An examination of the advent of motorized transportation
in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s
For most of us, owning and operating an automobile is a requisite and routine aspect of living in modern America. We depend on our cars for all but very local and very distant transportation; our ability to generate income usually requires access to one, and we are able to live where we live, due to our ability to access life’s necessities with our cars. We project our status with the car we are seen in, and perhaps we spend our idle hours in maintaining our present vehicle or in the restoration of an older one. Most American working adults spend more time alone in their cars each week than they do with any member of their family. Post-1900 American culture could just as well be wrapped around the automobile, for purposes of dating and explanation, as well as any other political, artistic, or cultural armature.
The car as we know it today is infinitely more advanced than early automobiles, yet in most cases remains based upon an original design of four wheels and a reciprocating, internal-combustion, gas-fueled engine. Yet our current cars are far more powerful and reliable than the earliest versions: manufacturers now tell us we don’t even need a tune-up until 100,000 miles, while not that long ago the useful life expectancy of an American car extended not far past this same mark.
We often reflect, sentimentally–and from a standpoint of enjoying all that personal motorized transport has given us–what life may have been like without the automobile, in a pre-motorized and horse-dependent America. Residents of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area might imagine Indian canoes on the Susquehanna River, the waters brimming with fish, no noise but the clip-clop of horse’s hooves on the dirt or cobblestone roads, and an idyllic, more localized and interdependent life. What is much less often considered is: What was life like with the car, in those very early years?
In the next few pages we’ll search for answers to the following questions:
When did automobiles (and motorcycles) arrive in Harrisburg?
Who drove? (gender and class issues)
What was it like to drive in the early days? (the physical aspect of driving)
What changes did motoring bring? (a brief discussion of the commercial and societal metamorphoses brought about by the automobile)
(Note: For the purposes of our inquiry, the year 1905 will be our focus. We will see that 1905 is early in the process of the public’s embrace of the automobile, and a time when prices were still high, reliability low, and the public transportation system had not yet adapted to motor vehicles.)
An Odd Contraption Approaches
Motoring arrived in Harrisburg at about the turn of the nineteenth centur, while motor-powered vehicles and machines were rapidly gaining attention in the 1890s across America. Various steam, electric and internal-combustion appliances and transport inventions were by the close of the century capturing Americans’ interests, and certainly powering its industry.
Upon examining Harrisburg’s premier newspaper, The Harrisburg Telegraph, in the first quarters of the years 1902 and 1904, no references to automobiles were noted. While automobiles were certainly present in the area at the time—Milton S. Hershey’s electric Riker delivery car had been in service in and around Hershey’s Derry Township factories since 1900, and the Upton family of Lebanon had founded their company in 1904—cars had apparently not yet entered the daily consciousness, as would have been evident by their presence in the local newspaper.
In the March 20, 1905 edition of the Telegraph, the “Central Penna. Automobile Co., Inc.” proudly took out a large add, offering for sale a range of cars from $750 (for their “semi-racer type Cadillac business car”) to $2,800 (for the big four-cylinder touring Cadillac). The company also advertised itself as a dealer for Winton, White, Buick, Columbia, Autocar, Orient, and Pope. Presumably, these vehicles could all be ordered for local purchase. The company also noted that they had “contracted for a carload of Cadillac machines every fifteen days,” and could thus assure prompt delivery.
In the Business Directory section of the same issue, the I.W. Dill company advertised its services under both “Automobiles & Pneumatic Tires” and “Carriages, Automobiles.” I.W. Dill took out adds in the Telegraph sporadically over the next few weeks. In the March 22 issue, Market Street clothing store The Globe uses a picture of an automobile to advertise the most mature boys’ caps; one style is called “the Auto . . . for the older boys.”
Surely we can surmise that the automobile was present in Harrisburg several years before this time, but it is only in 1905 that automobile dealers apparently felt that newspaper ads were necessary. Whether supply, anticipated demand, or timidity accounted for this, we can only guess. On March 28 a different Globe add appeared which seemed to step back from the store’s embrace of the “modern” automobile, used to sell to boys. Instead, the store chose to use a horse and carriage for a more traditional impact, to market its “fine” and “most perfect” clothing for gentlemen. The very next day, another general merchandise store returned to the image of the automobile—this time showing a sleek car leading both a bicyclist and two horse-and-carriage riders in what appears to be a race—to illustrate “modern business methods.” Clearly, the automobile was taking a hold in the Harrisburg consciousness.
As the years progressed, the Telegraph reflected continually greater automobile presence and advertising. In the October 31, 1908 edition, automobile advertisements and news had taken over an entire page (of the paper’s total of twelve pages). The “Automobile News” section was nestled in the middle of a plethora of ads celebrating the “New Buick,” as well as advertisements for Peerless, Cadillac, Stoddard-Dayton, the Indian Motor Cycle (sold by the West End Electric Company), auto repair, and now notices for both automobile insurance and used autos. The “Auto page” ran about every seven days. By 1909, the page had enlarged to two full pages. Some of the businesses running repeated ads were as follows (We can see that Market Street was certainly Harrisburg’s “Auto Row” at the time!):
Andrew Redmond, 3rd & Boyd Sts. (Maxwell)
Cox Automobile Co., Room 200, Commonwealth Bldg. (Herreshoff Car)
Crispen Motor Car Co., 26 S. 3rd St. (Cadillac)
Harrisburg Automobile Co., 3rd & Hamilton Sts. (Rambler)
Ideal Motor Car Co., 906-908 Market St. (Mitchell, Thomas Flyer)
West End Electric & Cycle, 268 Peffer St. (Indian)
Central Pennsylvania Automobile Co., 111 Market St. (Cadillac, Winton, White, Buick, Autocar, Pope, and others)
Keystone Motor Car Co., 1012-1025 Market St. (Pullman)
By March 1909, Doutrich’s men’s store used an auto race to portray fashionable men who wouldn’t be “’driven’ in a clothes purchase.” The horse and buggy man of style had now been placed into the antiquated past, replaced by the modern, forward-looking man and his automobile.
Living with a Car: the Driving Experience
In order to acquire a feel for the physical experience of operating an early automobile we must have some familiarity with the technology used at the time. Some facets of early car operation were much more demanding than today, but others were surprisingly very accommodating to the human operator.
Starting the car was definitely a memorable aspect of the driving experience, prior to the introduction of electric starting (standard in most cars by 1912). In pre-electric start cars, the engine had to be hand-cranked, certainly a very physical act. Cranking was made even more difficult by cold, congealed oil—which would have been the case during Pennsylvania’s cold winter season. Besides the strenuous nature of the cranking, the engine usually had to be primed by ensuring a small amount of raw gas was in the cylinders. Furthermore, spark timing could be different for starting and low engine speeds (as opposed to running at faster speeds) and, finally, the coil-to-battery start circuit had to first be engaged (allowing a battery to provide energy to a step-up coil for the start; afterwards, an engine-driven magneto would provide this energy).
Prior to having started the early car, the driver would have had to be sure that all lubrication was in order. Grease cups were provided around the car at critical points (water pump, steering, chassis, and so forth) and had to be properly filled. For the engine itself, very early cars had no “wet sump” engine oil system like today, where oil is held, pumped into critical areas, and recovered. These early systems were of the “total loss” type, wherein oil was supplied to critical parts at a set rate and simply burnt or passed-through by the engine.
Once actually started, driving the very early cars could be a relative relief. Electric cars were the easiest, and were considered the perfect “lady’s vehicle” for in-town use. Early gas-engine autos, yet without a clutch, were also easy to drive. Later four-cylinder cars, incorporating a clutch and multiple gears, were more difficult, especially the initial designs. Very little or no instrumentation was provided on early cars, and temperatures, speeds and pressures were mostly guessed.
Standardization? What standardization?
Each brand of car was different than the next. This concept is one foreign to us in the modern era, but both the operation and the make-up of early automobiles varied greatly at first. We assume today that all cars will start and drive similarly, have the controls on a certain side, and use somewhat the same kinds of fasteners and parts. In fact, early cars, prior to Societyy of Automotive Engineers (S.A.E.) standardization of fastener and material sizes, required different tools from manufacturer to manufacturer, to fit the different sized nuts and bolts and screws! Nothing, in fact, was very standardized, and each automobile had its own ways which had to be learned and adopted by the driver. Even the side on which the driver sat and steered was not standardized, in the beginning. Since buggy drivers sat on the right, most early cars also placed the driver on that side. In 1908 Henry Ford decided that Fords would incorporate left-hand drive, and his domination of the market (Ford mass-production reaching high capacity by 1912) soon after forced this practice on all other manufacturers. Ultimately, owning and operating a car was a very new and different activity for anyone. In practical terms, early drivers simply had to possess exceptional skills themselves, or have access to some person with extensive mechanical ability and tools.
The Power Game: Steam, electric, or gasoline?
The winning form of power for the automobile—steam, electric, or gas—was still undecided in the very early 1900s. Steam (used in the Stanley, White, and Locomobile–this last make sold by the Central Pennsylvania Auto Co. on Market Street in Harrisburg) was not as impractical as it might seem today, and its smooth operation, dependability, and quick acceleration to high speeds made it very attractive. (In actuality, steam propulsion defied its present “old biddy” connotation: the first land speed records were set by steam-engine cars.) Steam’s major disadvantage was the time it took to heat the boiler.
Electric power was an excellent choice in urban situations. Provided that a power grid existed—which was not the case around the countryside—electric cars were simpler, easy to start and drive, and (owing to these cars’ less demand on physical strength) the perfect choice for women, in a city like Harrisburg. These vehicles held enough stored energy for 30-40 miles before requiring a re-charge. The Redmond company of Harrisburg advertised the Maxwell electric car in the Telegraph, and undoubtedly satisfied many local customers with their “Simply Perfect—Perfectly Simple” automobile.
Gasoline-powered cars, with their difficult starting in the early years, would seem on initial reflection to have been the sure loser in the contest for automotive power source. These cars, however, were actually best-suited to American rural environments, which would prove to be a major factor in the demand for cars and trucks. The reason for this was two-fold: Fuel was actually already available at farm supply and general stores throughout America, as farmers and some homemakers needed it for their stationary engines. Second, farmers soon realized that having a vehicle to take produce to market was an enormous advantage, and once cars started to come down in price, beginning about 1910, this marketing benefit became more and more practical. Rural areas, one could argue, needed the car and truck most, and when Henry Ford’s Model T provided an inexpensive, simple, and reliable vehicle, rural consumers led market demand. Ultimately, this more rural buying demographic—combined with Henry Ford’s mass-produced, affordable vehicle—determined the power source which would dominate for the next 100 years.
Navigation and commercial support establishments
To have a picture of the very different driving conditions in the early 1900s, we must imagine a road system largely unmarked and road maps being nonexistent, at least at first. Looking through an early area travel guide (The Official AAA 1906 Automobile Blue Book, East & Northeast Edition) and desiring to travel from Reading back to Harrisburg, we will first notice that not all roads are marked (it may simply be the “pike,” to the locals). Next, we note a strong dependence upon mileage in navigation (does the car even have a mileage counter–an odometer?), no doubt a help in identifying these same unmarked roads. Directions were sometimes contributed by drivers who were familiar with the particular route (the Reading and Harrisburg routes in the accompanying extract being kindly supplied by a Mr. Charles E. Duryea, a resident of Reading, Pennsylvania). Directions in other areas were even predicated on such hopeful checkpoints as “Turn right at the blue house.” Early guidebooks and publications took care to warn drivers of the new “Speed Traps” by the fast-adapting motor policemen, gave reviews of hotels and road conditions, and generally advocated for the motorist in all ways.
The need for fuel was filled by general stores at first, and later by garages. The cost of gasoline, at 29 cents a gallon in 1922, was substantial (considering that Americans would see that same price, decades later, while enjoying much higher wages). Surprisingly, gasoline availability is not much advertised in the early travel guides. Replacement parts were a more difficult matter for the motorist, and items which could not be repaired or fabricated by a blacksmith (initially, or later a machine shop) would have to be special-ordered from the manufacturer. Remembering that in the early years industrial standardization had yet to be instituted by the S.A.E. (and a part from a Ford would probably not work on a Buick, and so forth), a part failure could have impeded travel for many days or weeks.
Fortunately, the simplistic nature of early cars and the similarity of technology between cars, wagons and buggies aided in repairs. Many problems were initially addressed by the village blacksmith/buggy shop. Broken parts that could be repaired, were. In time these businesses developed into the garages and service stations of the 1930s and beyond. By then, automotive travel in the United States was actually routine. (My father, William F. Russell, tells the story of he, his older sister, and his mother being placed in a circa 1922 Willys-Knight–with a complex “sleeve-valve” engine–by his father in the summer of 1927. The trio drove all the way from western Pennsylvania to central Florida, his mother at the wheel, with no breakdowns whatsoever. This story testifies to both the reliability of the car and the state of the American highway system by this early time.)
Class and gender considerations
The automobile in the early 1900s was an expensive item, by any means of comparison. Picking the Cadillac line of 1905, we see prices for new vehicles ranging between about $750 for a small two-seater, $950 for a delivery truck, and $2,800 for the largest touring car (all 1905 dollars). The Cadillac Model B (a small, uncovered one-cylinder car seating four, with two forward speeds, a reverse gear, and 24-inch wood spoke wheels) sold for $900 and will suffice as a “nice” (though not exotic) car for comparison.
Considering annual salaries in the Harrisburg area around 1905, I offer the following estimates:
Average female factory worker……….$260
Average male factory worker….……….451
Comparing these salary estimates versus the price of a car in 1905, we see that for a male, head-of-household blue collar wage earner (at $451 annual earnings), even our moderately-priced Cadillac runabout was roughly twice his annual income. While not an impossible barrier to new car ownership, we can make the similar analogy to an information worker today (earning $38,000) buying a Mercedes costing $76,000—likely not something their accountant would recommend, but not impossible, either. In the case of the 1905 buyer, credit would have been much more difficult to obtain for lower-earning workers. Additionally, as a relatively as-yet unproven technology and not essential for daily transport in an urban area, the automobile would have been considered an unnecessary luxury in the first place for the worker and his family.
Motorcycles, coming on the scene at much the same time as cars, were certainly cheaper, but not by much. It was also not nearly as practical; the motorcycle did not have the ability to carry more than one or two people, and little else. West End Electric’s $200 to $250 Indians in 1908 were likely purchased more as sporting entertainment for wealthier male motor enthusiasts, than as low-cost alternative transportation, since this purchase price still constituted about half the annual salary of a blue-collar worker. Later, as the assembly line reduced car costs, the relative price of a new motorcycle was nearly that of the much more practical car, and a good argument can be made that many motorcycles were much more a device for sport than low-cost basic transportation. (The emerging used vehicle market would change this to some extent, making pre-owned cars and motorcycles available to less affluent buyers.)
Conversely, we can see that for the higher-paid professionals and businessmen in 1905, the automobile was relatively attainable, at roughly half his annual salary. Putting the cost in relative terms, this would be about the same salary-to-item-cost ratio as a $110,000/year professional today buying a BMW or Mercedes costing $55,000—again, not necessarily any accountant’s advice, but certainly not ridiculous. We can also imagine that for our 1905 professional, the ability to travel quickly to different job sites (the doctor, for example) could have been a very rational financial incentive for car ownership. Surely the farmer could have benefited likewise, but he would have to wait a few years for new-car prices to fall.
One major change to the salary versus cost relationship for car ownership was even then in the making. Henry Ford was, at around this time, in the early stages of his creation of assembly line production techniques. By 1912, prices would begin to drop, as his production reached about 70,000 units per year. By 1913, Ford produced 150,000 units, and by 1915 and 1917, respectively, he manufactured 244,000 and 500,000 cars and trucks a year. Ford’s economical production methods drastically reduced the relative costs of new car ownership, changing the world simultaneously. By 1912 a Model T could be purchased in America for about $690. The price dropped in 1913 to $550, and by the 1920s a Ford worker could buy a new model T for $260—about four months’ salary.
We can see that the early automobiles were probably owned by more affluent buyers, but that with each passing year car ownership became much more achievable and crossed class and economic barriers. And, we must acknowledge the used car market—appearing in The Harrisburg Telegraph in October 1908—which continued to bring cars down in price and affordability. Further advancing car ownership would be the converging cost-benefit relationship for farmers and other merchants. The falling cost of ownership compared with rising profit potential would eventually demand the purchase of a commercial vehicle for most any business which wished to grow.
Gender. Males were the predominant owner/operators of automobiles in the early 1900s. This was due to the entrenchment of the male as wage earner, the cost of the automobile, and to the base physical requirements for starting and driving (with the notable exception here of the electric car, which was quite easy to start and drive). Women were certainly capable of driving, and did; but these obstacles initially stood in their way.
Women drivers in the early years, for the most part not being wage-earners, were by necessity the beneficiaries of husbands and fathers who could afford the purchase price and maintenance of an automobile. Lady drivers are frequently noted in early records, and even drove cars coat-to-coast on occasion. The electric car, as previously noted, was ideal for and directly marketed to urban women.
Beyond actual ownership and being the driver at the wheel, women clearly did travel by auto in the earliest years—albeit with their husbands or another male doing the driving. There is no reason to believe that husbands left their wives and families at home as a matter of course when they traveled, and the idea of automobile touring was clearly one in which affluent male and female Harrisburgers participated. The Harrisburg Telegraph of November 2, 1908, in “Harrisburgers In Automobile Wreck” on page 9 notes the adventures of Mr. and Mrs. W.J. Pittman and Mr. and Mrs. J.F. Deardorf the night of Saturday, October 31st. En route to spend the evening in York, the couples experienced a breakdown about 8:00pm in the evening. The men sent the ladies on ahead, and set themselves to fixing the car. Unfortunately, their efforts came to naught when the gasoline tank caught fire and “…containing ten gallons, exploded, sending the once valuable machine flying through the air. The car is a total wreck. Mr. Deardorf was slightly burned about the hands.” (We can assume Mr. Deardorf’s pride was likewise singed.)
Automobiles made in Harrisburg and vicinity
Amidst the frenetic automobile building of the early 1900s, three cars were invented in Harrisburg for planned commercial production. None of the three was a success, although one maker, Kline, did later achieve success in York, Pennsylvania.
The 1900 Herman was a small steam-powered vehicle which also used gasoline for fuel (to heat the boiler). Made by Harrisburg resident inventor M.P. Herman, the single vehicle made was sold to J.N. McCullock, a bicycle manufacturer.
The 1920 Hunter, a large 121-inch wheelbase, six-cylinder luxury car, was made by Charles Hunter and Simon Miller at the Hunter Motor Car Co. on South Cameron Street. Hunter and his crew produced by all accounts a beautiful, running, “brilliant red” prototype, and drove it frequently. The car was to be sold for $2,750. Sadly, the post-World War I depression dampened sales, and the company was bankrupt by 1922.
The 1900 Kline was made in Harrisburg by Hummelstown native James A. Kline. Kline worked for a while as an optician in Harrisburg before establishing a machine shop. He became Harrisburg’s first automobile dealer in 1900 (selling Locomobile), and during the same time built a gas-powered vehicle for himself.
Several years later in 1910, after a series of business partnerships and ventures, Kline designed the Kline Kar, a six-cylinder performance car made in York, Pennsylvania (and later in Richmond, Virginia) which soon went into competition. In 1917 Kline produced 500 units of his fine automobile. As with Hunter, the post-war depression caused the end of Kline Kar.
Only some miles away in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Colcord Upton and his family produced the Upton automobile from 1904-1907. The Upton was a five-passenger, four-cylinder, three-speed upscale touring car selling for $2,500.
Automobiles reached the city of Harrisburg at the same time and in roughly the same manner as with other small cities in the region. A rarity in the earliest years of the 20th century, by 1905 the gasoline-powered automobile had begun its steady climb to ascendancy over all other forms of individual transportation. By 1908 the validity of the personal automobile was indisputable. By the early teens, Henry Ford’s mass-production techniques insured that a car would soon be in vast numbers of American households and farms.
An extremely expensive commodity at first, the automobile (and motorcycle) was mostly owned and operated by affluent men. Yet the wives and daughters of these well-to-do men also experienced the automobile, and many learned to drive one. It took Ford’s assembly line to bring the car to the less-privileged masses; in another fifteen years from the car’s 1905 arrival in Harrisburg, this was certainly the case.
Driving in the earliest days was a far-different experience than it is today. Unimproved roads, non-standardized road signs, undependable cars and irregular supplies of gas and parts all combined to make motoring an honest-to-goodness adventure, as well as faster transportation. Perhaps that is why Americans took to it as enthusiastically as they did. As David Potter noted, Americans are always “moving” forward; the automobile would have been a machine ideally suited to both the vast American landscape and the rarely-static American psyche. As the automobile became more a routine facet of American life, commercial and government entities predictably responded, and by the 1930s operating a car was a safe and reliable form of transportation.
Of the changes brought about by the car locally, we can see that Harrisburg, like other cities, soon answered the car’s appearance with municipal infrastructure and commercial services to meet the demand. Encouraged by motorists’ organizations (like the American Automobile Association) and commercial voices, local and state governments began to improve the dirt roads linking towns. Commerce undoubtedly benefited, and goods could soon be moved from producer to buyer in much faster time. Businesses necessary to support the automobile blossomed all around the city and countryside, and many citizens gained their livelihood in auto-related industries, working in garages, dealerships, and parts-suppliers. By June, 1922, fully 31 automotive garages (already specializing in tires, painting, suspension, glass, and electrics) advertised in the Motor Club of Harrisburg’s Motor Mention alone.
Finally, the advent of the car (and other commercial and mass-transit vehicles) allowed Harrisburg residents to live farther from their workplaces, and in this way set the stage for a less urban community. This new tendency to live well apart from one’s work would flourish as the idea of “suburbia” in later decades. The availability of faster transportation certainly permitted a new freedom in personal relationships: for the Harrisburger with relations in York or Carlisle, these trips were now reduced from a day or two (from pre-automobile, horse-and-buggy days) to much more reasonable travel times.
The advent of the automobile was to bring to Harrisburg, as it was to bring to many other American cities in the early 1900s, significant changes. Commerce and worker/employer models, the demographics of family housing, and community interaction and family visitation habits all changed remarkably as a result of the automobile. Rather than a blight on a mythical pastoral landscape, we can see that the automobile was at worst just another societal phase. At best, it altered our communities in manifold positive and lasting ways.
Automotive Blue Book. 1911. The Official AAA 1911 Automotive Blue Book, Vol. 3. New York: The Automotive Blue Book Publishing Company.
Class Journal Company. 1906. The Official AAA 1906 Automobile Blue Book, East & Northeast Section. New York: The Class Journal Company.
Frew, Ken. 2002. “The Hunter Automobile: Harrisburg’s Great Lost Opportunity.” Antique Automobile, March-April.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Clark, Henry Austin. 1996. The Standard Catalogue of American Cars 1805-1942. Iola: Krause Publications.
Ladd, Bob. (former owner, Ladd-Hanford, Inc., and antique car collector), 2012, in discussion with the author, April 16, 2012.
McMahon, James D., Jr. 2011. “Hershey’s First Electric Car,” The Hummelstown Sun, October 6.
Motor Club of Harrisburg. 1922. Motor Mention, Official Organ of the Motor Club of Harrisburg. (June 1922, August 1922, and October 1922 editions)
New England Hotels. 1926. National Automobile Association Mixers’ Road Guide and Strip Maps. New York: New England Hotels Publishing Company.
Potter, David. 1954. People of Plenty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Harrisburg Telegraph. 1902-1909. Various articles and advertising.