Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
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

Creating a Nation of Drivers

America’s affluence, success with mass production, rich oil reserves, and growing network of paved roads all helped to make it a nation of drivers. Owning a car conferred social status on its owner and gave many drivers a sense of autonomy and freedom. Many Americans desired cars, but the economic and cultural realities of the early 1900s often restricted automobility to wealthy and middle-class families.

Toy truck from Sears, Roebuck and Company
Toy truck from Sears, Roebuck and Company

Car Owners: The Next Generation

Almost as soon as the first automobile took to the roads, American children played with car toys, read car books, and even learned how combustion engines worked. Making cars a part of kids’ lives—even kids whose families didn’t own cars—helped make automobile ownership appealing to future generations of car buyers. Because much of this material targeted boys, it helped shape a society in which women were far less likely to own and drive a car.

Kirk-Latty pedal car, 1917
Kirk-Latty pedal car, 1917
Pedal cars let young drivers operate a vehicle. This early pedal car would have been too expensive for most families, but its attention to detail and its attempts to mimic "real" cars are typical of early auto toys.

Marketing to Children

Advertisers assumed that boys had a great interest in, and a significant influence over, their fathers’ choice of car. In ads like these, car companies tried to manufacture enthusiasm among boys to create a bigger market for automobiles. Not all motor-related images and advertising excluded girls—as the Briggs-Stratton scooter ad shows—but most downplayed girls’ interest in motor vehicles, or left them out of the picture completely.

Ad for The American Boy, 1917
Ad for The American Boy, 1917
Ad from The American Boy, 1915
Ad from The American Boy, 1915
Ad for Briggs-Stratton motor scooter, about 1915
Ad for Briggs-Stratton motor scooter, about 1915

Toy cars appeared almost immediately after the automobile was invented, along with popular fiction and books that explained how engines worked. Auto-related children’s book series began to appear in the 1900s. In these moralistic stories, affluent good boys and girls had adventures with their cars. While the characters in these early tales tended to follow conventional gender roles, the Motor Maids were both drivers and mechanics. In the 1900s, American children could buy a range of automobile toys. The earliest toy cars reflected the primitive state of the real thing. As cars became close-bodied in the 1920s and streamlined in the 1930s, so did their miniature counterparts. Companies also made trucks, buses, taxis, and road-building toys, reflecting what children might see on the streets.

A Boy’s Text Book on Gas Engines, by Fay Leone Faurote, 1908
A Boy’s Text Book on Gas Engines, by Fay Leone Faurote, 1908
Ad from The American Boy, 1918
Ad from The American Boy, 1918
Cover, Town & Country, August 1909
Cover, Town & Country, August 1909
The Motor Boys, by Clarence Young, 1906
The Motor Boys, by Clarence Young, 1906
The Motor Maids Across the Continent, by Katherine Stokes, 1911
The Motor Maids Across the Continent, by Katherine Stokes, 1911
Toy steam shovel, 1926
Toy steam shovel, 1926
Toy car from Sears, Roebuck and Company
Toy car from Sears, Roebuck and Company
Next Section
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits