Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile

Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile

Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile

Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile


In the first decades after mass production, between 1913 and 1939, middle-class Americans not only bought cars but also enthusiastically redesigned them. By examining the ways Americans creatively adapted their automobiles, Tinkering takes a fresh look at automotive design from the bottom up, as a process that included manufacturers, engineers, advice experts, and consumers in various guises.

Franz argues that automobile ownership opened new possibilities for ingenuity among consumers even as large corporations came to control innovation. Franz weaves together a variety of sources, from serial fiction to corporate documents, to explore tinkering as a form of authority in a culture that valued ingenuity. Women drivers represented one group of consumers who used tinkering to advance their claim to social autonomy. Some canny drivers moved beyond modifying their individual cars to become independent inventors, patenting and selling automotive accessories for the burgeoning national demand for aftermarket products. Earl S. Tupper was one such tinkerer who went on to invent Tupperware.

These savvy tinkerers worked in a changing landscape of invention shaped increasingly by automotive giants. By the 1930s, Ford and General Motors worked to change the popular discourse of ingenuity and used the world's fairs of the Depression as a stage to promote a hierarchy of innovation. Franz not only demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit of American consumers but she engages larger historical questions about gender, consumption and ingenuity while charting the impact corporate expansion on tinkering during the first half of the twentieth century.

Kathleen Franz teaches history and is Director of Public History at American University.


In 1915, Emily Post wrote one of the first accounts of transcontinental motor travel in the United States, By Motor to the Golden Gate. Hired by Collier’s magazine to travel the newly completed Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco for the Pan American Exposition, Post recorded her impressions of long distance travel by automobile. As a way to sell both the book and motor travel, friend and editor Frank Crowninshield asked Post to “keep an informal but complete record” of the trip to be published as advice to the legions of middle-class drivers who would follow her. Although the journey proved difficult at times, Post declared driving to be a liberating experience. Having conquered poor roads, breakdowns, and even sleeping outside, Post claimed that traveling by car gave her a new perspective on America, the automobile, and herself.

Typical of many American motorists, Post emphasized the thrill of traveling outside a national system of railroads and urban hotels and the importance of mechanical ingenuity among the new generation of motor travelers. Yet, in an era when many Americans learned to drive and repair their own cars, the advice expert admitted that she knew nothing about auto mechanics and left the driving to her son, Edwin. Post’s vehicle, a large, foreign touring car that was both heavy and low to the ground, did not fare well on America’s muddy roads. Post used the difficulties of cross-country auto travel to underscore both the ingenuity and the persistence of American motorists. Both Post and her son advised their readers to purchase an American car with standardized parts and to cultivate their knowledge of automobile mechanics. Most car owners did this without prompting from Emily Post; they were eager to tinker with the new machine.

In the same year, Fordowner, a magazine written by and for drivers of the Ford Model T, featured its version of motor travel for the middle classes, “Ford Camp Touring.” The journal asked: “By the way, how have you toured? Did you throw a couple of suit cases into the car, and make runs from one hotel to another, paying high prices for poor food, bad service, uncomfortable beds?” Fordowner advised its readers to avoid such discomforts and costs by using a little ingenuity to modify the bod-

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