To the spring-attired,
I never imagined myself an auto enthusiast. In fact, for years, I had nightmares about losing control of my car on the parkway, and wasn’t sure if I should interpret them as a Final Destination-ish prophecy of my own demise or a mere anxiety dream. Yet after driving 3000 miles through Southwestern mountains, deserts, and valleys last month, I think I feel a little bit more of the sense of possibility and freedom Americans must have experienced when automobiles were new. Every couple of hours, it seemed, we stopped and stepped out of our car, only to gaze back on what looked like a Hyundai commercial. Case in point:
To judge by the images in the New York Public Library’s Taking the Wheel Collection, even the earliest car drivers expected their vehicles to cross any terrain. The Franklin car company, for one, went out of business during the Great Depression, but not before taking its owners into the woods and to the horse race!
Alas, the auto catalog below from the now-gone Haynes company seems less interested in showing how well their cars navigated water, than suggesting how poorly women steered not only cars, but, to judge by their suffragette style, the country.
But, you ask, were these exciting images just a promoter’s fantasy? Thankfully, The Making of Modern Michigan’s Automotive Collection holds hundreds of photographs, which come closer to the catalogs than one might expect. Yes, now women could travel to political conventions in style: cramped in an open-air car, in multiple layers of clothes.
The nascent AAA also sponsored what became known as the Glidden tours, where cars were sent across the country to see the types of roads they would encounter. The results were sometimes disastrous.
If all this auto-arousal is too much for you, then you might prefer to check out a new book by Brian Ladd titled, Autophobia. Also, a shout-out to the Journal of American History whose excellent reviews of web archives pointed me to Taking the Wheel.
Until next time, I remain yours on the passenger side,
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