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Americans Adopt the Auto

Americans Adopt the Auto

Explore the way the automobile went from being a plaything of the rich to a major factor in the American transportation landscape. In this exhibit section full of objects, you can see toy cars, early license plates, engines, road markers, car-part inventions, mechanics’ tools, and gas pumps. See a 1926 Model T on its side in a 1923 “Turn-Auto,” used to get at the bottom of the car for repairs.

Cars Everywhere?

For automobiles to become a permanent fixture on the American landscape—rather than simply a toy for the rich—people needed to be convinced that they were reliable, useful, appropriate, and even necessary. In the early years of motoring, not all Americans were convinced that the new “devil wagons” were here to stay. But as people came to value the convenience of the car, and as they adapted it to their own needs, cars became a significant part of everyday life.

To cope with the changes that “automobility” brought, the nation developed an elaborate system of law, commerce, and custom. Americans wrote new laws, rebuilt roads, and developed new production techniques. A slew of businesses—gas stations, tire shops, garages—sprang up to supply drivers’ needs. By 1930, 23 million cars were on the road, and more than half of American families owned a car.