The Promise of Automobility,
As long as motor cars were few in number, he who had one was a king:
he could go where he pleased and halt where he pleased; and this
machine itself appeared as a compensatory device for enlarging an
ego that had been shrunken by our very success in mechanization.
In 1900, there were some eight thousand registered automobiles in the United States; by 1929, the number was over 23.1 million.2 Whence the demand for the automobile? It seems strange even to ask the question, since in the United States the automobile, in the words of the historian Kristin Ross, has been for so many years “completely integrated into the banality of the everyday”; it presents itself as one of the “goods whose habitual use effectively removed them from the discursive realm.”3 Still, the question remains worth posing. Even the authoritative texts analyzing the first decades of automobility have either ignored it or answered it too summarily. Assumptions of inevitability permeate most accounts of the rise of automobility, occluding the cultural exigency that I want to emphasize here.4
The first motorists in the United States were Gilded Age elites, whose desire for display was fulfilled by staging exclusive races, auto gymkhanas, and extravagant auto shows. Depictions of the automobile in the press of the era reveal an uncertainty about the machine's significance. Was it the