|The social impact of the automobile on rural America, 1893-1929: a documentary history|
Michael L. Berger
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Tags: Automobiles, history, Social aspects, Sociology, Rural
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF THE AUTOMOBILE ON RURAL AMERICA, 1893-1929: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
Michael Louis Berger
This study is both a narrative history and a collection of documentary readings. As such, it attempts to ascertain the type and the degree of social change brought about by the introduction of the passenger automobile into rural American life during the years 1893-1929. Interspersed throughout the work are approximately two hundred documentary excerpts. These are meant to form an integral part of the essay, and thus the flow of the narrative is uninterrupted by either document numbers or titles. Yet, most of these selections are capable of being extracted without losing their comprehensibility (a ˘List of Documents÷ is provided to facilitate this task).
A primary objective of this work is to present the personal reactions of rural dwellers to the advent of a new technological device. For this purpose, extensive use is made of those autobiographies, periodical accounts, contemporary rural sociological studies, fictional works, and government reports which seem to paint a picture of those events portrayed in a more impersonal manner in secondary histories. Documents drawn from this literature are grouped so as to show the impact of the motor car on family life, community social structure, leisure time pursuits, religion, education, health, and the environment.
No attempt is made to prove causal relationships. The fact that the automobile was one of several factors bringing about change in this period makes this all but impossible. Instead, the extent of the influence of the motor car is illustrated. By alternately describing what rural social institutions were like before and after the impact of the automobile, the question of what happens when a major instrument of social change is made available to the average citizen to do with as he or she pleases is answered.
The evidence indicates that the motor car was most quickly accepted in those areas of rural life that had traditionally been loosely structured. When the automobile did enter the realm of institutionalized life, the immediate reaction was one of shock and disarray, followed by attempts to re-create some facsimile of what had been destroyed. Yet, the new structuring was always different from the old to the degree that the automobile had affected that particular institution.
Nonetheless, certain similarities were discernible in the newly motorized rural America. For one, everything was more complex. No longer did one choose friends, leisure time activities, or the family doctor merely on the basis of proximity. The primary tie became one of interest rather than location. Time had ceased to be the barrier it once was. By undermining isolation, the automobile helped create a spirit of cooperation among ruralities as well.
While the resulting specialized groups tended to break up traditional family and neighborhood-based activities, they in turn led to newer types of association and a re-integrated rural community. Still, the historic conflict between rural and urban America, made all the more pressing by the automobileĂs ability to annihilate distance, was finally settled in favor of the latter, although a certain intermingling of traits did occur. Thus, what had changed most was the structure of rural American social life. Personalized service made way for the dictates of big business. The small, rural town witnessed its social and economic demise. Its uniqueness disappeared into that conglomerate that we term today the metropolitan area.