No doubt, the railroads of the nineteenth century enabled Americans to move about with a speed and ease never possible before. Even so, they did not provide the freedom to which Americans have long believed they have a special right. That came with the automobile. It freed those in the beginning of the twentieth century from the tyranny of schedules, from the strictures of where the track went, from the necessity of dealing with outside transportation providers, and from the ever so subtle and demeaning task of relating to other travelers in a very public and at times cramped space.
There is something liberating about being able to depart your home in a private vehicle at a time of your choosing and to travel privately point to point in comfort without any significant assistance from an outside entity to a destination of your choosing. That freedom lay at the heart of the attraction of the automobile in America.
With the development of the first practical internal combustion engines in the latter nineteenth century, it did not take a genius to see that the time of personal transportation vehicles had arrived. In 1902 Russell Olds—not Henry Ford—created the first mass assembly line to manufacture automobiles, and was selling 2,500 per year. By 1908, however, Ford had designed his Model T, nicknamed the Flivver, and the age of the automobile had arrived. With a pricetag of only $360 by 1916, made possible by Ford’s creation of the most efficient assembly line ever devised, the Model T was within the price range of many American families and it brought a revolution in transportation. By 1928 Ford had sold 15 million automobiles and the age of personal mechanical transport had arrived. First one car, and then two, became core purchases of every family.
Certainly, no people in the world adopted the automobile as thoroughly and enthusiastically as Americans. While early purchasers were not unlike purchasers of new technological products today—they were attracted by the novelty and the adventure—a truly fundamental revolution in transportation came when such individuals as Henry Ford made it possible for ordinary citizens to own automobiles. But a question must be asked about why Americans love this technology so much. Three essential reasons seem to emerge from any investigation of this question.
First, Americans have embraced technology as no other nation in human history. We seem to love anything that is mechanical and seems to offer promise for making our lives different. And this has made us distinct from other peoples of the world. Many farmers in France, for instance, have still not given up their horse-drawn farming implements, finding them efficient, inexpensive, and totally satisfactory. I cannot imagine a farmer in the United States—aside from the Amish and those working on living history farms—using horses in their daily work. We are a nation in love with technology of all types, including that which might bring our destruction.
Second, Americans are enamored with the new. We believe that we live in a new land, and we identify ourselves as a new people. For such to have any chance of being true, we must also embrace new things. This relates tangibly to the concept of progress—an intrinsically American ideal that envisions a better future. We all know the phrase, “every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.” In many instances these beliefs have been utopian in outlook. Many Americans have seen our role, captured in essence in our frontiering experience, as a re-enactment and democratic renewal of the original “social contract,” together with the creation of personal virtue and collective good. This progress ultimately redeems the nation. We tend to view new technology in the same way, and it has been played out in our acceptance of new ideas and mechanical objects. Whether it actually holds such a promise is an open question, but it has been a part of our American psyche for centuries.
Third, the promise of the personal automobile seduced Americans as no earlier form of mechanical transportation. It allowed motorists to choose their travel times and routes according to personal convenience. While railroads rigidly adhered to schedules, to which all must submit, automobiles freed Americans to travel when and where they wished. It represented democratic promise writ large.
Nothing demonstrates these three themes in an embracing of the automobile more effectively than John Steinbeck’s novel of the plight of Depression-era “Okies,” The Grapes of Wrath. It tells the epic story of the Joad family’s migration by automobile from the Oklahoma dust bowl along U.S. Highway 66 to the promised land of California. In stark and moving detail Steinbeck depicts the lives of ordinary people striving to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic desperation.
When the Joads lose their tenant farm in Oklahoma, they join thousands of others, traveling the narrow concrete highways toward California and the dream of a piece of land for their own. Each night on the road, they and their fellow migrants recreate society: leaders are chosen; unspoken codes of privacy and generosity evolve; and lust, violence, and murderous rage erupt. It is a powerful portrait of the bitter conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of our fierce reaction to injustice, and of quiet, stoical strength. And in The Grapes of Wrath the automobile, and all that it means to Americans, comes to the fore.
In essence, the automobile created a much more mobile society than ever possible before. With the automobile came the new tradition of the “Sunday drive,” with city folks going out to the country. It also enabled rural Americans to come into urban areas for shopping and entertainment. Cars broke down the distinctions between urban and rural America. It also broke down the stability of family life. It was far easier for individual family members to go their own way. And it contributed to a break down in traditional morality. Children could escape parental supervision, as cars became a sort of “bedroom on wheels.”
In 1929 sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a study called Middletown, based on field research done in Muncie, Indiana, in 1924-1925. The Lynds showed how, under the influence of industrialization, traditional values and customs were changing, including peoples’ attitudes toward the automobile and the vehicle’s use in a fundamental reordering of society. They found that at all income levels; the automobile had come to seem a necessity, rather than an economic luxury. People were willing to sacrifice food, clothing, and their savings in order to keep the family car.
It also altered in a fundamental way the relationship between the federal government and big business. American business, led by icons such as Henry Ford, regained the status of folk hero they had enjoyed in the days before the Progressivism of the early twentieth century. Many Americans felt they also had the opportunity to participate in prosperity and they began to equate prosperity and progress in part because of the opportunity to own an automobile.