1902 Oldsmobile Model R Curved Dash Runabout
As with any transformative new technology, automobiles encountered considerable resistance when they arrived on the American scene in larger numbers between 1900 and 1910. There’s no doubt that they were popular—one of the features of American life back then was the birth of dozens of automobile enthusiasts’ “clubs,” a network that quickly coalesced into the American Automobile Association, which was founded in 1902.
That decade featured a fair number of cross-country automotive adventures, all of which occurred, let’s remember, with a near-total absence of paved roads, gas stations, road signs, road maps, streetlights, and traffic signals as well as vehicles lacking multiple gears that were capable of a whopping 30 mph and that broke down frequently (with no easy way to obtain replacement parts). In 1903 Horatio Jackson and Sewall Crocker and a goggles-wearing pit bull named “Bud” were the first to drive an automobile coast to coast (San Francisco to New York). The group became local celebrities at nearly every point of their journey, as most people had never even seen a car before.
“Bud,” the automotive pit bull
As mentioned, not everyone was equally entranced. Many people disliked the noise and clouds of dust that automobiles produced, not to mention the physical threat they posed to pedestrians, bicyclists, and horses. According to Horatio’s Drive, a 2003 PBS documentary by Ken Burns about the cross-country trip described above, Vermont passed a law requiring a person to walk in front of the car waving a red flag, which rather defeated the purpose of using the car in the first place. In Glencoe, Illinois, someone stretched a length of steel cable across a road in an effort to stop “the devil wagons.” Some cities banned automobiles outright.
But the most amusing (from today’s perspective) anti-automobile efforts happened in the Keystone State. At some point before 1910 (I can’t pin down the exact year), a group calling itself the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania proposed the following not-so-subtle additions to state law (emphasis added):
1. Automobiles traveling on country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. The driver may then proceed, with caution, blowing his horn and shooting off Roman candles, as before.
2. If the driver of an automobile sees a team of horses approaching, he is to stop, pulling over to one side of the road, and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery, and thus render the machine less noticeable.
3. In case a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile on the road, the driver of the car must take the machine apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes.
Everybody cool with this? Remember: always make sure you have your rockets and camouflage tarpaulins in the trunk before you go out for a drive!
Here’s a short section from Horatio’s Drive about early hostility towards automobiles:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Riding along in my automobile’: Photos of Los Angelenos driving their cars by Andrew Bush
Running on Empty: imagining an LA without cars