Sex, Marketing, and Electric Cars, 1897-1913

A fascinating look at the electric car industry of the early 20th century and specifically the attempt to position these vehicles as particularly appropriate for women: Femininity and the Electric Car.

Lots of other interesting content on the web site on which this article appears, The Automobile in American Life and Society.

9 thoughts on “Sex, Marketing, and Electric Cars, 1897-1913”

  1. It is so like PC academics to write a whole paper on women and electric cars without even mentioning the issue of upper body strength and self-starters. Until the early 1920s all internal combustion engines needed to be started by hand cranks. This required a substantial amount of upper body strength and exposed the operator to a non-trivial risk of bone fracture in the arm. Not all men could reliably start a hand-cranked car, and a higher proportion of women had trouble with it. This was particularly the case with older drivers, who were more likely to be affluent enough to afford cars in the early days, and of course bone fracture is a greater concern to older people.

    The other issue is the average speed of traffic in urban areas. Until motor vehicles began to significantly outnumber animal-drawn vehicles, traffic moved at the speed of the latter and urban speed limits were often set with their speeds in mind — 12 mph was typical. Early electric cars were very good replacements for a horse-drawn carriage in town — just as fast, and far less trouble to maintain and prepare for travel. An electric car meant that you could fire your coachman, groom and stable-boy (more jobs lost, just like the ATMs!), sell the expensive horses, and stop buying feed all year around. A bit capital-intensive up front, but actually cost-effective fairly quickly.

    Two things happened in the early 1920s. GM began offering affordable cars with self-starters, and most urban areas reached the tipping point at which the mass of traffic was motorized and traffic began moving faster. These two things rendered the electric car uncompetitive. Virtually everything else in that paper was just incidental.

  2. Interesting that none of the linked ads mentioned the starting issue…Maybe it was considered too obvious to need emphasis, although obviousness has rarely inhibited advertisers when talking about features.

  3. Interesting indeed, but perhaps as a comment on the author, who may have not linked to adds that did not support the narrative. But also, it would have been assumed as a part of the “convenience” argument.

    It would also be interesting to look at the ads for the first IC cars with self-starters, and see they presented the feature.

  4. Steamers were easy to operate and were fast. Their big drawback was that they took a half hour to build up steam from a cold start. If they had only had cell phones you could have started them remotely ahead of time…

    The other problem was they they needed frequent replenishing of the water reservoir, so drivers had to keep a close eye on water levels. They could have made them with bigger water reservoirs but that would have added weight. Always those pesky tradeoffs.

  5. My Dad drove a Stanley Steamer, I don’t know the circumstances, and his recollection was that it was really fast.

  6. Jim Bennett makes the point my grandfather made to me when he told me the story about my great-grandmother’s Baker Electric, which she owned before WWI. Another issue was reliability. BEVs having many fewer moving parts than ICE cars, were much more reliable. In the early years of century XX, an automobile driver needed to be handy with a wrench.

    BEVs have, and always had, an inherent cost advantage over ICE. I have seen statements that the chassis and running gear of a BEV — not including the batteries — cost 30% less than an ICE.

    Despite that advantage, ICE won the technology competition. Since then ICE has gotten dramatically better. Batteries have improved, but even the best batteries available can’t do the job adequately, especially in areas (like much of the US) subject to climatic extremes. Further, there isn’t enough headroom for batteries to develop much further — There are a limited number of elements in the periodic table.

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