When cars went from luxury to necessity

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Today a car is considered an absolute necessity by most folks, and to have to be without one, even briefly, makes one feel quite helpless (many city dwellers where public transport is readily available, as well the plain people who continue to rely on horse flesh excepted).

Modern cars are fast, reliable, stuffed with more expensive gadgetry than many people can figure out how to use, and even the more inexpensive models cost more than I paid for my first two houses combined.

One hundred years ago, a lot of farmers took to the then new-fangled automobile while others were quite skeptical.

Advantages

A letter, published in 1916, in the Gas Review magazine and reprinted in Wheels of Farm Progress by Marvin McKinley, was supposedly written by a farmer to his city-dwelling nephew extolling the advantages of the auto on the farm.

The letter writer, who signs himself “Uncle Abe,” starts out by saying, “Yes, we took your advice and purchased a machine last month. It is a dandy, runs with a nice soft musical hum and takes us down to the village and back in one-half hour, just two hours less than old Frank and Dorothy needed for the same trip.”

Most farmers back then relied on their work horses to provide family transportation and after working the animals hard in the fields all week it didn’t seem right to make them pull a wagon or buggy to town come the weekend.

Uncle Abe says, “Many a time on Sunday I have hitched them to the surrey after a hard week of work and have driven them down to the village church feeling so ashamed of myself I know I ought to have walked or stayed at home.

“Frank and Dorothy had earned a big holiday, but someway we wanted to get there and the horses had to stand for it.”

Luxury

Many conservative and frugal farmers considered the automobile a luxury and, as Uncle Abe says, “you know that Ma and I have always dreaded luxuries like the devil and poison.”

He goes on to describe how the little car used very little gasoline and went about its business without needing currying or hay.

He tells of a quick trip to the blacksmith shop in town to have a broken binder part repaired and, on another occasion, of hauling three crates of chickens to the express office in just half an hour.

These examples of usefulness put the lie to the idea of the car being a luxury, at least in Uncle Abe’s mind.

Mechanics

Another reason farmers were hesitant about cars was their lack of mechanical experience. The letter goes on, “I always worried about gasoline engines. I didn’t know why they went when they went and why they stopped when they stopped.”

However, he says he read the instruction book every day and followed its advice. (Does anyone anymore read their car’s instruction manual even once?)

“They advise oiling, so I oil, and every grease cup gets stuffed full whenever we get ready to go. When our little car backs out of the old red carriage shed, she is greased up to slip along nicely, and she slips. We haven’t had any trouble yet and she runs smoother every day.”

Crazy drivers

Then too, many farmers were prejudiced against autos because early drivers sped, honking their horns, down country roads frightening horses and running over animals that strayed onto the roadway.

Uncle Abe says, “I used to fairly cuss these city fellows who came rambling across the country in their cars, looking so fresh and sort of aristocratic, but I have decided they are just like Ma and me, out for an airing and trying to forget some of their troubles.

“I forgive the blond-headed fellow that killed my pig last year and will forget about the old speckled hen which was all messed up down on the road.”

In the 1920s a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigator asked a farm wife why the family had an automobile but no bathtub. The woman’s answer neatly summed up the reason cars were so popular with farmers when she replied,

“Why, you can’t go to town in a bathtub!”

New norm

By the early ’20s, thanks mainly to Henry Ford, low-cost cars were plentiful in every farm community in the country.

On Saturday night, every farm town was full of cars of every age and description, each driven by a farmer with his wife by his side and the kids in the back seat along with produce and eggs or chickens for sale or trade at the local market.

After shopping and trading, and usually a treat for the kids, the family went home to evening chores.

Then on Sunday morning the family dressed up in their best and piled into the dusty, muddy car for a trip to church, and then after dinner, visits to relatives and friends or just a ride through the countryside to check out the condition of other farmer’s crops.

The automobile revolutionized life on the farm. Farmers have always had to be very time conscious; planting, and harvesting have to be done at just the right time.

A car was a tool that could save valuable time that was needed for critical farm work.

To the farmer’s wife, the car was the means of ending her isolation and loneliness.

It allowed her quicker trips to town, visits to friends and neighbors, and more frequent attendance at social events. The automobile gave farm families a freedom they had never known before.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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