6-7 November 2008 Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware
It is somewhat ironic in these difficult economic times in which the American motor industry currently finds itself near to collapse and applying to Congress for funds to help it survive, that there should be remembrances, if not celebrations, of a century of its growth. But both Ford and General Motors are a hundred years old and the automobiles that they and other American companies have produced have had an untold impact on American economy, society and culture and indirectly on the world at large. The twentieth century has indeed proved to be the century in which automobility flourished for better or for worse and in which the United States took a leadership role, economically, socially and culturally.
The Hagley Library’s Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society annually runs conferences on topics of historical interest and successful conferences in the past have discussed masculinity, beauty, gender and American consumerism and design histories of everyday objects. Automobility will thus follow in a noteworthy tradition of disseminating new and thought-provoking ideas. It also fits in very well with the thrust of T2M to reshape transport history into a history of mobility which encompasses much more than the production of vehicles and travel. Here in Wilmington, Delaware, there was a range of approaches to understanding and to opening up avenues of research in unsung areas of automotive history.
The conference opened with an energetic and dynamic keynote address by the labour historian Steven Meyer, well known for his research on automotive workers. His concerns focused on the nature and expression of manhood on the shop floor in Detroit. Suggesting that the mass production line and Fordism had transformed labour by robbing men of any independence and control over their working patterns, he examined the growth of an aggressive and muscular workplace culture in which smutty jokes, talking rough, drinking, cursing and breaking petty rules all compensated for the loss of autonomy and the inability to attain upward mobility or job satisfaction. Basically, a backward and retrograde male work ethos dominated the shop floor, bringing with it a hard-hitting unionisation that did not want female labour and a distasteful and vulgar recreational lifestyle.
The eleven subsequent conference presentations were divided into four thematic panels, namely, ’driving, riding and fixing’; ‘overcoming problems’; ‘making vehicles’ and ‘universalizing the model T’. Each panel had a commentator. In the first panel on ‘driving, riding and fixing’ Joe Corn, formerly of Stanford University, gave a stimulating presentation on automotive literacy for the masses in which he examined the model garage stories in the journal Popular Science. He contended that fictional stories in male hobby magazines educated primarily white working class men about how to fix their cars. By featuring Gus Wilson as a knowledgeable motor mechanic who was able to give advice about such items as carburettor adjustment, valve grinding, back seat driving or horn maintenance, the model garage stories catered to men who liked tinkering and repairing their cars. In the same panel Maggie Walsh offered a comparison of bus and car travel through gendered eyes. She showed how Americans, but particularly American women, gained an expectation of the right to drive a car when and where they wanted at the same time as developing a dislike of – if not antipathy to – commercial bus travel. Illustrating her presentation with a range of advertisements, she pointed to four historical periods in which the dominance of the motor car emerged. The bus, by contrast, remained available for scheduled travel primarily for minorities while offering charter opportunities for a range of other groups.
The panel on ‘Overcoming Problems’ featured issues of safety in a variety of ways. Amy Gangloff of Mississippi State University examined car safety and who was responsible for this safety by focusing on Ford and the 1956 Lifeguard Campaign. In her interpretation Ford does not emerge as a champion of injury prevention. In 1956 Ford wanted to reclaim its automotive leadership position from General Motors and was crafting a more stylish image for itself, but the company needed something extra to win the competitive battle. Hence it had a campaign on crash protection. However, this campaign was more interested in comfort despite implying safety. It was the driver’s responsibility to prevent accidents rather than the manufacturer’s role to prevent injury through the installation of protective devices. Ford gambled on the mood of the public to buy into safety. Steven Hatch, of Heritage Museums and Gardens, was concerned with the problem of snow removal in the pioneer period of automobility. The ways in which winter weather has interfered with the viability of motoring has been another neglected subject in automotive history. Suggesting that snow was an impediment to modern urban life, though rural residents had long been able to use snow as a means of getting around, Hatch investigated who was responsible for snow removal. Ranging from the hiring of manual ‘shovelers’ to various gadgets attached to motorised vehicles he demonstrated that a snow removal programme gradually developed and was in place by 1928.
Michael Fein of Johnson & Wales University moved the subject matter of road safety and use to the end of the twentieth century and examined the politics of Boston’s Big Dig or the Central Artery/Tunnel project that re-routed Interstate 93, the main highway through the centre of Boston, into a 3.5 mile tunnel under the city. Construction began in 1991 and was completed in 2007 at a staggering cost; having outlined major construction and financial problems, Fein concentrated his attention on the management or politics of the project. This was initially in the hands of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, but moved from state government hands to a joint public-private enterprise raising the central question of whether this type of enterprise offers a feasible way forward for major highway projects on the grounds of harnessing good risk management. One of the other questions involved in the presentation was the viability and acceptability of tunnelling as a means of resolving issues of road congestion. Robert Buerglener of De Paul University, concluded this panel by examining the ‘modern monster’ or the automobile driver in the Progressive period from 1898 to 1918. How should these early drivers be regulated? Many, who belonged to the upper classes, considered that it was their right to drive and that in driving they behaved as gentlemen who knew how to behave. They lobbied to minimise laws or even to ignore them as they considered that policing and rules were unnecessary and irrational. Any bad driving was the result of reckless drivers who might be hired drivers or chauffeurs behaving in an irresponsible way because they did not own the vehicles. By 1918 auto drivers had good access to all roads and with remarkably little regulation. They had no inherent regard for either safety or other road users.
The third panel, ‘Making Automobiles’, all had connections with innovation, which was perceived as a messy and ambiguous process. When the car industry wanted to shift its production away from the wooden frame of the early motor car to the sturdier and more flexible steel frame in the 1920s, it was limited in its aims by the lack of high quality ductile sheet steel. Jonathan Aylen of Manchester University, examined the experiments in developing the wide strip mill for steel, by looking closely at two possible approaches in the 1920s. He explained why the firm with a smaller budget, but which was more open to ideas from the wider technical community was able to succeed, thereby allowing the car industry to produce cars with bodies that were 70 percent steel by 1926. Ironically this firm was taken over by its larger competitor shortly thereafter. The moral of this interesting paper was that historians need to examine the histories of small companies. Nancy Pope of the Smithsonian Institution interrogated the provision of suitable vehicles for the large work force of mail carriers in both rural and urban America in the twentieth century. They needed vehicles that were light, were able to make frequent stops and had heavy usage. The deliverers who walked in the early part of the century either used trolleys or picked up extra batches of mail from the green mail boxes. The next generation of mail persons used the infamous, unstable and highly unpopular three-wheeled ‘mailster’ which in turn was followed by the jeep and then the current flexible fuel vehicle from the Ford Motor Company. None of these vehicles were ideal, but some were highly problematic and the audience enjoyed hearing about the tribulations of carrying post, ranging from lack of heaters, through taking corners in unsteady vehicles, to the idiosyncrasies of some of the trials for new vehicles. Craig Semsel, an independent scholar, reviewed the technology of early buses in the second and third decades of the twentieth century before focusing on the Fageol Twin Coach which emerged in 1927. This was basically the first modern motor coach which both provided a higher passenger carrying capacity and offered a different bus design. Working through the early problems of powering this bus Craig Semsel pointed to its imitations. but noted that Fageol buses remained the standard design, though the engines of subsequent vehicles were in the back rather than the middle of the coach.
The last panel investigated the possibilities of universalizing the Model T. Christopher Capozzola of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, investigated the Philippines in the years in which the Americans seized control from the Spanish at the start of the twentieth century. These were the same years in which Americans were starting to take to the road in motorised vehicles at home and thus there were some attempts at parallel developments, at least in road building. There may have been some elements of benevolent imperialism in the road building venture. Unfortunately, however, the roads were built for the wrong reasons: helping American colonialism. The ‘invaders’ also failed to understand that the Filipinos might equally take to cars thereby encouraging American vehicles to remake an ‘autoised’ landscape far away from Detroit. Alain Michel of LHEST/Evry University interrogated the cinematic production of Ford’s’ Film Department as a means of testing the notion of the universality of mass car production. He pointed out that historians can learn interesting information by using motion pictures as a way of studying technology. Looking at clips of two documentaries in 1926 and 1930 it was possible to see how the Ford Company could use film to build a picture of car production that might promote American technology abroad and how subsequent generations might use the same film for different purposes. The Hagley audience was also given a tantalising insight into the possibility of creating a virtual image of an early Renault factory. It was very unfortunate that the third panellist Gjis Mom was unable to present his paper on the ‘Model T as Archetype: Universalism and Exceptionalism in the History of Technology’ as this would have both fitted well into the panel and would have been a suitable ending to the paper presentations.
The Hagley Conference was very much a step in the right direction of changing transport history into mobility history. As Patrick Friedenson of Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales noted in his commentary on the first panel, mobility studies have come a long way in the past ten to twenty years. He also pointed out that there are many more avenues which need to be followed if historians are to obtain a fuller picture of the nature and extent of travel, the flow and carriage of goods and the impact of transport services. Members of T2M have great opportunities in uncovering many of the hidden aspects of their research areas.