Unlike the automobile makers of the late nineteenth century, who were often commissioned only to make one vehicle at a time, Henry Ford of Detroit, Michigan, realized the potential for the national demand for cars and ordered the construction of hundreds of vehicles per day as early as 1906. In 1908 Ford asserted that he would build “a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one” (Burlingame 62 ). The result of Ford's promise was the construction of 10,000 vehicles named the Model T. To ensure that he could keep the cost of the automobile as low as possible while maintaining universal appeal, Ford minimized specifications such as exterior color and interior design, two aspects of the automobile that are of the utmost importance to car buyers today. Famously, Ford not only revolutionized the automobile industry but, with the implementation of the moving assembly line, he radically altered the American labor system as well. The effectiveness of the assembly line allowed Ford to stay true to his promise to provide affordable vehicles to the masses. In 1908 the Model T sold for $825; due to the labor system Ford devised, the price fell to $490 by 1914.

With the automobile becoming a staple of American life by the end of the second decade of the 1900s, oil companies such as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil opened fueling stations around the country and reveled in this new American industry. These companies brought economic success and power to areas of the nation that had previously not garnered the respect of the American business market, including Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. The reformation of transportation in the United States also led to the development of roads in urban and rural areas alike as well as motor hotels and new interest in seeing national parks.

There of course was a negative side to all of these “advancements” and progress. While cars did not drop manure as they moved, they did create a new health hazard with air pollution. As the middle classes obtained automobiles, they fled the cities and created new suburbs, leaving many of the poorest of the poor in urban slums. Moreover, several oil companies became monopolies, dominating the political and economic life of the nation, corrupting politics in the 1920s and beyond, and edging out public transportation in newly developing areas such as Los Angeles, California. By the late 1920s, the country had become so dependent on the automobile and its industries that when consumer demand went down for cars and homes, the nation succumbed to the worst depression the nation had seen to date. Undeniably, the automobile and its related industries brought some great changes to the nation, but the automobile's adoption also had many unintended consequences.

The automobile remains an important component of modern life and has indelibly altered American life. References to the automobile surfaced in early-twentieth-century commercial jingles, and allusions to the car in literature, film, and television over the course of the last century have ensured its place in American culture.

Brian Hartwig

See also: Environmentalism ; Gilded Age ; Leisure ; National Parks ; Popular Culture ; Progressivism ; United Auto Workers (UAW)


Burlingame, Roger. Henry Ford. New York: Knopf, 1954.

Kyvig, David E. Daily Life in the United States, 1920–1940. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.