It’s nothing new to say the automobile is a symbol of American prosperity and freedom; most marketing campaigns still center on those ideas. But every once in a while you stumble across something that drives (no pun intended, of course) a point home to you, like family photos…in this case, old ones of people posing with cars…lots of them.
Of course when I stumble across something, I have to “look into it” – it’s how I get my history fix. So we’ll come back to the family photos in a minute.
First, let’s look at the history of our love affair with the automobile. In 1972 James J. Flink put forth his Three Stages of American Automotive Consciousness. In a nutshell:
Stage 1—from the invention of the auto through the opening of the Ford Highland Park plant in 1910
- This period laid the groundwork for our how Americans began embracing the automobile through marketing and the creation of the auto manufacturing industry through Henry Ford’s production line innovation.
Stage 2—1911-late 1950’s
- Ever-present marketing continues and evolves into “mass idolization of the motorcar and a mass accommodation to automobility that transformed American institutions and lifeways.” (Flink, 1972)
Stage 3—late 1950’s on
- The car is no longer seen as progressive, as a source of positive change in American society, but as a problem contributing to pollution and crowding. Particularly for those born during this stage it is even taken for granted; today in most localities it is surprising for someone not to own a car.
My family photos are mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, the Stage 2 period. Idolization is certainly evident, along with pride of ownership. Though it was certainly on its way to being commonplace, it was still a big deal to own a car. And as we all know, if you own a car you can go where you want, when you want. That’s freedom. The car you drive also says something about you…your level of prosperity, especially if it is a recent model.
So the automobile was an expression of American individualism at a time when our country was really coming into its own; even through the Great Depression and World War II. During this period there were still lots of first generation immigrants and their American-born children—like my family—who would have been extra-enthused by car ownership.
So of course you are going to take a picture with your car. Document it.
My Great Aunt Dora was famous for car-posing! Actually she was famous in a lot of ways…she even renamed herself “DeeDee” late in life, she had a big personality! She liked posing in general, and often posed with her foot up as if on a running board.
Photobombing is hardly new…here is my grandmother getting in on her friend Rosie’s photo.
These are probably my favorites! My grandfather and his buddies were so creative. They would put on skits involving their cars, acting as gangsters (remember they lived through Prohibition and Al Capone) and various other characters. Fortunately for us they also took pictures of their antics! People sure knew how to entertain themselves!
Are you a car-poser? I’m sure you have photos like these in your family too. Share your car stories, memories and adventures below! Check Facebook or Twitter for a bonus photo.
SOURCE: James J. Flink, “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness,” American Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1972): 451-473.