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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Licensing Cars and Drivers Better Roads The Human Cost of Roads Fill 'er Up! Building and Selling Cars Fixing Cars Technological Choices Creating a Nation of Drivers
8: Americans Adopt the Auto

Licensing Cars and Drivers

As the number of motor vehicles reached tens of thousands, state and local governments assumed a new power: authorizing vehicles and drivers. In 1901, New York became the first state to register automobiles; by 1918 all states required license plates. States were slower to require licenses for drivers. Only 39 states issued them by 1935 and few required a test, despite widespread concern about incompetent drivers. Early motorists were taught to drive by automobile salesmen, family and friends, or organizations like the YMCA. By the 1930s, many high schools offered driver education.

Maine driver license, 1915
Maine driver license, 1915

Driver's licenses

Boston, Mass., 1899
Boston, Mass., 1899
Ohio, 1938
Ohio, 1938
Washington, D.C., 1903
Washington, D.C., 1903
Indiana, 1925
Indiana, 1925
Chicago automobile license, about 1901
In the early 1900s, Chicago issued automobile license buttons that owners wore on their driving apparel.
Chicago automobile license, about 1901
Chauffeur’s license badge, New York, 1916
Chauffeur’s license badge, New York, 1916

Many wealthy automobile owners employed chauffeurs to drive and perform simple maintenance. State licensing helped to ensure that the individuals hired were competent.

Automobile registration certificates

Michigan, 1905
Michigan, 1905
New Hampshire, 1931
New Hampshire, 1931
Virginia, 1917
Virginia, 1917
Charleston, South Carolina, 1906
Charleston, South Carolina, 1906
License plate with house numerals, Washington, D.C.

In the early 1900s, many states issued vehicle license numbers but not license tags. Vehicle owners made their own tags, often using house numerals and leather.

License plate with house numerals, Washington, D.C.
Michigan license plate, 1905
Michigan license plate, 1905

William G. Simpson of Detroit acquired this license plate in 1905, the first year that Michigan registered automobiles.

Early metal license plates, 1910-1934

By the late 1910s license plates were made from porcelain enamel on steel, and then from stamped steel. Sizes varied until 1956, when a standard size was adopted nationwide.

Coping with Traffic

By the 1920s, congestion, accidents, and parking problems clogged city streets. Cities imposed speed limits, installed traffic signals, and tried one-way streets, parking restrictions, and parking meters to keep vehicles moving.

More traffic also meant more traffic laws. William P. Eno, a crusader for better traffic management, composed “Rules of the Road” and other traffic guides, which became the basis for many cities’ traffic laws. Traffic management, road maintenance, expanded police departments, and new construction ate up large segments of municipal budgets, and cities looked for new sources of revenue to cope with the presence of motor vehicles.

Traffic tower

In the 1920s, traffic towers enabled police officers to see above trucks, trolleys, and heavy traffic as they operated signals. This tower stood at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City.

Traffic tower
Acme traffic signal, about 1924
Acme traffic signal, about 1924

Semaphore signals were common in cities in the 1920s. During the late 1920s, three position signals—the red, amber and green we know today—began to be used, and eventually became the standard.

Garrett Morgan traffic signal, 1923

Garrett Morgan, an African American inventor, demonstrated this manually operated illuminated traffic signal in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to “Stop” and “Go,” it had a signal that stopped traffic in all directions, providing a safe interval for pedestrians.

Garrett Morgan traffic signal, 1923

Parking Meters

Parking meters were introduced in Oklahoma City in 1935 in response to double parking, all-day parking, and congestion at the curb lane. Meters provided frequent parking turnover and much-needed revenue for municipal traffic programs.

Parking meter, Dual Brand
Parking meter, Dual Brand
Parking meter, M. H. Rhodes
Parking meter, M. H. Rhodes
Parking meter, Miller
Parking meter, Miller
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