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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The First Car Advertisement?

This ad appeared in Scientific American, v79 No. 5, July 30, 1898; via Wikipedia

People absolutely love “firsts”.  The first man to walk on the moon.  The first women to swim the English Channel.  But history is rarely so convenient.  So when I see some historic “first” mentioned, I instincitvely look for some sources, because more often than not, it isn't the first.

The ad may have a slighlty legitimate claim, as long as we pile on a few caveats.  It may be the first car ad, selling a specific and real model of car that was in production, and had a set, advertised price, in the United States.  It is certainly the earliest one that has been widely reported.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company continued advertising in Scientific American throughout the rest of the year and (and onward).  They used very similar ads in every subsequent edition (published weekly) that year.   The following week, August 6, the same ad ran with the headline “Better than a Horse or Bicycle”.  Sometimes the ad reused headlines but mostly each week was a new headline on the same image: “The Luxury of Locomotion”, “The Winton Motor Carriage”, “A Delightful Drive”, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, “In Season and out of Season”, “Another Lot of New Ones”, “You Are Invited”, “The Other Fellow”, “Snow, Ice and Slush” [December 10, and don't blame me for the lack of an Oxford comma], “Wonderful Control”, “The Automobile”, and “The Proof of the Pudding” to close out that year's ads.

They were pretty small ads, appearing in the advertising section at the back of each Scientific American.  Here's the ad in context (if you can even spot it):

page 80 Sci Am v79 #5, via hathitrust
The car ad is second from the top in the first column.
The image was tiny, which partly explains why an engraving was used rather than a photograph.  Photographs were fully viable by this time, and if anything the 1890s were a boom period for photographs in print as much as they were automobiles.  This very Winton car image from the ad had already appeared as a photograph in Scientific American just a couple of months earlier:

Scientific American v78 No. 20, May 14 1898, via hathitrust.

The photo was much larger, covering nearly half the page, along with an article titled “The Winton Motor Carriage” that took up half the text in the remaining space.  “A ride in a motor carriage is a comparatively new and delightful sensation” the article begins.  It goes on to mention that Europe is ahead of the U.S. at this point in the car game, with the “motor wagon” being common in France and Germany.

This was not the first coverage of the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Scientific American.  In July 1897 another article described the first car they built, along with another large photograph:

Scientific American v77 No. 4, July 24 1897, via hathitrust
In the story attached to that photo, it also states that “several firms in the United States are now really in a position to make and deliver motor carriages”.  But even this wasn't the first published photograph of a Winton motor carriage.  The Horseless Age, a monthly journal, published this photo in Novermber 1896, of Winton's earlier first car ever built:

The Horseless Age, v. II No. 1, via Google Books
To clarify, this was the first car built by Alexander Winton, owner of the Winton Bicycle Company, prior to creating the Winton Motor Carriage Company.  The car shown in Scientific American was the first car his new car company.  (It's hard to keep track of all these “firsts” sometimes.)

Let's pause here and try to get some context for this car company.  The Horseless Age where the earliest Winton photo was published was one of several trade magazines in print in 1896 (along with “The Hub” which previously covered traditional carriages and was later renamed “The Automotive Manufacturer”, “The Autocar”, “The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal”, and probably others).  And Winton was just one of what were most likely hundreds of tinkerers that year.  Winton hadn't yet formed his car company in 1896 but there were apparently dozens of car manufacturers in business, including Haynes & Apperson, Duryea Motor Wagon Company, Studebaker Bros. (who as far as I can tell started out making horseshoes), the New York Motor Company, The Reeves Pully Company, P. B. Whitney Motor Carriage Company, and the Elliott Motor Carriage, just to name a few (most names here are from The Horseless Age, volume 2).

An article in The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal from April 1896 mentions that Scientific American had received hundreds of letters in the past year “anxiously inquiring” about buying automobiles, and goes on to say that New York City had already introduced a fleet of horseless taxi cabs.  The article also mentions that a few motor carriages were available for purchase in the United States at this time.

The same magazine (published in London) makes it clear that the U.S. was lagging behind, and indeed The Horseless Age tells us that  England had motor vehicle laws on the books by 1896, and Paris by 1893.  If this seems too early, keep in mind that a steam engine had been attached to a set of wheels to make a vehicle was all the way back in 1769 or so, more than 125 years earlier.  Motorized vehicles were seen zooming up and down city streets fairly regularly by the 1890s, particularly various trucks.  In order to make the transition from trucks to personal vehicles, cars needed refinement, not invention.  They had to become cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, more reliable, and easier to operate before they were attractive to the average consumer.  The above article from The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal also mentioned that “In its present state of development the horseless carriage can hardly be trusted in the hands of those who have not some acquaintance with machinery”.

One of the companies I left out of the list above, Daimler Motors, was primarily a motor manufacturer, but was also an important manufacturer of motor carriages (as well as boats, which were already commonly motorized).  Take a look at this ad from April 1897:

The Horseless Age, Volume II, No. 6, April 1897, via Google Books
This is not specifically a car ad.  Daimler's biggest business was selling motors to other car companies, and while they did sell motor carriages (at least in Europe), it wasn't their primary business.  But it's certainly an ad in a world where cars were already commonplace in the mind of the public.  By April 1898, Well's Motor Oils was advertising their oils for “Lubricating ENGINES of Autocars, Motor Vans, Cycles, &c.”  You really wouldn't be advertising motor oil for “Autocars” in 1898 if there wasn't a substantial market ready to use your oil for that purpose.

As mentioned, America was running behind Europe at this point, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they had car ads before we did, including this ad in a The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, (in London) from November 1896:

The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, November 1896, pg, 84, via Google Books

“A Motor Carriage and Delivery Van can be seen in operation in London by Appointment.”  Is that a car ad, or is it show-and-tell?  It's hard to say for sure if they sell or rent.  But the very next page has one more ad that is not ambiguous:

The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, Nov 1896. pg. 85 via Google Books
This ad makes it clear: “These carriages are now offered for sale in every variety and description...”, and at the bottom “PRICES FROM £130 UPWARDS.”  This is definitely a car ad, beating the alleged first car ad by nineteen months.  But since this is a London ad, I'll grant my fellow Americans their jingoistic view of the world, and allow that it doesn't count if you assume an implied “American” in the claim for that other ad.

There's definitely other advertisements from specific car companies that beat the original claimed record, including The International Motor Car Company by March 1897, and J. & C. Stirling, from August 1897, as well as ads for “Electric Motor Cars” by April 1897.

So does simple jingoism explain away the claim of that first ad as being the first ad?  I think there's a bit more going on actually.  It seems to me that we're attracted to things that reinforce simplistic views of the past.

The text “Dispense with a Horse” in that ad conforms perfectly to our view of how provincial things were “back in the old days”.  And it conforms with our view that inventions appeared on the earth, complete and ready to go, and changed the world overnight.  As if everybody used horses until one day somebody woke up and said “hey, wouldn't it be easier if we drove automobiles instead”?

The mention of the horse also reinforces the more quaint name “horseless carriage”, and while that was a common name then, it was not the most popular name.  Going by patent searches (via Google), “motor car” turns up the most patents in the 19th century, followed by “automobile”, then “motor carriage”, with “horseless carriage” coming in last out of these four choices.

This provincial feel is reinforced by the coarseness of the image.  It's such a small engraving that blown up it looks a lot like a woodcut, adding to that old-time feel.  Even though photographs were common in print (and this was based on a photograph), this image makes for a more appealing portrayal of our past.  And it doesn't hurt that many versions of this image are somewhat yellowed;   it's unclear if this is the original image capture, or if the image has been yellowed after the fact to ad to the ambiance.

So what?  It's not the first car ad, but it's close enough, right?

As I learn more about how history works, I struggle with the very meaning and purpose of it.  Is it worth the effort to pedantically correct mistakes in our history?  History can never be made whole again—it will always be an approximation.  So if the facts are wrong, does it matter if the essence of the story is still right?  This is dangerous territory, coming very close to saying that the ends justify the historical means.  Can we really trust a simplified version of history to deliver the right conclusion?

In the case of the first car ad, it probably doesn't change things so much.  But in other cases histories which are comforting but false can lead people to fundamentally flawed decisions in the present.

(See, I couldn't even write this trivial bit of history without putting a moral at the end of the story.)

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