Many of us like to keep our cars clean. Whether it’s with a trip through the automatic car wash, or a hosing and waxing in the driveway, we try to keep the mud, dirt and grime away. Some of us spend just as much time on the interiors, crawling over seats with a shop vac in hand. A car is a big investment and, the more expensive something is, the better care we’re likely to give it.
An automobile was no less an investment a century ago. Even at its absolute lowest price of $260 in 1924, a Ford Model T cost one-fifth of the average annual wage in the United States. Not surprisingly, many car owners took great pains to keep their cars neat and tidy – both to ensure that the vehicle remained in top condition, and as a more basic point of pride. We recently acquired one of the key tools for a fastidious flivver owner – an “Automobile Special” feather duster from the 1920s.
A look at period mail-order catalogs reveals any number of cleaning products available to motorists in the 1910s and 1920s. Montgomery Ward’s 1916 supplemental automobile equipment catalog grouped its cleaning products under the breezy heading, “A Clean Auto Means a More Attractive Auto.” Its pages include a mix of waxes and polishes easily recognizable today, along with archaic products like “Neats Foot Oil Clutch Compound” (used to soften a leather-surfaced clutch that engaged too abruptly). The mail-order giant’s larger Catalog and Buyer’s Guide No. 93 from 1920 devotes most of page 894 to car cleaning. Ward’s offered waxes, enamels, rubber floor mats, horsehair washing brushes, and renewing compounds for leather roofs. The duster advertised on that page is captioned with a helpful – and persuasive – warning: “Do not let dust remain on the finish of your car as it quickly works its way into the paint which kills the luster.”
On that note, our “Automobile Special” duster likely wasn’t recommended for exterior surfaces. Those ten-inch turkey feathers – with their tendency to scratch – would scare off any discerning car owner, then or now. The choosy motorist would have selected a “dustless duster” with chemically-treated fibers designed to absorb dust rather than push it around. They were readily available 100 years ago but, naturally, they came at an extra cost – 35 cents versus 14 cents for a comparable feather duster. Nevertheless, a feather duster could have been safely used to tidy up an auto’s interior surfaces, and many surely were.
While we have other feather dusters in the collection, they likely were intended for use in the home. None is specifically labeled as being for automotive use. This newly-acquired “Automobile Special” duster is an important piece – rough on the paint or not – in that it gets us to the stories of automotive maintenance and pride of ownership in the 1920s, when automobiles were priced within reach of most Americans.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.