The Earliest Electric Vehicle Adopters: Women in Corsets

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Electric vehicles are getting a lot of press these days, from the Nissan Leaf to the Tesla S. They drink not one drop of gasoline, are themselves emissions-free (though the source of the electricity may not be), and are nearly silent but for the sound of rubber tires rolling along the road. While these things appeal to tree-huggers and tech geeks alike, there were even earlier early adopters: the rich urban ladies of the early twentieth century.

When automobiles were first invented, ruling the road was a bit of a free-for-all. In the early decades of the 1900s, automobile ownership in the Northeast was divided almost evenly into three types of vehicles—gasoline-powered, electric-powered, and steam-powered—and they were all outnumbered by horses. No matter what made the cars go, horseless carriages were expensive toys for playboys. They were used for entertainment, not work, and were kitted out with fine fabrics and exterior flourishes on bespoke bodies. Rich people had to come up with things to do with their cars, like racing them or entertaining inside them.

Even early on, gasoline-powered combustion engines were gaining the upper hand. Cars with gas engines could travel far and fast, which was as appealing in 1905 as it is now. Electric cars used battery technology that was in place until only very recently, when lithium ion batteries got cheap enough to use en masse to power a car. For about a hundred years, electric cars could travel about 60 miles on a charge, as long as you didn’t drive too fast, or up too many hills, or in the cold. Even your great-great-grandfather had range anxiety.

But then, as now, electric cars were clean and quiet, and as a bonus in the early 1900s, they didn’t have to be hand-cranked to get them started. Gasoline cars belched smoke and fire and odors straight from hell. As many hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers of the day noted, drivers were sitting on top of an explosion when driving a vehicle with a combustion engine.

The pluses and minuses of electric vehicles worked together to make the perfect car for the ladies, who were deemed by the conventional wisdom of the day to be weak, fearful, and easily upset. Not only would women not have to deal with the brimstone of the gasoline engine, but they couldn’t go very far—another bonus! The limitations of the electric car made it appropriate transportation for the curtailed life of the pre-flapper woman. She didn’t even have to drive herself to the polls to vote yet.

That was enough for many lady drivers of the day. “My electric is a friend of which I stand in constant need for little morning spins in the park, for calling and shopping, for matinee, and for dinner and theater, and it never fails me,” one woman told the New York Times in 1915. The article noted that there were “seventy-three women in Manhattan alone who own and run electric automobiles,” and then it listed most of their names.

The article also noted of electric cars that a woman “could run it almost the first time she stepped into it, too.” Advertisements showing that electric cars were so easy to use that even women could do it were popular, kind of like those old Geico ads with the cavemen. Even Clara Ford, wife of Henry, had two electric automobiles, though the Ford Motor Company didn’t manufacture an EV of its own until the 2013 Ford Focus Electric.

Lest you think that type of marketing is equally caveman-like, note that Nissan took the same tack when introducing its New Mobility Concept vehicle in Yokohama, Japan, in February 2013. This little two-seater all-electric cart was built to navigate the narrow streets of suburban Japan and is “perfect even for mom.” Almost exactly like the ladies of 1915, the seven women testing these vehicles over two weeks would “shop, take kids to the train, and entertain."

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March 5, 2013 - 1:00pm
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