched from forage crops to human food, greatly reducing the cost of the latter as the supply increased. The twentieth-century advertising and hotel and tourism industries were built upon the automobile.

TODAY’S near-universal use of credit cards to purchase even such minor items as meals is a product of the automobile.

So was commercial credit. The automobile remains the most expensive major consumer product, an average-price car costing a very substantial fraction of average annual income. Banks in the early twentieth century dealt mostly with business and the very affluent, not the average worker. So automobile manufacturers set up their own credit organizations (such as the General Motors Acceptance Corporation) to help finance automobile purchases.

The idea of ordinary citizens borrowing money to buy the wherewithal of a better life was radically new in the early twentieth century, when most Americans still did not even have bank accounts or own their homes. But once it was established by the automobile, it was, inevitably, soon applied to other expensive consumer products, such as household appliances. Credit has been moving outward ever since to encompass more and more of the American economy. Today’s near-universal use of credit cards to purchase even such minor items as meals is, in a very real sense, a product of the automobile.

The automobile’s impact on the American economy also had a vast influence on the ebb and flow of geopolitics in this century. During the Second World War the American automobile industry, by orders of magnitude the largest in the world, produced a grand total of 139 cars. Instead, that huge industrial capacity had been transformed into the “arsenal of democracy,” turning out, in breathtaking volumes, the matériel that allowed the Allies to win the war. The Ford Motor Company alone had more military production than the entire Italian economy in the war years.

BUT IT IS SOCIALLY, PERHAPS , that the automobile has had its greatest impact on American civilization. For much of its history America was a lonely place. Europe was rich in people, poor in land. European farmers usually lived in villages. They walked out to the surrounding fields (usually owned by someone else) to work and back to the close proximity of their friends and neighbors at night.

But this country abounded in land, and its people were spread thinly upon it. The isolated farmhouse, set upon the family’s own land, quickly became the norm here, rather than the village. Many a pioneer family came to grief when one or more of its members could not cope with the lack of society. Until the automobile, there was no solution. The railroad had made rapid long-distance movement relatively easy, but local movement remained at the speed of the horse.

So if the nearest town was a mere five miles away, a visit to it would require virtually an entire day to accomplish, an expenditure of time that few farm families could afford very often. Even a visit to a nearby farm could be a considerable undertaking. The horses had to be hitched to a wagon or buggy, a matter that took several minutes even if the horse was in a cooperative mood, which was by no means guaranteed. Then, when the family returned, the horses had to be unhitched, cooled down, and cared for. Then, as now, horses were delicate and expensive means of transportation and required very high maintenance. Unless the family was affluent enough to hire people to handle these chores for them, they often had no real choice but to stay home.

THE “DATE,” once available in large measure only to city dwellers, spread rapidly through the small towns and farms of rural America.

The automobile, of course, changed that. Now a trip to town might take no more than an hour, a trip to a neighbor’s place for a cup of coffee only a few minutes. The stifling isolation of American farm life began to lift. So did the isolation of the individual towns and the cozy local monopolies of bank and general store. Now families could easily get to the next town if they didn’t like the service or the prices available in their own.

ANOTHER ASPECT OF SOCIAL life that the automobile changed was courting. Before the automobile, courting had to be largely accomplished in front of families and the watchful eyes of chaperons and was largely confined to one’s closest neighbors. Now real privacy and a far wider selection was possible. The “date,” once available in large measure only to city dwellers (a minority of the population in the nineteenth century), spread rapidly through the small towns and farms of rural America.

The automobile also gave women much more mobility and freedom. The skills needed to handle horses with confidence are difficult to acquire, but driving a car is easy. Once the electric starter removed the need for physical strength (and the device was commonplace by 1916), women began to move. It was the automobile as much as the Second World War that liberated women. American society, long the most fluid and thus the most dynamic in the world, has seen a quantum leap in that fluidity in the twentieth century, thanks to the automobile. And this evolving change has by no means played itself out.

Needless to say, much of this change did not come easily. The shift in agriculture caused by the automobile resulted in the squeezing out of marginal farmers and contributed in no small way to the onset of the Great Depression. The Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Crapes of Wrath were forced to migrate to California (in, of course, an automobile) when their drought-suffering farm could no longer sustain them.

IN 1972, cars killed 54,898 Americans, about the number who lost their lives in the Vietnam War then raging.

Americans had to learn, all too often at first hand, the power of half a ton or more of metal, glass, and rubber moving at forty miles an hour. Because the number of cars in the early days was small compared with later, the number of deaths was relatively low. But the slaughter on a vehicle-mile basis was awesome; in 1921 the rate was 24 per hundred million miles of travel. It began to decline as people became better drivers (most states did not require driver’s licenses until the 1930s), roads improved, and cars became more ruggedly constructed. The year 1972 proved the worst in terms of highway deaths when 54,589 people died on the nation’s highways, not much lower than the number who lost their lives in the entire Vietnam War then raging.

THE MECHANICS banging away in carriage sheds and basements ninety years ago gave our civilization its twentieth-century character.

Since then the rate has dropped more or less steadily, thanks to far better-designed cars and highways (padded bridge abutments, for instance) and a decline in alcohol consumption. In 1995 the death rate per hundred million vehicle miles was only 1.7.

THE MECHANICS AND TINKER ers banging away in basements and carriage sheds at the turn of the century— men with names like Ford, Durant, Leland, Chrysler, Dodge, and Olds— weren’t trying to change the world. Many looked no further than just getting their latest designs to work. Most hoped only to make a buck out of what they were doing, and many of course did so, some in huge amounts.

But unintentionally they also gave American civilization, and thus the world in this “American Century,” their twentieth-century character, their very nature. That’s why when people a hundred years from now imagine themselves standing at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue on a hot August day in the year 2000, they will have to conjure up the automobile—its sounds, its smells, its shapes— to bring the scene to life.

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