Monday, January 30, 2012

30 January 1933 “Come with me Lucille, in my Merry Oldsmobile. The Family Car and the Electric Car.”

 womanwithcar I have been away from you all for these past three days. I haven’t any other excuse save that it is rather easy to slip into the past full tilt and enjoy a walk, books and catching up on chores to sitting prostrate before the glowing beast of a computer. But, duties call and needs must, and I thought I would share today some of the fun things I have found about automobiles.

Innocently enough, as most of my discoveries start, I came across some fun facts. I wondered, here in 1933, what is the concept of the family car? In 1950’s it was rather clear cut and the vast production machine that was set into motion by WWII simply made for cars for all. It was becoming even normal for middle class families to have two cars and for teen Johnny to have his ‘old jalopy’ (which ironically would be an old car from the 20’s or 30’s cheap and easy to maintain at the time)

Before we start, let’s have a listen to this 1909 hit put out by the Oldsmobile auto company (to become GM some day) and sung by Billy Murray. This is an original recording from that time, so enjoy the scratches and life such an old 78 record imparts!

Here is a 1931 Fleishcer cartoon promoting the Oldsmobile. This cartoon uses the song as a basis for a love story with villain and hero and of course, the love of the automobile. At this point the U.S. auto companies are going full tilt, have been through the Great War and mass producing many such vehicles. The evil villain and slightly funny heroine can still be seen to hold the action and sway of the old silent movies, easily in the memories of those who created such cartoons.

My first thought was cost. Let’s look and see where we are here in 1933.

plymouthad33 This advert caught my eye in my 1933 Better Homes and Gardens. Let me state here, as well, that my new stacks of 1930’s magazines are as refreshing to me as once were my 1950’s compared to modern magazines. And now I am finding the 1930’s similar in comparison to the 1950’s. The number of ads are easily half. There are far more articles and it is as if the articles are even written at a level of higher understanding, if that makes any sense, but I digress. That is another post all together.

So, if we take this ad here (the only car ad in the entire issue I might add) as a standard. We see the ‘deluxe’ version at $575. Now, when we adjust for inflation to present time, $575  in 1933 dollars is around $9577.80 in modern day dollars. This does not seem that high for a brand new car. But, as usual, one cannot simply look at cost differences.

I next imagined one should know what average per year earnings were for a U.S. family in 1933 comparative to today as well. My first discovery was that, obviously this is the Depression and wages must be less than the 1920’s. That was true and Between 1929 and 1932, the average American's income drops 40 percent to about $1,500 per year. 

Next, then, we must look at current average family earnings. I found that in 2010 (the latest data I could find) that American wages fell for the second year in a row (meaning they also fell in 2009) to $26, 364 a year. Another interesting point I found was that it has not been this low since 1999! So, I know some people seem oddly angry when I compare things from today to the Depression, but here we go again. Incomes falling from the previous decade. That is simply stated by fact a link to the Depression. One must understand that does not mean we are standing in bread lines and starving as they did. But one must also admit that facts in comparison are there and that in this way there are similarities.

However, here is where the differences between then and now seem rather vast:

In 1933 we have an average income of $1500 with an average car cost of $575 (though cheaper were available). That is simply one third of a families yearly income to purchase said car.

Today average income is $23,364 and according to a few articles (Business Week, NYTimes etc) the average car cost seems to be $29,602. We already see the flaw here. That means the cost of a new car is already greater than 100% of a families yearly earnings.

Now, we must also remember that such things as inspections, insurance, state and tax registrations are all but non existent in 1933 and therefore the upkeep and fuel costs are also much higher today than they would have been for a family during the Depression.

I found these interesting facts from a AAA car magazine article entitled ““Driving costs climb to $8,776 for car owners”. I found that interesting and here is the data they provide.

Breakdown of Car Ownership Costs in 2011 for the Average Car

Variable Costs:
Gas: 12.34¢ per mile
Maintenance: 4.44¢ per mile
Tires: 0.96¢ per mile

Fixed Costs:
Insurance: $968 per year
License, Taxes, etc.: $595 per year
Depreciation: $3,728 per year
Finance Charges: $823 per year

Cost per mile (total) based on 15,000 miles per year: 58.5¢

These costs, too, are before tax and are also higher if one drives an SUV. It is per car as well so must be factored in for each car a family owns.

If we first look at Gas, we see that in 1933 a gallon of gas was .10 cents or in today’s money $1.67 a gallon. We see that cost much higher today.

(as an aside I found the average earnings for a laborer in 1933 was $20 a week. We might think, oh my how little, until we actually calculate for inflation to today’s earnings that means a general laborer would earn in today’s money $$333.14. This is much higher than what laborers in many states at minimum age earn after tax. Just food for thought.)

I haven’t any data on average repair costs to a 1933 car, but I do know that there was less involved in the car. There were no computer chips, nor as many wiring systems to break down, so I think it safe to assume one’s repair in 1933 of a basic car would be no where near the $4.44 a mile found by the AAA article.

Now, for insurance costs. I found that other than my own state of Massachusetts, which required insurance as early as 1925 to car owners, it wasn’t until 1956 that NY state passed such a law and over the years the other states followed suit. Therefore, for the vast majority of car owners in 1933, insurance costs need not be factored.

Therefore, many may cry out, “How dare you compare the hard times of 1930’s to the ease of today” I am now beginning to wonder how many things are worse for us today than those hard hit in the Depression? I am not saying so to put down or belittle the hard times of the day, but we must also remember that not everyone in the Depression was hard hit as dustbowl migrant farmers and those who lost everything in the Stock Market Crash.

And for normal day to day life I now have found that the simple act of car ownership (to which a family would have one) the costs overall are much less than today.

And, down the rabbit hole I continued. And came upon the electric car.


woodselectriccar100 Years ago, in 1912, we did indeed have electric cars. This post card depicting the Woods Electric shows to lovely ladies of fashion with just such a car. This car company also had its own Prius version as well when,  “in 1915 they produced the Dual Power (U.S. Patent # 1244045) with both electric and internal combustion engines and this continued until 1918.”

I found this quote rather interesting:

The New York Times stated that the electric car has long been recognized as "ideal" because it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars.


Yes, that’s right, that was said in 1911.

electriccarcharging Here is an old photo an a Detroit Electric Car being charged. You can see the line running to it.

The electric car was also considered a better car for women than the gasoline car, as it was cleaner and easier to run. There was no need for the hand crank of the gasoline cars and the gears that needed constant changing in the gasoline cars do not exist in an electric car. Many liked the quiet, smoother ride, and lack of smell the electric car afforded.

There was even a recharge service where in  as early as 1896 an exchangeable battery service was provided by Hartford Electric Light Company. The automobile or truck (for transport and shipping) was purchased without a batter and the electricity was purchased the company with an exchangeable battery.  So rather than a gas/petrol station, one would go and exchange batteries and pay, as you do your electric bill, once a month. You paid a variable rate per mile. Imagine the amount of waste saved if one simply was able to continually change out the batteries as others were brought back to be recharged!

It almost makes me angry when I think of how much nicer the world might smell and look (With so much less trash, gas, throw away etc) from just the simply act of keeping electric transportation in the first place.

Even in NYC in 1897 a fleet of electric taxis were built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia and put into use. Imagine, if even can, what a city such as NYC would smell like if it were simply devoid of internal combustion cars.

By the 1930’s the electric car had all but been done away with. A car in the 1910’s may have cost 1500 dollars at the time, but by the 30’s car prices for gas cars had gone down to $400’s. This, however, seems to have been more to do with the increase in Gas production and power of Rockefeller than any real advantage the gas car had over the electric. And, as I said, the electric car was actually easier to operate and repair. One wonders what really went on.

My innocent forays into the past often leave a bad taste in my mouth when I discover odd little facts such as these. I hope, though, that what I often take away from such discoveries as that we, the little people, the middle and working class homemakers, may not have much power in policy or major decisions. But, what we do have is our mind, our wits and the ability to implement change and rationale in our own families and daily lives. Many may think the idea of one car for a family unthinkable, but then we could think what do we use the car for? Are there endless practices and play dates that could simply be avoided therefore saving money and creating more family time? Are there wasted trips for ‘shop therapy’ or to just ‘take a drive’ that could be deleted from our life and replaced with lower costs creating less stress. And finding new joy in one’s home sipping tea with a good book by the fire rather than fighting traffic or swiping the card for one more ‘great deal that was almost cheaper to just buy it then”?

I think the more I have learned of the past, despite how one wishes to take it, there is lesson there. And when we are often fed either that the past was horrid and wretched only or that it was all starlight and sunshine through rose-colored glass we are also being cheated of the lesson of the past. We can see that with each decade we peel back, like the layers of an onion, there is always one aspect the remains: simplicity. Each decade has improvements surely, but as we go back one we also see a simpler way of doing things. And in some cases that simpler way need not be tossed out. It might be harder but only at first when one realizes the savings in cost of repair, and money lost.

I hope when I do such posts as these with numbers there in our face showing us the hard to fight high costs of today, that we can see we DO have choices and we CAN make change in our own life.

I hope all have a lovely day and as always Happy Homemaking.


  1. I think they got rid of the electric cars for the reason to make more money. They could see the potential of gasoline cars as money making machines for the owners of the oil wells. I think it was the same reason to dismantle most of the railroad system: to make people to depend on a car, to force them to own not one, but two or even three cars per family. Also, it is easier for the government to maintain the roads than railroads, plus to force people to register their cars every year is a huge industry. The government is very clever and only concerned with its own welfare for the most part. Making people to maintain their own vehicles is also a sly way to keep the government to spend less overall on, if it was, a railroad maintenance. So, they sold this idea of owning a car under the false pretense of "freedom". But when your car breaks and you can't even go to a store to by some food, because there is hardly any public transportation available, the car becomes a trap, a wheelchair. It makes a person handicapped and unable to perform even necessary activities such as going to work. Moreover, if the car is irreparable, then one is forced to purchase another vehicle to replace it because the life comes to a halt without one!!!!So, there will be unexpected huge spending, more taxes, huge registration fees (if the car is new in California) and so on and on and on!!
    And I don't want to get myself stared on a tremendous negative effect of driving all the time on people's health!!! More health care bills, weight loss products, gym memberships, depression...

  2. I loved the recording of "In My Merry Oldsmobile." My mom used to sing that song and I haven't heard it in ages. It was nice to hear all the verses. Thanks!

  3. Another observation on cars from the 1930s. I don't think that cars lasted as long back then as they do now. So you might want to figure that in when you look at costs as well. I remember reading an article from a 1950s Better Homes and Gardens that recommended buying a new car every 3 years because keeping a car past that date was not cost efficient due to the high cost of repairing the cars. I also remember my dad (who grew up in the 30s) talking about how bad the tires were back then. You always had to fix flats, patch the tires buy new ones. You don't have to worry about that with cars today.

  4. Another great post! My grandparents didn't have a car at all in the 30's. They actually lived in a neighbhorhood where all the factory workers like my grandpa lived. The streetcars ran down the High street, from the main part of the city all the way to the factories. Of course, as people moved further out, and then the factories closed, people needed cars more, which is interesting.

  5. My grandparents never had a car. Like Shannon said they relied on streetcars and later buses when transportation was needed. They lived within distance of town, church, schools and banks and many many shops too..about a mile away and just walked. Other relatives and friends naturally at times gave them ride but it never seemed a both to them or anyone else. We all walked a lot or rode the bus. I am enjoying the information you are giving us. Many of the things I never knew or just never thought about. Thank you. People back then did not seem to think they 'had' to have this or that. They so often found ways around buying and found other ways to do things with what they already had. They did not think to just jump in their car and go to town when something came up they thought they needed. It is a good way to think for us too. Sarah

  6. I grew up in the 60's and everyone I knew had only one car. The dad's took it to work and kids walked or biked EVERYWHERE!! We were always running errands for mom and didn't think a thing of it. Must be why we didn't have weight problems even though we ate home baked treats every day ;o)
    My grandparents lived in the country in the 30's and had a horse and buggy! Dee


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