History Unlocked – August 2017, Early Auto Laws

First car ever made, 1886 by Karl Benz

Early (and Absurd) Pennsylvania Automobile Laws

By: Karen Dingle Kendus, Concord Township Historical Society

When my husband and I started looking for a house last year, we had a list of must-haves. I needed a two car garage, a spacious kitchen, and at least two toilets (they did not have to be full bathrooms). My husband wanted a single family house, with a yard, and sufficient bedrooms so he had an office space. We thought for only a moment about location in relation to other places such as workplace, family, and friends. My husband is a mobile therapist in Chester County, and works from home unless he is seeing a client. My office is in Wilmington Delaware (or Horsham PA, or Philadelphia PA), but I spend most of my work time in a home office. Our families are settled in Delaware and Chester counties. Our friends are spread out among the same counties. When we settled in southern Chester County, we were not too concerned about distance. We only transplanted about 25 minutes west from where we were previously. Our families are still within an hour of where we live (most are 45 minutes or less drive away). Our friends are nearly the same, with only a handful further than an hour from where we settled.

And we could not have done any of this without our cars. My husband and I each have a car, which seems to be rather common today. With two income households, and perhaps a number of adult children living at home (but also working outside the home), multiple cars per household is a necessity. Nearly 60 years ago, only 19% of American households had two cars. By 2014, that percentage increased to 37%. With so many people moving to the suburbs and countryside, (a trend that has existed for quite a while), and public transportation struggling to keep up, ownership of automobiles had to increase.

Automobiles have not always been such a huge part of American life, however. Cities today struggle to find a way to decrease personal vehicles on city streets based purely on volume, but when vehicles were first on the scene, cities restricted them because they were a menace. The rural population was especially resistant to an increase in vehicular traffic. After the first vehicle was manufactured in 1893, continuous improvements and a competitive price allowed for a steady increase in demand. These original vehicles were loud, though, and had to share the roads with horses and carriages. There were limited rules governing how to drive these new machines, and for the traditionalists, automobiles were a menace to society.

While it sounds ridiculous now, the naysayers had legitimate concerns. Traffic signals were not introduced until 1912, and the first stop sign was not introduced until 1915! That is a full four and 7 years respectively after the first Model T was sold. Early on, the number of people who died in car accidents was tenfold, and so many were injured, it was largely left unreported. On country roads, an automobile, barreling along at 20 mph, could easily spook horses with its unnatural noise. Horses would break carriages, trying to get away from the sound, according to one report. Additionally, farmers lost livestock, especially chickens, to reckless drivers. As a matter of fact, drivers paid dearly when accused of hitting livestock with his or her car.

Early Sunoco Station along Route 1, in front of farmland – road is barely improved, likely a photo from 1920’s-1930’s.

The negative sentiment toward automobiles was so strong that around 1910, a group called the Farmers Anti Automobile Society (FAAS) formed in Pennsylvania. They were troubled by the rapid increase of automobiles on the road and sought to protect their horses and livelihood in any way possible. The FAAS drafted a number of laws they wished to see ratified, and the text of these still exists as part of the historical record. To any modern person, the demands seem rather extreme. The group of farmers wanted automobiles traveling on a country road at night to send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear (presumably, of livestock). The driver could then proceed, with caution, blowing his horn and shooting off Roman candles (a type of rocket), as before. The FAAS also wanted the driver of an automobile, who sees a team of horses approaching, to stop, pull over to one side of the road, and cover the car with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery, and render the machine less noticeable. The rule did not mention where one could buy such a blanket, or how much it would cost. And in the event that the horse was still too spooked to pass the automobile, the driver of the car must take the machine apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes. I must admit, I would have no idea where to begin taking apart my car in the event that a horse could not bring itself to pass me. It was also recommended that a man with a red flag walk in front of an automobile to clear the way, which defeated the purpose of having an automobile in the first place. It is not clear whether these requests made it into law.

Golden Gate Garage, 1925-1957, at the southeastern corner of Rte 1 and 202, Painters Crossroads.

While few have heard of the FAAS or their requests, there is one automobile law that exists today. While considered part of the blue laws, there is evidence that it began as a part of the anti-automobile movement. Pennsylvania dealerships are not permitted to open on Sundays. While other Sunday closure rules have been relaxed, (state stores are now open on Sundays in some locations), Pennsylvania automobile dealerships remain closed.

Accident at the Golden Gate Garage, 1941

Today, there are not many horses on the road. My husband and I only see them on our way to visit his sister in Lancaster County. And while it is not unheard of, one would be hard-pressed to find livestock crossing the road in Concord Township. I am sincerely grateful that automobiles are the norm and the restrictions on using one are few. My little slice of paradise would have been less convenient otherwise.





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