The Automobile: Consumerism on Wheels


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Automobiles were the single most significant consumer product of the 1920s. At the start of the decade, fewer than ten million vehicles were registered. In 1925, there was one automobile for every six persons in the country, as against one to every 100 in Great Britain. By 1930, the figure had jumped to twenty six and a half million cars, one for every 4.6 people in the nation. Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry (1927), offering facts for 1926 from the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, documents this remarkable growth at mid-decade in great detail, down to the then-newest phenomenon of the "two car family."

Automobile production, in turn, encouraged the growth of a wealth of related industries and services, from plate glass, steel, rubber (for tires), gasoline, and auto accessories, to service stations, tourism, hotels, roadside restaurants, and camping equipment. The Popular Mechanics Automobile Tourist's Handbook No. 1 (1923), published by Popular Mechanics Press, offers "133 practical plans for making automobile touring easier, less expensive, and more enjoyable." The January and February 1926 issues of American Motorist, a publication of the American Automobile Association (AAA), provide many articles for consumers about motorized vacations, where to tour, and camping out.

As Thrift for Women (1930) demonstrates through stories told by individual farm women, the increased mobility of the population even contributed to greater prosperity in rural areas, as motorists stopped to purchase farm products from roadside stands and eat in farm houses where the farmer's wife brought in extra income by selling produce to or cooking meals for strangers.

Automobiles brought the consumer society to the country in other ways too. Would-be rural consumers were able to get to centers of consumption, as chain stores relocated to suburban areas outside of cities and movie theatres took up residence in farm country. A beguiling advertisement for Paramount Pictures in the February 1926 issue of Country Gentleman encapsulates the situation: "Today nobody with young ideas stays home when a few miles by the speedometer takes you to the motion picture theatre. . . . The farmer of years gone by might have been content to wear himself and his family out with all work and no play, but 1926 is a different story. . . . The motor car is a chapter in that story, and good roads leading to better theatres showing Paramount Pictures are another. . . . There all the members of the family may sit together under the same spell of enchantment, refreshed by the wholesome flood of make-believe. . . ." (p. 1) The ad's emphasis on the family-togetherness of the event reinforces that this is a "wholesome" use of leisure time. (INTRO NOTE Leisure)

It was also in automobile production that industrial values evolved from volume to variety -- variety of models, colors, price levels. The product philosophy of Ford Motors called for a single, more or less unchanging model, at a decreasing cost. Ford's major competitor, General Motors, headed by Alfred P. Sloan, innovated the idea of the annual model in 1923. Consumers were told they needed to keep re-buying and to trade up. With so many changes, leveraged by advertising to create in consumers new automotive tastes and "needs," automobile marketing moved into high gear. "Planned obsolescence" was enthroned as a marketing strategy. (INTRO NOTE Retailing)

In How the Retailer Merchandises Present Day Fashion, Style and Art (1929), Austin Purves, head of the Design Atelier of R.H. Macy and Company, Inc., comments that "Automobiles are almost in a novelty class now because their annual changes no longer result from structural changes but from changes in appearance due to high competition" (p. 11). The January 1, 1926 issue of Automobile Trade Journal offers an industry-oriented preview of the 1926 New York Automobile Show, including news about a multiplicity of new models and a chart showing every model of American car on the market -- and the cost of each. The January 1926 issue of the AAA's American Motorist offers a consumer view of the same show, also dwelling on the new design trends. Not surprisingly, an article in the August 1925 issue of the Bulletin of the Taylor Society comments disapprovingly on the annual de rigueur change in car styles and models as "wasteful."

The February 1926 issue of the American Motorist also highlights the close association in the public mind of automobiles with movie stars, a fantasy element elaborated upon in Bernarr Macfadden'sYour Car: A Magazine of Romance, Fact and Fiction.

Road and highway mortality was a byproduct of the vastly increased automobile ownership and use of leisure time for motoring which characterized the decade both in the cities and in rural areas. Public concern led to a national State and Highway Safety Movement and the holding in Washington, D.C. of an annual National Street and Highway Safety Conference, at the direction of Commerce Secretary Hoover. In addition, special safety-education efforts were aimed at the nation's school children and at women drivers, who evidently were considered particularly in need of instruction.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's push to hold annual safety conferences also had ramifications for the nation's economy. Road construction authorized by the Highway Act of 1921, as well as developments in interstate trucking under the aegis of the Commerce Department, hastened the mass movement of goods. The adoption by businesses of traffic ordinances, including highway rules of the road and in-town driving and street parking regulations, as promoted by the Commerce Department at the street and highway safety conferences, not only decreased accidents, but streamlined the movement of goods on interstate arteries criss-crossing the country and eased the pick-up and delivery of goods in congested downtown areas.

For the record -- President Coolidge was an exception in the trend toward automobile ownership. In the Coolidge Papers case file at the Library of Congress called "Automobiles - General 1923-29" (not included in this collection), an October 13, 1924 response from presidential secretary Edward T. Clark to Mr. H.R. Cunningham of Cunningham Mfg. Co., a prospective voter wanting to know if the president had ever owned a Ford, states that the president has never personally owned an automobile of any make, although while serving successively as governor of Massachusetts, U.S. vice president and president, he has had cars allotted to his use. The Pierce Arrow, the principal automobile in the White House stable, was leased for presidential use by the government from the manufacturer. A few intriguing items in the case file, beginning in March 1924, suggest that the Ford Motor Company made efforts to get Lincoln-Ford automobiles added to the presidential stable.

Coolidge and Henry Ford were friendly -- a photograph of the Coolidges on vacation shows the president and his wife relaxing on the back porch of the Plymouth Notch family home with wealthy businessmen and inventors Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Ford reportedly was considering running for president in 1924.

A few items from the Coolidge Papers case file on the Federal Reserve Board 1923-29 comment on the impact that installment buying of automobiles (the preferred method of car payment) had on other industries and businesses, as well as on the Federal Reserve and other banks around the country.


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