Learn about Life in the 1920s

America on Wheels

The philosophy of the open road knows neither honesty nor sportsmanship, good taste nor common sense. America motorized is becoming America bereft of good manners, insensible to decency. Here is presented a picture of the American motorist in action. He cares nothing for his fellow man, nothing for beauty; and he roars along happily at home among the billboards and the hot dog stands. Miss Warfield, who has lived on the Boston Post Road and who is the author of numerous magazine articles, raises the question of the American motorist's sanity

THAT POET who sang: "Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man". . . . let us hope he only rented the house. In that case, after a few months of biting dust, dodging discarded soft-drink bottles and packages of lunch refuse, and enduring the patronage of his old friend, man, he will have eaten his words and fled to the woods. If he bought it, heaven help him as, cotton in his ears, he crouches in a back room behind tight-shut windows until some one responds to his "For Sale" notice.

To live by the roadside today, and not to enter into its "Hot Kofe," "Toasted Franks," "Towing and Wrecking" spirit, is to become a monomaniac on the subject of the motor age. It is to become, in short order, man's enemy.

Last summer I took a house in Connecticut—a house situated about two hundred yards back from the New York to-Boston State road. The steady hum of cars at first sounded distant enough and not unpleasant—but what an unbelievably steady hum it was ! Before I had been there a week, I had reached the stage where I interrupted conversation to exclaim, "Look—the cars. They never stop. Isn't it incredible ?"

Photo of Car Crash
Motor Carnage

There was, almost literally, never a moment in the day when a car was not passing in one direction or the other. As for Sundays and holidays—before I had been there a month, the brief, infrequent, and positively audible lulls in the procession wrung from me the exclamation, "Look—there are no cars. Incredible !"

I did not have a pleasant summer. I had an edifying one instead. I mastered the new philosophy of the open road.. I learned that it takes into account neither honesty nor good taste, neither sportsmanship nor common sense. I learned that motorized America is cruel and careless, reckless and indifferent. I learned that the prevailing attitude is one of the survival of the fittest emergency brakes and the devil take the other fellow's life and property. I learned, in short, to live in a house as far as possible from the side of the road.

FIRST the blow-outs. In daylight, the procedure was something like this : The lame car would limp from the highway onto my front yard, making deep, fresh ruts in the lawn. Papa would get out, throw off his coat, scatter his tools, and prepare to jack up the wheels. Next, Mama, Junior, and the girls would dispose themselves comfortably under the trees. But not for long. The girls would discover my pasture and set off for bouquets of daisies and Queen Anne's lace. Wild flowers : therefore free. Thus emboldened they would look desirously at my gladioli. No one was watching; a few, up near the road, wouldn't be missed ; they were dusty, anyhow, not much good.

Junior would discover ' my dog—what a grand opportunity for a romp ! Mama, a stout woman in a cotton dress, would bear down, to chide her son for playing too rough. She would inspect the vegetable garden and offer to buy a few beans at half the price of the city markets, intimating that she, herself, had no earthly use for beans but would be glad to help me out. If I refused, she would stay to chat. If I agreed, on condition that she pick the beans herself, she would eye me suspiciously and stay to chat. If I indicated that my time was not at her disposal, she would stay to chat anyway. On plain, homely topics which I, a simple rustic, would be able to understand. On the weather. On the country. She, herself, did not like the country; the sound of frogs gave her the blues. On modern methods for canning fruit and vegetables. Much easier, of course, in the city, where you have every convenience to work with. She would ask for a drink of water and take the opportunity to examine and discuss the inside of my house. She would scold Junior for chasing the chickens. What did I get for them a pound?

An after-dark blow-out was different. Papa would drive onto the lawn, turning so that his headlights would shine into my windows. Thereupon, he and the other occupants would alight, exclaim at the flat tire, and wake me up by clattering tools and talking at the tops of their voices. Possibly, regardless of the hour, Papa would rap at the door. How far to the nearest garage ? Did I have a telephone ? Might he use it ? Did I know the number ? He might or might not offer to pay toll charges. Did I know anything about the roadhouse up ahead ? Could you get anything to drink?

We had not lived long by the roadside before we heard the screeching brakes, crashing glass, and cries of pain and alarm that were to become so familiar.

It was two in the morning. Remembering the demands put upon us by minor mishaps, we got up and dressed, mentally reviewing the first-aid cabinet, waiting to receive the injured, perhaps the dead. Nothing happened. From the window, we had excellent opportunity to study the brisk and efficient organization motordom has developed to deal with serious accidents.

The first few cars to come along pull up, not so much out of sympathy, I discovered, as out of curiosity, excitement, and the desire to superintend things. One car speeds on immediately to notify the police in the nearest town, stopping on the way to send back the wrecker from the nearest garage. Another may carry off the victims to a doctor or a hospital. Occupants of still other cars, coats off, voices loud and authoritative, take charge. The wrecked cars are pushed aside.

Some one, flashlight in hand, keeps traffic moving, slowly, with every one craning his neck, leaning out to see what has happened. Pleasure cars, lumbering trucks with sleepy, casehardened drivers, huge automobile carriers with five or more ingeniously-piled cars on the way from the factory. ( Most trucks and carriers travel by night, when traffic is lightest; in fact, their lights and their steady rumbling and rattle made it impossible for us to use our sleeping-porch.) Always the shout is the same—"Anybody hurt ?" If the answer is "No," and if aid already has been summoned, the passing motorists go on, never giving the matter a second thought. If the answer is, "Yes," it makes hardly more difference. "Man and woman killed. Hunh ! Cutting in, probably."

We were never disturbed by a serious accident. Garages that specialize in, and make fat profits from, the removal of wreckage stand at intervals along these and all other well-traveled highways, sniffing for the scent of burning brakes. When their time comes to pounce, they do their work promptly and thoroughly. The morning after an accident, scarcely a trace would be visible on our stretch of road. A pattern of glass fragments, perhaps, a tree splintered, a telephone pole dangling by the wires, a mail-box knocked down. Perhaps a car would have skidded into the cornfield, levelling the first half dozen rows. If this happened, there might be a man's battered straw hat among the cornstalks, a dented thermos bottle, a box of half-eaten lunch—which we could have by way of settlement.

Telephone poles, one thrifty neighbor instructed me, make first-rate fire-wood. He cut down his fuel bills considerably by toting home poles that were knocked down on his property. He had to put up a new post for his mailbox at least once a season, he said, so he thought he had a right to the poles. He counted on at least one accident a month ; more, usually, in the summer.

He was a firm man, a Connecticut Yankee. He had bought his land when the State road was only a path, and it had doubled, redoubled and doubled again in value. He could have sold it and lived the Test of his days in quiet luxury, but he wouldn't. He expected to see it go still higher.

Besides, he hated motorists and enjoyed hating them. He'd planted nothing but sour-apple trees in the part of his orchard nearest the road, so auto-riding thieves wouldn't come stealing fruit a second time, blast them. He'd gotten so tired having people cut• out into his yard to pass other cars that he had dragged a big stone up onto the driveway. Let them hit that; teach 'em a lesson. He liked to chase picnic parties from his part of the lake, to pretend he didn't know directions when he was asked for them, to cuss out reckless drivers, to dwell on the number and kinds of accidents he had witnessed ; he liked going up next morning to see what he could salvage.

With no little satisfaction, he pointed out to me a report, printed in the newspapers by the State Motor Vehicle Commission, showing that in a single year automobiles caused, in Connecticut, 26,832 accidents, 11,979 injuries, $2,763,341 worth of property damage, and 356 deaths. In one State alone. Yet who is there, even among those who speak seriously of the toll of the Great War, who protest against the number of deaths caused by airplane accidents, or who are actively indignant at a slip in pure food or public health regulations, who is not bored at reading the figures ?

Perhaps I am over emphatic. It is obvious, I suppose, that I speak as an outsider. Having never learned to drive a car, I am hardly motor-conscious. Having never owned one, I am undoubtedly out of step with the six-cylinder age. Having • always lived in the city, until last summer, I had been able to make out very comfortably with taxis and trains. More to the point, I could not afford a car. But last summer I learned that being able to afford it has nothing to do with owning one. I learned that to admit not having a car is to brand oneself as poor white trash and plumb crazy to boot.

Standing by the road, sheepishly waiting for the bus which took me to town to buy my provisions, and trying my utmost, I confess, to do an impersonation of one whose own car was but temporarily out of repair, I used to watch the motorists sizz-droning past me in an unbroken line. They were not wealthy people. They were not even comfortably well-off, the majority of them, be their cars ever so shiny and their motors ever so smooth. An overwhelmingly large proportion of them plainly could not live up to the expensive sedans they rode in; they looked drolly out of place against the luxurious upholstery. Their clothing and appearance indicated that they came from clapboard country houses or match-box city apartments where good food was none too plentiful. Yet they considered an automobile a necessity.

Indeed, I was speedily made to understand that in the country it is a necessity. I lived only two miles from town, on an excellent State road, yet there was not a tradesman who would deliver meat, groceries, or any of the barest essentials. The cash and carry store, in that town, had forced the delivery wagon out of business. Housewives would rather take the car and shop where cash purchases spell lower prices. I pleaded with a dealer who was but a mile away to deliver ice to me ; I would have paid twice the regular price to get it. He couldn't be bothered. Everybody came and got his own around there. I said I had no car. Then what the hell, his tone inquired, did a person of my sort want with ice anyway ?

If many motorists cannot afford their cars, more, I learned from the hard-boiled driver of the large inter-city bus that took me to and from town, cannot handle them. If I was indignant over motor carnage, here was a person obsessed by the subject.

"There's not one out of twenty-five driving a car today that knows what they're doing," he said. "Look at that, now, and watch—cutting in there. A woman; mighta known it. That's nothing. You ought to see 'em on Sundays. I tell you, lady, I'm not religious, but it's got so I pray for rain on Sunday." He allowed me to overlook neither accidents nor traces of accidents. I saw collisions between two, three, and, once even four cars. I noted the patched and broken places in fences along the highway; cars had crashed into them. I heeded all fresh, zigzag ruts tracks of the wreckers. I became aware of the mangled condition of cars piled in auto dumps, those hideous and numerous blotches along much-traveled roads. The only present-day courtesy of the open road of which I learned is that which exists between long-distance bus and truck drivers ; they hail each other by flashing their headlights. More, they pull over when lights flash in their mirrors so that the bus or truck behind may pass. Their fraternity rests on the fact that, together with professional chauffeurs, they know exactly what they are doing. Here they seem to me almost unique in motordom.

Psychologists have not been slow to discover that the chief attractions of motoring are the pleasurable sensations of continuous riding and the feeling of superiority over pedestrians. This, added to the circumstance that many families' cars are more comfortable than their living-rooms, must account for the popularity of "just riding" : for there can hardly be an idealist left who believes that on Sundays and holidays, when America rides out, it does so primarily either for love of scenery or for the purpose of reaching some destination. This also must account for the fact that, once the average American steps on the gas and is off, he sheds every trace of ordinary good manners.

If you've finished your banana, all right; toss the peel out along side the road—not one can stop you. If you're done with the Sunday paper—here goes ! That empty gin bottle—smash it against that rock. If we're young and feeling particularly festive, let's see how close we can cut in toward that fruit stand without hitting it. No ; there's a woman walking further along—let's give her a scare.

This may sound wildly exaggerated. It isn't. My cook, walking along the road toward the house last summer, was so nearly hit by an automobile that the wheels brushed her skirt. Indeed, the two boys and a girl in the car stopped and backed up to see whether she was hurt. They had been trying to see how close they could come to her, they explained, without hitting her. No, they were not drunk.

Lo, the poor pedestrian. The vanishing American. He gets his ankles spattered in wet weather ; in dry weather he cannot open his eyes for dust. Wet or dry weather, he has his nerves and his dignity shattered. Motorists either snoot at him or whoop at him; nowadays they seldom offer him a lift. On the Fourth of July they amuse themselves by popping at him with toy pistols, hoping to see him jump. Even country dogs, which not so long ago barked at passing cars, now save their barks for passing pedestrians. Walking, once the country dweller's pleasure as well as his means of locomotion, is nova reserved for cities. To buy a package of cigarettes at the filling station no more than three hundred yards up the road, the country people near me found it necessary to get out the car. During my roadside summer the only persons to come to my door on foot were drummers, peddling magic soap powder, magazines, gadgets, and the inevitable brushes. They walked to inspire my sympathy; their cars were waiting for them around the bend.

The tale of litter has become part of American folklore and is by no means told along the highways alone. Any public park, at sundown on a hot Sunday, cries it aloud. Yet there is a difference. The city hires its park cleaning done; supposedly, therefore, the citizen helps pay for the removal of his empty bottles, food scraps, cans, and the rest. Whereas, when my front yard threatened to become buried in trash, I had to do the cleaning up myself.

True, the motorist along my highway —filling stations to the right of him, and "broilers," "crank case service," "try our ice cold watermelon," "fresh cut flowers," "auto-camp," "old reliable apple cider," "guinea pigs for sale" to the left of him —had little incentive to cleanliness. With rows of crudely-lettered signs, dumping grounds, unkempt buildings and booths assailing his eyes, and the scent of hot asphalt, gasoline, frying onions, decaying fruit and vegetables inviting his nostrils, it is small wonder that he felt as though he were driving through a slum and acted accordingly.

There was a lovely blue and purple mountain, as well as a spot of water and a strip of the Connecticut Valley in the distance. His mind was too occupied with the road and with the merits of advertised products to take them in. There were fine old New England farmhouses along the turnpike. Flanked by towering billboards, encroached upon by soft-drink or fresh-vegetable stands—many of the vegetables, I noticed, were brought out from the city in large trucks—placarded with announcements that tourists were accommodated or dogs were boarded or antiques were sold, or else forlornly "For Sale," they hardly presented a picture of peaceful and ordered life. It was noticeable, by the way, that many of the better-looking houses, both new and old, close to the highway of which I write, bore the "For Sale" legend.

Yet I do not believe that the average motorist would have changed the appearance of that highway if he could have done so. I believe that, if lie had any feeling about it at all, it was one of pleasure. The road was smooth and perfect for speeding, provided that there was room to speed; gas stations were frequent and accessible, refreshments varied and cheap. There is a movement on foot, I understand, to improve aesthetic conditions along State roads —to restrict billboard advertising and encourage builders of gas stations, soft drink stands, and roadhouses to read up on architecture. In the latter case, particularly, I doubt a beautification movement could make much headway.

When it comes to eating, the roadside salesman knows his clientele far better than does the apostle of beauty. He knows that the average motorist is timid, suspicious, and poor. Two hundred yards apart, along my road, were a fearsome Spanish-type quick-lunch stand, obviously inexpensive despite the pretension of its orange-colored stucco, and one of the ubiquitous long, narrow dining cars—Sam's Diner. The call of Spain drew one carload of customers to Sam's ten. Further along was an attractive, well-run Colonial tearoom with tables placed on a screened porch and a small sign in front. Its owners barely made ends meet, while they sat and watched the steamy activity of a garish open-air resturant across the way.

Motorists would take no chances on pleasant surroundings where they might be gypped, embarrassed, and over-fastidiously fed. They wanted to. see what was going on before entering, to make sure that the dining-room was busy and filled with plain people like themselves. They wanted to know that they could have genuine Rhode Island clam chowder for fifteen cents, fresh hamburg on buttered roll for ten, or an old-fashioned chicken dinner complete for seventy-five—to know because they had been told so forthrightly on large colored placards at the entrance.

As I lived longer by the open road, I ceased to marvel at its atmosphere, its appearance, and its mores. It had been made by and for the motorist; I felt that, unless the motorist himself were to change radically, its condition was fairly permanent. It goes without saying that there are persons of a better type using State roads than those who happened into my yard. But I never saw them. There are, of course, great numbers of Americans who can afford their cars, who drive them skilfully and sanely, who object to the glare, the clamor, and the ugliness through which they pass. But they are invisible in the great, careless, motion-intoxicated throng. Why, then, should roadside entrepreneurs be concerned with them?

No, if the poet must live in his house by the side of the road in 1929, he had best come out of his back room. He had best enter into the spirit of the thing, for it will be worse before it's better, and no one will care how he feels about it, anyhow. Let him get a car and learn to drive it indifferently well, so that he will be less disturbed by noise and less upset by accidents. Let him sake long rides on Sundays and holidays, so that, sharing the motorist's superiority complex, and, in the stress of heat and traffic, acquiring the motorist's permanent grudge against the rest of the human race, he may develop the prevalent bad manners. Then let him fasten a large sign over his gate: "Poet Inside—Fresh Sonnets Thirty-Five Cents—Drive In."

He will not become a friend to mail, that is certain. But at least he and man will understand each other.

Source: Outlook. August 14, 1929



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