I’ve written before about Rose Wilder Lane, the writer and political thinker. In 1926, Rose and her friend Helen Dore Boylston, both then living in Paris, decided to buy a Model T Ford and drive it to Albania. I recently picked up the book Travels With Zenobia, which is the chronicle of their adventure.
Acquisition of the car–a “glamorized” 1926 model which was maroon in color rather than the traditional Ford black–went smoothly. Acquisition of the proper government documentation allowing them to actually drive it–not so much:
Having bought this splendid Ford, my friend and I set out to get permission to drive it, and to drive it out of Paris and out of France. We worked separately, to make double use of time. For six weeks we worked, steadily, every day and every hour the Government offices were open. When they closed, we met to rest in the lovely leisure of a cafe and compared notes and considered ways of pulling wires…
One requirement was twelve passport pictures of that car…But this was a Ford, naked from the factory; not a detail nor a mark distinguished it from the millions of its kind; yet I had to engage a photographer to take a full-radiator-front picture of it, where it still stood in the salesroom, and to make twelve prints, each certified to be a portrait of that identical car. The proper official pasted these, one by one, in my presence, to twelve identical documents, each of which was filled out in ink, signed and counter-signed, stamped and tax-stamped; and, of course, I paid for them…
After six hard-working weeks, we had all the car’s papers. Nearly an inch think they were, laid flat. Each was correctly signed and stamped, each had in addition the little stamp stuck on, showing that the tax was paid that must be paid on every legal document; this is the Stamp tax that Americans refused to pay. I believe we had license plates besides; I know we had drivers’ licenses.
Gaily at last we set out in our car, and in the first block two policemen stopped us…Being stopped by the police was not unusual, of course. The car’s papers were in its pocket, and confidently I handed them over, with our personal papers, as requested.
The policemen examined each one, found it in order, and noted it in their little black books. Then courteously they arrested us.
No one had told us about the brass plate. We had never heard of it. The car must have a brass plate, measuring precisely this by that (about 4 x 6 1/2 inches), hand-engraved with the owner’s full name and address, and attached to the instrument board by four brass screws of certain dimensions, through four brass holes of certain dimensions, one hole in each corner of the brass plate.
The problem was resolved only by a combination of American feminine wiles and French chivalry:
“Gentlemen, we are completely desolated,” I said. “Figure to yourselves, how we are Americans, strangers to beautiful France. Imagine, how we have planned, we have saved, we have dreamed and hoped that the day will arrive when we shall see Paris…We seek to conduct ourselves with a propriety most precise. In effect, gentlemen, what is it that we have done?…You see our passports, our cards of identity, our permission to enter France and to remain in France and to enter Paris and to live in Pris, and, unhappily, to leave France and to depart from Paris, for all joys must end, is it not?…But, it must be, the good logic always, is it now? It sees itself that we, we have committed no fault. It is not we who lack the brass plate; it is the car. Gentlemen, one must admit in good logic that which it is that is your plain duty; arrest the car. Good. Do your duty, gentlemen. As for us, we repudiate the car, we abandon it, we go__”
We were detained. The policemen accepted my logic, but courteously they said that the car could not stand where it was; parking there for even one instant was forbidden. My friend suggested that the salesman would take it back. Courteously the policemen said that, without the brass plate, the car could not move an inch from where it stood; that was forbidden.
“In all confidence, gentlemen,” we said, “we leave this problem in your hands.” We hailed a taxi and went home.
Mysteriously next day the car was in the salesroom. In two weeks the brass plate was beautifully hand-engraved. Exactly two months after we had paid for the car, we were able to drive it.
In 1926, this level of bureaucratically-driven difficulty was surely almost unimaginable to most Americans (at least among those who had been born in the U.S. and had never traveled outside the country.)
Today, the distance between the typical American ‘s experiences with bureaucracy and the experiences that Rose and Helen had in France is surely much shorter.