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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

Better Roads

During the 19th century, cities usually had decent roads, but rural roads were often little more than muddy trails. Bicyclists and railroad companies began calling for good roads in the 1880s, but American road building really took off in the 20th century as a response to rising numbers of cars and trucks. Some of these new roads were private initiatives, such as the Lincoln Highway, but after 1916, federal law and government money fueled much of the country’s road building.

The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, 1891
The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, 1891

Pamphlets such as this one promoted support for good roads in the late 1800s. The League of American Wheelmen-an organization of bicyclists-distributed about 5 million tracts calling for road improvements.

Road Construction Tools

Road draggers, scrapers, and levelers were used to build, grade, and maintain rural dirt and gravel roads. As cars became a common sight—and as they tore up road surfacings—road construction changed. Builders began to use asphalt, concrete and other harder and more durable surfaces to withstand the speed and weight of cars.

Road scraper patent model
Road scraper patent model
Dague road scrapper and leveller model
Dague road scrapper and leveller model
Western wheeled road scraper
Western wheeled road scraper
Ball drag scraper patent model
Ball drag scraper patent model
Weber wheeled road scraper
Weber wheeled road scraper
Cement mixer model, spout side
Cement mixer model, spout side
Toy concrete mixer, 1920s
Toy concrete mixer, 1920s
Warren Bitulithic Pavement marker from Fresno, California, 1910s-1920s
Warren Bitulithic Pavement marker from Fresno, California, 1910s-1920s

Road Improvements

Roads that had been improved for bicycles in the 1890s were often ruined by automobile traffic, and dirt roads remained impassable for much of the year. Early cars—particularly the Ford Model T, which sat up high—were designed to cope with rural roads, but roads had to change to accommodate cars. In 1904 only one-sixth of rural public roads had any kind of surfacing. By 1935, more than a third of rural roads were surfaced, and many were paved with concrete and asphalt for motor traffic.

Washington-Richmond road, 1919
Washington-Richmond road, 1919
Washington-Richmond road, 1920
Washington-Richmond road, 1920
Washington-Richmond road, 1947
Washington-Richmond road, 1947

Lincoln Highway

Created in 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association promoted the building of a paved highway from New York to California. Largely supported by donations from car-related businesses, the association marked out a route and funded sample stretches of pavement (“seedling miles”) to encourage local governments to build the rest. In 1928 the association, with the help of the Boy Scouts and concrete manufacturers, placed 3,000 of these markers along the route. The Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway, was finally fully paved in the 1930s.

Lincoln Highway marker, 1928
Lincoln Highway marker, 1928
Lincoln Highway Association plaque, about 1913
Lincoln Highway Association plaque, about 1913

The Lincoln Highway Association gave members these plaques. Attached to car radiators, they made members' cars a mobile advertisement for the movement for better roads.

Woodrow Wilson's Lincoln Highway Association membership card, 1913

President Woodrow Wilson was officially the first member of the Lincoln Highway Association. The Association used memberships to publicize the highway; at five dollars a head, membership dues couldn’t cover the cost of actually building the road.

Woodrow Wilson's Lincoln Highway Association membership card, 1913
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