Anyone who has lived here for a little while knows that every year Carlisle hosts several large car shows. Whether it is the Corvettes that greet our return to school, or the sounds of big V8s on High St. waking up from sleep in springtime, I will always associate cars with Carlisle. GM even recently released a new color available on Corvettes called “Carlisle Blue.” See your local Chevy dealer for more information.
But, I’m not here to talk about current cars. I want to tell you about some very old cars. More precisely, Carlisle’s first cars. A couple days before Spring Break, I was in the Historical Society and I stumbled across a register of cars owned in Carlisle between May 1903 – August, 1905. For those who do not know much about early auto history, 1903-1905 was a period where there were an increasingly large number of cars being produced by many companies. Oldsmobile and Ford were both producing hundreds of cars per year. Many companies were successfully making steam-powered cars. Chevrolet did not yet exist (1911), and neither did Chrysler. The Model T, and the formation of General Motors were a few years away (both in 1908) and cars were only very slowly becoming accepted into society. For more on the early history of the Automotive industry, see Beverly Rae Kimes, Pioneers, Engineers, And Scoundrels: The Dawn Of The Automobile In America. (Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2004). In 1905, the automobile was no longer just a curiosity, but it was also not yet the mammoth industry it would become in the coming decades.
As it was explained to me by the Historical Society librarians, this document was an early attempt to keep track of car ownership. For this brief period, it was the town’s responsibility.
The breakdown in car ownership in Carlisle at this time is as follows:
4 vehicles made by Olds Manufacturing Company.
6 by Olds Mobile Company
4 by Cadillac
1 by the Lemoy Bicycle Company (many bicycle companies made cars too)
6 Ramblers, made by the eponymous, Kenosha, WI- based company owned by Tom Jeffery. Jeffery was a highly successful early car manufacturer.
1 by the Mfg. Mobile Co. of America Kingsland Point.
1 by the Walter Mfg. Co.
1 by Foster & Co. of Rochester, NY
1 H&H Franklin of Syracuse, NY
1 by the Pope Company (MD). Pope was a company owned originally by Albert Augustus Pope, or Col. Pope, of Hartford, CT. He, like so many others, entered autos through bicycles. His empire had facilities in multiple states.
2 by the Locomobile Co. from Connecticut
1 from Monarch Automobile (Ill.)
1 from The Mobile Co. of America (NJ)
1 Orient Buckband (Waltham, MA)
1 Elinor Mfg. (Clyde, OH)
and 1 Winton, a larger auto company from Cleveland, OH.
While I do not have space here to go into the history and background of each company, there is still a great deal of value in the study of this primary source. There are three factors that make this list particularly instructive on early auto history. First, the names of the companies. Aside from amusement value, these names tell us the wide range of companies trying their hands at car-making. The 1905 auto industry was a totally different landscape compared to that of 2012, or even 1950. There were dozens and dozens of miniscule companies like Elinor Mfg. to go along with larger companies like Olds Mobile or Cadillac. Few of these small fry survived long. Even larger companies, such as Packard, would not survive long past World War II. The second important point is the diversity of locations these cars originated from; according to this source, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and obviously the Detroit area were all areas of active car production. This makes sense when one considers the fact that a car could be built from scratch in ones garage. Indeed, George Proud, a Carlisle citizen, is listed in
the register as owning his own, home-built auto. This source is a record of innovation, and even though few of these companies survived long, (of them, only Cadillac still exists, with Oldsmobile being the most recent to die in 2004) many contributed to the advancement of automotive technology we take for granted today. Thirdly, and most importantly, this is a record of a society attempting to come to grips with a new technology, one that threatened to change how they lived their lives. This was an early attempt to organize and track car ownership, and as such should be recognized as an important piece of Carlisle’s early history. Hopefully other documents such as this exist in archives across the country. Taken together, they can give a grassroots picture of the early years of the auto industry, and further our understanding of the history of American consumerism as a whole.