Wandering Wide-Eyed in America, Part 6: The Early 20th Century and the Advent of the Automobile

In this installment of his series on seeing America through the eyes of an immigrant, Eric Anderson, MD, discusses America's westward expansion and its love affair with the automobile.

"If a man's from Texas, he'll tell you. If he's not, why embarrass him by asking?"

- Writer John Gunther

Texas became our 28th state in 1845, but needed 43 long years to create its magnificent State Capitol. Anyone who understand Texans would know why it had to be huge and gorgeous. Washington became state No. 42 in 1889; it didn’t think big like Texas, yet by 1928 it had built an entire campus around its Capitol, a building that was now the fifth tallest masonry dome in the world.

Top two images: Texas Capitol, in Austin; Lower image: Washington State Capitol, in Olympia.

A lot was going on as the late 1890s slid into a new century. The East Coast was still fascinated by what was happening over on the other coast. Art by Frederic Remington and paintings by Charlie Russell contributed a vitality to the growing country and continued to make the west popular. A New York state publisher born in 1823 and later fascinated by the Wild West wrote many dime novels under the name of Ned Buntline. His writing turned Buffalo Bill into a hero. Buntline traveled around the west giving special Colt revolvers with 12-inch barrels to favorite lawmen. How much of this is truth is uncertain, but certainly statues of Wyatt Earp in Kansas have him favoring a Buntline Special.

Interestingly enough, just as the public was hunting for Western art, Boston-born Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was patiently using water colors to create his more sensitive depictions of man’s struggle against the sea.

Homer Winslow’s box of watercolors (Portland Museum of Art, Maine; Remington’s famous Coming Through the Rye (1902) (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX).

However, just as America was turning from things western to its more complete maritime heritage so travel itself was changing. The discovery of oil in the vast East Texas oilfields in Kilgore in the 1930s not only continued to save the whales, but facilitated the American obsession with the automobile.

In time we’d see the birth of the motel, but initially Americans traveled by train with steamer trunks that would keep them going for an entire summer. It was an elegant era when they sometimes came with their servants. Destination hotels—resorts, really—were built as if rivalling Versailles. They were often of wood, and some ultimately burning down. If today the in-thing is the cool, small B&B, then it was magnificent traveler palaces. People had time for afternoon tea, too. Why not? Surely teatime had contributed to the birth of “an empire on which the sun never set.”

Sign from 1696, Old Yarmouth Inn, Cape Cod; “Petrol pumps,” Littleton, NH; Mountain View Grand Resort, Whitefield, NH; Afternoon tea, Dunbar Tea Shop, Sandwich, MA; Polite “No Parking” Sign, Martha’s Vineyard, MA.

Tourists are back in the saddle on the East Coast. Top images: 1909 Block Island, Narragansett Inn, but starting in 1927 in the Midwest they are sailing along Route 66 and America is no longer thinking about war.

In the 1920s Cleveland got its X-Ray machine—it’s now in the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, established in 1894. Some Americans at this time were less interested in whether this machine could reveal the secrets of their lungs but more in whether an onlooker would report them if they slunk into a speakeasy. And when would Prohibition end?

X-Ray tube, Dittrick Museum of Medical History, perhaps from 1920. You can get a drink now in Cleveland quite easily without having to pay off Al Capone’s people. Capone died in 1947.

Americans loved their cars and they loved to drive them fast! The Indianapolis 500 was the United States’ answer to European racing. The first winner in 1911 at the Indy 500 achieved a sensational speed of 74.59 miles per hour. Later, when A.J. Foyt, Jr got an unprecedented fourth win of the race in 1977, he won it at 161.33 miles per hour in a Coyote 75 chassis.

Car #32, a Marmon Wasp, was the first winner of the Indy 500 in 1911, clocked at 74.59 miles per hour. A.J. Foyt, Jr won in 1977 at 161.33 miles per hour (both cars were photographed at the Hall of Fame of the Indianapolis Speedway Museum).

Cars had other values beyond moving celebrities from Point A to B. They were a way of saying “See Me!” “You weren’t buying a Rolls-Royce; you were making a statement,” Reg Abiss, vice president of communications at Rolls-Royce, once told me. Automobiles became hot public relations items in Hollywood. But all those classic cars were immaculate even as they came into the showrooms. How they look restored, at times to excess, in the auction houses shows the pride manufacturers had before an era when they hurried their workers to churn out their cars so customers could test them and clarify their faults.

A 1933 gorgeous Pierce Silver Arrow at the former Harrah’s Las Vegas, now The Auto Collections, Las Vegas, and a featureless wreck lying in Death Valley, California. The futuristic Silver Arrow was a concept car built to be introduced at the 1933 New York Auto Show. Introduced with the slogan "Suddenly it's 1940!" it was an absolute sensation but the company still went bankrupt in 1938.

There was excitement in the air, too, in this part of the 20th century, with the emphasis being air: Charles Lindbergh was flying the US Mail across parts of the United States. The Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame offers information beyond Lindbergh’s famous historic flight of 1927. But it was the celebrated flight attempts of aviation adventurers like Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart that made the public hold its breath as the 20th century unfolded.

Lindbergh’s goggles from his 1927 flight to Paris, photographed at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis hangs in St. Louis, MO; the original in the Smithsonian. The Amelia Earhart Story has never ended.

Photography by the author

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.