History course traces influence of automobile on American life

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HARRISONBURG, Va. – A key ring. A McDonald’s cup. A driver’s license. A parking hangtag. A fold-up roadmap. A backseat. What do they have in common?

Each is a testament to the influence of the automobile on American life.

Drive-through restaurants, interstate highways and parking lots – a few of the “necessities” of modern life spawned by the explosive proliferation of the horseless carriage.

“The automobile has been an epoch-defining technology for the 20th century,” said Kevin L. Borg, who teaches history at James Madison University in Virginia. “It started as a plaything for the rich and has become the most ubiquitous piece of technology in American life.

“Very few people can get along without one, and the degree to which Americans have used the automobile to shape their lives, their culture, their physical environment, is stunning.”

Borg – who, before becoming an academic, was an auto mechanic — is teaching a new course this fall, “The Automobile in American Life,” exploring the breadth of the automobile’s influence

“The is not a celebration nor a criticism of the automobile,” he said.

Through a lens. What he hopes students will discover is a study of American life through a specific lens – automobiles. They became, he said, “material manifestations of so much in society.” Americans have shaped their communities, and even their houses, around the automobile.

“The process of suburbanization,” he pointed out, “is largely dependent upon the automobile. The automobile just obliterates space.

“The end of the one-room schoolhouse is as much a product of the automobile as anything else, because you couldn’t have a consolidated school district until you had a way to get kids around.

“Beginning in the 1920s, schools, medical care, libraries, all kinds of public institutions, become more centralized by virtue of using the automobile and busing.”

And when people needed a place to keep their vehicles when they weren’t on the road, Borg said, architecture changed.

Needed garage. The garage began as a detached building out back, in keeping with horse-and-carriage customs. But convenience stepped in, and it crept closer and closer to the house until it become part of the dwelling.

Borg’s course hits on many societal issues, such as how autos became masculinized.

Vocational education and popular culture were significant factors, he said.

Working-class boys who were “good with their hands” took auto-shop classes, while girls were guided into home economics. Juvenile literature – such as the Motor Boys, the Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys series – reinforced gender distinctions around certain technologies, especially the automobile.

Cars have affected race relations in America, beginning in the early 1900s when cars driven by black chauffeurs were sometimes sabotaged to keep the profession white, and black-owned “jitney” buses in the South competed with Jim Crow streetcar systems, Borg said.

“Getting pulled over because you’re a black man driving a BMW on Interstate 95 – what does that mean?” asked Borg. “During the 1980s and ’90s, police officers and others presumed, ‘that’s a crack dealer,’ indicating the automobile is still a site of racial tension.”

Means of leisure. Cars have played a large role in American leisure time too.

Auto touring and camping were early diversions as automakers offered tents and other add-ons to make the car more comfortable in the field.

And, the sport of cars has grown from early cross-continent rallies to modern auto racing.

“In America, we decided we wanted to go fast,” Borg said. “In Europe, there was a cultural decision to corner well. That’s why we race with big engines on banked tracks to make the cars turn.”

“It all started with Al Sloan and General Motors in the 1920s,” Borg said. “Henry Ford had locked up the market with the Model T – ‘any color you want as long as it’s black’ – which he kept cheap to sell to the masses. Yet people grew weary of the same ‘Tin Lizzy’ year after year.”

Status symbol. Sloan who began offering customers choices in paint color, chrome, interiors and progressively more expensive makes – Chevrolet to Pontiac to Buick to Cadillac.

“Obviously, he was onto something,” Borg said. “There was a message.”

“The message was that you don’t always want a Model T in black. You might want to be a little better than your neighbor. That whole idea of styling, status, advertising begins the association that your automobile is you.”

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