Birdcages, Bathtubs & Chevrolet

David Buick was a sharp minded inventor but a very poor

Legend of the Buick
Buick’s chief engineer, Walter Marr and Thomas D. Buick, son of David Buick. Photo courtesy GM archives.

businessman. Aside from the automobile that carried his name, Buick was essentially the father of the modern bathtub as he is the fellow who developed the method of affixing porcelain to cast iron. Resultant of numerous failed endeavors he died impoverished and largely forgotten.

Buick was not the only automotive company to evolve from unrelated endeavors. The Goodwin Car & Manufacturing Company of Poughkeepsie, New York started as a manufacturer of railroad dump cars. The Welch manufactured in Chelsea, Michigan began life as the Chelsea Manufacturing Company that produced small metal novelties and souvenirs. The company behind the legendary Pierce-Arrow, a luxury car known throughout the world for its hand built attention to detail began as the Heintz, Pierce & Munschauer, a leading manufacturer of birdcages, ice boxes, and other household items. 

A number of pioneering auto manufacturers had their origins in the production of bicycles. Even the legendary Wright brothers better known for their aviation endeavors dabbled with bicycle development and manufacture. Before the automobile, before the advent of the good roads movement it was the bicycle and bicycle enthusiasts that were at the forefront of a transportation evolution. By 1895 there were more than 400 bicycle manufacturers in the United States, and the League of Wheelmen, an association more than 100,000 strong by 1900, were  a political force to be reckoned with as they lobbied municipal, state, and federal lawmakers for improved roads, especially in rural areas.

A case can be easily made that bicycles, the League of American Wheelmen, and the tsunami of automobile manufacturers that were established between 1895 and 1905 are the foundation for creation of the US highway system. Subsequently a case can also be made that this is the foundation for the rise of Route 66 as an internationally recognized icon that has come to symbolize the authentic American experience personified. This fascinating and colorful history, and the transformation of Route 66 from highway to destination, is the cornerstone for a new presentation series that I introduced this past Saturday during the 50th anniversary celebration at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.

I would be remiss if a thank you wasn’t given to the supporters of our Jim Hinckley’s America subscription site that serves as the crowdfunding platform. Without this support, presentations such as this one that support museums, and the popular Facebook live programs wouldn’t be feasible.

727221801c8a2e8484edf3ade72f93c4The period between 1885 and 1926, the year U.S. 66 was certified, is, quite extraordinary with viewed from as whole. Consider this, in 1887, Ransom Eli Olds (namesake for Oldsmobile) tested his first automobile. In 1896, a Duryea Motor Wagon was given top billing over the albino, the bearded lady, and the dog boy at Barnum & Bailey Circus. Montgomery Ward said that parents should take their children to see the phenomena before the automobile fad faded.

By 1900 there were hundreds of bicycle manufacturers, and dozens of automobile manufacturers. Six years later, a Stanley was driven to a new speed record of almost 150 miles per hour, and people were driving from coast to coast even though rural roads were little improved from the rutted course of the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and Beale Wagon Road.

Changing Times
The National Old Trails Road in Kingman, Arizona circa 1918. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.

In 1909, United States manufacturers produced more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles, and fewer than 125,000 automobiles. Two short decades later, more than 4 million vehicles rolled from American factories compared to less than 4,000 horse drawn vehicles. In 1920, four out of five American families owned an automobile but fewer than three in five had electricity, and even fewer enjoyed the luxury of indoor plumbing. In 1919, the first tricolor traffic light was introduced, and in 19129, in New Jersey the first cloverleaf interchange was built. Meanwhile a major highway, like Route 66, wasn’t fully paved until 1936.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Well, I will be making a presentation on this subject at the Texas Welcomes the World festival in Shamrock, Texas. Other dates and locations are posted on the event section of the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. And, of course, you can always schedule a presentation for your event, festival, conference, or fund raiser.

 

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