Passengers rush to board the Overland Limited, which ran between Los Angeles and Chicago over the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway, ca. 1905. / THF207763
Between 1865 and 1920, America’s railroad network increased sevenfold, from 35,085 miles to an all-time high of 254,037 miles in 1916. The rapid expansion of the national rail network corresponded with major technological improvements—including double tracking, improved roadbeds, heavier and faster locomotives, and the elimination of sharp curves—which allowed trains to operate at higher speeds. Travel times were steadily cut year by year. To emphasize time savings, railroad companies began to give their faster lines special names like “flyer,” “express,” and “limited.”
This 1913 timetable for the St. Louis-Colorado Limited line of the Wabash-Union Pacific Railroad boasted that it was the shortest line with the fastest time between destinations. / THF291441
However, increased speed came with disadvantages. High speeds resulted in an increasing number of gruesome railroad accidents caused by both discrepancies in local times and mix-ups between different railroad companies’ timetables.
A catastrophic collision occurred between two passenger trains on the Providence & Worcester Railroad when they failed to meet at a passing siding as scheduled, 1853. / THF622050
Facing governmental intervention to address the problem, the railroads took it upon themselves to enact a single standardized time across the country by dividing the nation into five roughly even time zones. Some people at first rebelled against this arbitrary imposition, especially when the newly drawn time zone designations did not align with local practices. But most people found it increasingly convenient to set their clocks by this new “standard time.”
Residents of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, would have synchronized the time on their personal clocks and watches to the railroad depot clock seen in this ca. 1916 postcard. / THF124830
Another disadvantage, some people complained, was that the increasing speed of railroad travel was unhealthy. Many believed that the rapid pace of life contributed to new forms of stress and anxiety and that the railroad was a key cause of these problems.
Railroad passengers ascending the staircase after arriving in Chicago, via the Illinois Central Railroad, ca. 1907 / THF105820
By 1920, railroad passenger travel was at the highest level it would ever attain. But, with the exception of the unique conditions during World War II, the railroad would never again be the dominant form of personal transportation in America. Within a few decades, the American public would embrace automobiles with the passion they had once given over to the railroads. How did this transfer of allegiance from railroad to automobile occur so effortlessly and completely during the early 20th century, and how does it relate to Americans’ changing concepts of time?
A group of motorists travelling from Davenport, Iowa, to New York, ca. 1905 / THF104740
At first, many railroad managers did not take automobiles seriously—and for good reason. When they were first introduced in the 1890s, automobiles had no practical purpose. They were considered amusing and entertaining playthings for wealthy hobbyists and adventurers.
1909 advertisement for the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car, an automobile geared to wealthy motorists who could afford to have a chauffeur handle the driving for them. / THF88377
Most railroad managers were complacent, agreeing with one claim that “the fad of automobile riding will gradually wear off and the time will soon be here when a very large part of the people will cease to think of automobile rides.” But, as it turned out, the public passion for automobile riding did not wear off. Increasingly, Americans from all walks of life embraced automobiles and their advantages over railroads. By 1910, more than 468,000 motor vehicles had been registered in the United States.
Automobiles would have not achieved the level of popularity that they did without major advancements in the roads on which they traveled. As far back as the 1890s, bicyclists and early motorists had tried to alert the public to, and lobby the government for, better roads—roads that the railroads had ironically either replaced or rendered unnecessary.
The Bulletin and Good Road, the official organ of the League of American Wheelmen, kept bicyclists up to date on advancements relating to the “Good Roads” movement. / THF207011
One reason that people embraced automobiles was because they revived the promise of individual freedom. Compared with railroad travel, motorists were unhampered, free to follow their own path. Elon Jessup, author of several motor camping books, wrote, “Time and space are at your beck and call, your freedom is complete.”
Motorists enjoying life on the road in the Missouri Ozarks, 1923. / THF105550
According to a 1910 American Motorist article, no longer were people tied to intercity train schedules, “rushed meals,” and “rude awakenings.” The motorist was “his own station master, engineer, and porter.” Riding in his own “highway Pullman,” he had “no one’s time to make except his own.” Automobile advocate Henry B. Joy wrote in a 1917 Outlook article that motoring promised “freedom from the shackles of the railway timetable.” Automobiles were also considered a particular advantage for women, who were increasingly venturing out into public spaces to shop, work, socialize, and take pleasure trips.
Four women in a Haynes automobile, travelling from Chicago to New York, ca. 1905. / THF107595
In addition to restoring people’s personal control over their own time, automobiles succeeded in slowing down the fast pace of modern life. Early automobile advocates claimed that railroads were simply too fast. Elon Jessup, in his 1921 book, The Motor Camping Book, described the view from the train as “a blur.” In his 1928 book, Better Country, nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp remarked that railroads rushed “blindly along iron rails” in their “mad dash across the night,” offering passengers only “fleeting impressions.” Automobiles, on the other hand, promised a nostalgic return to a slower time. Harkening back to the “simpler” days of stagecoach and carriage travel, automobiles were “refreshingly regressive.” Instead of being rushed along by “printed schedules and clock-toting conductors,” motorists could stop and start whenever they wanted, or when natural obstacles intervened. A car trip was leisurely, allowing heightened attention to regional variation and uniqueness.
Motorists take a leisurely drive through the countryside on the cover of this September 1924 American Motorist magazine. / THF202475
All told, the automobile liberated the individual who “hated alarm clocks” and “the faces of the conductor who twice daily punched his ticket on the suburban train.” In his 1928 book, Dallas Sharp even claimed that motoring was, in fact, more patriotic than railroad travel because it encouraged people to enjoy the country “quietly” and “sanely.” As a result, the slower tempo of automobile travel was thought to be restorative to frayed nerves brought on by the increasingly hectic pace of life in an urban, industrial society.
No automobile had more impact on the American public than the Model T, introduced in 1908. Envisioned by Henry Ford as a car for “the great multitude,” the Model T was indeed “everyman’s car”—sturdy, versatile, thrifty, and powerful. While Model Ts sold well from the beginning, the low price, extensive dealer network, and easy availability of replacement parts led to a leap in Model T sales after World War I.
Brochure for the 1924 Ford Model T, promoting its use as a vehicle for family pleasure trips. / THF107809
The need and demand for better roads corresponded with the unprecedented rise in Model T sales. The first and most widely publicized of the new, independently funded cross-country highways was the Lincoln Highway (1912), which ran (at least on paper) between New York City and San Francisco, California. In 1916—ironically, the same year that national railroad mileage reached a peak—the U.S. government passed the Federal Aid Road Act, providing grants-in-aid to several states to fund road improvement. The railroad companies watched helplessly as the government subsidized improved roads that extended to villages and hamlets the railroads could never hope to reach.
Effie Price Gladding recounts her cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway in this 1915 book. The cover points out the states she passed through along the route of this highway. / THF204498
By the end of the 1920s, due in large part to the unprecedented popularity of the Model T, automobiles had gained a “vice-like grip on the American psyche.” Total car sales had leaped from 3.3 million in 1916 to 23 million by the late 1920s. Motorists were not only opting to take cars rather than trains for their regular travel routines, but they were also beginning to take longer-distance trips than they had ever attempted before. As the 1920s closed, Americans were traveling five times farther in cars than in trains. Enthusiasm for the automobile remained high throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, when massive new road and highway construction projects were initiated to stimulate employment.
Black Americans embraced automobiles to avoid discrimination and humiliation on public transportation—at least until they had to stop to eat, sleep, and fill up with gas. Beginning in 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book listed “safe places” for Black motorists to stop in towns and cities across the country. / THF99195
Conversely, the Depression was devastating for the railroad companies, who abandoned a record number of miles of existing track during this decade. By the late 1930s, railroad companies were optimistically attempting to revive business by embracing modern new streamlined designs, which claimed to reflect aerodynamic principles and promised a smooth ride incorporating the latest standards of comfort and convenience. A new emphasis on speed led to numerous record-breaking runs.
For its speed, as well as its beauty, comfort, and convenience, the Wabash Railroad’s “Blue Bird Streamliner” of 1950 was touted as “The Most Modern Train in America.” / THF99239
After World War II, the lifting of wartime rationing, the inclusion of two-week paid vacations in most labor union contracts, pent-up demand for consumer goods, and general postwar affluence ensured the automobile industry “banner sales,” which lasted into the 1950s.
Travel brochures like this one abounded after World War II, appealing to family vacationers. / THF202155
State-endorsed toll roads met the immediate postwar demand for motorists’ “right to speedy and accident-free travel over long distance.”
The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first state-endorsed toll road, officially entered service on October 1, 1940. It currently stretches three times its original length. / THF202550
But the U.S. government’s long-time obsession with highway improvement truly reached a “dizzying crescendo” in 1956, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act. This Act called for 46,000 miles of state-of-the-art, limited-access superhighways, to be funded by public taxes on fuel, tires, trucks, buses, and trailers. Although justified for military and national defense purposes, the interstate highway system made it possible for average citizens to reach their destinations faster in their cars than by taking trains.
Although the new urban expressways were promoted as modern advantages, as seen in this 1955 “Auto-Owners Expressway Map” for the Detroit area, in fact, these same expressways cut through and often devastated poor and historically marginalized communities. / THF205968
Ironically, as automobiles became the standard vehicle for long-distance transportation, and highways beckoned motorists with higher speed limits and improved surfaces, the slow, leisurely pace of motoring—so lauded 50 years earlier—had transformed into an outpacing of even the “blurring” speed of railroads.
The wonder of the fast and efficient new expressways is evident in the child’s expression in this 1959 promotional photograph, as he views a futuristic model highway envisioned by researchers at General Motors. / THF200901
For the most part, travelers rejoiced as four-lane divided highways replaced the older two-lane highways. With the new speed and comfort features of cars and improved highways, the impulse toward getting somewhere as rapidly and efficiently as possible, along the straightest path, became the new end goal.
Sources consulted include:
Belasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979.
Douglas, George H. All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
Gordon, Sarah H. Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This blog post is adapted from her M.A. Thesis, “American Dreams and Railroad Schemes: Cultural Values and Early-Twentieth-Century Promotional Strategies of the Wabash Railroad Company” (University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2013).
What are the icons of the Industrial Revolution—steam engines, printing presses, combine harvesters, textile machinery? Any such list would surely include Ford’s Model T. Like the other machines that would make the grade it too was a complex mechanism, but it was also a beloved consumer product rooted in personal practical everyday use, and it was a design icon—in its day a symbol of absolute modernity.
The T’s success came about through two revolutions within the Industrial Revolution—those of power generation and distribution, and precision production manufacturing. Developments in the electrical industry liberated Henry Ford and his production experts from the constraints of mechanical power distribution. Earlier systems dictated where machinery was placed based on long straight runs of shafts and associated pulleys. Electric motors powering first groups and then individual machines enabled Ford’s engineers to position machine tools where the production process dictated. It was the incredible machines developed specifically for that process that were crucial to the speed and quality of Model T production.
Henry Ford and his assistants developed a system of mass production at Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant that was based on moving components through a refined sequence of manufacturing, machining and assembly steps. Launched in October 1913, Ford’s new system ultimately reduced the time of producing Model Ts from about 12½ man-hours to only 1½ man-hours.
Model Ts contained more than ten thousand parts. Ford’s moving assembly line required that each one of these parts be manufactured to exacting tolerances (the acceptable amount of variation) and be fully interchangeable with any other part of its kind. By organizing the automobile’s construction into a series of distinct small steps and using precision machinery, the assembly line generated enormous gains in productivity.
This is the only survivor of the vast range of custom-designed high-production machine tools used at Ford’s Highland Park plant. THF129616
Machines like this 1912 Ingersoll milling machine were crucial to the high production levels attained at Highland Park. Milling machines are machine tools that rotate cutters to plane or shape surfaces. Teams of Ford specialists collaborated with machine tool designers to develop and continually improve machinery for Highland Park, resulting in milling machines that were capable of undertaking highly accurate, multiple cutting operations on many components at the same time.
One of six similar machines in a careful arrangement of machine tools in Highland Park’s cylinder finishing shop, this planer-type milling machine – both a vertical and a horizontal miller – simultaneously milled the underside and main bearing holders of Model T engine blocks. Cutters on the horizontal spindle shaped the bearing holders, while large cutters on vertical spindles milled the bottom surface of the blocks flat. The machine could mill 15 engine blocks in one batch—loaded and unloaded by semi-skilled labor. The work was physically demanding, and while it did not demand the skills of a trained machinist, it did require dexterity and attention to detail in addition to stamina.
The Henry Ford’s Ingersoll milling machine is represented by one of the six horizontal cross shapes labeled #2 on the left of this diagram, which shows the arrangement of machine tools in the cylinder block machining shop at Highland Park. THF300582
The Ingersoll milling machine first arrived at Ford’s Highland Park plant in December 1912. It was just one of a vast range of new, specialized machines that enabled Ford to mass produce quality, affordable vehicles – and capture 50% of the American market! Today, it is exhibited in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation as the only survivor of the custom-designed high-production machine tools used at Highland Park. Twenty-one feet long and eight feet high, the machine is an imposing presence and a compelling reminder of Ford’s moving assembly line—as important a development as the Model T itself.
As you might expect, a car company with as long a life and as many different vehicles in production at various times as Ford Motor Company needed to document down to individual nuts and bolts each part of each vehicle. Over the 50 years between 1903 and 1957, Ford produced more than one million parts drawings, a comprehensive microfiche set of which now reside in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center. We’ve just digitized several hundred of these parts drawings, including a couple dozen, like this one, that cover Model T ambulances built by Ford to be used during World War I.
One of the most dramatic displays in Henry Ford Museum is the “exploded” Model T—a 1924 Model T touring car with its constituent parts suspended by wires. Located at the entrance to the Made in America exhibition, it invites visitors to take a different look at an iconic American product.
Henry Ford’s Model T automobile is one of the most significant technological devices of the 20th century. Its clever engineering and low price allowed it to do what could only be done once—make the automobile widely popular. The Model T spawned mass automobility, altering our living patterns, our leisure activities, our landscape, even our atmosphere. The Model T’s influence is so pervasive and lasting that even people who know little about old cars or automotive history know the name “Model T.”
But the way the Model T was produced is as iconic as the car itself. When Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T in October 1908, firearms, watches, and sewing machines were already being assembled from interchangeable parts made on specialized machines. Ford successfully adapted these techniques to the much more complex automobile, and then crowned this achievement with the development of the moving assembly line in late 1913.
This year we're proud to celebrate what would have been the 150th birthday of our institute's founder, Henry Ford. Throughout the year we'll be sharing content and stories here on The Henry Ford's blog about one of America's greatest innovators.
At The Henry Ford, we often think and talk about Henry Ford, our institution’s founder. This is particularly true this year, which marks 150 years since Henry Ford was born. To commemorate this major milestone, we wanted to tackle a digitization project in Henry’s honor.
When it comes to our Henry Ford–related collections, the problem is narrowing down our vast holdings on all of Henry’s interests, activities, and businesses. A team of curators and educators from The Henry Ford had a series of meetings and discussions earlier this year, and came up with 17 topics that represent major themes in Henry’s life. After that, they made selections from our collections that best represent each of those themes. Their selections have now been digitized and are up on our collections website for anyone to browse.
The thing most identified with Henry Ford is the Model T, a car introduced in 1908 that was reasonably priced, reliable, and effective on the bad roads of the day. Three sets of collections items help tell this story. On the Way to the Model T shares some artifacts that show how Henry’s career progressed, such as the 1896 Quadricycle, the first car Henry ever built, and a 1901 photograph showing the race (featured above) that helped Henry gain notoriety and financial backing for his auto ventures. The Model T set shows a few of the Model T’s in the collections of the Henry Ford, including an early 1909 version, and also shows how quickly the Model T was assimilated into all aspects of daily life, from rural families to ingenious work applications. Post-Model T covers many of Henry’s business activities following the Model T, including the introduction of the V-8 engine and war production at Willow Run.
Some of the sets give you a deeper glimpse into Henry’s life. A set covering his Youth demonstrates that from an early age Henry showed a fascination with both the mechanical and the natural world. His love of nature would persist and can later be seen in his frequent camping trips; a set on the Vagabonds, as he and his comrades called themselves, covers both stereotypical camping activities and objects that might lead one to suspect the Vagabonds were not exactly roughing it, like a photo of their extensive entourage.
Finally, no review of our Henry Ford collections would be complete if we didn’t talk about ourselves just a bit. You can get a concise story of the founding of The Henry Ford, aka the Edison Institute, on our website, but we have now created a set of collections items related to the Founding of the Edison Institute as well. From the construction of the Museum building to our cornerstone, inscribed by Thomas Edison himself, these artifacts will give you a glimpse into the early days of The Henry Ford.
Check out all our Henry Ford collections sets via the list below and let us know what you think!
In need of some pumpkin carving inspiration? Check out our new THF Freebies page. You'll find a set of stencils to carve your pumpkin with this weekend! Check out our video to see the Model T stencil in action.