Close Window

Automobile in American Life and Society


Femininity and the Electric Car
by Virginia Scharff

This essay is reproduced with minor alterations from Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (New York: Free Press, 1991).

Early Automobiles and “Separate Spheres”

During the nineteenth century, various experts—doctors, professors, ministers, politicians—conceived of the American lady as frail, timid, easily shocked, and quickly exhausted, physically and temperamentally incapable of mastering the demands of public life. Born to the weak sex, biology consigned her to lifelong inactivity and immobility. Prominent men thus registered their fears about the consequences of women’s emergence from the private world of home into the public realm. They worried that women would neglect their housekeeping, ignore their children, undermine proper relations between the classes and races, and degrade their morals if involved in public life. Invoking the fragility of women’s bodies, the feebleness of their brains, or the frailty of their characters, Victorian experts admonished women to stay at home. Women could only dirty themselves, they argued, by venturing beyond the front door, into the hectic and unpredictable crush of public traffic.

While many American women chafed at their social, spatial, and political limitations, some car makers began to fashion new wheels to preserve the dainty domain of Victorian deco­ rum. Colonel Albert A. Pope, president of the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, believed that “you can’t get people to sit over an explosion.” As he moved his company out of bicycle manufacturing and into the automobile business, he determined to concentrate not on noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cars, but instead, on clean, quiet electric vehicles. By 1897, the Pope Manufacturing Company had produced some five hun­dred electric cars.

While Pope pursued this entrepreneurial strategy, thousands of Americans proved him a bad prophet and purchased gasoline motorcars. In response to demand, Pope began to produce some gasoline cars, but the company remained committed to the idea that there was a natural market for slower, cleaner electrics. As Pope suggested in a 1903 advertisement for the Pope-Waverly electric model, “electrics . . . will appeal to any one interested in an absolutely noiseless, odorless, clean and stylish rig that is always ready and that, mile for mile, can be operated at less cost than any other type of motor car.” Lest this message escape those it was intended to attract, the text accompanied a picture of a delighted woman driver piloting a smiling female passenger.

Pitching electric cars to women represented a strategy that was at once expansive and limiting, both for automakers’ opportunities, and for women who wanted to be motorists. After all, in the infancy of the automobile industry, men like Pope had to unravel mysteries of design and production—what kinds of devices might make a carriage move without benefit of a horse? Would gasoline, steam, or electricity prove to be the most practical source of power? Might not all three have their disparate uses? How should such devices be manufactured? What materials should they be made of? How might they be distributed? Neither omniscient nor omnipotent, auto manufacturers generally produced individual vehicles on order and groped only haltingly toward perceiving a wider market.

The French and German automakers who pioneered the business in the late nineteenth century had produced luxury motorcars for the sporting rich, and at first, American manufacturers followed the European example in catering to the domestic carriage trade. As early as 1900, American socialites, male and female, vied with one another in devising ways of using the auto for entertainment. Wealthy men held races and rallies at various posh watering holes; women attended, and sometimes participated. Prominent women also developed their own auto­ motive spectacles. They besieged Newport, Rhode Island, (where many of America’s wealthiest families built expensive vacation homes) in flower-decked car convoys, held drive-in dinner parties where they demanded curb service at fashionable Boston restaurants, or simply stepped from their elegant conveyances at the opera house door, dripping diamonds and pearls. In keeping with the tastes of their owners, expensive motorcars featured such “refinements” as cut-glass bud vases and built-in vanity cases.

These male and female motoring larks differed more in terms of style than substance; wealthy men and women shared a taste for luxury and leisure, as well as bracing adventure, in their motoring. Nevertheless, manufacturers tended to associate the qualities of comfort, convenience, and aesthetic appeal with women, while linking power, range, economy, and thrift with men. Women were presumed to be too weak, timid, and fastidious to want to drive noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cars. Thus at first, manufacturers, influenced by Victorian notions of masculinity and femininity, devised a kind of “separate spheres” ideology about automobiles: gas cars were for men, electric cars were for women.

The electric automobile had been around since the birth of the motor age, and its identification with women took hold early and tenaciously. Genevera Delphine Mudge of New York City, identified by one source as the first woman motorist in the United States, drove an electric in 1898, and one Miss Daisy Post also drove an electric vehicle as early as 1898. In 1900, the City Engineer of Chicago complained that many women drivers were not bothering to get licenses, and Horseless Age magazine, conflating all women drivers with those who drove electrics, noted that “so far only eight women have secured permits to operate electric vehicles, but . . . there are twenty-five to fifty women regularly running the machines through the city.”

Certainly some women who wanted the increased mobility that came with driving a car believed that gasoline vehicles, being powerful, complicated, fast, dirty, and capable of long-distance runs, belonged to men, while electric cars, being simple, comfortable, clean, and quiet, though somewhat short on power and restricted in range, better suited women. Electrics tended to be smaller and slower than gasoline-powered cars, and often were designed as enclosed vehicles. If electrics offered less automobility than gas cars, they offered greater mobility than horses, and more independence and flexibility than trolleys. Understandably, some women — most of them well-to-do — thus chose to drive electrics. In April of 1904, Motor magazine’s society columnist noted:

Mrs. James G. Blaine has been spending the last few weeks with her parents at Washington, and has been seen almost daily riding about in an electric runabout. The latter appears to be the most popular form of automobile for women, at any rate in the National Capital. . . . Indeed, judging from the number of motors that one sees driven by women on a fine afternoon, one would imagine that nearly every belle in Washington owned a machine.

Like Pope, other electric car manufacturers were quick to see women as a potential gold mine. In the years before World War I, articles on electric vehicles, or on women drivers, and advertisements for electrics in such publications as Motor and Country Life in America featured photographs of women driving, charging, and otherwise maintaining electrics, reflecting both a specific marketing strategy and a more diffuse cultural tendency to divide the world between masculine and feminine. Electric vehicle manufacturers including the Anderson, Woods, Baker, Borland, and Milburn companies featured women in their advertisements. Touting such virtues as luxury, beauty, ease of operation, and economy, manufacturers attempted to appeal to an affluent female clientele without alienating men who might wish to purchase an electric for their wives or daughters, or even for themselves. The Argo company advertised its 1912 model, a sporty low-slung electric vehicle, as “a woman’s car that any man is proud to drive.” The Anderson Electric Car Company invited men to purchase its Detroit model “for your bride-to­- be — or your bride of many Junes ago. . . . No other bridal present means so much — expresses so perfectly all that you want to say. . . . the most considerate choice for her permanent happiness, comfort, luxury, safety.” The Detroit electric was said to be not only “the last word in luxury and beauty, as well as efficiency,” but also a boon to feminine comeliness:

To the well-bred woman — the Detroit Electric has a particular appeal. In it she can preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact.

She can drive it with all desired privacy, yet safely — in constant touch with traffic conditions all about her.

However much manufacturers trumpeted the appealing qualities of electrics, automobiles powered by electric batteries had serious disadvantages compared to gas-powered vehicles. They were generally more expensive to manufacture, had limited range (averaging twenty to fifty miles per charge), and were too heavy to climb hills or run at high speeds. Inventor Thomas Edison promised that he would develop a long-distance electric storage battery, but his efforts in this regard proved fruitless. By 1908, even some of those who applauded the use of electrics admitted their limitations. Writer Herbert H. Rice noted that despite improvements in charging technology and vehicle design, “there are not apparent any great opportunities for extraordinary changes unless in the battery.” Rice advised the motoring public to give up hoping for a battery that would go one hundred miles on a single charge (a hope which, he admitted, had caused electric sales to suffer) since “not one in one hundred users requires a service extending beyond thirty-five miles, while in the majority of cases the odometer would record less than fifteen miles for the day’s errands.”

This acknowledgment of the electric auto’s problems suggests that its association with women was at once a symptom of, and an attempted cure for, its competitive disadvantages. The electric’s circumscribed mobility seemed adequate to those who assumed that “the electric is the vehicle of the home,” adequate, that is, for homemakers who did not expect to take long trips, or frequent trips, or to get stuck in traffic jams. Playing on the domestic theme, the General Electric Company asserted, “any woman can charge her own electric with a G-E Rectifier,” advertising with a photograph of a woman charging her car, using a machine that occupied most of one wall of the family garage. Declaring that “there are no tiresome trips to a public garage, no waiting — the car is always at home, ready when you are,” General Electric implied that using the rectifier would relieve the woman motorist of such inconveniences as often ac­companied having to leave home.

At times the electric car and its purportedly female clientele seemed entwined, as the electric’s advocates used a Victorian language of gender to talk about cars. Country Life in America writer Phil M. Riley combated the criticism that “electric power is weak,” by asserting, “It is important with an electric not to waste power needlessly, that is all.” Riley assured his readers that “the proper sphere of the electric vehicle is not in competition with the gasolene [sic] touring car.” Just as conservative commentators admonished women to forego high-powered business and political activity and conserve their energy for domestic tasks, so, Riley said, the electric vehicle might fulfill its mission as “an ever-ready runabout for daily use,” leaving extended travel and fast driving to men in gas-powered cars. Moreover, both Rice and Riley chose to refer to the electric vehicle’s venue of operation as a “sphere.” Victorian Americans commonly represented women’s and men’s respective social roles as “separate spheres.” This simple visual image often served as a shorthand description of complex relations not only between individuals of different biological sexes, but between feminine and masculine attributes (including passivity and activity), private and public life, household and workplace, homemaking and paid work, culture and politics. The automobile might be novel, but it could not escape entanglement in a web of meaning spun with threads of masculinity and femininity.

The Electric Car as a “Woman’s” Vehicle

That many people subsumed a variety of ideological, economic, familial, political, and spatial relations under the heading of “separate spheres” testified to Americans’ tenacity in using gender to order experience. But however powerfully evocative, this image vastly oversimplified both human relations and social forces. Sometimes people act in accordance with gender prescriptions; sometimes they do not. Men, supposedly rugged, seek shelter from the rain. Women, supposedly soft-spoken, yell at their children. Men and women continually revised both their actions and their expectations, more often by the minute adjustments of private negotiation than by legal fiat or national proclamation. Through the small changes of personal life, leading to larger transformations on a social scale, activities and entities assigned to one sphere or the other, considered appropriate for either women or men, sometimes lost or recast their gendered meanings. When women refused to conform to expectations, when new technologies unsettled traditional assumptions, when entrepreneurs defied common wisdom in search of profits, change accelerated.

All three forces — female nonconformity, technological innovation, and economic competition — were very much in play in the first third of the century, and the future of the car culture was far from clear. Consumers, engineers, and businessmen would interact in ways no one could predict precisely. In the years before 1920, Americans used all kinds of transportation: their own legs, mules and horses, trains and trolleys, and electric, gas, and steam automobiles. Each method had benefits and draw­ backs. Supporters of electric motorcars were at least as inclined to point out the electric’s advantages over the horse and buggy as they were to compare electric and gas vehicles. C. H. Claudy, an early and staunch advocate of electric vehicles (he would later become the automotive columnist for the Woman’s Home Companion), had written in 1907 that the electric car “now does more work, in certain lines, than horses ever did.” Claudy claimed the electric would be a boon to all women, asking whether there had “ever been an invention of more solid comfort to the feminine half of humanity than the electric carriage?” He observed that the woman who drove an electric “finds it very convenient to call up the garage, have her runabout sent around instantly and not have to wait for a complicated hitching or a currying and combing of horses.”

Although Claudy staunchly supported women’s driving, he was slow to recommend gasoline cars for women. Describing the electric as “the car which has a circumscribed radius,” he joined the ranks of those who envisioned the electric in terms of woman’s special, yet limited, sphere. Women, he believed, might use electrics to accomplish the social and domestic tasks that were part of the middle-class homemaker’s vocation, without overstepping the bounds of feminine propriety. “What a delight it is,” he wrote, “to have a machine which she can run herself, with no loss of dignity, for making calls, for shopping, for a pleasurable ride, for the paying back of some small social debt.” The electric might even be just the thing to reconcile motoring and motherhood. Pointing out that “in no way can a child get so much air in so little time as by the use of the automobile” Claudy declared that “it would not be amiss to call the electric the modern baby carriage. . . . It is the light electric runabout which deserves the title of scientific perambulator.” Thus he painted a rather odd, infantile picture of the woman driver, tucked in alongside her baby in a “scientific perambulator.”

While promoters of electrics tried to forge a positive link between the woman driver and the battery-powered motorcar, an occasional critic suggested that women’s purported deficiencies in driving ought to disqualify them from operating anything more powerful than rather tame electrics. In an article on reckless drivers published in The Outlook, writer Montgomery Rollins drew on the notion that femaleness unfitted some people for the adult responsibility of driving a powerful gasoline automobile. Rollins argued, “It’s no child’s play to run a motor car. No license should be granted to anyone under eighteen . . . and never to a woman, unless, possibly, for a car driven by electric power.”

Against such disparagement of both electrics and women, electric vehicle manufacturers and their supporters worked to protect whatever claim they might have to women motorists, while also struggling to get a foothold in the male market so clearly dominated by gasoline cars. C. H. Claudy believed that electrics would be useful to an elite group of men who might value comfort, cleanliness, and everyday utility over extended range and sportiness. Like others, Claudy assumed that a few fastidious men, such as doctors and some businessmen, would be willing to forego speed and range for the advantages of simple mechanical construction, reliability on short errands, quietness, cleanliness, and simplicity of operation. The implicit corollary of such assumptions was that most men had little desire for the kinds of comforts and conveniences electrics offered, prefer ring a more rugged and vigorous, less restrictive form of motoring. The Detroit company tried in 1910 to counteract the electric fussy feminine image by introducing one of its electric models as a “new car for `him’ . . . a brand-new extra-low and rakish Detroit Electric model for men is our Gentlemen’s Underslung Roadster.” Yet men continued to spurn the electric, quite simply because it did not go far enough or fast enough.

As men registered their indifference to the electric, women were demonstrating their own unwillingness to leave long-distance touring and high-speed driving to men. As a consequence, the application of separate spheres ideology to motive power in automobiles had lost force by 1912, when C. H. Claudy announced that “the time has gone by when motor cars had sex — ­ when the gasolene [sic] car was preeminently for the man, and the electric, because of its simplicity, for the women . ” Beliefs, however, die hard, and even this exponent of technological prog­ress remained unable to abandon completely the idea that “motor cars had sex.” Once again invoking a female disposition toward convenience, Claudy predicted that “of all the types of self-propelled vehicles, the electric is now, and seems likely to remain, the simplest to handle on the road and to care for at home, whereby it still is, and seems likely to continue to be, the ladies’ favorite.”

Like Colonel Pope before him, Claudy very quickly proved a poor prognosticator. Relating the story of a bride who told her young husband, “I don’t want an electric. I want a car that can go a long distance. I want a car that can go fast, and an electric can’t go either far or fast,” Claudy commented incredulously, “The lady was right in one thing — she did not want an electric. What she wanted was a six-cylinder touring car!” In stead of acknowledging women’s similarity to men in this matter of automotive taste, he set about trying to reconcile female drivers to the more womanly form of motoring. Rather than demanding the speed, range, and hill-climbing power of gasoline vehicles, he advised female motorists to accept the electric’s limitations. Claudy admitted, “A practical electric vehicle cannot be built so that it can go fast and far and climb hills. Speed you can have, or great radius you can have — but not both at once and still keep down weight and cost.” Women, he maintained, had no need for speed:

It can be roundly stated without fear of contradiction that the times a woman wants to run an electric 30 miles an hour, are few and far between. . . . It is an unnecessarily fast speed for pleasure driving. . . . If the car you select has a maximum speed of 25 miles on the level, it goes quite fast enough.

In much the same manner that he had dismissed women’s claim to velocity, he would also disparage women’s desire to cover distance. Claudy explained that “a radius of 60 to 80 miles is ample for any electric car,” stretching the capabilities of the average electric vehicle, and suggesting that women had no need to go further. For women to accept such circumscribed mobility ruled out cross-country travel, or even extended day trips, in an era when gas stations were beginning to dot the countryside, but electric charging stations had not spread beyond major cities. In addition, electric batteries needed servicing so often that they would have forced cross-country travelers to stop more frequently, and for much longer periods of time, than most Americans cared to do, particularly in an era when poor road quality forced more than enough stops for the average traveler. Ignoring such restrictions, Claudy reminded readers of the electric’s ad vantages for women, given their bulky clothing, innate preference for luxury, and inability to learn to shift gears:

Practically all the modern electric cars are arranged with special reference to their ease of control by women — that is, the controlling and reverse levers are (or should be) simple in operation and few in number, they work easily, and are so placed and arranged as not to catch and tear the dress. Besides these points, women naturally choose those cars the interior appointments of which please them the most.

Despite their narrow view of women’s talents and desires we need not blame the electric’s advocates too much for finding virtue in electric automobiles. After all, motorists of any era and either sex might find the qualities of simplicity, convenience, and aesthetic appeal worth having in a motor vehicle. However, when automotive designers and promoters, acting in part under and the influence of cultural imperatives regarding gender, coupled these desirable attributes with the electric’s limited power and circumscribed range, they misread their audience. No law of nature dictated that automobiles could not be designed to be comfortable, reliable, handsome, and powerful, qualities that might appeal to men and women alike. And even if automakers continued to insist that males and females had different automotive preferences, a sex-specific promotional strategy made very little business sense in an economy where consumers, male or female, had some choice, and where families buying only one vehicle were likely to have to accommodate male drivers who were presumed to want to go farther and faster than their female counterparts.

Perhaps most damaging, the electric was too cumbersome to manage bad roads. At the turn of the century, few localities in the United States could claim many miles of improved high ways. Thus the electric car had limited appeal for motorists of either sex in places where distances were great and paved roads were few. In Tucson, Arizona, for example, twenty-three women owned autos in 1914. Twenty-one of those owned gasoline-powered vehicles, and none of the 402 male car-owners listed in the Tucson Automobile Directory owned electrics. Only one vehicle listed could be definitely identified as an electric, and one other may have been an electric. The Houston, Texas, automobile directory of 1915 revealed that only 30 out of 425 women auto owners had electrics, and most of those appeared to have registered their vehicles in the very earliest years of the car culture. Thus in Houston, by 1915, only one woman car owner in fourteen, or seven percent of the total, had an electric. Even during the electric’s pre-Model T heyday, four out of five women auto owners in Houston had gasoline cars. The economic folly of Claudy’s advice was compounded by the fact that, particularly after Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908, numerous gasoline cars were available for prices under $1,500, while electric autos appear to have remained more expensive than gas cars, as the accompanying table indicates.



Price Range (Dollars)



850- 900



































Source: Motor magazine, advertisements for electric vehicles including price inform tion, 1903-1920.

*Prices given are for the “Milburn Light Electric,” a model that apparently beca more expensive between 1916 and 1919.

The rapidly growing number of women driving gasoline cars did as much to disrupt the link between women and electrics as any force of nature or engineering. By 1913, C. H. Claudy, who had put so much effort into promoting electric vehicles to female drivers, had changed his mind. He had come to believe that many women had both the ability and the determination to drive gas-powered automobiles. Moreover, he recognized that male prejudice, more than female preference, stood in the way of women who wished to drive gas cars. In a piece on “The Woman and Her Car,” Claudy imagined the feelings of a young woman who aspired to the driver’s seat: “Oh, I’d love to have a car, but father doesn’t think I could drive it. He wants me to have an electric, and they don’t go either fast or far enough.” The columnist noted: “Father frequently does think his daughter hasn’t the strength, skill, or natural ability to acquire it, necessary to drive a gasolene car successfully. Many husbands think the same about their wives.” By this time, however, he no longer shared such views, and argued that “there is no reason at all why . . . you [women] cannot drive with pleasure to your friends, as skilfully [sic], as gracefully, and with as obedient a car as anyone, even father, can wish.” Thereafter, in articles for the Woman’s Home Companion, Claudy encouraged women to drive gasoline vehicles, providing sensible advice on motoring and introducing women to the intricacies of auto maintenance. Having placed the gas-powered motorcar within the compass of woman’s sphere, Claudy had also stretched his definition of the feminine. By 1920, he would assert, “The number of women who drive motor cars with skill and enjoyment is sufficient proof that there is nothing in the modern Pegasus which femininity cannot master.” In an effort to keep up with consumers’ changing demands, producers would at once modify their notions of gender and the machines they made.

A few gasoline auto manufacturers had long since recognized that there was a female market for their products. They realized that the automobile was unlikely to supersede the horse as a popular mode of transportation until it became a family vehicle, offering power as well as simplicity, range as well as convenience. The Winton Company, promoting its Model C in 1905, declared that “Women Praise the Winton,” a vehicle “ideal for women’s use” because it was “as easily controlled as the best mannered horse,” but “safer, because it cannot scare.” The com­pany also noted that the Model C went “as far, and as fast or as slow, as the lady at the wheel desires.” To prove its point, Winton included testimonials from two women drivers. One had written, “I much prefer my new WINTON to the electric I formerly owned, and its control is fully as perfect. It is a comfort to know that one has the power to go fast or slow as desired. ” Another satisfied female motorist belied the image of women drivers as too feminine to tackle gear-shifting, cranking, and simple mechanical work. The ad quoted her to the effect that every day since [the Winton] came into our possession it has had no small mileage, and at no time has the engine “missed” an explosion. Neither has there been occasion to make a single adjustment, beyond once retightening the clutch. I have not the slightest difficulty in handling the car—motor has not yet failed to start with a single throw of the crank. I like the magneto. The WINTON system of individual clutch is pleasingly effective, and the control is so delightfully simple that to drive the car — even through congested city thoroughfares, is the easiest thing imaginable.

In 1909, the Maxwell-Briscoe company also made an effort to market gas-powered cars to families that included women drivers, sending Alice Huyler Ramsey and three women passengers on a highly publicized cross-country drive and mounting an advertising campaign based on the notion of the inexpensive family car. In praise of its Model AA, a “reliable business runabout” priced at $600 to compete with the Ford Model T, the company asserted: “Everyone should own this car, because it fills the universal need. As easy to drive as an electric. Your wife, daughter, or son can run this MAXWELL and care for it­ — chauffeur is unnecessary.” The Maxwell, advertising copy- writers insisted, was much more than a pleasure car for buffs or thrill-seekers: “For errands, shopping, calls, meeting trains taking the children to school, for business or pleasure, this auto mobile is the gateway to outdoors and health. Picture yourself in it — how would you use it?”

By 1910, the White Motor Company had joined Winton and Maxwell-Briscoe in the effort to attract women driver to gasoline cars. The company promoted its White coupe as “a woman’s town car,” explaining that “most women have felt compelled to drive electric cars-especially in the Winter — because no gasoline car was designed for a woman to drive.” White however, claimed to have solved this design problem with the “inside drive coupe,” a closed car very much resembling the boxy electric coupes of the day, featuring doors on both sides wide enough to accommodate cumbersome skirts and a driver’s seat that folded up “to make entrance easy from either side.” Calling attention to the car’s “upholstery, electric lights, and the little accessories . . . all of the finest imported materials,” the company insisted that “nothing has been overlooked that could contribute to a woman’s satisfaction in a car which is so particularly designed for her personal use.” While upholding most of the sex-stereotyped ideas about women’s automotive abilities and preferences, such advertisements undermined the exclusive identification of gasoline power with male drivers, thus gently challenging the consignment of women to the realm of the electric-powered vehicle.

Women Reject the Electric Car

As these pre-World War I reworkings of the notion of separate automotive spheres indicate, many observers recognized that women were driving in increasing numbers, and were not confining themselves to electrics. The most ambitious automotive capitalist might imagine a potential female market numbering into the millions; if such consumers could not be manipulated, they had to be heeded. In 1913, the high-toned Vanity Fair ran a “Casual Cutouts” column on “motoring for the very rich,” high lighting technical information on various vehicles and illustrate with photographs of women drivers. In 1915, a writer for the Illustrated World announced: “Starting a few years go with a little timid venturing on the boulevards in their electrics, women have gradually conquered the motorcar. . . . Their fear of gasoline and monkey wrenches has vanished.” Moreover, middle-class women’s magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal, sensitive to women’s consumer power in both the magazine and automotive marketplaces, began to include features on driving and maintaining cars. Such publications had also begun to attract auto advertisements.

Notions about femininity and women’s growing demand for automobility had collided in the automotive marketplace, and the chief casualty was the electric car. The surprising thing, however, is not that electrics faded so early, but that they lasted so long, given their manifestly lower power, frequently higher prices, and smaller range than gas cars. Even in their heyday, electrics never comprised more than a tiny share of the market for cars. As early as 1908, according to a survey of fourteen major cities in which electrics were relatively widely used, in no city were more than 900 electrics in operation, and there were fewer than 4,300 electric vehicles in use all together.



Approximate Number

Toledo, Ohio


Cleveland, Ohio


Atlanta, Georgia


Columbus, Ohio


Denver, Colorado


Detroit, Michigan


Washington, D.C.


Chicago, Illinois


Buffalo, New York


Rochester, New York


Indianapolis, Indiana


Hartford, Connecticut


Rockford, Illinois


Binghamton, New York




Source: Wilhelm Nassau, Motor magazine, July 1908

Furthermore, these figures do not reflect purely private use of electric vehicles, since the Electric Vehicle Company (popularly known as the “Lead Cab Trust”) had operated a fleet of some two thousand electric cabs in a number of these cities between 1899 and 1907. While this survey did not include figures froth a number of major cities ( New York, Boston, and Philadelphia are among those omitted), the cities included represented centers of electric vehicle manufacturing, where electrics were likely to have been in proportionally more widespread use than anywhere else. That same year, a total of 194,400 auto­mobiles were registered in the United States. In 1915, Motor magazine estimated that there were some 50,000 electric motor vehicles in service in the United States, representing approximately two percent of the total of 2,490,900 motor vehicles of all types registered in the country that year. Electric models continued to be produced on order until 1938, but passenger cars powered by electric batteries had largely disappeared by the mid-twenties.

The electric car, marketed primarily as a woman’s vehicle, provides a striking example of the influence of gender ideology on automotive production. Paradoxically, the electric’s failure also illustrates the impossibility of maintaining rigid gender distinctions in motorcar technology at a time when a declining proportion of customers could afford the luxury of his-and-hers automobiles, and where in any case consumers shared certain preferences regardless of sex. Still, we should be wary of declaring a victory for technology over culture, for the power of the automo­bile over the stubbornness of gender ideology. The electric vehicle would slip off the automotive stage, reappearing occasionally at the behest of environmental visionaries and (more often) golfers. Culture, however, continued to influence technology. Since people, regardless of sex, insisted on sitting over an explosion, contested notions about masculinity and femininity entered the domain of the gasoline car.