This might not be a GQ topic as there might be argument about it but I thought I’d try it here. My question is prompted by a recent episode of Boardwalk Empire where two of the characters (set around 1923 or so) are talking about how they dealt with cars as kids. I’m just curious as to when motorcars became a mundane feature of American (or other countries’) life. Anyone know? Or is it as I suspect a very subjective thing?
It was the Ford Model T or the Tin Lizzy for the U.S. and it caught on quite well before 1920. The production of that model in particular also revolutionized mass production of everything. Plenty of car manufacturers existed well before that but most of them were a novelty for the rich. Interestingly enough, many of the very early cars were electric but failed in the market over gas powered vehicles. Steam powered vehicles like the Stanley Steamers were also in competition but failed due to their long start-up time and potential for catastrophe if the boiler blew.
Adoption of gas powered vehicles was uneven depending on location but it was ubiquitous before 1920 almost everywhere in the U.S. Large scale adoptions started in big cities before 1910. You can say that by the late 1920’s, the U.S. had switched over to an automobile culture and the impact was equally as big as the internet is today.
Incidentally, you might like this documentary about the first transcontinental car journey. Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip is the story of the one person that drove from San Francisco to New York City in 1903 and all the problems he had along the way. It was a ridiculous endurance stunt filled with all kinds of problems then but anyone could do it 20 years later.
In a book about the streetcar system that used to exist in St. Louis, the author noted that during the 1920s, streetcar ridership in an area would start to drop as soon as the main streets were paved.
By 1905, people in an American town of any size wouldn’t have turned their heads.
I’ve seen that on the schedules of PBS America so will record it next time it’s on.
I found this great page, 35 High Resolution Photos of USA Cities From 1900′s and 1910′s.
Not in chronological order, unfortunately, but if you do it mentally you see a clear progression. Almost all horse-drawn vehicles in 1905, a mixture in 1910, and nearly all cars in 1915. But. The very last shot is a display of horse-drawn dairy wagons - from 1927.
I think 1905 is too early for a car not to turn heads in rural and farm areas. The roads were so awful that they would be rare and call attention to themselves. City dwellers would be used to seeing them regularly, but I’d guess that it wouldn’t be until after the introduction of the Model T that they became affordable enough to be everywhere. It was introduced in late 1908, so the effect would hit around 1910.
In the opening chapter of Three Little Trippertrots, published in 1912 with a location of “a big city”, automobiles are casually mentioned as road hazards and toys and something a bad fairy might turn you into.
Your statement about the Stanley steamer being subject to “boiler explosion” is incorrect. No stanley car ever experienced a boiler explosion-it had multiple pressure relief valves to prevent this. What killed the Stanley was its high cost-the last Stanley cars went for over $5500-at a time (1922) when you could buy a Model T for less than $400. The long wait to get up steam pressure didn’t help, of course…but if you were rich and had a driver, that wasn’t an issue.
Interesting! Apparently, the first time someone succeeded in driving across Canada was in 1912 (Victoria to Halifax). It took 52 days.
Between 1910 and 1920, the US went from having 5 cars per 1,000 to 87. So, somewhere in there.
They show PBS programming in Ireland?
My guess is that PBS America is the overseas equivalent of BBC America; a channel devoted to programming from the other country. Perhaps lots of Ken Burns documentaries.
Yep it’s available with a Sky package in Ireland and the UK. Dewey Finn hit the nail on the head describing it. I’ve got a load of Ken Burns docs recorded at the minute.
I agree that US transcontinental trips got easier very quickly, but in 1919 the US Army had a tough time, taking 56 days to cross the country. There is a great book about the trip. This trip was influential in getting the 1921 Federal Highway Act passed.
Things moved very quickly after that. By 1939, things had improved so much that two of my widowed great-aunts drove from Buffalo, NY to Oregon to visit their brother.
I would argue WW II, the returning GIs, and the interstate highway system. My google-fu fails me today. Anyone got the increase per 1000 for 1930, 40, 50, 60?
Here you go (PDF, page 5). The ownership rate actually dipped during WWII, presumably due to war production demands and the corresponding unavailability of new passenger vehicles. It looks like the steepest portion of the curve is the period you suggest: 1945-1955. It would be difficult to apportion out the causes, though, since the interstate system was being built at more or less the same time as the GIs came back.
Actually a question of this sort came to me while I was watching one particular short during a TCM 100th anniversey celebration of some studio every Thursday night this past September, when they showed a lot of earlier silent films.
Anyway, in the 1916 Fatty Arbuckle short “He Did and He Didn’t”, Fatty plays a doctor who is called away on a (scam) house call by some would-be-robbers - in that scene he just hops into his car (IIRC a Model T) and drives off to make the house call - no special attention is called to the auto, it doesn’t stand out as a comedic device or a major plot-point, instead the vehicle is just seen as a mode of transportation to and from the house call, just like, say a doctor in a 1950 film getting into his sedan to make a house call would be unremarkable (of course by 1980 making a house call in and of itself would be a major plot-point).
So, possibly by the mid-teens in the US (Europe had some other concerns around that time…)
I was shocked to learn while researching WWI that, by September 1914, Paris already had at least 600 in-service taxi cabs.
You mean motor cabs? Cabs had been around in the horse-drawn days–see CS Lewis’s description of a pre-WW1 horse-drawn cab in The Magician’s Nephew.
This begs the question, “who was generally the first person or entity in a town to get a car?” Was it the wealthiest man in town, the police, the fire department, a teamster, the town crackpot?