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automobiles

Shifting Gears: The New American Woman Hits the Road

motoring1I’ll confess it now . . . I’m not a big fan of driving. My feelings about life behind the steering wheel range from neutral (on fine days) to negative (on snowy, icy days). I’d say I never truly love driving–not the way a real enthusiast does.

I’d also say, it appears I’m missing out on something adored by many ladies of yore.

The first decade of the 1900s saw a tremendous rise in the popularity of the new “horseless carriages” being churned out by Ford, Chrysler, and Oldsmobile. In addition to the home-grown variety, about 60,000 automobiles were imported from Europe in 1906. The market was hot.

Women as well as men hopped on the new craze for “motoring,” as it was called. “The ‘New American Woman’ was the rage of 1907,” explained Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan in their book Give the Lady What She Wants! The Story of Marshall Field & Company, about Chicago’s premier department store. “She was celebrated in song, famous artists idealized her for the popular publications, newspapers devoted entire sections to her interests, her exploits, her escapades. . . . “The papers were packed with feminine style news, household hints, profiles of society leaders, professional women, girl athletes . . . She had taken up the bicycle craze and golf and roller skating and lawn tennis–and she demanded the outfits for these sports. Grimly, in tight-necked ulsters [overcoats] and goggles, she was learning to drive automobiles. She was healthier, more athletic, taller, stronger, self-assured and, most important for those who sought her patronage, she had the right, opportunity, and ability to earn her own money.”motoring2

With all due respect to Messrs. Wendt and Kogan, I don’t know that I’d use the word “grimly” to describe a woman’s early efforts to drive. Sounds to me like she had a lot of fun. The motoring craze even gave rise to songs like “My Merry Oldsmobile,” the refrain of which goes:

Come away with me, Lucille,
In my merry Oldsmobile
Down the road of life we’ll fly
Automo-bubbling, you and I

To the church we’ll swiftly steal
Then our wedding bells will peal
You can go as far as you like with me
In my merry Oldsmobile.

As the lyrics imply, automobiles offered unprecedented mobility and privacy to courting couples, far away from the confines of the family parlor, a development that did not necessarily please their elders.

And of course, a new activity called for a new outfit! “Field’s motoring gear, in itself, made possession of an automobile seem desirable,” wrote Wendt and Kogan. “There were richly embroidered suits, thick fur muffs, Siberian pony-skin coats, cute linen dusters and capes, caps or poke bonnets with veils, gauntlet gloves, and goggles. For the young motorist and sportswoman Field’s offered a padded, three-quarter jacket of silk or satin, gaily colored in red, green, or blue, and a muffler cap and gloves to match–excellent for automobiling, cycling, skating, or riding when worn with a thick wool skirt, divided or not, warm wool stockings, and cloth-top, high-button shoes.”

Perhaps my attitude toward driving could be significantly improved with the right duster, hat, veil, gloves, and a fetching pair of goggles.

Your turn–do you enjoy driving? Why or why not?

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