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article number 261
article date 08-15-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Women Can Drive Gasoline Engine Cars … Bye Bye Electric Cars, 1905 – 1915
by M. M. Musselman

From the book, Get a Horse. Author’s book dedication: To my mother and father in memory of those days when a Marmon touring car was their pride and joy.

THE LADIES OF Parisian society were the first females to drive automobiles. The cars were powered by electricity and even the very earliest ones moved with quiet dignity and were as simple to manipulate as a rocking chair.

The first member of the weaker sex who viewed an electric automobile must have sensed that this machine was to emancipate womankind. She knew she could never be adept at harnessing a horse and hitching it to a carriage, but the electric automobile was a different animal; it would obviously respond to a woman’s hand as quickly as to any man’s. You simply got in, gripped the steering tiller, pulled a lever and away you went.

The first electric automobile in the United States was said to have been built by William Morris, of Des Moines, in 1891. He brought his contraption to Chicago in 1892.

“Ever since its arrival,” said the ‘Western Electrician’, “it has attracted the greatest attention. The sight of a well-loaded carriage moving along the streets at a spanking pace, with no horse in front, and apparently with nothing on board to give it motion, is one that has been too much even for the wide-awake Chicagoan. In passing through the business section, way had to be cleared by the police for the passage of the carriage.”

For a brief span of years from about 1898 to 1904 it looked as though the average family would find the electric automobile to be the most satisfactory substitute for the horse. It was rapidly replacing public hansom cabs and broughams, and it had the backing of several large and wealthy manufacturers of storage batteries, electric motors and carriages.

‘Outing’ magazine estimated in 1900 that New York, Chicago and Boston could boast a total of 2,370 cars, which were divided as follows: 1,170 steam, 800 electric and 400 gasoline.

These electric cabs were a common sight on New York streets the first decade of the twentieth century. Underwood & Underwood photo.

Although this figure does not agree with today’s estimate by the Automobile Manufacturers Association, the proportions are probably correct. In Chicago, at that time, the electric automobile predominated over both steam and gasoline. This may have been due to the fact that the Woods Motor Vehicle Company, of Chicago, was the first in the country to manufacture electric automobiles commercially.

Other popular electric cars in those early days were the Waverly, the Studebaker, the Rauch and Lang, the Ohio, the Columbus, the National, the Baker and the Columbia.

The last was manufactured by the Electric Vehicle Company, which had been formed by Colonel Albert A. Pope and a group of wealthy men who owned large eastern traction interests.

Columbia Electrics were available in numerous body types including runabouts, surreys, tonneaus, cabriolets, broughams, delivery wagons, ambulances and police patrols.

The owners of the company were so sure that the electric car would dominate the automobile business that instead of recognizing its weaknesses they visualized a huge chain of electric charging stations dotting the countryside. Needless to say they also expected to own the charging stations.

This millionaire’s sleek electric cab caused a stir in 1912, even among blasé New Yorkers.

In every large city from New York to Chicago they set up subsidiary companies to operate electric cab and car rental services. In 1899 a reporter for ‘McClure’s Magazine’ got an interview, at the New York headquarters of the Electric Vehicle Company, that clearly reflected just how the big shots of the company were thinking. A part of the article follows:

“The New York cab company expects soon to have ten charging-stations in operation in various parts of the city, so that a cab will never have far to go for a new charge of electricity. Indeed, all the manufacturers of electrical vehicles speak with confidence of the day when the whole of the United States will be as thoroughly sprinkled with electric charging-stations as it is today with bicycle road-houses.

“One manufacturer has already issued lists of hundreds of central stations throughout New England, New York, and other Eastern States where automobiles may be provided with power.

“It is not hard to imagine what a country touring-station will be like on a sunny summer afternoon some five or ten years hence. Long rows of vehicles will stand backed up comfortably to the charging bars, each with its electric plug filling the battery with power. The owners will be lolling at the tables on the verandas of the nearby road-house.

“Men with repair kits will bustle about, tightening up a nut here, oiling this bearing, and regulating that gear. From a long rubber tube compressed air will be hissing into pneumatic tires.

This stylish equipage was an electric carriage of about 1901-05. It could be rented, complete with chauffeur, for $180 a month. Keystone View photo.

“There will also be many gasoline carts and road-wagons and tricycles, and they, too, will need repairs and pumping, and their owners will employ themselves busily in filling their little tin cans with gasoline, recharging their tanks, refilling the water-jackets and looking to the workings of their sparking devices.

“And then there will be boys selling peanuts, arnica, and court-plasters, and undoubtedly a cynical old farmer or two with a pair of ambling mares to carry home such of these new-fangled vehicles as may become hopelessly indisposed.

Add to this bustling assembly of amateur ‘self-propellers’ a host of bicycle riders—for there will doubtless be as many bicycles in those days as ever—and it will be a sight to awaken every serious-minded horse to an uneasy consideration of his future.

“The new electric cabs are unquestionably immensely popular as fashionable conveyances. A number of the wealthy people of New York, including Mr. Frank Gould, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mr. O. H. P. Belmont, and Mr. Richard McCurdy, have a cab or brougham and driver constantly on call at the home station of the company, for which they pay at the rate of $180 a month. Several prominent physicians are similarly provided, motor vehicles being especially adapted to the varied necessities of a physician’s practice.”

One of the great faults of the electric car was that by nature it was ladylike. It belonged to the carriage maker, the upholsterer and the glazier. These were all crafts that smacked of the gentle touch. Gasoline automobiles, on the other hand, were vehicles of the blacksmith, the engineer and the grease ball mechanic.

The electric car had a maximum speed of twenty miles an hour, unless designed for racing, and it rolled along the avenue as smug and silent as a fat cat stalking a birdbath. The only time it ever got out of order was when it ran out of juice. For mid-Victorian ladies, whose social activities were confined to a radius of five miles, the electric phaeton or coupé was quite satisfactory.

Not all Ladies were captive by the electric auto’s ease of operation. This society belle of 1903 is said to have driven her Franklin Runabout with great skill and daring. Brown Brothers photo.

But a man wanted something a little more exciting. He wanted to exceed the speed limit and he liked the sound of an occasional backfire while on the boulevard. It made people turn around and stare, made him feel like a bit of a hellion. And, of course, the tinkering instinct in every red-blooded American male drew him inevitably toward the gasoline car.

So almost from the very beginning the electric automobile became the approved vehicle for females. Consequently they grew more and more feminine. The electric coupé took on a dainty, interior-decorated look. It developed curved, plate-glass windows, fawn- or burgundy-colored broadcloth upholstery, ruffled silk curtains, vanity compartments and bud vases. Soon the average man would rather have walked down the street without his pants than drive an electric coupé.

In the opening years of the twentieth century, most women were perfectly content with the new freedom that their electrics gave them. They wanted nothing speedier or more powerful. But there were a good many men who thought it was rather disgraceful to see a woman scooting about at the tiller of an automobile. It was, in fact, damn dangerous!

In ‘Outing’ magazine for 1904 an article appeared under the title “Why Women Are, Or Are Not, Good Chauffeuses.” The author very wisely did not sign his name. He said, in part: “The only thing about a car which a woman does not have to teach herself with patience and skill is how to dress for it.

From the first, the long, graceful motor coats, like the old dust-coats reborn into a world of perfect cut, have appealed to women who go a-motoring. . . . Far from being unbecoming, the rather bewildering fashions in motor chapeaux, with the long veils tightly tied under the chin, frame a pretty face enchantingly.”

Lady driving a Buick … the first car in General Motors’ stable.
Proper garb for the Lady autoist.

This sweet talk was not to be forgiven by his female readers, however, for the writer went on to point out that women were not physically equipped for the strain and stress of driving a motor car. They were simply a bundle of nerves and might easily go to pieces in the midst of a motoring crisis. Nor were they mentally equipped to make the instant decisions that were necessary when traveling at speeds of twenty to twenty-five miles per hour.

Women would never be able to learn how to handle an automobile, this writer had decided; however, he had also observed that, despite their lack of skill with motor cars, women managed somehow to “get around them, just as she always managed to get around the male sex.”

But the women driver had many defenders, too. Mostly other women, it must be admitted. One Mary Mullett, also writing in ‘Outing’ magazine, had quite an opposite view from the anonymous male critic. She said:

“In Newport last summer, fifteen or twenty women might have been seen any pleasant day, driving their own cars. In Washington—well, my private opinion is that in Washington half those women who are forever skimming around in little electrics, could run them in their sleep—and with one finger at that.

“Even in New York there are women sufficiently plucky and expert to take a machine into and through that wonderful tangle of traffic which makes Fifth Avenue one of the show thoroughfares of the world.

“To drive an auto on Fifth Avenue at five o’clock in the afternoon is a trick which is calculated to make even the coolest man suspect that he has a few nerves concealed about him. Yet I know of a woman who does that trick whenever she feels like it!”

Cadillac, about 1908, with a bevy of brave ladies on a motor-club tour somewhere in New Jersey.

Even in the early days there were a few feminists who insisted on trying their hand at driving powerful gasoline cars. One of these was Joan Newton Cuneo, who drove her own car in the first Glidden Tour. Then she was invited to Atlantic City to compete in speed trials and races with men drivers. There she drove a mile in 1 minute 18 2/5 seconds. Almost 46 miles per hour!

After that Miss Cuneo was a confirmed speed demon. She bought a racing car, raced at numerous county fairs and broke the track record at the Rockland County Fair, at Orangeburg, New York.

Finally in 1909 she entered a three-day racing meet at New Orleans and came second to Ralph De Palma in a fifty-mile race.

Miss Cuneo wrote an account of her racing activities in the November, 1910, issue of ‘Country Life’ magazine, and challenged any amateur male driver to show a better record than hers, which included everything from a perfect score in the 1908 Glidden Tour to several track records and a hatful of medals.

Although there were not many women as anxious for high speeds as Miss Cuneo, the great majority of them soon wanted something with a little more zip than an electric coupé could offer.


I recall that my mother refused absolutely to let father buy her an electric. She learned to drive the Marmon and used to frighten everybody in the block when she backed that juggernaut out of our garage.

But the only thing that ever worried mother was cranking the Marmon. She would set the crank in place for a down-stroke, then with the aid of a chair climb up and stand on the crank handle; next she held onto the Boyce MotoMeter and bounced until the weight of her body turned the engine over.

One day she forgot to retard the spark. The engine backfired, of course, and tossed mother into the air. When she came down she hit her cheek against the MotoMeter. In no time at all her eye was closed and then it took on a beautiful purplish-blue-green hue. Mother stayed home for two weeks, missing any number of bridge parties and lectures at the Twentieth Century Club. But she didn’t stop driving or cranking the car.

By 1910 the electric automobile seemed to have settled into a groove from which it could never be dislodged. It served two classes of customers. First it was the approved car for well-to-do society matrons with numerous chins. Second, it was commonly used as a delivery wagon by B. Altman & Company, Marshall Field & Company and other retail houses which felt no confidence in the ability of a $15-a-week employee to learn how to crank and shift gears.

The companies that manufactured electrics seemed to feel secure with this business, certain that there would always be society matrons, and that underpaid employees could never solve the intricacies of the gasoline car.

Two society matrons of Newport, Rhode Island, in a Maxwell runabout, about 1906, have parked on the left-hand side of the street. The policeman is trying to make up his mind what to do about it. Brown Brothers photo.

But they were in for a rude awakening. Down in Dayton, Ohio, an engineer named Charles F. Kettering was even then perspiring over one of the most important inventions of the gasoline age and one that was to lay the electric automobile low. It was the self-starter.

Kettering may be the only legitimate genius ever produced by the automobile business. As head of the General Motors Research Laboratories he has received more billing than any other inventor of his day—Edison and Don Ameche excepted.

Unfortunately General Motors’ public relations staff has hopped up his accomplishments with a lot of stultifying mumbo-jumbo and miracle-man stuff, as well as crediting the master with some of the most asinine platitudes of the age. Consequently it is difficult, at this time, to evaluate or get a clear picture of the real Kettering.

But it would seem that there must be at least a touch of genius behind the multitude of improvements for the automobile that have come from General Motors Research Laboratories—such wonders as Ethyl gasoline, Synchro-mesh transmission, Duco finish and Hydra-matic transmission, all of which were brought to perfection under Kettering’s guidance.

Kettering’s early inventions were perfected while he was head of the Inventions Department of the National Cash Register Company. Among these was the first electrically operated cash register.

A few years later he started a consulting engineering laboratory to serve companies that were too small to have their own laboratories. There, influenced by the work he had done on the electric cash register, he began to develop an electric self-starter.

After a number of failures typical of all invention, he finally succeeded in building an electric starter as well as a complete battery ignition and lighting system for automobiles.

Lady driving a Clement car, about 1905. Keystone View photo.

In 1911 Kettering convinced Henry Leland, of Cadillac, that his starter was practical. It was tried out on a few cars as optional equipment. Then in 1912 it was adopted as standard equipment on the Cadillac. A few years later Kettering and his Dayton Engineering Laboratories became the General Motors Research Laboratories.

The year before Leland tried Kettering’s self-starter, the seven, strong, silent Fisher brothers, who had arrived in Detroit, one by one from Norwalk, Ohio, and who had started their own body-building business in 1907, persuaded Leland to try another radical idea on the Cadillac.

It was a revolutionary new body design. The industry was already familiar with such closed cars as the limousine, the town car, the coupé and the taxicab. But what the Fishers had designed was today’s sedan. It was a strange-looking, two-door job with the doors placed amidships, but for the first time all who rode in a four passenger car were completely protected from wind and rain. No longer was it necessary to wear special motoring wardrobes in an automobile.

These two improvements—the electric starter and the enclosed body were to create a revolution in the motoring habits of the nation. It took a number of years before the full effect of the sedan body was felt. That was because the manufacturers kept it priced sky-high so as not to hurt their expensive limousine business. But Hudson finally split the closed-car market wide open by bringing out a sedan priced only $300 above its open car. After that the lid was off and the country went sedan happy.

But the electric self-starter had already placed women on practically equal terms with their husbands. When it no longer took muscle to start a car, the ladies quickly commandeered the family bus and the era of the accordion fender and the baffled traffic cop was at hand.

A daring lady at the wheel of a Columbia with a detachable tonneau. Keystone View photo.

For the most part they were content for a year or two to drive within the confines of the city limits. But one morning in the summer of 1915 the nation awoke to read that a lovely cinema favorite was about to attempt the most daring motor trip that a lone and unprotected female had yet undertaken.

The lady’s name was Anita King, more commonly called “The Paramount Girl,” for at that time all movie stars had trick soubriquets of that kind.

It seemed that Miss King, a daring stunt girl in her day, had been grieving over the death of her younger sister and had decided to get away from the tinsel of Hollywood for a while. She wanted to be alone to think out life’s problems. So she had decided to take a solitary motor trip from Los Angeles to New York, via the Lincoln Highway.

The Kissel Motor Car Company, of Hartford, Wisconsin, kindly offered to lend her a Kisselkar for her lonely jaunt to New York, and the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, both anxious to send messages to the mayor of New York, asked Miss King to deliver same for them. This information was all painted on the side of Miss King’s Kisselkar so that she would not have to stop along the way and answer questions.

As she left Los Angeles, Miss King wore a suede motoring coat, a suede racing helmet, goggles and a dazzling smile. Paramount’s press agents followed Miss King at a respectful distance, and also preceded her, through the unadvertised courtesy of the Kissel Motor Car Company.

There was not a day of Miss King’s famous crossing of the continent that was not fraught with danger or excitement. It was positively as thrilling as a movie script.

In a lonely mountain pass she stopped to pick up a strange man on foot. He tried to molest her and steal her car. She quickly covered him with a small pearl-handled revolver and could easily have shot him between the eyes. But woman’s intuition told her that this poor unfortunate man was a victim of circumstances. Instead of shooting him she gave him a lecture, drove him on to the next town and turned him loose without saying a word to the authorities.

Then came the Great Salt Desert. Halfway across she found herself lost on its salt-encrusted expanse. With all the water boiled out of her radiator and her last drop of drinking water gone, it looked as though Miss King was a goner. She stumbled out onto the hot desert sands and fell fainting beside her faithful Kisselkar.

“The Paramount Girl,” Anita King’s Kesselkar.

She knew not how long she lay thus in the broiling sun, but when she came to she was in the shade of a Joshua tree, strong arms were holding her, and cool water was trickling down her throat. She had been rescued by three desert prospectors. They filled her radiator and sent her on her way, followed closely by her press representative and two photographers, who had been recording this thrilling life drama from behind a near-by giant cactus plant.

But according to Miss King her “real big lasting thrill of the trip came on a lonely rain-swept hill in Wyoming.” Miss King had been driving all day and was passing a farm when she saw a young girl waving to her to stop. But let the reporter for ‘Sunset’ magazine describe what took place, egged on by the Paramount publicity department:

“A girl of about sixteen came running through the gate and up to the car, breathless, wide-eyed, pale.

“‘Oh,’ she gasped, ‘I thought you wasn’t going to stop!’

“‘I wasn’t,’ answered Miss King unamiably.

“‘But I’ve been waiting for two days,’ protested the little girl. ‘They said you’d come by, two days ago, and I’ve been watching all the time. And I haven’t slept a wink for fear you might go by in the night.’

“The child’s distraught appearance confirmed the statement.

“‘But why have you been so foolish?’ said Miss King.

“‘No,’ said the girl. ‘It isn’t foolish. It’s life and death. I can’t stand it any longer. I have to go.’ She clung to the car, and looked up appealingly into the puzzled eyes of the Paramount Girl. ‘Oh, please take me with you!’

“‘Why, child,’ cried Miss King. ‘What in the world do you mean?’

“Then followed, in the drizzle of that darkening afternoon, the impassioned recital of a little drama which is being enacted in countless homes all over the country, though Anita King had never understood it until then. The story of the screen-struck little girl to whom the humdrum routine of home had become unbearable under the spur of a newborn ambition to be a motion picture star.

“Impatience of the home which had become a prison, a naive assurance that ‘the pictures’ meant life’s real opportunity, despair at the dull parental wits that could not understand. Anita King listened to the flood of eager words from the white-faced youngster on the running board. And as she listened, her soul awoke to a responsibility. . .”

So Miss King told the girl that Hollywood was no place for her; stay home, marry and have kiddies, she advised, then she got back in her Kisselkar and was off again in the rain and mud.

There wasn’t much subtlety to Hollywood publicity in those days and probably there didn’t need to be, for millions of women from coast to coast waited and watched for Anita King, with her Mary Pickford curls and her girlish figure, to come barreling down the road or the boulevard in her big Kisselkar.

Some saw her with their own eyes and some had to read about her in the newspapers, but surely there was not a woman in the country but envied Miss King her derring-do and her ability to drive a six-cylinder 60-horsepower Kisselkar across the country without the help of a man.

When The Paramount Girl finally reached New York and drove down Broadway, the throngs along the curb cheered for her long and loud, and very soon the women of America had their husband’s cars by the steering wheel and were plotting a course straight down emancipation road. The following year the automobile industry doubled its output.

* * *

This pretty chauffeuse, as lady drivers were often called, is at the wheel of this long-forgotten Anhut automobile. The acetylene generator of the running board to burn bright in the headlights indicates that is was probably manufactured before 1910.
Mother and a mule seem to have taken charge of this embarrassing situation, while father has retired to the back seat completely subdued. Brown Brothers photo.
These four female motorists of 1909 are driving a brand-new Maxwell.
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