One of the overlooked chapters from the story about the dawning of the American auto industry is how it went from being a circus sideshow curiosity to multi-million dollar industry in less than two decades.
“Take the children to see the fad before it passes.” Even astute entrepreneurs with vision can be wrong when it comes to predicting the future. These words were spoken by Montgomery Ward, the pioneering department store tycoon, in 1896 when the circus came to town with promotional posters that gave a Duryea Motor Wagon top billing over the albino, bearded lady and dog boy. It was the dawn of a new era, a time of such dramatic transition that within 20 years every aspect of American society had been transformed.
Within seven years of Ward’s recommendation, shorty after the turn of the century, an automobile had been driven from coast to coast. David Buick, Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, and dozens of swashbuckling captains of industry were establishing automotive manufacturing empires worth tens of millions of dollars. By 1906 a steamer built by the Stanley brothers had been driven to nearly 150 miles per hour, a new record, on Ormond Beach in Florida. In 1909, 828,000 horse drawn vehicles and 125,000 automobiles rolled from American factories. Two decades later a mere 4,000 horse drawn vehicles were manufactured.
What fueled such a dramatic societal evolution? Marketing. Advertisement. Promotion. An advertisement for the 1900 Porter Stanhope featured a small lithograph type print of the car and a heading in bold print, The Only Perfect Automobile.” Several hundred words of descriptive prose followed. It was groundbreaking, after all in the May 1897 issue of Motorcycle, editor Edward Goff said, “The manufacture of a motorcycle (or automobile) is in a position to take advantage of more free advertisement than any other industry.”
As early as 1903, even though the automobile was still somewhat of a novelty, a tsunami of competition in the industry necessitated advertisement, marketing, and promotion if an automotive manufacturer was to survive. Enter Ernest Elmo Calkins, owner of an advertising agency that chose artistic standards that showcased cars in attention getting scenes rather than lengthy word pictures. Within a few years Calkins & Holden, with the luxury auto manufacturer Pierce Arrow as a primary client, had become the first company to exclusively develop automotive advertising campaigns.
As automotive technologies were being advanced with stunning speed, it was appropriate that the next stage in advertising and marketing would utilize something new as well as exciting. Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey, Cal to his friends, launched his career in automotive marketing with Maxwell-Briscoe. His promotional stunts were worthy of P.T. Barnum. Then in 1907 he contracted with Lubin Film Studios, a pioneering cinematography company that specialized in the making of nickelodeon films for theaters in the northeast, to film his stunts. The automotive commercial was born.
Automobile manufacturers sold dreams made manifest in steel and glass. Automobile marketing companies simply sold the dream. They transformed the automobile from sideshow curiosity to necessity. They replaced the horse by instilling a hunger for horsepower. The art of selling the sizzle rather the steak, that is the fuel that drove the evolution transformed America, and the world.