The Automobile Changed American Life

Susan Frissell, editor

Among all the talk these days about driverless cars, we’re reminded of when and where the automobile came. From the establishment of the first automobile company by brothers Charles E. and J. frank Duryea in 1896, to superhighways and green-and-white signs to guide travelers, the advent of the automobile has transformed American life.

In 1996, the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI celebrated 100 years of the Automobile in American Life in an exhibition that included more than 100 cars and thousands of artifacts to illustrate how the automobile evolved from the 19th century novelty into a mainstay of American culture.

One of the most influential industries in America, the automobile industry is responsible for the existence of such phenomenons as fast food restaurants to motels, to gas stations, Drive-in movies, campgrounds and gas pumps are all a part of the American scene.

Significant events in the auto industry include such happenings as a massive oil strike at Spindletop Beaumont, Texas (1901), the introduction of the Model T (1908) by Ford, the first U.S. transcontinental automobile trip (1903), and President Eisenhower signing the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. When considering the automobile, one also thinks of certain people connected with it, including Harvey Firestone, Walter Reuther, Ransom E. Olds, and Ralph Nader. The list goes on and on. Milestones abound when summarizing the U.S. auto industry, beginning in 1896, right up to the present.

Of course, a lot of innovations have come to pass since the early days, including electric and hybrid cars, and of course, Elan Musk’s Tesla endeavor.
How has the automobile transformed American life? In ways we might not realize. I suspect, including these ten:

1) The car made in Detroit changed the nation. Detroit was the first city to have a large number of cars made and driven. Mass production led to good paying jobs, making it possible for people who worked in the car factories to own cars and drive them to work. As the industry grew, the city grew, making it necessary for developments to accommodate cars. This set the pattern for other growing urban centers. One need only consider Los Angeles, a city where few cars have ever been made, but where most people own one.

2) Development of the interstate highway system. The nation’s largest public works program, the building of the interstate highway system linked communities, but also cut others apart by using straight lines as the shortest distance between places. In some places, there are still remnants of what was once important (such as on Route 66) but have fallen away as interstate stops became growth areas. Because of car traffic, and a highway system, the expansion of the national parks system was possible, which gave people more places to go.

3) Suburbanization. Because of automobiles, communities could be built that were neither urban nor rural, but had some of the advantages of both.

4) Growth of the drive-in lifestyle. Beginning with movies and fast food, drive-ins have evolved to include banks, dry cleaners and even weddings and funerals.

5) Changing the purpose of the streets. Once an extension of front yards, streets enabled people to walk and vendors to sell their goods from carts. At one time, transportation was a secondary use; now it is reversed.

6) Architecture of American homes. The elimination of the front porch can be dated back to the rise of automobiles in the late 1920s. Porches became smaller and have now practically disappeared. As garages took over in popularity, the backyard became more of a focal point for relaxation.

7) Decline of railroads and streetcars. With the increase in popularity of the automobile came the decline of trains, trolleys and inter-urbans as a means of transportation, even before the growth of air travel. In cars, travelers could go where they wanted, when they wanted, rather than having to adhere to a fixed route and time.

8) Breakdown of rural isolation. Those living in outlying areas of cities embraced the automobile as a means of maintaining their rural lifestyle. The car provided a link between towns and cities.

9) Becoming the engine that drives an economy. Because of the automobile, oil, rubber and a whole host of industry activities exist. Motels, restaurants and service businesses grew up on trade from drivers. Advertising has also been affected as witnessed by the billboard. Billboards were not just posted along railroad track routes.

10) Defining the work of the 20th century. Standardization of parts and assembly necessary for mass production of the automobile led to an abundance of high-wage, low-skilled jobs. These jobs made it possible for workers to live a comfortable lifestyle; especially for immigrants who didn’t speak English and/or people who were untrained but willing to work. In the 21st century, workers began moving into a situation similar to the one that existed at the beginning of the industrial evolution: the best paying jobs go to the more skilled workers.

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