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Since the earliest years of independence, Americans have been marked as an ingenious people who have sought to explore the vast wonders of their own land. Beginning with the frontiersman, American men have sought new lands and new opportunities. With the advancement of time and technology, Americans have invented many new things that have shaped not only the face of this country but even the world. One of these great inventions was the automobile. Its impact on American society has led to the term “automobility” which is defined as the concept of the automobile as a permanent part of our psyche. One prominent feature of automobility in America during the pivotal 1890-1920 period was the push for better roads.

Before one considers how and when the roads were constructed across America, one must first understand why there needed to be better roads. Americans certainly take for granted the system of roads and highways that we have here in America but there was a time when the roads were so severe that it took a group of tourists thirty four days to get from Litchfield, Connecticut to Charleston, South Carolina![1] In the thirty years after its inception, the automobile went from being a novelty that only the richest could afford to being a necessity. When the automobile was first patented in 1895, American culture began to make new innovations to accommodate this new wonder. As Dr. Pascoe’s lecture notes specify, five hundred plus patents were issued for auto-related products in the year 1895 alone. Many more were soon to follow. By the year 1900, there were about eight thousand registered autos in America. This meant that even in that five year period, the auto was starting to become more and more popular. These autos though, were not affordable for anyone. Most automobiles cost anywhere from two thousand to five thousand dollars, which was incredibly expensive at the time. But the demand for autos was still escalating. By 1929, just thirty four years after the advent of the auto, 23.1 million cars were registered in the United States. It must be noted that during that same thirty-four period, the increase of automobiles in America was directly correlated to the advancement of better roads throughout the United States. But how is this so?

It is important to understand that the acceptance and widespread usage of the auto is inherently tied to the concept of “individual mobility”. As Peter J. Hugill remarks in his article “Good Roads and the Automobile in the United States 1880-1929,” “Americans at the end of the nineteenth century put great value on individual mobility.”[2] When America soon followed Britain in its craze over the bicycle in the late 1800s, it was realized that “the bicycle allowed many Americans to realize both the goal of individual mobility and a sense of personal freedom.”[3] Hugill also correlates the widespread usage of bicycles with the need for better road: “the condition of late-nineteenth-century roads was deplorable. Bicyclists used their League of American Wheelmen to launch a campaign for smooth surfaced roads.”[4] When Americans pushed for independence and mobility, which the bicycle and auto supplied, they would stop for nothing to achieve greater leisure and liberty. The League of American Wheelmen soon began advocating and publishing “touring maps and guides, erected road signs, and identified inns and hotels that provided appropriate accommodations for middle-class and upper-middle-class urban tourists who were seeking the pleasures of the American countryside.”[5] This sort of effort “formed the groundwork for the automobile owners when the automobile superseded the bicycle as the means to see the United States.”[6] When American’s turned from using the bicycle for touring to using the automobile, it did so not only out of lack of strain on the individual but also out of a desire to escape “the masses”. Hugill explains it in this manner; “The automobile was “sweat-free” and, because it was more expensive, its ownership was a far better mark of distinction.”[7] This was still considered the Victorian era where those of the upper crust made it their goal in life to remain above and beyond the common man and to pursue a life of ease and leisure. The automobile provided both for the American elite at the time of the turn of the century.

At this time in our nation’s history, America was not too much different socially and economically than our European neighbors across the Atlantic. There was a rift in society between the elite and the common man and much of America was in fact rural and largely agricultural. In such a situation, traveling by any other means than rail or boat was considered dangerous and adventurous. This is why the League of American Wheelmen pushed for better roads and eventually why American automobile owners joined them. Hugill describes America in this fashion, “Late-nineteenth-century United States can be divided in two parts. The rural sector had poor transportation and limited interpersonal contact with other than immediate neighbors, while the urban was characterized by high population densities and good public transportation that allowed high levels of interpersonal contact.”[8] This push for better roads was soon made more widespread amongst agricultural America as farmers agreed that better roads would help them as well. Economic reasons were given that “improved access to markets would lower costs.”[9] Furthermore, they claimed that “improved roads would reduce transportation costs as much as 60 percent.”[10] It seemed that progressives would use any sort of reasoning to convince farmers and others that better roads were needed. In the 1890’s, many began to push for RFD or rural free delivery of mail around the United States. Free postal service went hand in hand with good roads. In fact, the US Postal service “refused to deliver mail unless roads were of reasonable quality.”[11] This new form of postal service was made possible through the invention and increased production of the automobile.[12] Yet even with these social and economic reasons, little was done in regard to creating better roads.

The rebuilding of roads began very slowly through the efforts of League of American Wheelmen, the Granges, and the Post Office but eventually the state governments were looked to for help. Hugill’s article states that “state bonds were used to finance road building in the northeastern states where motorists had adopted the Mercedes and its derivatives. The costs were shared with counties and townships, but the states paid the lion’s share.”[13] This was still in the 1890s. Up until local government intervention, roads had been worked on and “improved” by farmers who used whatever tools or equipment they owned to maintain the roads surrounding their land. This was a practice most common in the South where farmers saw this as their way of paying their taxes.[14] State and other local governments used the statute labor system to build and maintain roads. Preston notes that “fraud and noncompliance [were] commonplace.”[15] Convict labor was also used to build roads during this early period. Such labor was used by the state governments and accounted for “much of the road improvement work done in the South before 1910.”[16] One must understand that during the first few years after the invention of the automobile, road work was incredibly slow. The year 1912 saw a new movement which tried to improve roads in what was called “Good Roads Days.”[17] This was a practice where the state would set aside two days where the people of their states were instructed to mend the roads nearest them. While this may have been a noble effort, the amount of road that these “Good Road Days” rebuild was very minimal. Something had to be done and had to be done fast. While successful road improvements had up to this point been futile, the good roads movement had at least “succeeded in publicizing the need of farmers for better roadways.”[18] Something had to be done because a new wave of American trend was pushing for the improvement of roads.

Preston notes in his book that “between 1910 and 1920 automobiling in America ceased to be a recreational pursuit enjoyed primarily by the wealthy and became a pastime of the middle class.”[19] However, due to the lack of good roads, touring motorists found themselves at a loss as did their bicycle touring predecessors. Now more people were coming the scene for the push for better roads. Preston writes that “automobile owners as well as automobile manufacturers, who viewed the nation’s unimproved thoroughfares as a major obstacle to the successful sale of motor vehicles, wanted highways for touring purposes, and not necessarily to reduce farmers’ hauling costs, enhance rural land values, or any of the other reasons constantly cited by reformers.”[20] It was then that money entered the scene once it was realized that “automobile tourism presented unprecedented opportunities for making money.”[21] A new idea for better roads was spawned which envisioned the North and South united and connected through the use of “improved interstate highways”.[22] Preston quotes Atlanta mayor Robert F. Maddox in this regard:

[The automobile] will wield together…the most distant parts of our beloved country. Georgia stands here today and, extending one hand to far-off Massachusetts in the east and the other to distant Wisconsin in the west, gives hospitable greeting to all, and promises that she will take her place with her sisters in every section…to push our reunited land to greater prosperity and greater glory.[23]

Finally, in 1916, the US government became involved with the Good Roads Act of 1916 and began to build new concrete highways across America. However the act “strengthened the role of the state highway departments, especially in their maintenance functions, and rejected the idea of a countrywide highway system under federal control.”[24] Yet roads were still built. By the end of the 1920’s, the Dixie Highway, the National Highway, and the Capitol Highway had been built. These highways were the products of Southern planning and both state and federal funds. While the real interstate highways that we know today were yet to be built, these roads laid the foundation of the American Highway system and gave Americans the freedom to take their new automobiles wherever they wished, whenever they wished.

To conclude, the state of the roads system within the United States at the time of the invention of the automobile was not hospitable to anyone who wished to put their new toy to the test and see the sights of America. Rather, the roads, especially in the South, were a motorist’s nightmare. In the South, only 4% or 31,780 miles of road (out of 790, 284 miles) was considered improved.[25] Preston also gives a good picture of what these roads looked like before they were improved:

Overland travel in the southern United States was difficult during most of the year but next to impossible during rainy winter months…A day of rain could turn a rural road into a quagmire for a full week; and this affected not only local farmers who needed to transport their crops to market but hapless travelers who found themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, stuck in the mud.[26]

Many progressives used the farmer for a time as the primary recipient and cause for better roads but this did not get the job done. For one thing, America was still very much a socially divided country at this time between the urban rich and the rural poor. While some felt like they had to plead the case of the farmer, there were little to support him in higher places. Finally when the automobile became accessible to not just the rich but the middle class as well in the 1910s, money and tourism became the pushing factor and proved to be a far better stimulant for better roads than a farmer’s cause. Although not many roads were built from 1890 to 1920, the debates between progressives and eventually actions taken by the federal government lay the “roadbed”, if you will, for the interstate highway system of later times.


[1] Howard Lawrence Preston, Dirt Roads to Dixie: Accessibility and Modernization in the South, 1885-1935 (Knoxville: UP of Tennessee, 1991), 106.

[2], Peter J. Hugill, “Good Roads and the Automobile in the United States 1880-1929,” Geographical Review 72, no. 3 (July 1982), 328.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid 328-9.

[10] Ibid. 329.

[11] Ibid. 330.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 332.

[14] Preston 20.

[15] Ibid. 21.

[16] Ibid. 22.

[17] Ibid. 23.

[18] Ibid. 37.

[19] Ibid. 39.

[20] Ibid. 39-40.

[21] Ibid. 40.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Preston 41, quotes from Maddox in “Atlanta’s National Automobile Show Interests the Whole South,” Automobile 21 (11 November 1909): 817.

[24] Hugill 342.

[25] Preston 13.

[26] Ibid. 12.

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